Goodbye, Groovy East Dallas

How Jim Schutze forsook his hippie-dippy days and learned to love the snout house

I am concerned for my people. Last summer a neighbor spoke to me on my lawn in Old East Dallas—an artist, one of the original urban pioneers, a person who has lived an entire life of collapsing rooflines and spotty plumbing on our street midway between White Rock Lake and downtown. I wanted to believe she was looking over her shoulder while she spoke because she was ashamed. But she was not ashamed.

"I went inside one of those McMansions on the other side of La Vista," she whispered. "It was a real estate open house. And you know what, Jim? It was really nice!"

I said, "No, Valerie, stop. Please don't say these things."

Dallas Public Library
Lorlee Bartos makes the point that a McMansion is better than a whorehouse.
Mark Graham
Lorlee Bartos makes the point that a McMansion is better than a whorehouse.

"Everything worked. Even the windows! Everything. I bet they never have to call Roto-Rooter. And the kitchen! The kitchen!"

"You've got to get a grip on yourself. I'll tell Jordan on you if you don't."

"The kitchen was my dream kitchen!"

I am frightened. East Dallas, once a funky, diverse refugee camp for people on the lam from the real Dallas and maybe real life, is now well on its way to becoming the one thing none of us ever wanted. A nice neighborhood.

The nail in the coffin for me was the announcement in early January by Whole Foods Market Inc. that they will close their old store on Lower Greenville Avenue by the end of this year and open a gigantic new 50,000-square-foot foodie cathedral less than a mile away at Abrams Road and Skillman Street. When I went to neighbors hoping for commiseration, they stared at me instead with those unblinking, watery eyes the people had in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers after they'd been eaten by the space pods, and they said, "Oh, but Jim, the new Whole Foods will be so much nicer."

Nicer? Nicer? Like that's a good thing? In the old days we took pride in how crappy our part of town was. It took guts to live here. But that's all gone now.

Here's a story Jeff Liles told me. Jeff Liles is a filmmaker, one of the original creators and founders of the music scene in Deep Ellum, writes for the Dallas Observer sometimes, lives in Los Angeles most of the time. He told me about a time in the late 1980s when he lived in a little house just around the corner from my house:

"I can remember one night I was just sitting there by myself, and this guy climbed in through the window. I'm just talking to somebody on the phone. The guy was an African-American guy, probably 35 to 40 years old, and you could tell he was just cold. He was just cold and hungry.

"I didn't even have time to say, 'Hey, I'm going to beat this guy over the head with a bat,' or anything like that. I was talking to someone on the phone, and I said, 'Can you hold on a second?'

"I showed the guy the front door and walked him out. He was nice. He knew he was caught. But it never even escalated into a confrontation or anything like that. I said, 'I'm sorry, but I'm actually here at home.'"

See? That's what I mean. The guy apologized. And Liles did too. It was obviously a mix-up. In the Old East Dallas, people had respect. Even burglars. You notice how Liles asked the person on the phone to hold on? See, East Dallas was cool.

I don't think too many people realize that the Whole Foods on Lower Greenville actually evolved from a head shop across the street. The guy in the head shop started selling those very early organic energy bars—the ones that tasted like dirt—from beneath the glass counter with the rolling papers and the bongs. Next thing he knows, wow! He discovers that people actually need food more than they need marijuana.

The business went through a couple of owners and iterations, migrated across the street and eventually became Bluebonnet, which was so organic that the odor in the meat department was sometimes a bit bracing on hot days. But that odor made a statement: There are dead animals here. If you're going to eat meat, don't kid yourself about it.

Whole Foods, founded in Austin in 1978, bought out Bluebonnet in 1986. For a long time after the takeover, Whole Foods maintained the old hippie-dippy Puritanism of the place: no real chocolate, for example, just this fake brown stuff made out of soy or something that always gave me fits of spitting and pitooey-pitooey-pitooey every time I tried to eat it, you know—brushing at your mouth wildly with both hands to exorcise the flavor.

OK, let me stop right here and say that I know you hate me. Everyone I called hates me, because I'm sentimentalizing a period of decay and disarray in an American urban setting. Instead of whining about how much I love burglars, I should be on my knees giving thanks.

It's not like I haven't sought perspective. I tried to talk about this with East Dallas people and with people who have observed East Dallas from beyond its borders. I called Lorlee Bartos, a political consultant whom I have known for years, who has run mayoral campaigns and who is a very nice person usually. She lives just south of East Dallas on the other side of Interstate 30 in a neighborhood that has come a long way under her tutelage but is still, shall we say, significantly challenged. Her neighborhood is where we were when I moved in.
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