By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
If Oak Cliff were its own state, the rooster might be its state bird. That, or the finger, extended with pride and pointed north across the Trinity River, where like-minded creatures phone one another on Nokias as they tear across a concrete landscape in their Lexus RX 300s.
At least that's the vision of North Dallas being served up inside the Oak Cliff Coffee House, where, contrary to popular belief, cappuccino, latte, and other froufrou bean drinks are readily available to Oak Cliff residents--proles though they may be. The specialty there is the Race Horse, five shots of espresso in a 16-ounce cup.
The coffeehouse is situated between Amanda's beauty salon and a law office, at the intersection of Bishop and Davis streets in North Oak Cliff. Across the road, old men hawk Selena tapes and Tommy Hilfiger shirts in front of Bob's Market, which used to be a Piggly Wiggly back in the old days.
Inside the coffeehouse, psychedelic paintings hang on the walls--compelling evidence of the neighborhood's unpublicized reputation as a haven for artists. On this Tuesday afternoon, four regulars, including the owner, are bellied up to the coffee bar; their eyes are locked on a television that depicts the unimaginable: Pipe bombs are exploding while high school kids run for their lives in suburban Colorado. "And people think the inner city is dangerous," someone mumbles.
The irony of the live footage isn't lost on these Cliff Dwellers, who view the Denver disaster as proof that the mandatory orderliness of suburban living breeds neurosis. Which is why, of course, they choose to live in Oak Cliff, and which is also why they are strong defenders of the rooster--an old neighbor who, as far as they know, has never been the subject of much controversy.
All resident roosters, except those being held in scientific labs or in meat-packing plants, have until midnight on August 1, 1999, to get out of town under a new city ordinance created by Dallas City Councilwoman Laura Miller and approved by her colleagues late last month. These politicians determined that the rooster is a farm animal that doesn't belong in the city and that its constant crowing is a public nuisance. But the rooster is valued differently in many parts of Oak Cliff. To many Cliff Dwellers, the rooster is a proud symbol of their continuing resistance to the occupation of Oak Cliff by their neighbors to the north.
"What's she planning on doing with all these roosters anyway?" asks Morris, a permanent fixture at the coffee bar who is cracking wise about his 'hood.
"They're going to make some rooster concentration camps," says Adam, a chain-smoking Buddhist who works there.
Dalton, a local attorney, thinks the whole thing smacks of cultural elitism. "The problem," he says, "is the rooster is standing in front of houses that look like shit. You put that same rooster in front of a million-dollar house, and he looks great. Hell, I'd look great in front of a million-dollar house."
Dalton laughs at his joke, and in a second the whole place is howling. The laughter quickly subsides, though, as the image of a cock-free Oak Cliff forms in their minds.
Their reaction to the rooster ban, now being repeated by many in diners and over fences throughout Oak Cliff, goes something like this: confusion followed by sarcasm, which segues into oral pondering about whether the councilwoman hasn't anything better to do, and ends with a windy condemnation of City Hall employees who either meddle with Oak Cliff or ignore it altogether.
To the patrons of the coffeehouse, the rooster exile clearly constitutes meddling and spawns new fears that Oak Cliff is about to become another dangerously homogeneous area that's all too typical of Dallas' northern suburbs. What Cliffites love to crow about is their community's wacky diversity, a heritage of individuality stemming from its Utopian beginnings as a colony of socialists. Of course there are those who blame this same diversity for all the neighborhood's ills: crime, lax code enforcement, gross neglect by the city's business community and power structure.
But at least to this coffee crowd, Plano and other cookie-cutter 'burbs are considered a purgatory of tract mansions where paranoid gringos hole up behind locked gates while their kids pass the time snorting silver spoonfuls of chiva.
"None of our roosters," Morris notes, "have OD'd on heroin."
Controversy over the rooster is by no means a new phenomenon in Dallas, where some residents have complained for years that the fowl's incessant crowing keeps them awake and destroys their quality of life. The bird has survived previous calls for its banishment; it wasn't until Miller pushed the issue to the top of her political agenda that its urban fate was finally sealed.
