By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
When he was a kid, Jim Gatewood loved it when his dad took him to work with him at the Mercantile Building. "It was always such an adventure going to downtown Dallas," Gatewood recalls. "I used to go up there and make airplanes and sail them out the window and watch them go for miles.
"The town was alive, and the streets were full," Gatewood says. "There was a Planter's peanut storefront down there. They were always roasting those peanuts down there, and it smelled so good on the street."
When he got older, Gatewood began to take note of the other forms of entertainment offered, particularly gambling and prostitution run out of glitzy downtown hotels. Gatewood's memories of these days are included in The Legend of Benny Binion, Dallas Gambler and Mob Boss, a book he published last year. It tells the story of how Benny Binion rose to the top of the city's gambling industry before he moved to Las Vegas and opened the infamous Horseshoe Casino.
People may not know it today, but back then Dallas was a destination. "It was Vegas before its time," Gatewood says. "Anything you wanted you could get in Dallas."
One businessman who survived is Ken Hughes, the mastermind behind the successful Mockingbird Station development, home of the Angelika movie theater. Seated in his Highland Park office, Hughes is joined by former Neiman Marcus executive Keith Nix, who currently represents the Downtown Partnership Inc., a group of private developers busy devising plans to bring downtown back to life.
Hughes is a member of Mayor Laura Miller's Inside the Loop Committee, which is now leading the charge to reinvent downtown. The irony is not lost on Hughes: A former developer for Trammell Crow, Hughes helped kill downtown by building high-end suburban shopping malls such as NorthPark.
Nix, who did his part by opening up Neiman Marcus branch stores in some of those malls, calls it an accident. "Highland Park Village was the first self-contained shopping center in the country. And so, strangely as it seems, we were innovative in that suburban mentality," Nix says. "We sort of shot ourselves in the foot."
Well, now they're back. In December, Nix's group announced that an Austin-based restaurant, the Iron Cactus, will open a new 14,000-square-foot restaurant on Main Street. Hughes, meanwhile, is hoping to build more downtown high-end residences or "house tops," as he calls them. All great cities--Paris, New York, Chicago--have vibrant neighborhoods, and if downtown Dallas wants to be great, Hughes says, it, too, must have a neighborhood. His will look like Georgetown.
"Unless I've missed the point here in 35 years of doing shopping-center development, I'd have to say that uniformly retail follows house tops," Hughes says. "Retailers will naturally converge downtown if there are people living down there."
The problem with Dallas, Hughes says, is it's "fractured." While there are "pockets of sophistication," in which shoppers can buy the best high-end goods in the world, there is no one place that makes Dallas a destination spot. That one place, Hughes says, should be downtown.
"All of the things that we say we're doing is acting like downtown is the place to be, but when somebody comes from out of town they go down there and say, "Well, what's the deal?'" Hughes says. "And so what do they have to do? They go get in the car and go shop in Highland Park or get in the car and go to NorthPark."
Brandt Wood couldn't agree more. At noon on a Friday, diners are beginning to filter into Jeroboam, an "urban brasserie" located inside the historic Kirby Building on Main Street. When Wood and his brother Brady opened the place in September 2000, it was the first time in years that anyone had risked opening a white-tablecloth restaurant downtown.
Wood, a transplant from New Orleans, is a fan of Hughes, but he thinks Dallas suffers from a major inferiority complex. Its boosters are constantly gazing into a mirror, hopelessly praying that the image of a New Yorker or a Parisian will stare back. It is time, Wood says, for Dallas to accept itself for what it is and has been.
"The downtown renaissance is rooted in a rich past that's hard to put your finger on because we're missing so much of it," Wood says. "Where's the true grit? Where can I look that shows me what Dallas is really made of? I'm not sure Dallas has ever really seen itself in the full light of day."
The Wood brothers are not waiting around for a park. A year after Jeroboam opened, they went across the street and opened a funky underground nightclub called Umlaut. Thanks to them, people can be spotted having fun at night on the streets of downtown Dallas. Still, Wood admits that the entertainment he serves up isn't cheap (Jeroboam's menu includes three types of caviar). Will the new downtown become a playground for the rich? Wood isn't sure, but he hopes not.