By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
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"And when Deep Ellum is no longer a place that's enjoyable to wander around," Paulos says, "it loses the sense of Deep Ellum as a venue itself, and there's where you lose the crowds that make it easy to be a thriving business."
But with few exceptions, every single one of the above-mentioned places has moved out of Deep Ellum or shuttered altogether. And the retail is disappearing too: Home Concepts is vacating its building on Main Street, following all the other home-furnishing stores that long ago disappeared.
But in the late 1980s and early '90s, Deep Ellum was a true neighborhood. Many of the club owners and musicians and visual artists lived there, and it became, as Clearview founder Jeff Swaney puts it, "a central gathering point for people to do their crazy stuff."
"There's a certain part of the chemistry down here that was organic, where you're like a chef and making this up," says Swaney, who still runs a real estate company, Delphi Group Inc., with several properties for sale and lease in Deep Ellum. Swaney's stayed in longer than most and can tell you precisely when the good times went rotten--and why.
He says the answer's obvious: "unscrupulous landlords" who started leasing to club owners who didn't fit into the neighborhood, who didn't come downtown with "a theme or concept or crowd or a direction." Far as Swaney's concerned, Deep Ellum went into the dumper when live-music venues began to give way to dance clubs, which began happening as early as 1992.
"What makes Deep Ellum cool is that it can be funky, edgy, cool, bohemian, bizarre, whatever word you can use," Swaney says. "But what ended up happening was they leased to people who drew clientele who were violent, aggressive, obnoxious. In the early days we had skinheads, and it scared the hell out of people. But we knew we could walk down the street, see five or six skinheads, and it was manageable. There weren't these tens of thousands of people who march from who knows where just to cause trouble."
Swaney actually blames a single person for the demise of Deep Ellum: Don Blanton, a former used-car salesman who in 1982 began buying investment property in Deep Ellum and eventually gobbled up a sizable amount of real estate on Commerce, Main and Elm streets. Used to be Blanton was adored: Without him giving Russell Hobbs and Jeff Liles free rent at Theatre Gallery in the early 1980s, there might be no Deep Ellum over which to squabble. But he's now such a divisive figure that even people who like him acknowledge that "everybody thinks Blanton is the biggest part of the problem," says Robert Merrill, whose family has been friends with Blanton for years.
Blanton gets a bad rap since he was among the first landlords to rent out his space to dance-club owners, whose patrons were branded as troublemakers as long ago as 1992. Back then, Blanton leased out a hip-hop dance club next to the old Galaxy Club on Main Street, and Swaney, Yarbrough and others recall the place bringing in folks who would harass customers leaving the upscale Art Bar late at night.
"It was so bad when we walked out of the doors toward Malcolm X, you would be accosted by these gangsters," Yarbrough recalls. "If you were a blond girl, they would pull your hair. Creepy stuff. Totally violent. It was so bad we went to Don and said, 'What are you doing?' He said they're paying rent like anyone else and this needs to be like Bourbon Street. And we said, 'We are not the same.' Then he said, 'Well, we need diversity,' and we said, 'But you're renting to people who act like criminals, thugs.'"
Eventually Yarbrough, Swaney and 2826 owner Michael Morris took over the lease and left the space empty. Better to pay a little than lose a lot of business, they figured.
"I don't pay any attention to Swaney," Blanton says, and at the moment, he doesn't really have to: Don Blanton's in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he has a boat and lives two weeks out of every month. While Deep Ellum crumbles, Blanton's off in Florida, buying more property and lying in the sand. Funny thing is, he doesn't disagree with those who say the dance clubs are killing the neighborhood. But as far as he's concerned, the problem's outside the joint not inside. It's the under-18 crowd hanging around that's responsible. After all, he's a businessman with taxes to pay and space to rent. What would Swaney have him do, he asks? Keep the places empty?