Friday, June 14, 2024 Jun 14, 2024
73° F Dallas, TX

Deep Ellum caught a fair amount of bad press in 2021. A shooting in September on Main Street left two people dead and injured another four. It was the latest in a string of high-profile incidents of violence after the pandemic, and the chief of police was under pressure to make changes. Eddie García declared to reporters that he would “take Deep Ellum back.” He closed the streets to traffic and reassigned officers from other divisions while he figured out a long-term plan, and he deputized a sergeant named Chris Todd to pull it off.

Todd wanted to work in Deep Ellum. He was already putting in overtime hours there, policing mimosa walks that were popular with “schoolteachers and stuff” during the day, when pedal bars roam the streets. When the full-time job came open, in 2022, he was ready for it. “I gave them a spreadsheet of all the business owners I knew personally and their personal cellphone numbers,” Todd says. “I think they helped me get the job.”

In his uniform, a bulletproof vest under a short-sleeved neon shirt, Todd’s torso looks like a stuffed duffel bag. His breakaway pants allow him to quickly hop on a bike. He wears a crew cut and an easy smile, and he walks with purpose. He could be an arresting officer on a Law & Order cold open.  

On a Saturday in October, I sit in his passenger seat as he drives his beat. He points his cruiser down Elm Street, blue and reds off, New Country 96.3 playing below the squawks of his patrol channel.

“I still want to come here off duty,” Todd says, looking out his driver’s side window. “Elm St. Saloon, that used to be Black Swan. That’s Raj, the owner, right there.” Indeed, Raj Pole is standing outside. Todd drives past Revolver Gastro Cantina a few doors down. “I don’t know if you know this, but Gino”—Regino Rojas, the chef and owner—“he was nominated for a James Beard Award.” 

This isn’t the same neighborhood I first came to nearly 20 years ago. In September 2005, I was in the back seat of what I remember being a red sedan. We parked under the freeway, double-checked that the doors were locked, and then hurried up a block to see Built to Spill and The Walkmen play the long-gone Gypsy Tea Room. I remember being stunned that someone would take the time to paint a new mural of each concert directly onto the Gypsy’s exterior brick wall. That someone was Frank Campagna, the muralist who now owns Kettle Art Gallery over on Main Street. Deep Ellum felt like a place altogether separate from the city that surrounded it. The Gypsy was across the street from where The Epic compound now stands, a luxury hotel and apartment complex next to two hulking, modern office buildings that look like cubes of glass set atop one another. Back then, this land was empty except for the old Knights of Pythias temple, which had been painted white and stood sentinel among a moat of parking.  

This isn’t the same neighborhood I first came to nearly 20 years ago. It shouldn’t be, either. 

The old buildings may not have been historically or architecturally significant—and many of them were boarded up back then—but they were still standing, packed together like crayons in a box. For a kid from Houston and its sprawl, Deep Ellum felt like an entirely new Texas. It also felt like it was missing something.  

In researching this story, I found that I wasn’t the first to wonder how the neighborhood could evolve. David Dillon, the late architecture critic at the Dallas Morning News, wrote in 1983: 

“Deep Ellum has its own special character, a mixture of commercial, retail, and industrial activity that is unlike anything else in Dallas. It also needs more neighborhood services, more food stores and cleaners, as well as more neighbors. The trick is walking the line between needed redevelopment and outright gentrification, which replaces low-cost, broadly based economic activity with costlier, narrower uses.”

The neighborhood sat the length of a guitar string east of go-go downtown Dallas, where, in the decades before the savings-and-loan crisis tanked the real estate market in the late 1980s, new towers touched clouds almost every year. From 1980 to 1983, downtown welcomed six new skyscrapers. Deep Ellum was right over there, lying in wait, and Dillon expressed concern that speculators would scoop up properties and hike the rents, which is what killed residential and retail plans in the West End on the other side of downtown.

In the 40 years since Dillon saw the future, Deep Ellum has seesawed between booms and busts, an assumed risk when a neighborhood’s economy becomes driven by nightlife. But by 2023, when Deep Ellum celebrated its 150th anniversary as a neighborhood, high-density office and residential towers had, for the first time, shot up around all the old buildings.  

The three major landowners here now view the community as at least an 18-hour hub of activity. They have filled it with tenants that need daylight: retail and brunch options to take Mom to. There is valet parking in the heart of the neighborhood and a warren of Las Vegas–style clubs on its edges, both of which seemed unimaginable even a decade ago.

This peninsula of grit and noise and culture and history has a new sheen, one that Dillon saw coming even in 1983. The neighborhood’s public improvement district, funded by a special tax assessment for businesses in its boundaries, tripled its revenue in less than five years, growing from about $500,000 in 2018 to $1.5 million in 2022. In 2018, there were about 1,680 residential units within its boundaries. That number nearly doubled by 2023, to 3,100, and the new buildings under development will bring that total to  almost 4,000. The district has added more than 1.2 million square feet of office space, if you include the 300,000 square feet in Baylor’s glass pie-slice building just outside the PID’s boundaries. 

The old buildings now sit at the bottom of a bowl surrounded by high-rises, and more are coming. In many ways, the neighborhood is flourishing as it never has before. So why, with all that growth, does Deep Ellum sometimes feel so empty? 

