By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The eatery is packed, with a line that presses against the glass windows and threatens to go outside. It's Thursday night at Vitto's Italian Restaurant in North Oak Cliff, and that means family night.
A quick look around the room shows that "family" takes on all its hues of meaning here. There are traditional family units, with mother, father, and children sitting at tables. Then there are more unusual menages: same-sex couples--some with children, some without.
The atmosphere is congenial, and no one looks uncomfortable or hurried--except perhaps the waiters, who walk briskly through the dining room lofting fresh-from-the-stone-oven designer pizzas. All in all, the scene looks normal.
That's because it is, says Mark Serrao, 33, who owns Vitto's.
Although he's been in the restaurant business for most of his life, this is the first eatery he's owned himself. He started it because he had to--after getting fired from his job of three years at Spasso, another designer pizza joint. He created Vitto's to tap into his vision of the perfect restaurant--and to provide a place that would accommodate his own social ethos.
"This is such a diversified area," he says of Oak Cliff. "If we had drag queens running around, it wouldn't be the same. I look at it like this: I don't care what your color is, or your sexual preference. You are a guest in my home, and you need to be taken care of."
What Serrao, who is gay, has created at Vitto's and, in the Bishop Arts District, the Oak Cliff Coffee House that he recently bought and renovated, is an atmosphere of tolerance and comfort. And he isn't the only one.
A small commercial boomlet started in North Oak Cliff in February with the opening of Dream Cafe's second location, on Zang Boulevard. On its heels came Urban Gardener, Vitto's, The Bishop Street Market, the newly revamped Oak Cliff Coffee House, and, just last month, City Harvest, a gourmet grocery store.
These new, mostly upscale businesses have one trait in common: They are gay-run or "gay-friendly" establishments. Their apparent success says a bit about both the area's economic potential and its social tolerance.
That gay and lesbian people live in Oak Cliff is nothing new. For some 15 years, gay couples steadily have been moving into the area. They have been drawn by Oak Cliff's principal advantages: proximity to downtown and great housing prices. Dabney Tompkins, a real-estate agent with Uptown Realty, which caters to a mostly gay clientele, says this migration has increased over the years, especially in the last two or three. Crosstown migrants include many families buying homes, and when couples buy homes, they want appealing shops and restaurants in their neighborhoods.
"I wouldn't say that this is a flash in the pan," Tompkins says of the gay migration. "More and more people are moving here, and they want to be able to get business services in Oak Cliff."
Tompkins says the increase in gay business ownership can be traced directly to gays' growing presence in Oak Cliff. They have become community leaders, Tompkins says.
"There is a community spirit here," he adds. "I can't describe it. We often say that there are only 18 people in Oak Cliff because all our lives are so intertwined."
Oak Cliff has long been seen by North Dallasites as a community apart. The Trinity River is both a physical and psychological dividing line between it and much of the rest of Dallas. Oak Cliff was once its own city, but since its annexation by Dallas in 1903, it has fancied itself the forgotten stepchild. Outsiders say it is dangerous and dilapidated. And while several parts of Oak Cliff are run down--particularly some East Oak Cliff neighborhoods--Oak Cliff residents reject the area's bad reputation.
While others see urban decay, they see hills, large trees, and houses that rival some of North Dallas' finer residences. Like a shadow monster that disappears with the flick of a light switch, Oak Cliff's dangerous reputation doesn't truck with reality, residents say.
"Oak Cliff's population has been evolving steadily since the 1950s," says Jan Fite Miller, co-owner of Judge Fite Realty, an agency that has been selling homes in the Oak Cliff area for 60 years. "It has embraced all cultures and all everything."
Mary O'Brien, co-owner of Dream Cafe, has lived in Oak Cliff for 12 years, yet her business had always been located north of the Trinity. When she and her brother Grady decided to open a second location, they looked hard for a suitable space in Oak Cliff. The opening of their new eatery on Zang fulfilled a dream--to establish a bakery alongside the restaurant.
Mary O'Brien isn't gay, but Oak Cliff's Dream Cafe is gay-friendly. She set up a special night to cater to gay couples, although the restaurant draws both gays and straights. There haven't been any clashes when the two groups come in contact, she says.
"A lot of people live next door to a gay couple and they get to know them and realize that they are just like you and I," she says. "The whole community has changed, and the acceptance is higher because of that."
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."
Gay migration usually bodes well for a neighborhood, says Randy Gross, senior associate for Hammer Siler George Associates, an economic development and consulting firm in Maryland. Gross recently conducted a study on the economic impact gay and lesbian people have had on the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He estimated that the gay and lesbian community had increased housing values by $100 million and had spent $2 million in nearby shops and restaurants. That spending, in turn, created 22 new retail service jobs. The new battle cry for gays and lesbians could be "We're here and we've got money," he says.
"The point is that the income is there and [the new businesses] are directly related to the demand for retail and services," Gross says. "Some can be specifically oriented for the gay community. Some of it can be just hardware and stuff. Homeowners have more money to spend on those sorts of things."
Six new businesses that are either wholly or partially gay-owned or gay-friendly do not make Oak Cliff a suburb of Oak Lawn, however. Business owners are quick to say that the last thing they want is for Oak Cliff to become Oak Lawn South.
"I think everyone shares the hope that this doesn't need to be Cedar Springs," Farmer says. "We want everyone to come down here, and no one to feel uncomfortable. The neighborhood is everything.