Roosters live all over Dallas, but nowhere is their presence greater than in Oak Cliff, which is a large part of Miller's district. You don't have to travel far in Oak Cliff to find people who will be glad to see the rooster go, as Miller demonstrated to the council when she unveiled a five-minute video that documented the rooster dilemma. Financed by her campaign contributions, the media presentation cleverly featured a cultural cross-section of Oak Cliff--blacks, Anglos, and Hispanics--who confirmed what Miller had recently learned: that roosters do not crow just at sunup, but all day, which can be really annoying.
The visual tactic made sense coming from Miller, who could not speak from personal experience alone, as there aren't any roosters living within earshot of her affluent, mostly Anglo neighbors in Kessler Park. Miller says she discovered the extent of the rooster's presence in Oak Cliff only when she first ran for office a year ago. Back then, she ventured into territory occupied by her working-class, predominantly Hispanic neighbors.
"When I walked door-to-door, I was just shocked at the problem," Miller recalls. "I stood there and listened to the noise, and it was horrible."
Two roosters clawing themselves to death during a cockfight, an event that's known to happen in Oak Cliff, was not Miller's primary inspiration. Having little sympathy for the feathered fowl, Miller simply doesn't like the sound of crowing. "People should be able to have, at the very least, peace and quiet in their own home," she says. "I think roosters are expendable as pets. They can go to the farm."
Miller acknowledges that the roosters' total removal will be a challenge considering their population in Oak Cliff. "It's just everywhere in the district. We just scratched the surface."
Still, one person's noise is another person's music.
To many Cliff Dwellers, the rooster's throaty cry is a reminder that one never knows what each new day might bring. The creature's flashy plumage is a sight as familiar as the image of a 6-foot transvestite navigating a cracked Oak Cliff sidewalk in 3-inch heels. These Cliffites hail the rooster as a testament to the diversity that is Oak Cliff and see its banishment as notice that the world around them is changing beyond their control.
As a result, Oak Cliff residents are beginning to ask hard questions: What's to become of their neighborhood? What does City Hall have in store for them?
Councilwoman Miller has the answer: Frappuccino.
With roosters on the run, Miller resumed her quest to usher in a new era of Oak Cliff development, led by national chain stores and major corporations. Like Starbucks.
"Starbucks, that's all I think about," she says. "This is the year for Starbucks south of the river."
On May 11, Miller's dream came true: Starbucks announced it would be opening its first location in Oak Cliff in six to nine months.
Unbeknownst to Miller and Starbucks representatives, there is a strong belief among many Oak Cliff residents that Starbucks is a post-trendy trademark of corporate gentrification that, they fear, will bring about the end of life as they know it.
Many Cliff Dwellers worry that the sound of the rooster's silence will be replaced by the roar of leaf blowers wielded by North Dallas refugees who, 30 years after sailing across the Trinity on the White Flight Ferry, are now coming home to roost.
If the voices of change had entered certain areas of Oak Cliff and attempted to comprehend the culture, there might never have been a rooster ordinance, and the clarion call for a Starbucks might easily have been stilled.
On McAdams Street in central Oak Cliff, the eggs don't get any fresher. It's easy to hear the crow of roosters but hard to locate the proud birds. This task is best accomplished from the alley, which is overgrown with weeds.
Dogs, however, are easy to spot, yelping behind chain-link fences and turning the alley into a gallery of bared teeth. Vicky, a recently retired waitress who lives nearby, is now, as she looks a Doberman squarely in the eye, regretting her decision to help locate a few roosters. There was a rooster next door to her house a block away, she recalls, but its owners ate it. She's certain there are more around here somewhere, because she can hear them.
Gingerly, she approaches a fence that has been cleared of weeds, and there, in the opening, stand three roosters. Cocky, strutting, tough-tasting on anybody's menu, they act as if they still rule the roost, sadly ignorant of the law that will soon banish them from their home.
Until the rooster became a refugee, Vicky had never heard of Laura Miller. "I understand what she's doing," she says as she waves a Hispanic man over to the fence, "but she doesn't understand what she's doing."