The tracks that today carry Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s Green Line through Deep Ellum were the old Texas & Pacific Rail­way a century ago. How the railroads came to pass through this section of the city is one of the most Dallas stories of all: powerful people seizing an opportunity to enrich themselves. One of those people was Confederate Army officer William Henry Gaston, who gave $5,000 and some of his land to the Houston and Texas Central Rail­way so it wouldn’t build a route 8 miles east of Dallas. Its arrival in Deep Ellum created the neighborhood’s first boom. The Texas & Pacific—T&P—came the next year.

Deep Ellum was where enslaved people fleeing the fields of East Texas joined European immigrants escaping violence in their homelands. They gathered, lived, and did business together, thriving through Jim Crow. Alan Govenar, a historian and folklorist who has studied the neighborhood, teamed with the journalist Jay Brakefield in 1998 to write its most comprehensive history. In Deep Ellum and Central Track: Where Cultures Converged, the two write that, within a year of the H&TC beginning its operations, in 1873, Dallas added between 750 and 900 new buildings. European settlers took the rail north from Corsicana and began rapidly building “portable buildings with amazing speed.” Terminus merchants such as the Sanger brothers started businesses here before launching larger department stores down­town. In seven years Dallas’ population grew from 775 to 10,000 thanks to those railroads. Deep Ellum was at the center of that growth.

“For Blacks and whites alike, Dallas was a city of opportunity, and Deep Ellum, near the railroad station and relatively far from the main district, was a place to get started,” the authors write.

People of different backgrounds coexisted in Deep Ellum largely because they had to. Industry sprouted near the tracks, providing jobs for Black residents and European immigrants: meatpacking plants, production mills, dairies. The Continental Gin Company Complex on the east side of the neighborhood opened in 1888 and grew into the nation’s largest producer of cotton gins; workers later processed cotton here, too. They shipped the crop out on trains that pulled up to the back of the building.

Bars and cafes and theaters opened on either side of Central Avenue, which was replaced by Central Expressway and I-345 in the 1960s, and so did record shops and shoe shiners and tailors. Rudolph’s Market and Sausage Factory opened in 1895 in the same place on Elm Street where it currently operates. (The Andreason family has operated Rudolph’s since 1927, when Cyrill “Sid” Pokladnik immigrated to Dallas and took a job there.) In the 1920s, Eastern European businessmen opened pawnshops throughout the neighborhood, each of which often functioned as a lender for the people who couldn’t get financing elsewhere.

The architect William Sydney Pittman moved to Dallas from Washington, D.C., in 1913. He designed churches around the state, but his most notable contribution to North Texas was the Grand Lodge of the Colored Knights of Pythias, a red-brick masterpiece a block or so east of Central, on Elm. Built in 1916, the building was completely funded by the Black community and designed by a Black architect who was the son-in-law of Booker T. Washington.

Govenar notes that, by 1925, the building housed two accountants, an advertising company, one attorney, four dentists, three physicians, half a dozen insurance companies, a pharmacy, and a real estate agent. It became the center of Black professional life, complete with a fourth-floor ballroom that hosted dances and concerts and other community gatherings below a shimmering chandelier. Outside its walls, Deep Ellum attracted buskers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, and Whistlin’ Alex Moore. Govenar remains fascinated by Ella B. Moore, an entrepreneur and club owner who booked a touring group of Black musicians and dancers in venues throughout the South. She also managed the Gypsy Tea Room and the Park Theater, where she organized nights for White audiences who wanted to watch the Black artists. The neighborhood became known as Harlem on the Prairie.

Through the 1940s and 1950s, Deep Ellum was where Black workers caught the bus and went to work elsewhere, often in White homes and businesses. Former Dallas Morning News columnist Norma Adams-Wade, who now writes a column about Black Dallas in Texas Metro News, recalls her mother doing exactly that.

“We African Americans lived that story, maids and domestic workers standing on the corner to catch the bus,” she says. “My mama did at one time catch the bus down in Deep Ellum. She was a hairdresser in a White hairdresser’s place. She caught the bus and came on.”

Telling that history memorializes the early entrepreneurs and workers who are responsible for the bones and the culture of the neighborhood. Its origins contain a story we can learn from today. This neighborhood, with its diversity of people and businesses, succeeded despite the racial violence of an era in which a third of all eligible men in Dallas were Klansmen.

Deep Ellum became a thriving center of commerce built around industry, with an energy and vitality that remained intact until the highways replaced it with concrete. The neighborhood has been chasing that energy ever since.

Don Cass came from Paris, Texas, where he grew up picking cotton within earshot of a highway that called him west. He moved to Dallas in his late teens and rented a room at a boarding house in Bryan Place. He’d walk downtown to work, and then stop at the old public library and check out books on tax law. Cass taught himself before helping clients with their taxes and retirement plans. Some of those clients later became investors. He saw something in the old Deep Ellum buildings. He bought his first one in 1979 and eventually grew his portfolio to more than 70 properties. 

