Goodbye, Groovy East Dallas

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

But every time I tried to tell her how sad I was about Whole Foods leaving Lower Greenville, she told me stories about her side of the freeway.

"It got so bad this summer one time, there's a house between the whorehouse and the drughouse, and the daughter showed up with a 3-year-old. She was bringing him in to use the bathroom, and she threw her car keys down on the seat. Then the minute she was in the house the skank who was watching from the whorehouse stole her car."

I didn't call to talk about ugly things like that. I called to talk about the whole ethos of the Lower Greenville Avenue Whole Foods, how it was a tie to a kinder, gentler time. But she wouldn't listen.

Norma Minnis says her cadre of urban pioneers didn't come to East Dallas for politics. They came for great deals on houses.
Mark Graham
Norma Minnis says her cadre of urban pioneers didn't come to East Dallas for politics. They came for great deals on houses.
In the upper right-hand corner, you can see "old" Laekewood being cut out of the fields. That was 1925.
Dallas Public Library
In the upper right-hand corner, you can see "old" Laekewood being cut out of the fields. That was 1925.

"This young couple," Lorlee said, "I think they're from Balch Springs, they put up three Confederate flags, two on the outside and one in the window. And then they stole my neighbor's pregnant pit bull. Then they put some sort of chicken wire on the outside of the house around the windows with wood around it for trim, and somebody said that's because they've got a python in the house. And they've got a 3-year-old and a baby."

Her point, I gather, is that absolute stability is not an option. You can have change for the better or change for the worse. Pick your poison.

"I have some concern about McMansions," she said, "just from the size and in terms of destroying the character of a neighborhood, but a new house is nice. It's better than a whorehouse or a drughouse, and you can quote me on that.

"It's sort of exciting to drive through East Dallas to see new stuff pop up here and there. I'm not opposed to new houses."

Fine, fine, fine. Point taken. I talked to Neal Emmons, a denizen of Oak Lawn, just west of East Dallas on the other side of Central Expressway. His area is fancy-schmancy. Emmons is a member of the City Plan Commission and sort of a walking encyclopedia of the history of neighborhood politics.

He said East Dallas actually has a better shot at enduring and holding on to some of its original character than any other part of the city. For that he credits the people who went to war politically over the last 30 years to create historic and conservation zones.

"East Dallas has been proactive with its historic and conservation districts," he said.

Without that check and balance, he said, the upward march of urban property values can wipe out the earlier, more modest character and flavor of a district overnight.

"It happened in Oak Lawn," he said. "All of our older residential property is gone, or most of it is gone. Once the property values go through the roof, we don't have anything to stabilize moderate-income housing. People are going to have to move to Grand Prairie and less expensive subdivisions."

But the conservation districts and historic preservation overlays protecting some parts of East Dallas were a product, it seems to me, of the Old East Dallas. They were created by the kind of obstreperous, trouble-making upstarts who occupied the region back in the day. Someone might call me unfairly biased, but I don't see the new people moving into those suburban-looking McMansions with the garages on the front—"snout houses," we call them—having the moxie to do that sort of thing.

I ran that by Norma Minnis, a ringleader in some of the early political activism in East Dallas beginning back in the late 1970s, and she had an interesting response. She said I was unfairly biased.

Minnis and her buddy the late Mary Nash were at the center of a group with then-city council member Lee Simpson who fought City Hall on a huge program of street and highway building in the inner city called "The Thoroughfare Plan." It was the equivalent of the Trinity River Plan today.

City Hall's bright idea was to blast through East Dallas with highways and big-bore one-way streets to ease the daily flow of people out into the suburbs, where it was assumed decent people would want to buy homes. At the time, our Dallas mayors and most of the people associated with the Dallas Citizens Council, a semi-secret business organization, were involved in residential tract home development in the suburbs and stood to make a decent nickel.

Minnis and her cohort were successful in getting most of the Thoroughfare Plan shot down—a big reason many of the cool older neighborhoods of East Dallas such as the Swiss Avenue district, the M Streets and Hollywood Heights exist today. But she told me on the telephone that she didn't think any of that made her or her group different from the people who are moving into East Dallas now.

She said most of the people she knew back then came to East Dallas to get deals on houses. "We paid $22,000 for one of those cute duplexes with arches, and we leased the upstairs out, which meant we lived for free. Then I moved to a house on Prospect in 1977. I paid $54,000 for that house and sold it for $455,000 in '01."

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