Up the Crick

To Deep Ellum's problems, add this: an underground raging river of poop

Springtime in Deep Ellum, on a Friday night in 1998. An otherwise average night except for the noise coming from the street--a heavy machine-operated clamor that pounds its way into the loft above the art deco store at 2825 Commerce St.

Justin Burgess is in that loft, waiting for sleep to come, too tired to drive home after a long day at Deco-Dence, the art deco home-design store he owns. So he'll spend the night in the office loft, which he leases. But now he rises from

his chair and looks out the window. Below him are employees of the city of Dallas. They've uncovered a sewer manhole on his side of Commerce and Malcolm X Boulevard. A hose has slid its way well beneath the street and is sucking vigorously at whatever it's found, with the help of a throbbing Roto-Rooter. Burgess heads downstairs.

The three planned Deep Ellum sewers will be installed in the road beds of Commerce, Main and Elm streets instead of in the alleys where the old sewers exist and leach into Mill Creek.
The three planned Deep Ellum sewers will be installed in the road beds of Commerce, Main and Elm streets instead of in the alleys where the old sewers exist and leach into Mill Creek.
Mark McCay's art deco store on Canton Street sits atop the contaminated storm drain that was once Mill Creek.
Mark Graham
Mark McCay's art deco store on Canton Street sits atop the contaminated storm drain that was once Mill Creek.

Burgess is a prim man, not prissy so much as he is precise. Studied. Tall and thin. But standing next to the guys from the city, Burgess is disgusted. Rising from the manhole, with excrement floating in it, is a greasy pool of water. The water's risen to nearly street level. The grease is glistening, and the smell--the smell is too much to bear. Burgess is told Deep Ellum's sewer lines have backed up once again.

"See that?" yells one guy from the city, pointing at the water and all it contains.

Burgess can only nod his head.

"You should never see this water," the guy yells, the Roto-Rooter loud as ever. The sewer lines are some six feet below ground. When you look into a manhole, the guy from the city says, "it should just be dark."

Springtime in Deep Ellum, on a Friday night in 2004.

Cantina Dallas is Santiago Pena's "baby." The restaurant on Main Street has been open for six weeks, and like any newborn, it needs nurturing. So Pena, the owner, has stayed late, so late it's now Saturday morning. Pena's grown used to this schedule.

His restaurant is connected to the sewer main at the back of the building, in an alley. It's 12:30 a.m. when Pena notices the greasy water--and more--that's made its way through floor drains everywhere: in his kitchen, in his bathroom, near the dining area, near the bar. He calls 311, the city's catch-all response unit. It takes an hour for a crew to arrive. The water and grease and excrement oozing from the drains is now several inches deep. The excess runs beneath the refrigerator and the ice machine. It seeps into the dining area. Chairs and tables will need repolishing; mats will need to be replaced.

The city crew is able, with some work, to unclog the drain. Pena is told the sewer pipes are old and small and broken in parts, and what happened tonight was the result of some restaurant on his line dumping its grease trap into the sewer. The line, such as it is, was unable to handle it all.

Another city crew is supposed to clean up the mess, but they arrive an hour after the first crew leaves armed with only three brooms and a bucket. They do little in the way of cleaning. By dawn, furious, Pena sends them home, buys his own chemicals and cleaning solvents at Home Depot and mops and cleans till nothing smells and no greasy film--or other stuff--remains on the floor or walls. He leaves Cantina Dallas at 10 a.m. This is the third time the sewer line has overflowed into Pena's restaurant since construction on the new building began in November 2001.

The sewer lines of Deep Ellum are in serious disrepair and are getting worse with each passing day, month, year. One day--some day soon, even--a backup could cause an entire sewer main to overflow, forcing raw sewage up through each floor drain of each restaurant and club, up through the manholes, out into the streets. "Oh, yeah. It could happen," says Steve Hardy, project manager for Dallas Water Utilities. Adds Mark McNabb, executive director of the Deep Ellum Association: "It could happen this weekend. That's a frightening prospect."

City officials and business and property owners in the area have been discussing their options for years. The problem is that the sewer lines are directly under the buildings of Deep Ellum, impossible to get to without boring a hole through a business or apartment floor or using other obtrusive and costly techniques. Late last year, the city awarded a contract to Dallas-based Barson Utilities to construct new sewer lines beneath the streets of Deep Ellum. The project will be done in two phases: The first phase will tear up Commerce and Main streets. The second phase will tear up Main and Elm. The estimated cost for the first phase is $841,522. No detailed estimate for the second phase has been provided since it's contingent on completion of the first one, the city says. Once the sewer lines are built, property owners must pay to connect to the new mains. And this connection will not come cheaply. Some businesses estimate it could cost as much as $100,000, enough to wipe them out.

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