By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
At precisely 2:38 p.m. on December 28, U.S. District Judge Harlin DeWayne Hale officially pronounced Trees dead. With a few dry, muttered words offered after a few moments of silent deliberation, Hale informed the attorney representing the owners of the venerable live-music venue in Deep Ellum that they were to turn over the keys to landlord Morton Rachofsky no later than 3 p.m. on January 2. It was, to put it mildly, an anti-climactic demise for Trees. The place had survived hundreds of rock bands that tried to reduce it to splinters--there was the night Nirvana stopped playing and nearly caused a riot, the night Marilyn Manson chucked a live chicken into the crowd and on and on--yet its eventual demise was delivered by a middle-aged man in a black robe who does his business surrounded by pale blue walls illuminated by fluorescent lights. After 15 years on Elm Street, Trees got the axe.
In truth, it came as a surprise to no one. The owners--among them Whit Meyers and brothers Brandt and Brady Wood, collectively known as the Entertainment Collaborative--had been leasing the club from Rachofsky on a month-to-month basis since November 2004. In October 2005, the Entertainment Collaborative, which also owns the Deep Ellum restaurant the Green Room, downtown eatery Jeroboam and Deep Ellum club Gypsy Tea Room, filed for bankruptcy, its collective receipts having dwindled to a fraction of what they had been three years earlier, when the annual gross totaled well above $2 million.
But business had been bad for a long time, and many people will offer many reasons why. Jeroboam, once a bright star in Dallas' glitzy dining galaxy, had turned into a black hole, especially after September 11, 2001, when business travelers and conventioneers stopped coming to town. Umlaut, EC's downtown club on Main Street, just across from Jeroboam, went from hot spot to not spot within a year of its 2002 opening. The Green Room lost its longtime star chef, Marc Cassel, to Hotel ZaZa in March 2005. Trees' heyday had faded to dim twilight with the demise of a vibrant local music scene once populated by critical darlings with major-label deals.
And then there had been the severe beating of David Cunniff at the Gypsy Tea Room on July 25, 2004, during an Old 97's concert--the last place anyone ever expected any violence. Even back then, those who had been part of the downtown scene for years predicted that when skinhead Jesse Chaddock savaged Cunniff, he crippled a business too.
It was just a matter of time before one of EC's properties would disappear. The EC owes some $18,000 to the Texas comptroller. All of its ventures have been for sale since the bankruptcy filing in October; there were, however, no takers. Trees was the first to go, says EC's bankruptcy attorney John Leslie, because it "was the least viable" of the EC's entities and because "the lack of interest on the part of any buyers was a concern." No one would dispute the fact that Trees was no longer a destination. Toward the end, the bands that used to draw lines that snaked out the door couldn't even pack the bathroom. On New Year's Eve, says Whit Meyers, Pimpadelic brought in maybe200 people. If that.
"People love the place," Meyers says. "They have great memories of Deep Ellum from when they were 25, 30 years old or whatever. But it's like Yogi Berra said: 'People don't go there anymore, it's too crowded.' The whole idea it's vacant and dangerous and everything's closed has become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
So perhaps the closing of Trees last week was inevitable, a clearing of the books so that the Entertainment Collaborative could exist a little while longer, at least until someone comes along with pockets deep enough to pull the thing out of the ditch. Its closing caught no one off guard, save for those former Deep Ellum regulars who long ago abandoned that part of town for the safer, cleaner climes of...well, just about anywhere else than Deep Ellum, which has garnered a bad reputation in recent years as a violent neighborhood where cars are broken into, girls are groped and guys will occasionally get shot to death.
Had only Trees closed its doors in the final weeks of 2005, perhaps there would have been a tiny funeral and a brief period of mourning before folks got back to business. But four days before Christmas, Club Dada, which sits just across Elm Street from Trees, also went dark because its owner, Steven Shin, owes a lot of people a lot of money. To landlord Don Cass, he owes some $41,000 in back rent, according to people familiar with Shin's lease. And to the state comptroller, he owes almost $18,000 in mixed beverage taxes and another $816 in sales tax. His liquor license has also been suspended. Longtime employees and bands scheduled to play Dada had no idea the club had shut down till they arrived to find the place papered with seizure notices from the state.
