Deep Thinking

Plus:Screen Play

Deep Thinking
Deep Ellum goes on the offensive to lure back customers

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.

Deep Ellum business owners hope to reduce scenes like this.
Mark Graham
Deep Ellum business owners hope to reduce scenes like this.
Watching actors, including Garrett Hedlund (second from right) and Lucas Black (far right), fill their uniforms was intense for the real players of Friday Night Lights.
Watching actors, including Garrett Hedlund (second from right) and Lucas Black (far right), fill their uniforms was intense for the real players of Friday Night Lights.

"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."

They'll need more than bus tickets to get them out of this jam, because safety is merely part of the challenge. You can give away trust easily, but it's hard to buy it back. In the next few weeks, a new ad campaign will be unveiled, centered around the slogan "What is it about Deep Ellum that keeps you coming back for more?" By then, Lamonica hopes to have a full slate of events scheduled, including a Halloween street fair.

None of these things will really solve the problem. But they could eventually, if the Bar and Restaurant Association sticks with it and sticks together.

"The question you asked me before: When do you think people will start coming back, you know, in masses? I don't know," Lamonica says. "But I do know that they're going to be missing out. But we're gonna keep on hitting away. And even when we get it back to where it needs to be, that's when we really need to stay strong. Keep on coming together and meeting every two or three weeks...You can never let up. That's the key. It's hard to get to the top, and it's twice as hard to stay there." --Zac Crain

Screen Play

A long time ago, Mike Winchell, Don Billingsley and Jerrod McDougal lived for Friday nights. Everything they did during the week was about just getting to that moment when thousands would congregate at Ratliff Stadium in Odessa to watch those boys play football. So larger-than-life were the exploits of the Permian Panthers, and the hope placed upon them in 1988, when they were expected to waltz to the state high school title, that a man named H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger would write a book about them after having spent a year in Odessa living with the players and among the townsfolk who smothered them in adulation and expectation. That book was a 1990 best seller called Friday Night Lights, which outraged a city that peeked in the mirror and found the reflection unflattering. After 14 years of deals that never came to fruition, it has been turned into a movie featuring characters named Mike Winchell, Don Billingsley and Jerrod McDougal.

So on this Friday night in late September, these boys are playing football once more, only they're doing so on a movie screen, and actors fill their uniforms. The real Winchell and Billingsley and McDougal sit in a screening room at the Angelika Film Center in Mockingbird Station, watching director Peter Berg's adaptation of his second cousin's book. Winchell, the quiet QB who looks much as he did 16 years ago, is nervous, waiting to see how a stranger has depicted their young lives; Billingsley and McDougal share his unease.

"You're a little apprehensive," Winchell says, explaining how he felt before the lights went down. "You've seen the previews and the commercials on TV and heard stuff that's on the Internet. Then five minutes into it you're real apprehensive."

Early on, it was Winchell who became unnerved. As portrayed by Lucas Black, the quarterback is seen first in the film, going over the playbook with his mother, who's drilling and grilling him as bad as any coach. Billingsley grabs his old friend's arm and tells him to relax, that it's just a movie. Then a few minutes later, Billingsley appears on screen, played by Garrett Hedlund. The scene is a Permian practice, and young Don keeps dropping the ball. The actor playing his father, Charlie, country singer Tim McGraw, charges onto the field to scold Don. In the theater, it is Winchell's turn to remind his friend to calm down. The two men joke with each other that maybe they oughta just get up and run like hell out of the movie theater.

"But we weren't running anywhere," Winchell says later. "It's a great movie, but it's just unnerving when you see yourself up there and you know it's about you. There are a couple of things that are hard to watch."

"I actually really enjoyed the thing," says Billingsley, now a senior account representative for a major insurance company with an office in Irving. "It was cool to see your life played out up there in front of everybody. That's pretty cool for me. Now, it didn't make me look real bad. I could have looked a lot worse in that than I did. And there were several scenes in there that captured the camaraderie."

After the film, Bissinger introduces the men to the audience, which greets them with a warm shower of applause. After a Q&A, they will even ask them for their autographs. "It's so far on the other side of my normal life, it's not even funny," says Winchell, now a land surveyor in North Texas.

The men do not love the movie unconditionally. Later that night, at a hotel bar, Berg asks the men what they think of the film. Billingsley tells him that his father is not the violent, bullying drunk he's depicted as in the movie. He says his father never would have been allowed on the field during practice and that his old man never kicked out the windows of his car, as shown in the movie.

"In the movie I shouted at him a few times, and that would have never happened," Billingsley says later, laughing. "He's an intense, tough guy, and I knew when he meant business, but it wasn't like that. In dealing with the movie, though, that was the most intense thing, watching that on the screen and going, 'That's nothing like him.' But at the same time I'm trying to think about 'OK, this is based on a story. This is not the real thing. Every movie has to have an antagonist.'...But still, it doesn't sit real well."

Winchell likewise tells the filmmaker that he's not fond of the movie's suggestion that his mother "ain't right." She's simply a quiet woman who doesn't let others know how she's feeling or what she's thinking.

"If you're not in it, it's a great movie," Winchell says. "But when you're in it, there are a couple of hard things to look at, honestly. I feel bad for my mother, who's never uttered a word to any of these people, including Buzz. I think they make her character look likable, but they make some inferences to her mental state, and that was kinda rough." Billingsley has already sent out e-mails to friends and family to let them know what's truth and what's absolute fiction in the movie. He and Winchell have also warned their folks, who will likely not see the movie.

"Besides," Billingsley says, "Dad doesn't think Tim McGraw is pretty enough to play his part, anyway."

But both men, and two other former Permian players, like the movie enough to take part in its promotion: This week they will go to New York to tape a segment for Jane Pauley's show, then to Los Angeles and Odessa for the premieres.

"People are going to ask your side," Winchell says, "and you wanna be there to give it." --Robert Wilonsky

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