The man's name is Ruben, and he speaks little English. According to his shirt, he works at Westway Ford. The smell of fresh-baked tortillas wafts out the back door of his small house. A wooden chicken coop filled with pampered hens lines the fence. A young girl, perhaps his daughter, skips to the fence to translate.
Anyone wondering how the rooster ordinance will affect the people of Oak Cliff need only spend time in Ruben's back yard, ground zero for the war on roosters. On August 1, Oak Cliff animal-control officers will begin to purge the neighborhood of roosters, following up on complaints they've already logged. Sgt. Paul Ellis of the Oak Cliff animal control shelter says his orders are to fine people who fail to comply, but his staff usually prefers to issue warnings first. Ellis anticipates that communication will be a barrier. Right now, he says, there are two or three officers who speak Spanish, and more are in training. The ability of officers to speak Spanish is key to enforcement.
But the way things sound on McAdams Street, this process won't be easy.
"They want my chickens?" Ruben asks, unaware that they're already an endangered species.
Vicky tries to explain the ordinance to the girl, who explains it to Ruben. He looks concerned. He says he hasn't done anything wrong, has broken no laws.
No, it's just a new rule, the girl explains. His visitors, she tells him, would like to know why he likes roosters, so they can tell the politicians.
"The people who don't like chickens are crazy," he says. Roosters may crow, but there are louder noises the city should deal with. "The people who drive in the street with music," he says, "and the dogs."
When asked why he has roosters, he seems baffled by the question. "You have chickens. They make eggs."
With that, Ruben walks over to his crooked hen houses and reaches inside one nest, removing two eggs. Compared with store-bought, his huevos taste better. "There is a difference," he says.
Which raises the question: Does one need a rooster to get good eggs--or, for that matter, any eggs at all? This is a subject of friendly debate between truckers Tommie and Charles, who are nursing a couple of coffees at the No.2 Pitt Grill on West Davis Street.
"You don't need a rooster for a hen to lay eggs," Tommie says.
Technically that's true, Charles says, but it's better to have a rooster. "A hen likes a rooster around. It's like all women," he says. "You might not like us, but you've got to have us around."
Roosters, after all, keep the population going, and without them all chickens would be doomed.
Sitting next to the jukebox, a large Hispanic man with two missing front teeth plays a video-poker game. After a while he takes a seat next to Bob, an elderly white guy dressed in a polyester polo shirt and beige slacks hiked high above his waist. Like nearly everyone else in here, they haven't heard about Miller's ordinance. Bob has heard the roosters near him go off at 4 a.m., so he supports the rooster ordinance. But mostly he supports Miller.
"I like Laura Miller. I worked on her campaign," he says. "She's always right to the point."
The toothless Latino disagrees. "Once we get rid of roosters, how long is it going to be before we get rid of dogs?" he says. "You get immune to them after a while. It's no different than living next to the airport, hearing those jets come in every 30 minutes. It seems to me they [the council members] have better things to do."
Roosters aside, the two regulars agree that there are more pressing matters in the neighborhood. Their discussion is evidence that Oak Cliff's experiment in tolerance factors in a certain amount of intolerance. Oak Cliff diversity doesn't necessarily mean that everyone is sitting around holding hands and singing "Ebony and Ivory." For some, it's more a matter of finding ways to live together without killing one another.
"I've got neighbors that wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning, and they start drinking beer and listening to that Mexican shit," the toothless guy says. "How do we expect these people to come to this country, and then we let them live like that?"
Bob says he'd move to North Dallas tomorrow if it weren't for his wife, an Oak Cliff native. She doesn't like to be around "outsiders." That isn't the case with Bob.
"Jefferson, it used to be its own thriving street, but every time a space opens they put a Mexican restaurant in it or some other degrading business. It's overcrowded with minorities," he says. "I'm not a prejudiced man, but the Spanish people are taking over. It used to be the blacks, now it's the Spanish."
At the other end of the counter, Tommie and Charles shake their heads at the comments drifting their way.