Until just last week, Shin offered no public comments about Dada's closing; he disappeared and was unreachable. Those who did bump into him on the street say Shin, who bought the club two years ago from founders Doak Boettiger and David Borders, kept insisting he was going to reopen the club "within days," a refrain repeated on Dada's MySpace Web page last week, where the following appeared:
"Yup. We owe taxes and rent, and various other bills. Yup, Comptroller's Office seized us at Christmas time. That made for a very merry day let us tell you. For the record We do understand that's their job and we hope they understand why they didn't receive a fruitcake from us this year. Club Dada has been a passion for us, one that has drained the Family coffers and been a constant source of worry and wonder. Dada is a Mom and Pop biz. There are no outside shareholders Lawyers and accountants, just one family and our small staff At Dada. Deep Ellum is a challenging place for any business These days and ours has been exceedingly challenged. On not responding to inquiries from the Observer...Shucks, didn't know what to say folks. Trying to regroup here people, trying to find a turnip to squeeze. The Grinch stole our Christmas tree, our roast beast, and then the dog died. We loved that dog. Bear with us if you will--We are trying to find a way to get those doors back open."
And just like that, two of Deep Ellum's oldest and best clubs were gone.
Perhaps there's nothing more to it than bad business decisions: Trees failed because somethinghad to give in the Entertainment Collaborative empire, and Dada shuttered because its owner, from some accounts, didn't know how to run a bar and treated bands poorly. But when a neighborhood loses its heart (Trees) and its soul (Club Dada) in a matter of days, perhaps there's something else at work. Perhaps, after all these years of people prophesying the end of Deep Ellum, it really is dying--or, at the very least, in a coma from which it may not awake.
"You just don't have quality anymore," says Barry Annino, a longtime property owner in Deep Ellum who once more is serving as the president of the Deep Ellum Association. "When the money went away, the quality went down, so you have landlords that are old and care about getting that money and will put anybody in their buildings. The meters, the ticket maids, the awning fees, there are no sidewalk cafés, the infrastructure's beat up. Over time it's become a tired neighborhood. I love Dada, too, but it was tired. It's 20 years old. How many of those guys are around? There's nobody coming in."
Instead, everybody's getting out.
"Frankly," says longtime property owner Lou Reese, "I think it is as bad as everyone says, and I think it's probably going to get worse before it gets better."
If you spend a few minutes talking to others who have a vested interest in the neighborhood--be it a landlord or restaurant owner or club booking agent--they will offer a dozen reasons why Deep Ellum isn't the thriving entertainment district it was a decade ago. They'll claim everyone's moved back to Greenville Avenue--where such venues as the Barley House, the Granada Theater and the Cavern are doing bang-up biz with the old Deep Ellum crowd--or Knox-Henderson and the South Side, the latter being the home of Gilley's and Poor David's Pub and the recently transplanted jazz club Brooklyn, and even the West End, where House of Blues wants to open one of its glitzy roadhouses within the next 12 to 16 months. They'll damn the landlords for their "lack of vision," for bringing in dance clubs and bars that cater to "criminals and thugs," in the words of one former club owner, as opposed to the musicians and artists who populated Deep Ellum during the 1980s and early '90s. They'll blame everything on September 11, 2001, when terrorists took down the U.S. economy with the World Trade Center. Or they'll just insist that the good ol' days are gone and beg you to get over it.
But almost all will point to the oft-reported violence bred by Deep Ellum dance clubs that cater to an under-21 crowd more interested in hanging out than eating out. At the end of November, 18-year-old Sujha Seng allegedly gunned down 20-year-old Jeffrey Nelson at 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday, after what police say was an argument between the two men at Club Hush on Main Street. Something like that kills business too: Whit Meyers says the Green Room lost two Christmas parties because of the shooting.
"The seed got planted, and nobody pruned it, and it just grew," Meyers says. "It became kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that you would have these incidents that were perceived as gang-related, and then you had some of the landlords rent to people who tend to cater to the type of people that attract gang activity outside those venues, and it snowballs...As a business owner, there has to be a balance there, and the whole thing tilted, and nobody's been able to bring the equilibrium back."