Cass became one of a number of landlords who charged cheap rents in repurposed Deep Ellum buildings, creating a unique market in tear-it-down-and-build-new Dallas. Artists could afford to open galleries in some of the old buildings: Delahunty, Allen Street, Ruth Wiseman, and, farther east near Fair Park, 500X. Kids were secretly—illegally—living in warehouses, ducking code compliance and the cops, booking seminal hardcore acts such as Hüsker Dü and Black Flag to play in their spaces. 

Frank Campagna was one of those kids who would eventually rent from Cass. Campagna can’t recall who his landlord was in 1982, but he was in his mid-20s, living in a 4,500-square-foot warehouse for $450 a month and booking the Dead Kennedys to play on a small stage tucked into a corner. The Meat Puppets played there, too, showing up at 9 am for a Saturday night show after driving down from New York. “We had all the beds up high and said, ‘Just make yourselves at home,’  ” Campagna says. “They climbed up there and broke out the bong.” Hüsker Dü, by the way, played that same stage three times in six weeks. 

In 1984, a similarly minded twentysomething named Russell Hobbs rented a 6,000-square-foot warehouse on Commerce Street for $1,000 and built an art gallery in the front, with a bar and a stage in back. He called it Theatre Gallery. After the cops got wind of what he was doing, Hobbs opened the Prophet Bar across the street, this time getting the required permits. 

At the same time, Cass was fielding calls from East Coast newcomers. They wanted places to live that felt familiar. “In their thick accents, they’d ask, ‘I want a loft,’  ” says Rich Cass, Don’s 55-year-old son, who runs the family business. 

One problem: there was no residential space in Deep Ellum. The neighborhood owes a lot to the elder Cass, an entrepreneur who saw a need and met it. The market demanded something that was illegal to provide, and those warehouses he owned sure looked like the “lofts” these Yankees were calling about. So he went to City Hall and convinced the city to change its zoning to allow residential use in previously commercial spaces. 

His vision was ideal for a neighborhood that the city paid little attention to, bringing a DIY ethos to real estate, keeping rents low enough for entrepreneurs with big ideas. There were other property owners around at the time—Al Jernigan, Don Blanton, and Susan and Lou Reese, who would start Madison Partners, one of the neighborhood’s remaining players—but Cass owned more than all of them during the ’80s. 

Other venues soon followed Hobbs’ lead. Mark Cuban’s roommate Jeff Swaney opened Club Clearview in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in 1985. Club Dada opened in 1986, in the same spot on Elm Street where it is today. 

“These buildings were in bad shape, in the sense that they had been let go for at least four decades,” Rich says. “The Dada space was missing most of its front, and there was a jungle back there. … There were old appliances stacked out there and overgrown trees.” 

The underground scene had come to the surface, transforming into venues with tax IDs that were registered with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, authorizing them to sell booze. This was a big moment for a kid like Campagna, who parlayed his experience running an illegal warehouse space to booking shows at actual venues and designing flyers for them. He says he brought the first national acts to the Theatre Gallery stage. 

“I just happened to be in the middle of all of it,” he says. “They always say timing is everything, and, well, I just got lucky.” 

Tim DeLaughter moved back to Dallas in 1989 after spending a few years “skiing to work every day” in Crested Butte, Colorado. “I came back and I was like, ‘Where’s the music around here?’ It was very much of an agenda to get a band together,” he says. “So I go down there, and it’s, like, warehouses where you’ve got these things that are going on. It was very unstructured. There was an element of danger to it. That was exhilarating for a kid like me.”

Concerts happened in the venues, but jams would go all night in the warehouse apartments. That’s where DeLaughter met drummer Jeff Bouck, guitarist Wes Berggren, and bassist Mark Pirro. They became Tripping Daisy. The four wrote half a dozen songs and played an open mic at Dada, projecting psychedelic visuals onto the stage as they performed. 

“There was something kind of magical about that period,” he says, “all the bands that were down there. There was a real camaraderie that was going on.” 

Tripping Daisy eventually signed to Island Records and became a staple on MTV’s 120 Minutes. DeLaughter later co-founded the Polyphonic Spree and Good Records, whose original location was on Good-Latimer. 

In the early 1990s, drummer Gino Iglehart was 16 and watching bands play through the window of Sambuca (now the club Truth & Alibi). Iglehart played funk, soul, and jazz, and he linked up with an organist named Bobby Sparks who got him in the club underage. He found his calling on that stage. His parents and grandparents would tell him stories about seeing Ray Charles, Fathead Newman, and T-Bone Walker in clubs on Elm Street and around South Dallas, how important music was to the city and to the Black community. He found that same energy in Deep Ellum. 

Years later, Iglehart toured the world as part of Erykah Badu’s band. At the time of this interview, he was the general manager at the Free Man Cajun Cafe, one of the few places you can still hear live music in the neighborhood seven nights a week. 

Deep Ellum was hardly a utopia back then. Iglehart remembers watching out for skinheads. He knew to stay off Main because the street was dead, and he and his friends felt at risk. But the neighborhood served as fertile ground for some of the city’s most notable artists—especially musicians—to establish themselves and practice their craft. 

