By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Oak Cliff wasn't getting its fair share," Stimson says, referring to basic city services. "There were more people involved in that effort, putting blood, sweat, and tears into it, than anything I've ever seen."
Stimson, who calls himself "Oak Cliffcentric," says the city's attitude toward Oak Cliff has improved because of the secession movement--even Mayor Ron Kirk has pledged to bring new business south of the Trinity. Of course, problems with streets and sanitation, building inspections, and code enforcement still rank as the area's biggest headaches.
The difference now is, everyone else in Dallas is making the same complaints.
A couple of roosters live in the Bishop Arts District, which lies behind the Oak Cliff Coffee House and consists of early-20th-century buildings. But roosters are the least of these shopkeepers' problems. They feel more threatened by the idea of a gentrified Oak Cliff, a homogenized neighborhood made of Gaps and Starbucks and Banana Republics--high-volume chain stores that would make it impossible for them to compete.
For almost three years, Michael Harrity has operated the Bishop Street Market, an upscale gift shop that sells candles, miniature water fountains, and furniture from the Far East. Harrity also shows the work of local artists, whose paintings and metal sculptures have enhanced the store's reputation even beyond Oak Cliff.
This Tuesday afternoon business is slow, and Harrity rests on a wooden bench that was made in Indonesia and has a "sold" tag dangling from its arm. A slow day a couple of years ago might have bothered him, but now Harrity is in the black; business is good.
"You have to risk everything you own," he says. "Perception is the No. 1 problem. If we can change the perception of Oak Cliff, the dollar will follow."
Harrity doesn't think roosters belong in the city, but the biggest problem he encounters is the prevailing belief that there are no retail stores south of the Trinity. He wants to see an increase in retail space, but fails to see the logic in Councilwoman Miller's love affair with chain stores. "It's tricky...There are people who think that quantity equals quality: If there are 500 Starbucks stores, it must be good," he says. "Why is she pushing so hard for a Starbucks rather than a Java Jones?"
Across the street, a massive cooler freshens a supply of roses, carnations, and other flowers on display inside Bishop Arts Floral. In the back office, Don Allen is passing the hours with a game of computer solitaire. Like Harrity, Allen and his partner Phillip Wheless put every dime they had into their store. And sales are ahead of what they projected when they opened just six months ago.
"I found the reception here in the [Bishop] Arts District much friendlier. It just seems like there's more of a neighborhood," says Allen, who previously worked at a flower shop in the Knox-Henderson area. "Barnes & Noble would be wonderful here, but I'd rather see more independent business come in than a chain store."
Allen is referring to Miller's abortive attempt last year to lure a Barnes & Noble southward. The bookstore's representatives informed her that she would first have to provide evidence that at least 30,000 of her constituents possess college degrees before they'd consider the venture. While this kind of corporate stereotyping (i.e., Cliffites are illiterate) is frustrating, Allen says the stereotypes of Oak Cliff among Cliff Dwellers themselves is maddening. "I have friends in Stevens Park who don't go south of Davis Street. The perception is that it's dangerous here."
Allen, who has no stake in the rooster squabble, believes the barnyard birds symbolize the gulf that divides Anglos and Hispanics. He says he loves Oak Cliff because of its diversity, which is why it is home to many gay and lesbian couples. Yet Allen reveals his own bias when expressing frustration with city inspectors, who he believes let Hispanic business owners skirt codes while cracking down on their white counterparts. Not speaking English or being unaware of local laws, he says, should not be an excuse for breaking the rules.
"Even in the gay and lesbian community, we've got people who are constantly crying victim," says Allen. "It's the same with Hispanics. But I don't care what your culture is, this is the United States of America, and there are codes you have to follow."
Around the corner at the beauty salon, owner Amanda Cross agrees that the city's code-enforcement department ranks at the top of Oak Cliff's problems. She, like Allen, believes inspectors apply a double standard when it comes to enforcement, but says it's the Hispanic merchants who are forced to close their doors. Cross, whose parents were born in Mexico, is a first-generation American, and she spends her time helping Hispanic merchants learn what they need to do to keep inspectors at bay.
"A lot of people aren't complying with the city ordinances, and the reason they're not is because they don't know how," Cross says. "In Mexico, when you open a business, you just open a business. You don't need a permit."
Cross points to recent efforts by the city to shut down taco vendors. Sure, they're not entirely up to code, but neither are most businesses in the area. "I think the Hispanic people have gotten more crap than any other race. A lot of these problems exist because of the language barrier, and a lot of the merchants are intimidated by the city."