In Defense of Uptown: A Brief Essay on the Stickiness of Stigma

Oak Cliff should have nothing to fear.

There’s a refrain I’ve been hearing with increasing regularity lately, mostly in regards to proposed development in my new neighborhood of Oak Cliff.  “We don’t want to be like Uptown!”

It seems to represent a reflexive dislike for Uptown the place but is one I find to be inaccurate possibly based on preconceived, outdated, or superficial notions. The more days, months, and years that go by, the more Uptown evolves and the more incorrect the perception becomes.

Oak Cliff residents should be well aware of incorrect stigma.  We are, “in the hood,” apparently.  Places change.  Cities are dynamic.  Perceptions often lag reality.

Take for example, this news story:

Let me disclose a few things.  First, I keep an office in a retail storefront in uptown.  Many of my mentors, friends, clients, and colleagues have been involved with the redevelopment of uptown for the last twenty-five years.  Uptown Dallas, Inc., the Public Improvement District that manages the area is also a client.  I am not writing this post at their request nor any stakeholder in uptown besides myself as 1) a business owner and 2) somebody who cares about truth and accuracy.

Having worked with uptown for the past year gives me a unique insight into the demographics of the area that I believe aren’t what my Oak Cliff neighbors believe.  Nor are the demographics something to fret over North Oak Cliff becoming “the new uptown.”

Last year, I also moved to the Bishop Arts neighborhood.  As somebody who has invested in the area (for precisely the same potential that much larger investors are looking to provide supply in order to meet the demand) I say that in some ways we should be so lucky.

When people say they don’t want “the next uptown,” they tend to follow that statement with, “I haven’t been there for years.”  I don’t see that as further substantiating the argument but rather a weakness.  They don’t see the uptown I see. Most of those saying these things tend to fall into my demographic, thirties, college graduate, professional, many have young families, didn’t want to leave the city because they liked the proximity of amenities, people, and diversity of city living, and are willing to not just tough it out with DISD schools, but be part of the improvement knowing that through organized effort and ownership that change can happen.

I have to presume what is feared is not the massive increase in tax base that has occurred in uptown in the last twenty years. Most of these visceral responses to new development isn’t going to be as logical to say, “we need increased tax base to improve services, streets, schools, hospitals, etc.”  No, instead I think it’s the inaccurate stigma that plagues Dallas on the whole.  Dallas is superficial and full of the indicator species, the 30k millionaire.  In turn, uptown is superficial and full of 30k millionaires.

I assure you that 30k millionaires can’t afford uptown, which actually is a problem, but not necessarily from uptown’s standpoint.  Back to the supply and demand issue, walkable urban neighborhoods are in demand, especially from young people.  Young people tend to have less income. Unfortunately for them, increasingly dual income households, empty nesters and others also want high quality urban living with the ability to walk, bike, or take transit to an array of amenities.

There isn’t enough supply of urban neighborhoods that large segments of the market are priced out despite wanting to live in such neighborhoods.  Therefore, we need more in more areas.

More importantly, I think if my cohort neighbors would spend more time (or the time I have pouring over demographic research) in uptown they would realize those in uptown are more like them than they think.

The fastest growing demographic in uptown is 0-5 year olds.  I look out my office window every day and see more and more strollers.  More than I ever see out and about walking in my Oak Cliff neighborhood, which should be a clue into what part of the problem in North Oak Cliff is.  The streets aren’t nearly as safe and pleasant for pushing strollers as the streets of State-Thomas are.

Increasingly, thirty-something young parents are living in uptown.  Maybe they met here, but unlike the past more want to stay.  They like their neighborhood, their third places, and they want to make it work for their family.

I suspect the stigma that perpetuates is mostly due to those who reside outside of Dallas coming in for nightlife, which is increasingly diversifying and maturing the same way the neighborhood is.  It’s not the post college frat party continuation anymore.  See the above news story about young families.  If memory serves, the new facebook group for young parents in uptown to coordinate activities and serve as water cooler for their common issues has over 50 families signed up already.

If it’s a problem with architecture or the age of buildings, we could use some new buildings Oak Cliff.  There simply aren’t enough old buildings worth saving that we can get by strictly through historic preservation.  Instead, preservation has to be in balance with careful, selective, and context-appropriate infill.  Uptown has more of that than you might suspect.

It’s oddly ironic that uptown is approaching the kind of densities that will allow an increasingly diverse array of amenities and boutique retail shopping that already exists in Bishop Arts at a small-scale, an area that lacks the kind of socio-economic underlying data to support it.  In theory, it shouldn’t work, but it does.  Thus, it has to be such a rare experience to succeed that it can draw from a very large trade area.  Bishop Arts then has a perceived parking problem (because you have to park two or three blocks away.  OH NO!).

It also means the success is tenuous.  It’s difficult to survive as a regional draw when there is an increasing amount competition for that experience.  Uptown sales are increasingly from within the neighborhood, meaning parking is less important.  A number of restaurants have already reduced their parking to increase patio space and seats.  In Bishop Arts, we need more density in order to reduce trip distance and increase resident customers, adding long-term stability.

The key is whether we can leverage the new investment (and do you know how long people have been waiting for this kind of investment to cross the river?) to properly improve the public realm in order to cater to the needed pedestrian experience, comfort and activity beyond the two blocks of Bishop Arts.

All of the historic parts of Dallas are going to infill and become more dense.  That’s in general a good thing, as is the public dialogue provided it doesn’t become too shrill.  The neighborhood is a stakeholder just as much as the developer.  We can and should work together to create context sensitive solutions (hopefully without losing the Dallas trademark ambition).

