Out of the rubble

A new book on Deep Ellum's past strips away the dust of myth and history

It can be difficult to define precisely what Deep Ellum was. Visual representations of its earliest street life are scant, aside from this 1922 photo of streetcar track being laid on Elm Street, several photos of Jewish shopkeepers, and a couple of images of blacks walking along Central Track. Deep Ellum was not a neighborhood, strictly speaking. Few lived there, at least after the turn of the century. It was a business district--more accurately, the confluence of two business districts, one white (and mostly Jewish) and the other black. Put simply, Deep Ellum was a few blocks of New York City plunked down in Dallas.

Deep Ellum as it exists in 1998 is not even a ghost of the neighborhood that stood in its place 70 years ago. A shell, perhaps, but only that--a frame upon which the savvy hustlers of today have hung their neon banners hoping to attract the young, the monied, most often the white. Seventy years ago, Deep Ellum was a little bit of New York stuck in the middle of downtown Dallas--where white Jews opened their pawnshop doors to black customers, where black club owners and theater operators provided cheap and glorious entertainment for their brothers and sisters; where the city converged to eat, drink, sleep, party, carouse, and gamble from dusk till dawn. It was the center of the city, though it existed on the fringe--not quite downtown, not quite uptown, not quite anywhere.

Oh, there are vague similarities between then and now: Commerce, Elm, and Main streets still smell of food being prepared in restaurants, still echo with the sound of music being made in the myriad nightclubs, still teem with crowds that fill the streets at night looking for a fast good time. But just look at the photos scattered throughout Alan Govenar and Jay Brakefield's book Deep Ellum and Central Track (which appear here, along with corresponding condensed excerpts), pictures that reveal a world lost to history, ignorance, and bulldozers. Gaze upon the beautiful buildings, the hand-painted storefronts, the black and white faces commingling in shops and on street corners, the legendary and never-known musicians caressing their instruments, the shop owners offering their wares, the nightclubs bursting with elan. The pictures are black and white (in more ways than one), but the images explode with radiant color. You can almost hear the notes coming from the photo of sax player Buster Smith as he leads his band through a swing set in the 1940s; you can almost smell the pie served up in Issy Miller's cafe at Elm and Central Track (which eventually would give way to Central Expressway), way back in 1932.

That was what Govenar and Brakefield wanted their book, which will be published by the University of North Texas press in January, to accomplish--to revive a bit of mowed-down, paved-over history, and to set straight so many of the myths that exist about what used to be this city's most vibrant neighborhood. Govenar, a Yankee who has spent the past two decades preserving this city's lost history, recalls that when he moved to Dallas in 1980, he was shocked to find that the only information the Dallas Historical Society had on Deep Ellum was an excerpt from the WPA Dallas Guide and History, written in 1940 but unpublished until 1992. And even then, the chapter--titled "Deep Ellum: Harlem in Miniature"--managed to get a few things wrong, such as the boundaries that actually defined the neighborhood.

"That was all they had on Deep Ellum," Govenar says. "It was then I decided to do something about it."

Govenar and Brakefield, a longtime writer at The Dallas Morning News, met at the funeral of pianist Alex Moore, who died in 1989 on a city bus--alone, penniless, forgotten. Govenar had rediscovered Moore and brought him some national acclaim, but it wasn't enough to rescue the brilliant musician from the footnotes of history; it's his ghost that permeates the entire book in some ways, beyond the chapter dedicated to his life and death. Govenar had been asked to deliver a eulogy at Moore's funeral, which Brakefield was covering for the Morning News; the two men met and became friends, a bond strengthened when Brakefield did a story on the history of Deep Ellum for Black History Month a short time after that.

"I started checking around, and somewhat to my surprise, found out no one had really done a book on Deep Ellum," Brakefield says. "It had been touched on in a lot of other places, so Alan and I started talking about it in November 1991, and we started working on one." Govenar had long wanted to do a book on the neighborhood--at least since 1985, when he made the 12-minute film Deep Ellum Blues for the Dallas Museum of Art. Its accompanying soundtrack cassette featured many of the musicians who performed around town in the 1920s and '30s. But Govenar had always thought the project was an "insurmountable task for one person to do." They decided to collaborate, and began full-swing on the book in 1992.

That the book took so long to complete is not surprising; it's more astonishing that they finished it at all, given that so many of the musicians and store owners from that era had long since been buried, or possessed failing memories at best. "It was very hard to get a handle on something you knew you could never do completely," Govenar says. "When we started, we knew this book should have been done 20 years before we started doing this work."

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