The "g" word

An uneasy mix of stereotypes and commerce helps prompt Deep Ellum's cruising ban

Diaz is unafraid to use the "g" word when it applies. This isn't surprising, as he was involved in violent gang activity as a young Dallas man in the '70s, lost his brother in a drive-by shooting, and pulled his own son out of gang involvement. He speaks with candor about the violent stereotypes that hover around young Latino men.

"There's an old joke that says a car full of white kids is a club, but a car full of black or Hispanic kids is a gang," Diaz says with a laugh. "We don't like to admit it, but we're automatically intimidated when we see a group of young minorities together talking and dressing the same way. Even me. The other day I was at one of these multiplexes in Mesquite, and as I was opening my car door in the parking lot, a group of young white men walked by. Didn't think a thing about it. I realized later I would've been very intimidated if they'd been black or Hispanic."

Diaz, who worked for five years in gang intervention before becoming a LULAC president, agrees that as far as he knows, Deep Ellum sees a small amount of gang activity. But he also readily admits that gang-related crime is harder to track these days for a couple of reasons.

"Gang members got smart during the late '80s, when TV newscasts broadcast warnings to parents that said, 'If your child looks like this, he's in a gang,'" Diaz says. "Nowadays it's much harder to tell who's really in a gang, because everyone looks alike. The signals are a lot smaller, like certain tattooed symbols and 'throwing sign' (a system of hand signals, almost like American Sign Language, that gang members make to each other, often in hostile, 'fuck you' attitudes).

"And there are no more territories. When I was growing up in Dallas, there were whole sections of the city you didn't wander into. If you were from East Dallas, you didn't go into South Dallas. But these days, you have different gang members living on the same street. And they travel more into different areas."

An unknown minority of gang members are part of the larger flood of young Latino men who've begun to bring their car clubs, their girl-watching, and their laid-back, auto-to-auto socializing to Main Street in Deep Ellum. The perception problem--a combination of appearance, ethnicity, and some nasty traffic snarls, among which the "g" word fits somewhere--had already set a precedent across downtown in the early '90s, when the West End, facing similar street impediments from largely young, Hispanic male cruisers, instituted the city's first "no-cruising" zone.

Bethany Reed, who was president of the West End Association from 1990 to 1997, remembers working closely with Cotner to create a "partnership, a campaign with the city" that also included businesses cleaning up any weekend graffiti every Monday morning with paint and power hoses. She notes that this included a decision by the merchants of the West End Marketplace to ban backward baseball caps and bandannas. Working now for Collin County Community College, she had to "put her West End cap back on," and was afterward loath to use the words "gangs" and "the West End" in the same sentence.

"There was a period when young people frequented the West End Marketplace who dressed like that," she says. "At the time a teen club operated there for 14- to 18-year-olds, which was eventually shut down at great expense to the property owner, who had to buy back the lease."

And as far as the bandanna and ball-cap ban, she said, "They enforced it right down the line. I remember they had to ask a sewing group of older women who were wearing these little bandannas they'd made to please remove them."

Needless to say, you needn't be in a gang to trouble patrons and police: Hormonally charged post-adolescents loitering in a business district with no particular purpose are an invitation to higher rates of assault, robbery, vandalism, and drug use. And you needn't be Latino to find your idle hands suddenly preoccupied with nefarious projects in the devil's workshop, although LULAC's Diaz claims there's a distinctly angry undercurrent to the lollygagging in his community.

"This is true in the Latino community, and I've heard it's true in the black community: Men don't look at each other. Hispanic men don't make eye contact, because so many of us are walking around very angry."

As far as Deep Ellum goes, the Main Street barriers appear to have dramatically reduced Friday- and Saturday-night traffic in their first two weekends. Many of the young cruisers have already become frustrated with the rerouted traffic and moved on to other stomping grounds. What cruising impediments won't do is stop white anxiety when middle managers and executive secretaries from Plano and North Dallas come downtown for dinner, drinks, and live music and encounter backward-ball-cap-and-bandanna-wearing Hispanics who are down there simply to enjoy the same services. In a city where the Latino population is poised to overtake the Anglo population sometime early in the next century, that kind of tension shows no sign of shrinking.

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