You can go home again

Forget the big box in the 'burbs. Developer David Spence does urban apartments for yuppies -- without the razor wire.

Here are two thirtysomethings in blue jeans slouching on the porch of a century-old white-pillared house in North Oak Cliff, one of them eating a fajita burrito and the other with his hand in his back pocket saying "yup." Most of us would have trouble seeing them as significant blips on the radar screen of the city's future.

Harder still is picturing their environs as the shape of things to come. In the dominant vision of the future, everything is Starbucks, Harleys have replaced automobiles, babies are born with tattoos, and the city is seamlessly cool.

This street, Bishop Avenue in North Oak Cliff, where these two young men stand jawing on a great spring day, is down at the heels--not in a scary-cool Nike ad way but in a dowdy, fusty, square kind of way. Low-slung one-story '60s brick commercial buildings are next to turn-of-the-century frame mansions that have been cut up into rooms and apartments. The side streets are tidy but modest, occupied mainly by Mexican-American families slowly working their way up the socioeconomic ladder.

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John Anderson
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Dave Spence, who has invested sweat as well as money in Oak Cliff, checks a window at one of his properties on Bishop Avenue.
John Anderson
Dave Spence, who has invested sweat as well as money in Oak Cliff, checks a window at one of his properties on Bishop Avenue.

It's OK, but can this possibly be the future? Doesn't the future have to be hip?

If you listen to people of keen eye--people who have a financial stake in inner-city real estate and who try hard to see the future--these men, Trey Bartosh and David Spence, are, in fact, out there on the far frontier in a place so cool and sophisticated that it's actually beyond Starbucks.

Beyond Starbucks...it's a place many may be afraid to go.


Usually when people talk about the "back-to-the-city movement," a question goes delicately unasked and unanswered: Who left?

But we all know. Mainly it's white people. It's also middle-class black and Latino people, but white, black, or whatever, for the most part the people coming back are young suburbanites. Only they aren't really coming back, technically, because they were never here. For them, the city is scary Europe. One of the best things about it is that suburban parents are afraid to visit.

Bennett Miller, a pioneer loft developer in some of the city's grittiest domains, argues that a manageable amount of fear, largely imagined, may be part of the appeal. He calls it the "we-two-against-the-world" mindset, which exists, say, in the Cedars area south of downtown where Miller has done lofts or in the early days in Deep Ellum, when there was just enough bad stuff going on in the 'hood to allow middle-class people to use that word.

The other face of downtown's redevelopment, Miller suggests, is what has happened to McKinney Avenue and the part of Oak Lawn that now has a made-up name, "Uptown." In that area, developers such as Robert Shaw and Post Properties have imported what was originally a suburban idea called "New Urbanism," grafting it on to what used to be an old urban area.

New Urbanism, born of suburban raw land, involves make-believe town squares and the deliberate mixing of architectural periods. In Uptown, making room for New Urbanism has required pushing the existing old neighborhood down the block and out of view. The result, with cobbled streets, a pretend trolley system, and barely a patch left of what used to be there only 20 years ago, is what Miller calls the "Magic Kingdom" school of urban redevelopment.

It's not that Oak Lawn was a bastion of rare and valuable architecture, anyway, but there were old-fashioned "community service" business strips with shoe-repair places and dime stores--things that spoke of a past of some kind. Their total erasure isn't a moral wrong, according to Miller: It's just that the template is lost, so everything there now feels instantaneous and thin the way it does in the suburbs.

"It's Never-Never Land," he says. "What it says to people is, 'There is nothing here that's real.'"

A certain absence of reality may appeal to people coming back to the city from the suburbs, if they come back because they want Parisian-feeling streets and sidewalk cafés and people-watching and so on but find the real thing intimidating or just crappy-looking.

But if Miller is right that these have been the popular paradigms so far--us-against-the-world behind razor wire and Mickey's Main Street--what in the world are Spence and Bartosh doing over on Bishop Avenue in Oak Cliff, in an area that is neither of these? That, Miller says, is what makes them special.

Gerry Henigsman, executive vice president of the Greater Dallas Apartment Association and a former deputy city manager, also sees North Oak Cliff on his radar, also is aware of Spence and Bartosh, and, like Miller, thinks they are interesting.

"They are probably rather unique," Henigsman says, "as is the area where they are working.

Spence, founder of a company called Good Space, and Bartosh, a solo architect, have for several years been re-developing small turn-of-the-century to 1920s apartment buildings in North Oak Cliff, in an area where some of the city's very first apartments were built. A number of factors, one of the most important of which may have been neglect, have allowed the area to endure as what it was originally--mainly single-family houses with a few small apartment buildings sprinkled in between.

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