By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Twenty years ago it was hot, this collection of retrofitted and spit-polished early-20th-century warehouses. The neighborhood's edge was the sharpest in the city. Parking lots brimmed with the rides of the A-list. Bodies, money, sex and alcohol sluiced through the West End and its Dallas Alley "entertainment complex" of nightclubs. Limos sidled up to the mouth of the Alley, where curving arches, burning with multicolored neon, linked the West End MarketPlace with the old Coca-Cola building. In the late 1980s, Alley Cats, an Alley bar featuring dueling pianos, was said to be the highest-grossing nightclub per square foot in the nation.
"There was more to do down here than you could shake a stick at," said the late Dallas artist Ellwood Blackman. Blackman painted the people and buildings of the West End Historic District for roughly 20 years, since the time he was an art student (and later an instructor) at El Centro College. He remembered the days when the streets were so packed with people that any old hack with a saxophone or a guitar or even a pair of buckets upended for a beating could pull decent loot into the tip jar. "You didn't actually have to go anywhere to be entertained," he recalled. "They had entertainers in the street--jugglers, guys on unicycles, tumblers."
Blackman brushed and posted paintings on the red brick walls of the Spaghetti Warehouse, hawking them to passers-by. But his most ambitious work is inside: a 360-degree mural he painted on the interior of an old vault where cash was stored when the building was a pillow factory. Not much larger than a phone booth, the mural depicts a bustling West End street scene looking toward a steel and glass bank tower framed in glowing green argon tubing rising into the night sky.
But the crowds and the entertainers Blackman depicted long ago evaporated (Blackman died from a sudden illness on August 6 at the age of 44 as this story was being written). He rarely shared his stretch of Market Street with other entertainers or street vendors in recent years save for the rose pushers, who wheel their buckets of buds down the block in stripped-down shopping carts.
The West End isn't dead; that would be too dramatic. It isn't even in a coma. But it's not healthy. Its cluster of historic buildings and shrinking collection of retailers and mostly chain restaurants have been wheezing through a 10-year decline. The nearby American Airlines Center was supposed to trigger a resurgence, but so far the expected boost has proved elusive. Still, Greg Schooley, executive director of the West End Association, puts a good face on it. "It cushioned what would have been a loss," he insists. "It's what's kept everything going."
The West End is arthritic, but it can regain its stride. Some argue the process is well under way. The posh Victory project tethered to the American Airlines Center, with its planned W Hotel and upscale restaurants, is in the works. A 204-unit apartment complex opened at Ross and Lamar this past August with 104 units to follow across the street within two years. Residential development is crucial, Schooley insists, because it will smooth out the cyclical spikes and troughs the district suffers as a result of its dependence on tourists and conventioneers. Plus, an influx of residents will dilute the "tourist trap" stigma that some operators say drives locals away. Even the nightclubs have returned.
District boosters insist this is the shot the district needs to lift it from its stupor. And what a stupor it is. The West End MarketPlace, a "festival marketplace" mall that was once the crown jewel of this red brick complex, has two vacant floors. Its three anchors withered away in rapid succession. First to go was the West End 10 Cinema, which occupied the first four floors of the building, in 2000. Planet Hollywood slipped from view on September 11, 2001. Dallas Alley gave up the ghost the following year when Alley Cats and the club Oxygen ran out of gas. Only a few tiny spots in those cavities have been filled.
The West End began its transformation from blighted warehouse district to thriving amusement sector in 1972. It was then, before the area was designated a historic district, that Pier 1 Imports founder Robert Hawk converted the abandoned Pillowtex factory into Spaghetti Warehouse. "People thought I was crazy," Hawk says. "The only thing down there at night was wild dogs and rats." The threat of their return is closer than it has been in two decades.
Ceiling fans hum and squeak in the silent nightclubs of the Coca-Cola building. Bars sit idle and liquorless. Graffiti still tattoos the walls at Alley Cats, as do cartoonish felines. Fake foliage remains wired to sprinkler system pipes.
Across the way at Oxygen, the air is pungently musty. Old couches molder, and cages with red metal bars--presumably for dancers--sit idle in the corners like hardware in a circus junk heap. Paintings by Patrick Nagel, the late-1980s iconographer whose simple, art deco-stylized women graced the pages of Playboy and the cover of Duran Duran's Rio album, collect dust on the walls.