Street Life

In the 1950s, Oak Cliff’s Jefferson Boulevard was thriving, but by the 1980s, the street had all but perished. Thanks to some entrepreneurial Hispanics, the boulevard is back in business.

Clockwise from top left. THEATER: The Texas Theater opened in 1931 and was once part of a chain of theaters owned by Howard Hughes. It claimed its spot in the history books in 1963, when Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested inside. An electrical fire damaged the theater in the ’90s, but the Oak Cliff Foundation is restoring it to its original Spanish eclectic style. It will open again as a venue for regional live theater. FURNITURE STORE: Festival Furniture (101 E. Jefferson Blvd.) may be an Oak Cliff business, but it draws customers from across the city. MUFFLER SHOP: Owner Juan Santos’ dad, who also owns a shop on Fort Worth Avenue, started Santos Radiators and Mufflers (401 E. Jefferson Blvd.) in 1990. Juan took over the shop two years ago. Another Oak Cliff JFK/Oswald connection: after shooting President Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald returned to Oak Cliff, and while passing this gas station threw his coat into the back of a car on the lot. MURAL: Public art is replacing graffiti. A mural of Father Hidalgo on Jerry’s Market (532 W. Jefferson Blvd.), painted by “Ceibas.”

Oak Cliff is not so much a Dallas neighborhood as it is a small town. And if Oak Cliff is a small town, then Jefferson Boulevard is its downtown, its Main Street.

In the late 1950s, that downtown thrived, and families could find anything they needed: school clothes for their children, furniture and housewares for their homes. They could buy new cars and tires for old ones. Their kids went to the movies at the Texas Theater and bought 45s and LPs at Top Ten Records. There were banks, doctors and dentists, hardware stores, piano dealers, and florists.

Over time, Oak Cliff slowly declined, and by the mid-1980s, when a few artists and photographers moved across the river in search of cheap rent, many of the storefronts on Jefferson Boulevard stood empty. The Texas Theater, site of Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest, was showing third-run movies, and the new-car dealerships were long gone.

Organizations such as the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce have worked to restore the street’s landmark structures. The Oak Cliff Tower has been refurbished. The Texas Theater, badly damaged by an electrical fire in the 1990s, is being resurrected as a live-theater venue by the Oak Cliff Foundation. But landmarks alone do not create a community.

We can thank the influx of small, family-owned and -operated Hispanic businesses for a revitalization that gives the boulevard everything it had 50 years ago, except for the new-car dealerships, which are a few blocks away on I-35. The changes on Jefferson,  however, are more than a restoration, more than murals and refurbished storefronts. It is now a street where families shop for bolillos and pan dulce, religious icons, wedding dresses, banking services and money transfers, bus service to Monterrey and Guanajuato, western wear, photographers for their daughters’ quinceañera celebrations, real estate, and a meal out.

Older businesses, such as Oak Cliff Paint and Hardware, have survived by adapting to the changing demographics of the area—and the entire city. Top Ten Records sells Latin hip hop, and you can order carne asada at the Charco Broiler.

As I began work on this project, I could see that the story of Jefferson Boulevard was not just in the colorful facades or repurposed and refurbished buildings, but also in the people who are bringing the street back to life. I began taking their portraits and talking with them about how they came to be on the street and the stories behind their businesses.

Jefferson Boulevard is recovering because of the entrepreneurial vision of individuals and families working for their future. It is the new face of Main Street, U.S.A.

“Jefferson Boulevard: A Neighborhood’s Main Street” runs June 3 through August 1 at the Afterimage Gallery in the Quarangle, 2800 Routh St., Ste. 141. 214-871-9140.

TWO MEN AND A BIRD: Brothers César (left) and Saul Valdez bought Wonderland Tropicals (200 W. Jefferson Blvd.) in 2000 because they love birds. They are pictured with a Military Macaw named Chris. César says that buying the shop was “the opportunity to do something different, to not work for someone else, but for myself.”

SOCCER STORE: Jesus Najera, while working for the soccer shoe manufacturer Lotto, began selling shoes out of his car at the parks around town during weekend soccer matches. Today, for his Deportes Najera (434 W. Jefferson Blvd.), he makes a weekly road trip to Guanajuato to buy the authentic team merchandise his customers expect. A genuine Guadalajara Chivas uniform shirt can run $85.

BOOT SHOP (above and below): Felipe Ramirez owns and operates Ramirez Boot Shop (326 W. Jefferson Blvd.) with his son, Felipe Jr., who moved to Dallas in 1980 from Big Spring, Texas, when the air base there closed. Their custom boots sell for upwards of $1,400 a pair. Their clientele comes from all over the country. Felipe Sr. is pleased that his son has stayed in the business, so they can work together every day.

RECORD STORE (above and below): Top Ten Records (338 W. Jefferson Blvd. @ Bishop Ave.) has been at the same location for 47 years; Mike Polk has owned it for the last 27. The shelves behind him are sized for the 78 RPM records the store sold when it opened, and the phone that Dallas Police Officer JD Tippet used just before being shot by Lee Harvey Oswald still hangs on the end of the counter. Polk says his business is like a restaurant. When the neighborhood changes, he just changes the menu.

BEAUTY SALON: Quinceañera celebrant Karen Vigil gets made up by Natty Soto at the Bambi Unisex Beauty Salon (135 W. Jefferson Blvd.).

STUDIO: Photographer Salvador Vargas takes the quinceañera portrait of Vigil, at Studio Vargas (115 W. Jefferson Blvd.). The digital photo session lasted more than an hour and a half and included images made with hand-painted backdrops and a scene machine.

CLOTHING STORE: Christina Almaquer, with the sidewalk display outside her family’s Jefferson Bazaar. They have been in the former Oak Cliff Music building (612 W. Jefferson Blvd.) for 10 years. COUPLE: Consuelo and Raul Rodriguez have been married for 20 years and work together every day at their business, Paleteria Frutitas (539 W. Jefferson Blvd.), making and selling paletas, nieve, and licuados. “My husband says this is a bad place to be in love. What do you think?” She doesn’t think so.


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