Deep Ellum’s main characters have always been immigrants, musicians, artists, cooks, bouncers, and entrepreneurs. But the property owners have authored the stories. And no person or entity today controls the narrative more than Westdale. An SMU grad named Joe Beard co-founded the company in 1991 with a Canadian family to buy up distressed commercial and residential buildings. Beard speaks slowly, with a Waco drawl, which is where he grew up. He’s about 6-foot-3, with the build of an aging cross-country runner, even though he was an offensive lineman for SMU. When he was starting the business, he was drawn to the old buildings in Deep Ellum, which couldn’t be more different from the walled-off suburban complexes that Westdale would make its fortune building and managing elsewhere. 

The company’s first acquisition in Deep Ellum was 3333 Elm Street, a former production facility that was part of the four-building Continental Gin Company’s operations at the eastern edge of the district. “We moved our offices there; it was a historic building. And from there we just started buying more buildings,” Beard says. “There was just a collection of these wonderful buildings and warehouses.” 

He remembers broken windows and pigeon infestations. Some of the properties he bought had been used for storage or light industrial activity. At 2700 Canton Street, for instance, Henry Ford had built a Model T production plant that later became a showroom in the 1920s. It was one of about 30 that Ford built in North America. Those warehouses were mowed down in most other cities, but the one in Dallas still stood. When Westdale bought it, in 1997, the space was being used to store documents. It became Adam Hats Lofts.  

Futura Lofts, the Murray Lofts, Farm and Ranch Lofts, the Continental Lofts, Elm Street Lofts, 3200 Main, The Factory venue—all Westdale. Beard then started buying buildings inside the “core” of the neighborhood, assembling a portfolio that today counts more than 300,000 square feet. 

By the end of the 1990s, Westdale was thinking bigger than old buildings. The company in 1998 acquired a largely empty parcel of land between the freeway and Pacific Avenue. The purchase included the old Knights of Pythias building on Elm, which had spent decades as a fenced-off derelict covered in white paint, its previous owner literally whitewashing its history and significance to Dallas’ Black community. It stood next to a parking lot and an empty field, a curious object that was among the first things drivers saw as they entered the neighborhood through the graffiti showpiece that was the Good-Latimer Expressway tunnel (demolished in 2006). Beard says he misjudged that he would be able to buy the Grainger Industrial Supply warehouse in an adjacent plot, which is why it took nearly 20 years for Westdale to begin building on the site. But three decades after the purchase, it now houses the high-rises that ushered in a new era for Deep Ellum. 

First, though, the neighborhood went bust in the 2000s. Some of the warehouses had been occupied by tech companies before the dot-com bubble burst. They left. A 2004 brawl during an Old 97’s show at the Gypsy Tea Room, which left a man partially paralyzed, triggered a civil suit and a bankruptcy that ended the Entertainment Collaborative, a company owned, in part, by Brady and Brandt Wood. It managed three prominent Deep Ellum venues: Gypsy Tea Room, Trees, and the Green Room. The 2008 recession turned off the last of the lights, but it had a silver lining: the properties stood in stasis instead of being razed. They were waiting for someone like Scott Rohrman, a well-capitalized investor who could fix up the buildings and recruit new tenants. 

In 2010, Rohrman wanted nothing to do with the neighborhood. He’s a polo-and-khakis guy, the type that blends in at a church potluck. He’d come to Deep Ellum just twice in his 20s, and one of those times he was almost mugged. But he was bored. His investors kept urging him to stick with what was safe money: investing in industrial space in the sprawling suburbs. But Rohrman was drawn to urban infill. 

Then he ran into the broker Mike Geisler at a cocktail party. Geisler had his eye on Deep Ellum, partly because he remembered it in the early 1980s. He was a sophomore at SMU then, a few years before Island Records broke the scene nationally with The Sound of Deep Ellum, an album that introduced acts such as Edie Brickell and New Bohemians and Reverend Horton Heat to the world. Geisler remembered street poets and saxophone players in alleys, “things that never happened in Dallas.” Now a broker with Venture Commercial, he saw an opportunity to bring that energy back to the neighborhood.  

“Deep Ellum has had these cycles, but one of the obstacles was that most of these property owners had owned their buildings for 50 years or more,” Geisler says. “When you’re trying to put together a tenant mix and create some continuity of experience, you need to be able to control that game board.” 

Rohrman eventually changed his thinking on Deep Ellum, convincing his investors with 42 Real Estate to let him make an urban play. He started spending time with the property owners and tenants, figuring out what could bring people back to the neighborhood. He insisted on building a critical mass of properties, enhancing safety and lighting, and controlling parking to prevent price gouging. He bought 27 buildings and 13 parking lots in 2012. In the first two years, he says, the buildings went from 65 percent leased to 35 percent. “I had to get rid of the bad guys,” he says. He included quirks in his new leases, like requiring his tenants to sweep the front walks of his neighbors on both sides of the properties. “We’re committed to community,” he says. “We want you to be committed.” 

He let artists who staged one-act plays and showed paintings in vacant buildings. The 42 Murals project harkened back to how Campagna organized artists who bombed the Good-Latimer tunnel. Rohrman gave artists a canvas on the brick of his old buildings. Barbecue darling Pecan Lodge outgrew its stall in the Dallas Farmers Market and relocated to Deep Ellum in a 42 building, choosing Dallas over Carrollton, which offered subsidized rent. A restaurant and brewery called BrainDead Brewing took over a corner lot at Main Street and Good-Latimer, with a wide patio that fronted the sidewalk. The only buildings Rohrman did away with were transformed into a large patio for Dot’s Hop House and Courtyard. And the tenants were all local. 

