By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Ed Lamonica bounces in his seat as he talks, bobbing and weaving like a boxer, which is more or less the role he's taken on since signing on as president of the new Deep Ellum Bar and Restaurant Association. It's his job now to defend the neighborhood. Lamonica has already had plenty of sparring partners in his first few months on the job, including the Dallas Observer, which slammed the neighborhood over crime problems in Full Frontal on August 26.
He's in the middle of another round at the moment, sitting in a conference room at the Observer office, detailing Deep Ellum's plans to dig itself out of a deep hole; the ad campaign aimed at getting people to return to the neighborhood; the special events designed to keep them there; the security measures being implemented to help them feel safe.
"I'm shocked about how this neighborhood is coming together," Lamonica says. "I've got people coming up to my place that are on the Deep Ellum Bar and Restaurant Association going, 'We want to do something to help. What can we do?'"
As recently as six months ago, that wasn't the case. While crime (or, at the very least, the public perception of it) increased and competing nightspots such as Mockingbird Station and West Village siphoned off their customer base, Deep Ellum business owners didn't do enough to combat or compete.
They weren't just ignoring the problems; they were ignoring each other. In the past several years, the only time Lamonica and his fellow business owners were able to present a unified front was during the aftermath of 9-11, when they all came together to put on the Deep Relief benefit. When Sean Wisdom, executive director of the Deep Ellum Association, left late last year, the DEA "went dormant," new executive director Mark McNabb says, for five months. McNabb was hired in April, but it was too late to make much of a difference. "We basically had a repeat of last summer," McNabb says.
Last summer, if you remember, wasn't dying for a sequel. (See "Cruising for a Bruising," August 14, 2003.) There were too many bad actors looking for the closest stage. Not enough of them were going inside, checking out a band or grabbing a bite to eat.
Faced with the prospect of Cruel Summer Part II, in May TXON Realty's Don Blanton, one of the main property owners in the neighborhood, called together a meeting of the owners who leased their clubs from him. As word got out that security was going to be the main focus of the meeting, other owners showed up, too. The Deep Ellum Bar and Restaurant Association was born out of this ad hoc assembly.
According to numbers from the Dallas Police Department, crime is down by almost a third in Deep Ellum this year, but this summer brought more high-profile crimes. It came to a head when David Cuniff, a 44-year-old father of two, was left paralyzed after a fight at an Old 97's show at Gypsy Team Room. That the Gypsy Tea Room episode was an isolated event and not necessarily related to the other problems facing Deep Ellum didn't matter to the public.
Or Mayor Laura Miller. She has revived the idea she brought up last year around this time: shutting down all clubs at 2 a.m., including those that have late-night dance-hall permits that allow them to stay open until 4 a.m. Miller says she hopes the club owners will do this voluntarily.
"I've had a lot more positive feedback this go-around than last time," Miller says. "Last time they came, they said, 'What are you going to do about it?' So I did some things about it. I think they know I'm a supporter of the area and that I'll work to make the area safe. But I just think that they are part of the solution, too."
Even if the Bar and Restaurant Association and the revived Deep Ellum Association decide against the 2 a.m. shutdown, they've started to prove to Miller that they'll do what they can to fix the problem. Blanton and Don Cass, interim president of the DEA board, recently installed 1,000-watt lighting on the streets, timed to turn on as the clubs are closing. ("At 1:55, Deep Ellum is gonna look like daytime," Lamonica says.) Since most of the streets are closed on weekends, Lamonica is also providing laminated passes to bands and club personnel who need to park inside the police blockades. They've also bulked up the number of Texas ProForce private security officers to 14.
So far, their main success has been with getting homeless people out of the area. Lamonica says the number of panhandlers has dwindled to "maybe 10 or 15" thanks to signs posted in most of the bars and restaurants asking patrons to not give them anything. That said, the Bar and Restaurant Association is willing to give homeless people one thing: bus tickets.
"Jackson [Fulgham] and a couple of other guys that own buildings down there, we've been buying tickets: 'You're not happy here, you're living on the streets--where do you want to go?'" Lamonica says. "We sent two to L.A., bought 'em their bus tickets."