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"As I've said to a lot of people, this has nothing to do with who you are or what you look like," Deep Ellum Association Executive Director Sean Wisdom says. "This has to do with whether or not you're an asshole."
There are plenty of those in Deep Ellum right now, and that's the biggest threat. The crime rate in the area is up, but the real danger is the crimes that aren't reported--the women being fondled as they try to leave clubs, the gangs of thugs who intimidate for sport. This kind of thing doesn't appear in any crime statistics, yet it's exactly what keeps customers away. And they are staying away. Even though there are more people in Deep Ellum than ever before, fewer of them actually make it into the bars and restaurants, preferring to parade up and down the streets, looking for love or trouble. After sitting on the sidelines and watching the problem fester, city government has finally gotten into the game, shutting down streets, scheduling meetings to focus on the area's problems. But it might be too late for meetings.
"Everyone needs to wake up and smell the roses and realize that if things continue the way that they are right now, there's a very good possibility that we won't be here in two or three years," Wisdom says. "I get businesses calling me on a weekly basis--of every type: restaurants, shops, everything you can imagine--saying, 'We don't know if we can make it anymore.'"
Before that, before there were any clubs or restaurants or bars to worry about, his father, Tom, owned Metro Construction on Main and Exposition from 1975 to 1985. Sean used to sweep floors there. "I can remember the day that [Club] Clearview opened," he says. "I was driving home going, 'What in the hell is all this about?'"
Since taking over at the Deep Ellum Association in March, he's been asking that question for a different reason. Wisdom didn't sign on for this, after all. The association wanted him for his marketing experience, a résumé that also includes shilling for a film company while he was in Soul Food Café.
Instead, he spends most days meeting with frustrated business owners who want to know what's being done to stop the cruising, to stop the fights, to stop the harassment. He tries to rustle up more cash to pay for additional security officers and extra overtime for Dallas police on weekends; so far, he's gotten $10,000 from the Deep Ellum Foundation, the nonprofit group that oversees the Deep Ellum public improvement district. He also talks to Lieutenant Vincent Golbeck, the DPD's main liaison to Deep Ellum, every day on the phone, and meets with him weekly. Since they've been working together, Wisdom and Golbeck have initiated Safe and Sound, a neighborhood watch program that relies on area doormen to keep one another, as well as the DPD and Texas Proforce, abreast of any potential problems via Nextel two-way radios.
"I've worked half of my day on this stuff," Wisdom says, "which is too much, because I'm actually getting paid to generate positive publicity, marketing and funds for the neighborhood."
Talking about the problems in Deep Ellum doesn't exactly fit that job description, and Wisdom admits that most people in his position wouldn't do it. Business is already bad enough--why publicize it? But there's nothing else he can do. Anyone who's been to Deep Ellum in the past few months knows what's going on. Wisdom can't hide the obvious.
"We're doing everything we can do to whip this thing," he says. "It's just out of our hands. I'm not a fucking expert." He lets out a short, exasperated laugh. "But I'm becoming one. I'm becoming the public safety ingress and egress and blah blah blah expert, and I don't have the credentials for that."
The problem is complicated and wide-ranging, but it begins with cruising. Cruising clogs the streets and packs the sidewalks, attracting those who only want to hang around and watch the shiny cars drive in circles. It's the gateway leading to more people and more crime. Wisdom and Golbeck believe reducing the number of cars going in circles is the antidote to the poison slowly killing Deep Ellum. "The loitering and the cruising are the container in which the majority of unlawful activity takes place," Wisdom says.
It's not a new idea. Deep Ellum has officially been a no-cruising zone since August 1998, thanks to an ordinance spearheaded by John Loza, Deep Ellum's representative on the city council. This means any vehicle in Deep Ellum that passes the designated traffic-control point three times within a two-hour period is subject to a citation.