“I didn’t want Deep Ellum to be known as the neighborhood you go to misbehave,” Rohrman says. “I want it to be known as the neighborhood you go to experience life in a way you can’t experience anywhere else.” 

In 2017, Rohrman’s investors decided to sell. They agreed to a deal with a North Carolina-based real estate investment firm called Asana Partners, whose model is adding urban street retail to old buildings. Geisler said their group bought for about $12 a square foot and sold for more than $40. (Neither Asana nor Rohrman would confirm that figure.) Asana has since brought in some regional and national retailers, such as Patagonia and Atlanta’s Archer Paper Company. It kept most of Rohrman’s tenants, although BrainDead closed in 2021, and its prime location is still vacant. (Asana says it has a tenant for the space, which it will announce soon.) But this was a new thing for the neighborhood: a willingness, and an appetite, to rent to out-of-towners. 

And those out-of-towners are big-money concepts. At that Knights of Pythias location that took so long to build on, Westdale’s Epic development also includes Komodo, from Miami, and La Neta, from Las Vegas, expense-account clubstaurants that draw an entirely new visitor to Deep Ellum. 

“That’s a real stamp of approval,” says Beard, “that you’ve kind of arrived.” 

Jeff Brightwell spent seven months during the pandemic watching The Stack office building ascend ever higher from behind the locked doors and glass windows of Dot’s Hop House and Courtyard, on Commerce Street. The space once belonged to Don Cass, who rented it to Campagna. Cass eventually sold to Rohrman, who in turn sold to Asana. Dot’s sprawling patio bar, which is named for his mother, had to close during the pandemic. Prior to that, though, business was good. 

The Stack was hope: eight stories with nearly 130,000 square feet of office space on top of a six-story parking garage that had been designed to look like one of the neighborhood’s old warehouses. The building, which replaced a shabby surface parking lot, became fully leased during the pandemic. 

“We were so amped,” Brightwell says. “If it’s fully leased, it’s going to have about 900 people. Imagine what that’s going to do for this street, for lunches and happy hours.” 

Instead, he says, his daytime traffic has tanked compared to 2019. Downtown workers haven’t returned to eat lunch in Deep Ellum like they used to, and he hasn’t seen the happy hour crowd he anticipated. (Office occupancy downtown is about 65 percent of what it was prepandemic, according to Downtown Dallas Inc.) Brightwell suspects hybrid work schedules are keeping people away from the new office space. TRG, the company that survived the implosion of The Richards Group, leases about 100,000 square feet at The Stack, and its employees come in to the office only three days a week. 

“It’s not been the boon that we expected,” Brightwell says. “What I got instead was a fucking wind tunnel.” 

When southerly winds hit the rectangle-shaped Stack, Brightwell says, wind bends around the building and flood into his patio. Customers tend to seek refuge inside. 

“Last year, I lost 13 umbrellas,” he says. He points to one of his propane heaters. “You’ll see that it doesn’t have a head on it anymore.” 

Most business owners I spoke with say they haven’t seen much traffic from high-rises that have gone up around the edges of the neighborhood. The state of affairs is difficult to explain, given that these developments should have been the perfect antidote to the neighborhood’s nightlife-driven economic vulnerability. 

“If we were ever going to be truly sustainable as a district and get out of that boom-and-bust cycle, we needed to have a residential and office population down here,” says Jon Hetzel with Madison Partners, who has helped the city craft the neighborhood’s zoning. “With one- and two-story former warehouse buildings, we were never going to get the kind of density to achieve that.” 

The first high-rise came in 2017. The 17-story Case Building replaced a vacant lot that held a lonely billboard at Hall and Main streets with 337 apartments within walking distance of the Baylor Scott and White campus. That was more than all of Westdale’s loft spaces combined, in a single building. 

In 2019, tenants began signing leases in a three-building complex at the eastern border called The Epic. This was the long-awaited fruit of Beard’s 1998 land play, and the Knights of Pythias temple was finally rehabilitated as part of a boutique hotel operated by the San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group. A 26-story luxury apartment complex called the Hamilton added 310 units next door. Austin’s Stonelake Capital Partners is planning 13 stories of apartments on top of a four-story parking garage at Taylor Street and Malcolm X, an investment expected to cost $123 million.

The leasing success of The Stack seems to be a proof of concept for similar office developments, like the urban planning version of a CVS locating near a Walgreens. Chicago-based Sterling Bay sunk $100 million into a 473,000-square-foot office and retail development across from Malcolm X on the DART line, which it calls The Assembly. 

Farther east, the old Continental Gin building, which had been used for artist studios, was purchased by brothers Evan and Jordan August and transformed into creative office space. Its first floor features a coffee shop and one of the country’s best sushi restaurants (Tatsu). 

The biggest victory seemed to be Uber, which in 2019 accepted millions of dollars in state and local tax incentives in return for bringing 3,000 new jobs and $75 million in capital investments into The Epic complex. By 2021, though, Uber had to give all of that back. The pandemic cratered its business; it brought only 500 employees and had to sublease the rest of its space in The Epic. Over the summer, a bored security guard told me that just three of its 23 floors were occupied. 