Deep Ellum long ago became "a city within a city," as predicted in the Deep Ellum Conceptual Plan presented to the city council in 1984, just as clubs such as Theatre Gallery and Prophet Bar were opening, and the neighborhood was waking from its slumber as a vacant collection of empty warehouses and dying businesses left over from decades past. As such, it's rife with the familiar, wearying gripes of any small town full of factions that want this while their competitors want that instead. There are plenty of people wanting to blame something, or someone, for Deep Ellum's demise, and there are plenty of folks to blame. One thing no one will dispute: Deep Ellum ain't what it used to be and won't be till someone steps in to fix what's become an unholy mess.
"If this is just a cycle Deep Ellum's going through, it's a really long cycle," says Sam Paulos, one of the owners of the Curtain Club and Club Clearview, the latter of which Paulos and his partners purchased from former co-owner Jeffrey Yarbrough three years ago. "It's a long enough cycle that I don't know where Deep Ellum will be in the next three, four years. Eight, 10 years ago I could say if it had a few down years it will bounce back, and I can't say that anymore. And on the heels of Dada and Trees going away, I can't say whether there will be any entertainment business or whether it will be restaurants and retail with no more live music. It's a viable area that is right next to downtown and has a long history and will do something, but that something could be so different from what it is right now it won't be recognizable as the same thing."
Curtain Club, which celebrates its eighth anniversary this weekend, is doing terrific business, say Paulos and his partner Doug Simmons. Both men have been in the area for years--Paulos, as owner of Crystal Clear Sound, which has been distributing CDs for local bands ever since the Dixie Chicks were hatchlings; Simmons, as a band manager and booking agent since the late 1980s. The Curtain Club, like the EC, also filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2004, the result of a lawsuit brought by the parents of a Fort Worth woman who died in a car wreck on Interstate 30 after a night spent drinking at Curtain and the Village Station. The suit's been settled for an undisclosed amount, the bankruptcy has been terminated, and Simmons says Curtain's "on cruise control," as healthy as ever as a live-music venue despite Deep Ellum's tarnished rep.
But Clearview, opened by Jeff Swaney in 1985 in an old louver factory on Elm Street, is on shaky ground that threatens to swallow whole the complex of four clubs under one roof: the live-music room and three dance clubs, including Art Bar and Blind Lemon. Last week, Clearview's owners fired a bartender and are looking into selling off the place room by room--especially the Blind Lemon, a once-popular eatery that's now a barren room where you can go to dance with yourself. "At Clearview," Simmons says, "we're just beating our heads against the wall."
Curtain Club's owners bought Clearview three years ago for two reasons: They thought the place could actually make money if they slashed the exorbitant expenses, which included an out-of-control payroll and "huge" radio ad budget, and they simply didn't want to see the club close.
"It was such a staple of the neighborhood," Simmons says. "Three years ago, it was bad too...But we thought we could cut the budget way down and be OK, if we could maintain the same level of productivity. But we're lucky if there are five people in the Art Bar and Blind Lemon every night. The only thing keeping that place open is the live-music room, and even there that crowd isn't as big as we'd like it to be."
Curtain and its adjoining club Liquid Lounge are doing well, Paulos and Simmons say, because the complex is a destination place--a joint that offers only live music, which makes it something of a throwback in the neighborhood. The bands might not draw like they used to back when the Toadies guaranteed at least a few hundred on a weeknight, but a couple hundred's better than a couple. And most people who go to the Curtain stay there, Simmons says, which means they'll drink a little more and spend a little more.
"With Deep Ellum being the way it is, they're staying put," he says. "They don't leave and wander around."
"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?
"As long as I've been down there, there are thousands of opinions, and I don't need to listen to them all," Blanton says. "I am a businessman, and I buy those buildings and rehab them and turn them into restaurants and clubs. I office there, have a dozen residential properties. People can say whatever they want...[The 18-and-up dance clubs] probably haven't helped anything. Unfortunately, the clubs have to cater to what they can cater to, and if it's under-18, they don't have a choice."
Fact is, if Blanton is to blame, he's not the only one. He's not the only landlord leasing to the problematic clubs, which include such venues as Club Hush and Uropa Club and, to a lesser extent, Club Envy, Level II and Nairobi Room. Robert Merrill, in fact, is the owner of the building that houses Hush, in which the argument began in November that led to the shooting of Jeffrey Nelson. He says he's spoken to the owners twice about their clientele and asked the owners to raise the age of admittance from 18 to 21. He insists the problem isn't with the ownership, though, but with the outside promoters they've hired to attract patrons. Whatever the issue, he knows the place isn't popular with longtime Deep Ellum residents, who more than once have begged him to break the lease with Hush.