"Twenty years ago, Oak Cliff was considered to be one of the better neighborhoods in Dallas. You want to know why it's gone downhill?" Tommie asks. "Money and the city of Dallas itself has disassociated Oak Cliff from most of its planning. A lot of people view things in Oak Cliff this way: If you beat your head on the wall long enough, the wall will fall on you."
Things are better than they were, says former city Councilman Bob Stimson, Miller's predecessor at City Hall. By the time he took office in 1993, activist Cliffites had spent three years drafting action plans for ways to improve basic services in Oak Cliff. Their effort was part of a movement in which area residents, tired of being ignored by the city, gave officials an ultimatum: Spend more tax money in Oak Cliff or we'll secede from Dallas. The secession movement captured national headlines and, at its peak in 1990, caused some 2,000 irate residents to boo former Mayor Annette Strauss during a public meeting.
Their fury had been fueled when secessionists took a look at the city's financial records and discovered that since 1962, Oak Cliff had received only 20 percent of the city's bond projects, a statistic that bolstered arguments that Oak Cliff taxpayers were disproportionately footing the bill for the construction of North Dallas.
"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."
Not surprisingly, Cross, who has a stake in the Oak Cliff Coffee House, isn't thrilled about Starbucks opening in the neighborhood--not to mention other chain stores that might want to make the move.
"Here in Oak Cliff, a Starbucks? Pleeease." She claims that 85 percent of the consumers in Oak Cliff are Hispanic. "They have money to spend, but they want to go into a place they feel comfortable in. They don't want to go into a place where the people are going to look at them like they're going to rob and steal. If Laura wants to open a Starbucks, she needs to go up north."
Death hangs in the air outside the TeePee Club in the heart of Oak Cliff this Wednesday evening. And not because of the impending rooster genocide. Several days ago, on an early Sunday morning, the red and blue glow of emergency lights bounced off the black asphalt while paramedics dragged five people and one corpse out of the R&R Sports Bar, which shares the TeePee parking lot. Some guy who had been tossed from the R&R decided he'd been disrespected and came back at closing time with an assault rifle. One of his bullets caught a patron in the back of the head.
Darlene, a bartender at the TeePee Club, still thinks about the murder, planting her elbow on the bar next to a bumper sticker that advises patrons to fight crime by shooting back. But the nearby tragedy is not what's got her down tonight.
Lately folks have been hearing rumors that Eckerd is going to buy the whole block and level it to make way for a new, jumbo-size store to replace the old one across the street, next to Jerry's Supermarket.
An Eckerd spokesperson says it's too soon for the drug chain to discuss its plans. But Norman Hogue, a family-law attorney, says Eckerd is in the process of purchasing the two-story, wood-framed building behind the TeePee Club, which he co-owns and which has served as his law office for the last 20 years.
"They came to us with an offer, and we unanimously said no. They came back with another offer, and I said, 'Where do I sign?'" He claims he and his partners are getting more than the building is worth, but figures it's time to sell--he just retired, but keeps going to the office every day. "Things change," he reminds himself.
Hogue doesn't keep up with politics and hasn't heard anything about a plan to ban roosters from Dallas.
"I have no problem with roosters. They wouldn't bother me one way or the other. What makes me mad is every time something happens, they say the perpetrator is from Oak Cliff. I don't think that's fair. There's crime in North Dallas too. There's crime all over. There's even crime in Colorado."
Soon Hogue won't be coming around here anymore. The barber next door is already gone, according to the orange sign he taped to the door to inform customers that he lost his lease and moved. Closed, too, will be the auto shop across the lot, where a handmade poster hung above a grease-stained sink announces that "Jesus is Coming."
Darlene doesn't know whether the TeePee Club will re-open somewhere else. She also has no idea that roosters are now deemed a threat to the public order. Neither did Robert, a regular, who unlike everyone else in the TeePee Club has heard of Laura Miller. "Laura Miller's my girl," he shouts, punching the air with his clenched fist. "She's giving them blacks and Hispanics hell."