Deep Ellum needs people who treat the neighborhood as a destination: concertgoers who stop at a bar for a drink before their show, someone walking down the street who gets curious about a shop and stops in, an office worker who grabs lunch and then a coffee. Office space promised a new population of customers. But that hasn’t been the case. 

“I think it’s understated that we’re still in a struggle,” says Stephanie Keller Hudiburg, the executive director of the Deep Ellum Foundation, which manages the neighborhood’s public improvement district. “People see growth, they see shiny, they see new, they say, ‘Oh!’ But when you’re talking about small-business owners … they’re still struggling to come out of these last couple years.” 

Rather than office workers, tourists are the ones helping to keep stores in business. “The thing about Deep Ellum that I don’t think a lot of folks get is that during the week—the entire seven days a week—the traffic here is all tourists,” says Will Evans, who owns the Deep Vellum bookstore and publishing house on Commerce Street. It sits a block from the Case apartments. “One hundred percent of our business during the week are tourists.” 

Giselle Ruggeberg opened her lifestyle shop Jade and Clover on Main Street in 2016, selling home decor, jewelry, and plants. She and her employees have begun providing packaging for customers to take their plants with them on flights home. They partner with businesses that want to organize events at their plant bar for employees. In 2023, the foot traffic seemed to vanish. 

“We’re not getting our Dallas clients,” Ruggeberg says. “It’s tourism and it’s conventions.” 

Some businesses even have regular tourists. “The third week in January, I can guarantee that I’m going to see the same two ladies from Minneapolis, and they pick up a Richard Ross,” Campagna says. He’s referring to an Irving artist whose paintings he sells. “I have one guy from Minnesota and other guys from Germany and another guy from Australia, and they’re all here for the helicopter convention.” That would be the Heli-Expo. 

“Tourists are how we made it through the pandemic,” Campagna says. 

Tourists are great for business, but a neighborhood filled only with tourists feels more like Arlington. Deep Ellum’s history would suggest its future success depends on something more organic, something more homegrown. 

At 10 pm on weekends, Dallas police shut down Elm and Main streets to vehicles. Loitering became a problem during the pandemic, as kids hung out in parking lots with nowhere to go. Getting cars off the streets means officers can get on their feet, seeing the action from the pavement, pouring out open containers and confiscating marijuana. 

About a year ago, Chief García carved Deep Ellum out of the Central Patrol Division. Additional officers are assigned to patrol the neighborhood on foot at night, supplemented by cops working overtime and the private security company paid for by the Deep Ellum Foundation. The organization has also placed 35 cameras around the district and staffs a command center with private security.

The night I’m with Sgt. Todd, a line of candy-coated Cadillacs cruises east on Main as cops haul metal barricades to block the cars. They drive down Elm a few minutes later, directed right out of the district along with other traffic. Most bar owners and operators say the police presence is a good thing, much needed for a neighborhood that was briefly out of control. But they also say crowds thin once those barricades go up; perhaps this is the cost of taking Deep Ellum back. 

“It was busy every weekend, and COVID just killed that,” says J.R. Munoz, who owns the bars Will Call on Main Street and Elm St. Saloon a block over. “We had that summer of 2020 that just gave such a bad reputation to the neighborhood. … It got to a point where the perception was you could do whatever you want.” 

The Deep Ellum Foundation spends three quarters of its annual budget boosting public safety measures, which include a private security force, cops on overtime, cameras, enhanced lighting, and an app to report incidents 24 hours a day. In the past year, to celebrate the neighborhood’s 150th anniversary, it has organized over a dozen community events, including a November block party and music festival with local bands opening for headliners Doug E. Fresh, Bowling for Soup, and Rev Run. The goal is to reintroduce the neighborhood, to welcome people back. It’s why Sgt. Todd’s operation is so important to the foundation. 

“We’ll have people write stories that happen on the Baylor campus or South Dallas or the Farmers Market and write ‘Shooting in Deep Ellum,’ ” says Hudiburg of the Deep Ellum Foundation. “It’s got the history. It’s got that mystique. We know it’s an easy story to write. But it hurts our businesses in a real way when people will tell them, We’re not coming down because it’s not safe.” 

That perception is almost as old as the neighborhood itself. In the 1920s and 1930s, Dallas police referred to a switchblade as a “Deep Ellum special.” In reports from the period, the Dallas Morning News eventually stopped bothering to define it. 

Statistically, though, Deep Ellum is safer than it was before the pandemic. Over a 16-month period from September 2022, when García announced the new unit, to the end of 2023, police data show that Deep Ellum had recorded 87 violent crimes, including aggravated assaults, murders, robberies, and rapes. That’s down from 111 in 2021 and 109 in 2019. 

Perception doesn’t appear to match that data. Business owners here believe media coverage has misframed the neighborhood over the past year, and viral aggregators such as @DallasTexasTV are throwing gasoline on the fire. Some business owners even confronted the editors of the Dallas Morning News last spring over its coverage of one violent weekend. Both in the newspaper and online, the March 17, 2023, headline read: “1 week, 9 shootings, 13 lives lost.” The text of the story sorted the matter out quickly, reporting that the victims “were killed in neighborhoods across the city.” But the lead image was of the entrance to Deep Ellum, the neighborhood’s neon sign glowing green in the foreground. Only one of those shootings happened in the neighborhood. 