"My hands are tied," says Merrill, whose family has owned the building at 2642 Main Street since 1939. "What do I do? I don't like the clientele. I won't even go over myself. Somebody e-mailed me and wanted me to break their lease, and I said, 'How do I do that without getting into trouble, and I will consider it.' They have a five-year lease, and they're just a year into it."
Maybe it won't be an issue should Barry Annino and the Deep Ellum Association get their way: They have before the City Plan Commission a proposal that would force every single club operator in Deep Ellum to get a specific use permit (SUP), which demands that a business be "compatible with adjacent property and consistent with the character of the neighborhood." And they're tough to get: Every year, city council has to approve an applicant's SUP, and a club such as Hush, linked to at least one violent crime in 2005, would likely get its application denied, according to Annino.
"Everybody else in town has SUPs for these things," he says. "We don't. Lower Greenville, Uptown, they all have them. So, basically, we get everything nobody else wants. They come right in here and talk to one of these owners who doesn't care and put their stuff in. Now, a lot of these guys who own the clubs are nice guys, but the mentality is not neighborhood-friendly. If you have four, five dance clubs serving 18 and up, you're going to have problems. And if you have residential in your neighborhood, it's gonna be bad. The live-music venues are not really causing any problems...but the dance clubs are bringing the place down."
The police who patrol Deep Ellum feel exactly the same way; one sergeant who patrols downtown at night says that had Nairobi and Hush closed down instead of Dada and Trees, "we'd have a party." Fact is, he says, "the city has let [Trees and Dada] down because they haven't done anything. The city hadn't met their needs."
The clubs are a problem "because they attract thugs who don't spend money," says this officer. "Maybe they will pay the cover charge, but most of them don't even have enough money to pay the five dollars to park. They're walking into Deep Ellum at midnight looking for trouble. If you knew how many guns we took off people, it's happening way too often."
Ask Blanton. The week before Christmas, he sent out a widely circulated e-mail complaining about two bullet holes in his garage door at his residence at 2622 Main Street. He swears this isn't the reason he's put his home on the market for $2 million.
"We've been here before, so I know what's going down," he says. "This is the time to buy, when everyone is crying and wringing their hands. This trough doesn't bother me. We're going to come back."
Maybe so, but there are folks who'd just as soon Blanton go away--and not because he's bringing in bad business, but because he's standing in the way of what could be real progress. In July, the council gave the OK to turn Deep Ellum into a tax increment financing district (TIF), which means that investors who sink money into the area and make substantial improvements to the infrastructure would get some of their tax money back--a rebate, if you will, for making something out of nothing.
At the moment, though, much of that investment looks like it will take place on the outskirts of Deep Ellum in the form of new residential construction, with perhaps some retail as well. But the core of Deep Ellum--the buildings lining Commerce, Elm and Main--were not included in the TIF, partially because Blanton and some other landlords are suing the city over the replacement of old sewage lines beneath their property (see "Up the Creek," by Paul Kix, June 24, 2004).
"What really hurt Deep Ellum was the competition," says the Dallas Office of Economic Development's Karl Stundins, who has been working with Annino and others to create the TIF. "And if you get a few bad neighbors, which make the competition look better, it's going to have an effect. That's why you set up a TIF--to have a future neighborhood, something you want to see in five, 10 years."
But will Deep Ellum as we know it--as we knewit--even exist by then, or will it once more look as it did in the early 1980s, when it was a sad, desolate assortment of empty buildings? Perhaps, some suggest, it might be better to start all over, to go back to a time when Deep Ellum was a promise, not a threat. Perhaps, they say, only then the city would see the error of its ways, when it didn't send in enough police and keep a watchful eye on property owners who got away with murder on the outskirts of downtown. Tear the whole thing down, they say. It's already halfway there.
"We have to cleanse the palate," says property owner Lou Reese. "There is tremendous goodwill for the area, and we're headed in the right direction. But it's a little Pollyanna-ish to think you can get there without further decline. Nobody wants to go down there now and be a victim. I've been down there ever since we started there in the 1970s, and for the first time I've seen it get scary. But there will be an evolution." He pauses. "We were lucky for a long time. Maybe that's another way to look at it."