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The Most Polite Bar in Town

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LEE HARVEY’S: Owner Seth Smith (center) pours stiff drinks. His crowd isn’t.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Seth Smith opened his bar almost five years ago in a former pier-and-beam house in a rundown stretch of the Cedars neighborhood, just south of downtown Dallas. Smith is a large, gregarious man with a mop of brown hair. A photographer by trade, he had never run a bar, so opening a place called Lee Harvey’s where he did was something of a lark. To say the neighborhood has seen better days almost insults the cliché. It’s not the worst part of town, but it looks a whole lot like it. A few blocks away sits a model of urban rehabilitation, Lamar Street, home to Jack Evans Police Headquarters, the South Side on Lamar lofts complex, and Gilley’s. But Lee Harvey’s was not part of that resuscitation effort. In his mystery novel The Next Time You Die, Harry Hunsicker depicted the area around Lee Harvey’s as “a part of town a friend of mine refers to as the corner of Gun and Knife streets.” Which is why he described the bar’s clientele as “graphic designers with soul patch beards who wanted to pretend they were living on the edge, drinking a few brewskies in a bad neighborhood … the NPR crowd slumming.” This is mostly true.

Lee Harvey’s succeeded, despite itself. Smith’s little wood-paneled paradise has drawn the city’s creative class with its stiff drinks and peculiar charm. The closet of a bathroom covered wall to wall with some of the most entertaining graffiti in the city. The dance floor—just inside the front door and to the left—that shares space it doesn’t have to spare with a Galaga/Ms. Pac-Man machine. The cozy red-vinyl banquettes at the back that are properly dark and conspiratorial. The roomy picnic tables out front that somehow always make it feel like summer. Every visit to the corner of Beaumont and Gould feels a bit like finding a $100 bill in the gutter.

None of this has turned around the neighborhood, exactly. The only real improvements since Smith opened the place are a handful of condominiums down Beaumont Street. Chris Jones lives in one of them. He and his wife, Renee, moved there in May 2007. And that’s when the trouble started.

By mid-July, Jones had filed three noise-related complaints, and city inspectors were obliged to pay a visit to the bar. It was the first skirmish in a war that has lasted for months. The inspectors, however, found that Lee Harvey’s was not in violation.

Anyone who tuned into ABC Channel 8’s 6 pm newscast on August 5, 2007, would not have known that. Reporter Debbie Denmon’s story was titled “NOISY NEIGHBORS,” screaming in all caps over a photo of Lee Harvey’s, neatly delineating the home team and its rival in the manner TV news prefers. But Denmon, alerted to the squabble by one of Jones’ online posts, only found one resident of the Cedars who felt the bar was noisy: Chris Jones.

If it had ended with that, the Lee Harvey’s affair would have been nothing more than a neighborhood dispute in a city full of them. But it didn’t. It was clear from the Channel 8 report that Jones was not ready to give up the fight. “I was aware that the bar was here before I moved here, but that is still inconsequential,” he said. “It still doesn’t give the bar a right to invade my household.” If Jones couldn’t be the hero in this tale, he seemed willing to play the villain, twisting the ends of his metaphorical mustache while the audience booed and hissed. Maybe that’s why he kept going. The bad guys get as much attention as the good guys. This is all speculation, of course. We’re left to guess at Jones’ motivation. Because the situation escalated, the story took on outlandish proportions, and now Jones isn’t talking.

Who is Chris Jones? To those in Lee Harvey’s corner, he has become a cross between Darth Vader and Mr. Roper, a colossal killjoy bent on ruining the fun, possibly even blowing up a small planet. In reality, he is a nondescript 37-year-old who hides his bald head under a baseball cap, the kind of guy no one would ever look at twice. The people on the side of Lee Harvey’s have a number of conspiracy theories about him. They talk of how people have offered to buy his condo from him, giving him a tidy profit on his investment, but he won’t budge. They say his wife doesn’t even support his cause. (Smith believes she does.) But the most prevalent story is that Jones is a cutout for a real estate developer, an unnamed, unknown someone (or someones) who want to shut down the bar and create a buyer’s market. They’d get the land from Smith on the cheap, and their dastardly plan would continue apace.

The evidence for this comes mainly from the Channel 8 video shot inside Jones’ condo. Reid Robinson, a member of the band Shanghai 5 and a regular at the bar, first floated the conspiracy theory in the comments section of a Pegasus News post about the Channel 8 story. Robinson wondered if Jones actually lived there, because of a “lack of furniture, rugs, or art in his living room.”

Though there might be something to that theory, it’s just as possible that Jones is a minimalist. He certainly doesn’t like excessive noise.

After his television appearance, Jones became his own cameraman. He took to videotaping the bar from his balcony, looking to catch them in the act. (Of what, it wasn’t clear.) He brought in a gadfly consultant, none other than Avi Adelman, of Lower Greenville fame, who has become the city’s own Al Sharpton of such neighborhood disputes. And over the next few months, Jones continued to tattle to the city, widening the scope of his grievances and upping their frequency. He called 911 or 311, depending on his mood and the nature of his beef, on an almost nightly basis. In addition to his objections to the live music booked at Lee Harvey’s on weekend nights, he griped about the fire pits in the front yard, and he complained about the adjacent vacant lots that were used for customer parking, among other things.