DallasTexasTV, which has 928,000 followers on Instagram and another 264,000 on TikTok, has posted a number of Deep Ellum fight videos. “Halloween, the last two years, the meme that comes out: why spend $65 to go to a haunted house when you could go to Deep Ellum and maybe die for real?” Brightwell says. “That’s one reason I think we have the perception of the Wild West down here.” 

Here’s the Wild West on the Saturday night I spent with the cops: once the streets are closed, Todd parks his car, leaves its lights on, and begins walking, fist-bumping bouncers, checking in with the officers who are staged in the 7-Eleven parking lot at Good-Latimer. Before 10 pm, he stops in front of Fuzzy’s Taco Shop to take a call. One of the Deep Ellum Foundation’s security officers is calling. “I think he was saying someone was vandalizing a car behind Reno’s,” a bar and venue just off Elm Street, Todd says. He speed-walks up Elm and hangs a right on July Alley. “We’ve been plagued with burglaries in this parking lot,” he says, talking a little faster. He shines a flashlight into the parking lot, where four men are standing around a white sedan. 

“False alarm,” Todd says. “Just a flat tire.” 

Music and culture have been foundational to Deep Ellum since its beginning, which helped it
last year get added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Still, musicians today are like the business owners: hopeful, but nervous. It hasn’t been easy for them, either. When police turned up the heat on Deep Ellum, so did code enforcement and the fire marshal. On a Friday night in March 2022, the fire marshal ordered the Touche Amoré show at Dada to stop because of capacity issues. (And a lack of fire sprinklers, since rectified with large exit doors provided by the landlord, Westdale.) The next night, they told former Three Links owner Scott Beggs that he was no longer allowed to combine capacity for the patio and the inside of the club. They ordered East Dallas honky tonker Joshua Ray Walker—fresh off a set on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon—to stop while volunteers exited the venue and watched from the sidewalk. (Beggs gave them free Dos Equis and shots of Tullamore Dew for their service.) John LaRue, the owner of Deep Ellum ArtCo toward the eastern edge of the district, said it seemed like a single resident of the adjacent Futura Lofts was getting code to visit any time a band played. One night got particularly bad.

“They were going to revoke our CO that night,” LaRue says, referring to a certificate of occupancy. “I told them I was not going to stop the show. … It’s a Friday night. We haven’t had shows since COVID. And, you know, this business is not going to make it if we can’t operate.”

This enforcement happened without discussion. The Deep Ellum Foundation worked with the district’s councilman to come up with a new noise enforcement plan for the area. While most venue owners seem a little unclear on how that’s enforced today, they say they haven’t had much trouble in recent months. (The guy in the Futura Loft seems to have moved.)

“How can we do our jobs effectively together so that this area doesn’t have to suffer?” says Iglehart from the Free Man patio while a band plays inside. “This needs to be heard. We’re not playing in church. We’re at a bar in the entertainment district. We want people to stop in, but they can’t stop if they can’t hear us.

“Everyone’s holding on for dear life and you can see it. You can walk into a venue and see it on the owner’s face. Because I don’t know what tomorrow is gonna be.”

The concern now is that new concepts that don’t host live music will take over spaces that don’t make it. The owners of Wit’s End, a metal bar that often booked local bands, told the Dallas Observer that Westdale declined to renew its lease in 2021. Rodeo Dallas, a dance club in Wranglers, replaced it.

“How Deep Ellum is developing, we want to develop with it,” says Dezman “Dezi 5” Lehman, who makes pop music with a voice that can shake your sternum. “But we’re losing more live band venues. More businesses are coming in, but the venues are being weeded out. They’re closing, and there’s not really places for us to perform.”

He’s sitting on a couch next to Cesar Vargas, the lead singer of the local cumbia group Cayuga All Stars.

“When you think about Deep Ellum right now, where are you going to play?”

“Our last show was at the Ruins,” Vargas says, the Mexican restaurant, bar, and venue on Commerce, across from Free Man.

Dezi jumps back in: “We’ve got Three Links, we’ve got Double Wide, we still have Free Man and Cheap Steaks. The N9nes.”

Since 2020, in addition to Wit’s, the pop-punk and hard rock venue Curtain Club sold to Asana and later became Hawker’s Street Food, a concept with locations in seven states. The electronic-and goth-leaning Lizard Lounge closed after 28 years in business, as did the far newer country venues Blue Light and Mama Tried. All of those booked local acts. Blue Light is now an arcade bar; the others sit empty.

“These new businesses that are coming in, these people with the money, we still want to work with it, but we need to figure out a way to work together, because it’s still the driving force both ways,” Dezi says. “Music and business goes hand-in-hand.”

If weekend nights can be slow, weekend days are often the opposite. On another October Saturday afternoon, a woman in Lululemon joggers walks her dog on Main Street. The AllGood patio is full of people having brunch. Diners scout for empty tables inside Hattie B’s, the Nashville hot chicken concept. A family of six eats paletas from Picolé Pops, Chamoy dripping onto Main Street. Merit Coffee has a line almost out the door. 

