World of difference

"Gay-friendly" businesses carve a comfortable niche in North Oak Cliff

Mike Munsterman, who is gay, felt comfortable enough with his neighborhood to open Urban Gardener. The shop has become an oasis amid the gun shops, office supply stores, and junk shops lining Center Street in North Oak Cliff. His shop, which sells ornamental plants and herbs as well as the pots to put them in, has garnered a great deal of attention from the surrounding community, he says. In Oak Cliff, Munsterman doesn't hide the fact that he is gay. "I just don't think it should be a factor," Munsterman says. "I market to everybody."

It isn't as if all Oak Cliff businesses were moribund. For a long time, Mexican restaurants, botanicas, low-cost clothing stores, pawn shops, and auto body shops have flourished in Oak Cliff--yet they are businesses one usually identifies with an economically depressed area. The excitement new businesses have generated seems to stem from their difference and their ability to draw in people from across the river.

"People are spreading the word," says Vicki Olsen, a 15-year Oak Cliff resident who has run Victoria's Lace in the Bishop Arts District for some two years. She says that earlier efforts to generate interest in the Bishop Street area failed because the businesses didn't cooperate with each other. Now there is more of a communal atmosphere, she says.

Oak Cliff's improved commercial prospects didn't come about by accident, says Ruth Chenoweth, who owns her own real-estate agency and is known as the doyenne of Oak Cliff. A lifelong resident, Chenoweth spearheaded various efforts to revive Oak Cliff. Among the most successful was obtaining a historic district designation for the Winnetka Heights neighborhood, a well-kept, pre-World War II enclave. Chenoweth points to additional efforts made by other groups to kick-start Oak Cliff: An urban design study is under way for the Bishop-Davis area; and The Gateway Committee, searching for ways to beautify the Oak Cliff "gateway" at Zang and Colorado, completed an economic development study for the Kidd Springs area. Each year, the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League sponsors a home tour to let folks know that Oak Cliff isn't a battle zone, she adds.

"Lots of things have been put in place," she says. "We worked out boundaries, we got zoning set up to allow the small shops...we did things to give this place an identity. Now it's going to be great. I think it is going to become outstanding."

Gay people have been integral to Oak Cliff's revitalization, Chenoweth adds. "The gay impact has been very good" for the area, she says.

Yet some gay-run-business owners are worried that being seen as gay-owned will turn off customers. They don't want people to think they cater only to a gay clientele.

"Our concept wasn't to have people from everywhere come here," says Warren Farmer, one of a trio of owners of City Harvest, a gourmet grocery store in the Bishop Arts District. "Really, our concept was to have something for the people that live in the area."

City Harvest was started to provide neighborhood folks a place to buy grocery staples and some speciality foods without having to cross the Trinity to find them. The store offers items such as goat cheese and imported Italian olive oil alongside staples like milk and eggs.

A grocery store is about as sexually neutral as you can get. But the gay sensibility of Mike Harrity's Bishop Street Market is readily apparent. You see it in the line of gift cards on display, some of which have homoerotic themes. But while Harrity offers some products for a gay clientele, he is proud of the mix of people who browse among his collection of inexpensive antiques and gifts.

"I am slowly being accepted by the Hispanic community in the area," Harrity says with obvious pride. "For a long time they would walk by and look in the doors. Now a lot more come inside. I really want to be available for everything."

Nonetheless, there is a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude among some of the business owners, as though they fear being ostracized because of their sexuality.

They needn't worry, says Ricky Tillman, owner of Tillman's Corner Restaurant. Oak Cliff is not only diverse, but is tolerant, too.

"There are good wholesome people around here who have morals and dreams and aspirations," Tillman says. "Besides, gay people are loyal. They'll support you. They are some of the best customers you can have."

Besides, says Tillman, whose restaurant has just celebrated its fourth year in the Bishop Arts District, Oak Cliff is a fairly liberal area.

"[Gayness is] just not a factor nowadays," he says. "I don't care if it is green people from Mars. I don't look at color, creed, religion, or lack of religion. It's none of my business. I like what we've got going. We've got people in here who know business."

Mark Serrao of Vitto's says he struggles somewhat to maintain a comfortable balance in his restaurant between its straight and gay customers. At one point, the restaurant was "a little too gay," he admits.

"Too much hugging and kissing going on," he says. "Now, when friends come in, they get handshakes or hugs. I'm spreading the word that everyone gets treated the same when they come through the door."

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