Some of the regulars went beyond offering moral support to the scruffy tavern. One of them used Jones’ name and address to subscribe to a large number of periodicals, including O, the Oprah Magazine.

So Jones redoubled his efforts. If someone had monitored DPD traffic patterns in the area last fall, they would have thought an enterprising neighbor had uncovered a street-crime operation straight out of an episode of The Wire. City police and code inspectors were called to 1807 Gould Street often enough to consider themselves regulars. Their visits became part of the nightly itinerary, and Smith and the Lee Harvey’s staff were always accommodating. Whenever there was an actual violation, Smith had it fixed. “We’ve done everything we can,” Smith said late one night a few weeks before Christmas, while playing his role of magnanimous host. “I just wish he’d leave us alone.” 

But for all his efforts, Jones accomplished little. Other than this: he gave a bunch of drinkers something to believe in, something to fight for, something to blog about.

The Pegasus News post about Jones’ fight with Lee Harvey’s elicited more than 140 comments before the thread was eventually shut down. Now, it should be pointed out that some of the commenters did take Jones’ side. It should also be pointed out that the work of three of Jones’ four defenders, who posted under the user names “Bemused,” “Veracity,” and “Clarification,” was deemed by site administrators to have most likely originated from Jones himself. (All three user names came from similar e-mail addresses and originated from the same IP address.)

In November, it escalated again. Acting on a tip from a reader, Pegasus’ Mike Orren dispatched one of his staff, a licensed private investigator, to spy on Jones when he took his dog out for his daily constitutional. What Pegasus found, and posted video of, was a flagrant disregard for another city ordinance, the one requiring owners to pick up after their pets. This, needless to say, poked a sizeable hole in Jones’ “zero tolerance” stance. It also led one of his neighbors to deposit evidence of Jones’ scofflaw behavior on his doorstep.

Then came the actual street fight—though it was brief. It was late. Jones was on his nightly surveillance shift, outside his condo. According to witnesses, Eric Kimmel, who owns the Rich Hippie boutique in Addison, initiated the confrontation, stepping into the street to yell at Jones. But Jones didn’t retreat. He, too, stepped into the street, where he pulled off Kimmel’s sunglasses and shoved him. The cops were called out to the Cedars again, only this time to a different address.

Today, Lee Harvey’s looks a little different than it did before Chris Jones moved to the neighborhood. Vacant lots once used for parking, one to the north of the bar and another to the east, now remain deserted. Smith owns both, but only one is zoned for commercial use, and it would need to be paved. Instead, a valet stand is situated conveniently out front, offering free parking. (If you were wondering where in Dallas would be the last place you might find a valet stand, the corner of Gun and Knife streets is now off the board.) This is to assuage the fears of customers who might prefer to take their business elsewhere rather than take a midnight stroll through what has the appearance (albeit mostly unfounded) of a location shoot for an America’s Most Wanted reenactment.

Near the gate of the fence that runs around the perimeter of the bar are two black-and-white signs: “Please respect our neighbors by exiting quietly.” In the courtyard protected by the fence, the fire pits that formerly provided a homey and practical bit of comfort on brisk winter nights are gone, replaced by enclosed wood stoves, which do the same job with only slightly less personality. On the patio just outside the front door, when bands perform there on Fridays and Saturdays, the amplifiers and the drummer’s kit are displayed not unlike a museum exhibit, protected by a small but effective piece of Plexiglas. Not as noticeable is the soundproofing material Smith had installed in the patio’s roof.

On a recent nippy Friday night edging close to Saturday morning, there are no bands on the patio. George Baum, one of Lee Harvey’s regular DJs, provides the soundtrack. His play list is broadcast—not obnoxiously but not timidly either­—to the patrons milling around one of the wood stoves via the outdoor sound system. Walking up to the bar, there is noise, though it is no more than a polite hum, the gentle acknowledgement that something is happening. The doorman of the bar is equipped with a hand-held decibel meter.

Lee Harvey’s is now, as one regular puts it, “bulletproof.” Jones’ complaints, and the visits from inspectors they prompted, have helped the bar become totally compliant with city code. One could go so far as to say it is the most code-compliant bar in town. And, frankly, it’s a better bar.

But not because it’s up to code. In Chris Jones, Lee Harvey’s patrons were given a rallying point, something that concentrated their anger, sure, but also something that focused their joy. It was like living through a near-death experience. Everything is better after, more appreciated.

More so than ever, the motley crew of regulars, bartenders, DJs, musicians, and so on that populates Lee Harvey’s has become a family, a Venn diagram of humanity that clings to the frayed-at-the-seams building like settlers at Jamestown. This sort of loyalty and community is inspired by other similar establishments, but it is never more available than it is at Lee Harvey’s. It is less a bar than a house party with an open-ended guest list.

As for Chris Jones, he hadn’t picked up the phone in weeks. Then in late January, he complained about the noise again. (The DPD found they were not in violation. Again.) He’s still out there, hovering at the fringes, the big bad wolf on a second-floor balcony, watching, waiting. Keeping Lee Harvey’s honest.

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