Robert hunkers down in a cracking red vinyl booth and strikes up a conversation with a Budweiser. Jay, also a regular, doesn't pay him any attention; his nonchalance about Robert's comments illustrate how some folks tolerate prejudice in Oak Cliff: They ignore it. Dallas-born and Hispanic, Jay can't imagine why anyone would dislike a rooster. "Not everybody has alarm clocks," he cracks.
Like Darlene, Jay mourns the imminent destruction of his watering hole and is leery of certain elements moving into the neighborhood. "Starbucks? That's not Oak Cliff at all," he says. "Starbucks is trendy. Oak Cliff life is to sit back and watch things go by."
Jay says he doesn't keep up with local politics because local politicians never seem to keep up with him. "The city council is trying to make Oak Cliff pro-business, and that's not right at all. They're talking about businesses coming through here and destroying the lifestyle. They're going to do some damage."
Jay downs one beer and begins to empty another, deciding to do some damage of his own.
Back at the Oak Cliff Coffee House, the reality of the rooster ordinance is beginning to sink in.
"We ought to declare war on Dallas," says Adam the Buddhist, who curses this vision of an Oak Cliff culturally cleansed of its male chickens. His words recall that rebellious spirit that caused Cliffites to threaten Dallas with secession a decade ago. "It's that Americanization mind-set," he clucks, "to go in and make everything look the same."
"That's exactly right," Kenneth Cross, the owner, chimes in. He winces at any talk of roosters, not to mention Starbucks, whose upcoming entry into the neighborhood just might put him out of business. Ever since Miller decided Starbucks was good for Oak Cliff, Cross says, he's tried to get her to taste his coffee. He's waved at her as she's driven past in her Mercedes-Benz. He's called her office, left messages, pleaded to get her attention.
"I've even left a bag of Oak Cliff coffee on her steps," he says. "I hope it was the right house." Anyway, he says, the point is, Oak Cliff already has independently owned businesses that give the place a neighborly feel that chain stores just can't deliver.
Indeed, trying to get representatives of the Seattle-based coffee giant to discuss why they've chosen to venture into the Cliff--a move that follows store openings in Harlem, Kuwait, and even Beijing--can mean battling a corporate bureaucracy staffed by a small army of PR people. After one spokesperson recently revealed to the Dallas Observer that the company planned to open an Oak Cliff store within the next nine months, another spokesperson followed up, worried that the first spokesperson had said too much. Days later, the company announced its plans to open the store in a Dallas Morning News article.
At the Oak Cliff Coffee House, Cross points to the kind of marketing glitches you're going to find at his place. It's the chalkboard he's just hung to advertise the coffee flavors of the day.
"Look. This sign is crooked, and we're going to leave it that way. That wouldn't happen at Starbucks."
Adam recalls that his dad used to say that Oak Cliff is like a beautiful woman who has never looked in the mirror.
Dalton the attorney comments that if Oak Cliff is laid-back, North Dallas is paranoid. "I have friends who come down here from North Dallas, and they're just petrified. They think they're going to get shot and raped," he says. "I got robbed four times in North Dallas. I figured when I came down here, my God, I'm going to be robbed every day. Hell, I've never had a problem."
But the area's perceived image as a shooting gallery isn't stopping new businesses from moving in. A few blocks west on Hampton, the walls of a new Albertson's store are going up a stone's throw from the brand-new Tom Thumb and another new Eckerd store that's already open for business, 24 hours a day. Across the street, construction crews put the finishing touches on a Hollywood Video store that will finally give the nearby Blockbuster some competition.
As these anchor businesses spread their wings in Oak Cliff, they are building a commercial nest to which upscale stores like Starbucks will soon flock. It isn't hard to imagine that the old places and their loyal customers who live in the heart of Oak Cliff will be a thing of the past.
With Mayor Kirk committed to bringing new business into the "southern sector," and with Councilwoman Miller committed to making them trendy, and with millions from bond projects like the Trinity River renewing Oak Cliff's long-neglected infrastucture, the old 'hood may never be the same--whether its residents like it or not.
Yes, there's a new day dawning in Oak Cliff. But the rooster won't be there to greet it.