As areas add density and walkability, they’ll increasingly become by-products of their residents.  The spirit of the place follows the activities and interests of the locals (provided its designed and built for interactivity).  But don’t worry about becoming “the next uptown.”  Uptown residents are more like you than you think.

In sum, let’s not be NIMBYs.  Investment in the area and the fact that more people want to live in the area are good things.  We shouldn’t scare it away, but work with the investors and developers as partners towards a shared vision.  If there are specific problems or concerns about any particular proposed development let’s address them directly rather than saying, “let’s not be uptown” because there are people in uptown working to become a more complete.  And if you just want some potholes fixed or safer streets then we need the tax base and investment.

Instead of saying, “let’s not be the next Uptown, let’s be more proactive and positive and ask, how can we make for the best Oak Cliff?”  And that means both more investment and more cooperation.

I’ll have more on the specific Oak Cliff Gateway project later.


  • Jls

    What I object to is the architecture of the development not being in keeping with the feel of the district. I love West Village for what it is, but it didn’t have to fit into the context of its surroundings. It was built on open, undeveloped area. If the developers had consulted with the community they’re trying to fit into, they’d have known that these renderings weren’t going to go over well. New doesn’t have to mean cookie cutter. Facades, roofs and details can go a long way toward making a structure seem as if it was there all along or as if it was transplanted from another city. It’s a bit late for cooperation on that point, n’est pas? And perhaps by design? (No pun intended).

  • Chris R.

    I believe what North Oak Cliff people are afraid of is the proliferation of multi-story, generic-tecture buildings so prevalent in Dallas. For those of us who have lived in Dallas many years, we have seen the few remaining historic buildings in Uptown be swallowed by massive structures designed and constructed with no regard for what exists next door or down the street. Density is great. But density as an excuse for ignoring the scale of existing buildings in the pursuit of “Highest and Best Use” is not well crafted urban planning.

  • NoWestVillage

    “Uptown sales are increasingly from within the neighborhood, meaning parking is less important.”
    Containing the douche bags and douche baguettes in Uptown is a good thing. We don’t need your douchiness, or presumptions in OC.

  • Travis Rex

    “We shouldn’t scare it away, but work with the investors and developers as partners towards a shared vision”

    bahahahahaha! that never works when millions of $$$ are involved..platitudes are cute, but please stop being that naive

  • Oakclifbar

    These buildings can take place without resident approval. Instead of throwing tantrums, you use the tif request as leverage to get changes you want. Otherwise you’re pissing in the wind and all you get is the cheapest possible design. That’s the way the world works, stop being naive.

  • Travis Rex

    “I suspect the stigma that perpetuates is mostly due to those who reside outside of Dallas coming in for nightlife:

    You would be wrong..entirely..

  • EastDallasKid

    The simply fact you wrote this tells me you have no clue of what we are talking about. The only thing you see is $$$$$$$$. We are talking about culture and soul. Uptown has none of that. I have friends that are attorneys and go to visit often, so yes I have been to uptown recently. If you talk to ppl that have lived in E. Dallas or OC you will find ppl that went to the same H.S. their parents went to. If you talk to ppl from uptown they’re most likely not even from Texas.

  • Thomas Hooper

    An old friend Raymond Hapes purchased a home on Thomas Avenue before Uptown was mistakenly included in the proposed Oak Lawn Forum Overlay. Ray organized and lobbied the city council and the original neighbors to opt out of the Oak Lawn Forum and come up with their own zoning overlay which became the foundation for the Uptown Zoning regulations which ultimately has produced the vitality that comes with the first instance of speculative zoning in Dallas History. Those people in Oak Cliff need to take some lessons. .

  • Syd

    The problem with this article is that you fail to address the main reason for not wanting to become Uptown, which is gentrification. First, a brief history of Uptown. Originally a Freedman’s community, the Thomas/Hall and Deep Ellum parts of town were thriving minority communities until 75 was plopped in the middle of those communities. Following decade of systemic investment, moneyed Dallas Elite swooped in, bought property on the cheap, and go a tax break for doing it. The only remnants of the community are the cemetery which is located next to a Wal-Mart. All of the other undesirables were driven out and forced on the “other side” of 75.

    Having grown up in Oak Cliff, the same thing is starting to happen in North Oak Cliff and West Dallas. When I was young, you could not beg a person to go down Jefferson or Davis streets. Now, it is a “hip” place to be. A place where Oak Cliff natives often recieve glares from other patrons while dining at Gloria’s. A place where people who have lived there for decades are now losing homes due to a rapid increase in taxes.

    So no, people do not want to become Uptown because the Uptowns of the world displace communities that have been there for decades in the guise of Economic Development.

  • Chris

    Patrick I too live in oak cliff and office in uptown, and downtown. I feel like the desire to not be te next up to is related to wealth but not the 30k millionaire wealth. I like that oak cliff, aside from Kessler park, is working class. I don’t see Farraris and Mazeratis in Oak Cliff am I like that. Those are fine cars but I don’t want to live next to someone who drives a car that is more expensive than my neighbors homes. I’m a young professional and will start a family “soonish” (Gotta work on the school loans first) and my neighborhood is full of people like me, people who are climbing but started low on the ladder. My perception of uptown is that its full of people who started much nearer the top of the ladder and can this pay the incredible rent prices that they do.

  • Jimdandy

    Cool story bro.

  • Keep Our Freedoms

    We don’t want Oak Cliff messed up.