The Living End

After two decades, the West End is a pale shadow of its former self. Will it rise again?

Much of the petty crime in the West End stemmed from cruising teenagers and young adults, says the West End's Schooley. "The problems that Deep Ellum and Lower Greenville are having, we actually went through about 10, 15 years ago," he says. "We worked that out of our area."

The "workout" was as innovative as the Dallas Alley arches. Property and business owners chipped in cash and bought the police a laptop computer. On weekends, patrolmen would post on key street corners and punch in the license plate numbers of passing cars. If the same tag number turned up multiple times within a narrow time space, the cops pulled the vehicle over and scrutinized the ride. "They all of a sudden didn't like it here anymore," Schooley says.

Carter says it was crime that drove a stake into the West End's heart. He dumped his interest in the district in 1997 after he and his partners invested more than $70 million to clear its cobwebs. In the late '80s and early '90s, he pressured the city to earmark $400,000 to beef up lighting around the district perimeter and enhance security. The city turned him down.

Died and gone to heaven: Live music returns to the sitting-room-only MarketPlace plaza.
Mark Graham
Died and gone to heaven: Live music returns to the sitting-room-only MarketPlace plaza.
Is the West End dying a slow death? It's on a roll, says Greg Schooley, director of the West End Association.
Mark Graham
Is the West End dying a slow death? It's on a roll, says Greg Schooley, director of the West End Association.

"Until people feel safe and secure, they're not going to go there. And the city of Dallas is so totally inept in everything they do," he frets. "I accomplished a tremendous feat that nobody in their right mind would have done. And then to see it destroyed through incompetence, it just makes me sick. That's why you will never see my name on another development in the city of Dallas, because I cannot deal with the bureaucratic bullshit down there."

Yet one pesky fact wags its finger in Carter's face: Crime is not a serious problem in the West End, though perception of it might be. According to police statistics, violent crime in the West End has been virtually nonexistent for at least two years through June 2004, while business and residential burglary has registered steep declines.

"Statistically, this is one of the safest entertainment districts in Dallas," says Rob Paynor, co-founder of the West End Comedy Theatre, which opened in the West End MarketPlace at the beginning of the year. "Of course, the reason it's so safe is that there's no one down here." And his assessment is borne out. Over the Fourth of July weekend, the West End was a ghost town: empty parking lots, desolate restaurants, vacant patio furniture--a game preserve for the fanny-pack set. During a show featuring the comedy troupe Voodoo Mechanic, the comedy club was barely a third full. But this doesn't bother Paynor and his partner Doug Ewalt. They were lured to the West End by the abundance of reasonably priced space and the belief the West End would claw its way back to glory. "Eventually, this is going to kick back out," Ewalt says.

There are no hard figures on the number of visitors filing through the West End each year, but Schooley estimates between 5 million and 7 million visit annually--the numbers that were reported in the 1980s. A ranking of the most popular Dallas-Fort attractions published last March by the Dallas Business Journal plugged the West End MarketPlace in eighth place with 3 million visitors, just behind Traders Village in Grand Prairie and the Dallas Public Library.

Yet Paynor believes the presence of tourists actually repels the locals. "Dallas is a city that really thrives on being on the edge and being trendy," he says. "Dallas felt that this was passé, that the West End was more of a tourist area, and for them being on the cutting edge they didn't want to be associated with a place that was so...mundane."

Scott Melton, who has struggled in the district with his restaurant Atomic Sushi for two years, agrees. Melton says he's frustrated with the unpredictable ebbs and flows of running a business in an area that is largely driven by the vagaries of tourists. "What's the reason for someone who's local to come down here?" he asks. "It gets crowded, but it gets crowded with the wrong element--certainly the wrong element for selling sushi...The vibe is always different, but it's so vanilla. It's like Six Flags."

The district's dependence on tourism is why it has suffered its deepest and most persistent slump since its birth. Convention Center construction dramatically stalled conventions and hence, West End vitality. "Then 9-11 just knocked the lights out," says Tom Persch, general manager of the West End MarketPlace. Persch subsequently shut down the top two levels of the MarketPlace, consolidating the remaining vendors in the lower three levels to make the building seem more vibrant.

But Robert Bagwell, who developed the MarketPlace and is now a partner in the West Village at McKinney and Lemmon avenues, says the district's problems go deeper than just the slumping convention and tourist business. He says the West End, specifically the MarketPlace, went from a destination venue with unique retailers to a cluster of mostly cheesy souvenir shops ringed by chain restaurants that people can find anywhere--a combination that mocks the distinctiveness of the architecture. "Putting in Planet Hollywood was fatal," he says. "It destroyed the whole ambience of the atrium...Just walk through it. It's lost its sparkle. When we had it, it was hot."

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