You can really see the evolution of Deep Ellum in Campagna. On the afternoons when his shop is open, you can find him smoking a cigarette outside the open doors of Kettle Art Gallery, on Main Street. He helps his wife, Paula, plan monthly wine walks in the neighborhood. There’s a Murals and Margaritas event planned for December, when he’ll explain his public artwork to whoever is curious and has $45.  

“You know, fortysomething years ago, I was booking Hüsker Dü and Black Flag, and now here I am on the same damn street, and I’m entertaining the idea of having 300 women come by in the next few hours,” he says, chuckling happily along with Paula at the contrast. Campagna has changed Kettle Art Gallery’s hours so they’re open when people are actually here. 

“We’re having a blast,” Paula says. “With this new energy that Deep Ellum is being infused with, it’s really like a shot in the arm because things have been tough in the neighborhood.” 

“The only thing that’s ever stayed the same about Deep Ellum is it’s always been changing,” says Hetzel, with Madison Partners. “It was Nirvana and stuff in the ’90s. It was the blues going back to the ’20s and ’30s. It’s never stayed the same. The only consistency is it develops. It’s always changing. And if we don’t continue to change and evolve in a thoughtful way, then we can’t be a successful neighborhood.” 

Nostalgia is a trap. It keeps us in place. It kills neighborhoods. Hetzel is right: the best way to ensure the future of an urban neighborhood like this is to build density and diversify the tenants. Deep Ellum, more than any other neighborhood in Dallas, is special because of its history and its sense of place. The Home Depot over on Fort Worth Avenue looks nothing like the Bronco Bowl it replaced. But Russell Hobbs’ Prophet Bar is now Uncle Uber’s sandwich shop.

The clubs and ultralounges are attracting a younger clientele who zoom past Three Links and Twilite Lounge, if they even wander into the core of the district. There is an anxiety about what comes next, in part because these newcomers look so different from what we all remember. I asked a friend of mine who used to live in Deep Ellum about its future. 

There is an anxiety about what comes next, in part because these newcomers look so different. 

“So many people are quick to say, ‘Deep Ellum is dying,’ or, ‘It’s just not the same,’ and they’re often right,” he says. “But it’s also important to look at how it may not be our Deep Ellum, but it’s someone’s. When we were kids, the old heads said it changed, and we still found a spot that we called ours and grew with it.” 

The history isn’t just ours, either. Govenar, the historian who co-wrote a book about the neighborhood, worked with the Deep Ellum Foundation to place the neighborhood’s beginnings in a permanent place, a space that also welcomes the present. One of the buildings Rich Cass held on to was 2528 Elm Street, which dates back to 1882, when it was the City Hotel and Mechanics Hall Saloon. In September, it became the Deep Ellum Community Center, which includes an exhibition chronicling the early history that was bulldozed when the highway came in the early 1960s. There is meeting and office space that can be reserved. The nonprofit Foundation 45, which provides free mental health services for musicians and artists, operates here. It’s also the headquarters for the Deep Ellum Foundation. 

“We live in this terribly divided world. We need aspirations to be able to bring people with different cultures together,” Govenar says. “I think this is where the Deep Ellum Community Center is striving.” 

A block away, under I-345, is where the heart of Deep Ellum began beating. In its earliest days, Deep Ellum was really Elm Street and the five or so blocks of Central Avenue, better known as Central Track, a place that owed its existence to the confluence of railroad lines and the processing of cotton. Central is now occupied by the elevated highway I-345, which was responsible for the neighborhood’s first bust, in the 1960s, when it displaced dozens of businesses. 

For a temporary exhibition under the highway, Govenar placed large photographs taken a century ago of business owners whose livelihoods vanished when Central Track was wiped away. The old ad for O.C. Richardson’s tailor shop reads: “No job too large for my capacity.” Dr. A.H. Dyson was a “painless dentist” who specialized in crowns and bridges. The Delmonico Bar & Domino Parlor, Hall St. Grocery and Notion Store, the electrical contractor N.W. Pickens—they were here, too. There is a quote from Bob Ray Sanders, the longtime Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist: “The building of Central Expressway and the I-345 overpass, though essential to the growth of Dallas, was a detriment to the communities that stood in its way.” The highway roars 50 feet above, a reminder of the priorities of our more recent past. 

Looking back toward Deep Ellum, there is the glass and steel of The Epic and the bright, restored red bricks of the Knights of Pythias temple, now a hotel. The Texas Department of Transportation will remove this highway in the coming years and put it in a trench. The city of Dallas plans to dig up Commerce and widen the sidewalks. Both of those projects will likely affect the people who are operating here today. 

Across the street from The Epic, there is a squat brick building next to a billboard that flashes at drivers on the freeway. It’s Urban Paws Grooming, housed in the last building standing when Central Expressway swallowed Central Track. Its owner, Laurel Levin, is a direct descendant of Rubin “Honest Joe” Goldstein, whose eponymous pawnshop was one of the last remaining remnants of Deep Ellum’s early history. 

Last year, a mural went up on its side featuring green and blue and yellow dogs and the words “HONEST JOES PAWN SHOP” at the top. 

The artist who painted it: Frank Campagna.     

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