By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
I have always been a member of the Church of We-Have-to-Save-Downtown. Whatever that means. I sing in the choir. It's a lifelong expression of my profound wannabe urban cosmopolitology. A religion.
Why? Obvious. Because downtown is...uh, well it's down. And it's...you know...town.
Now all of a sudden I have doubts. We see all kinds of cosmopolite activity all around downtown in concentric rings, most of it developing without any help from and often in spite of City Hall. I'm talking about whole areas of the inner city that seem to want to burst up through the grime and redevelop on their own.
So we have to pour billions into saving the embalmed, asbestos-filled towers of downtown why?
A weekend ago I went on that annual gallery tour they do every year in the Cedars area just across the freeway south of downtown. Last time I went was three years ago. Back then it was still your typical Dallas moonscape of artists separated from crack-heads by bales of concertina wire. Instead of an art stroll it was more of an art trot with your eyes over your shoulders at all times.
This year I saw absolutely amazing change. From Buzz condominiums on Akard (new construction, $160,000 to $350,000) to The Beat Condominiums right across the street from the Jack Evans Police Headquarters on South Lamar (new construction, ready next spring): Very serious money is being poured into the ground in this recently embattled area just outside downtown.
It's going on all over in the inner city. Just not downtown. It sneaks up on me even in my own neck of the woods.
A week ago on a Sunday afternoon I'm driving down Henderson Avenue south from Central Expressway toward my little neighborhood, and I have a head-snapping experience that makes me feel like I might be experiencing a mild aneurysm.
There were certain tunnels of junk you had to drive through to get to my part of East Dallas. Gaston Avenue—oh, I used to love Gaston, back before it cleaned itself up. Gaston was like the dark scary pathway through the forest that Dorothy and the Tin Man have to traverse to get to Oz. Henderson was like that. I always figured Henderson helped scare the weenies back into the Park Cities.
So I'm driving down Henderson; I turn barely to my right, and there before my very eyes is a large and inviting woody, rocky, smoky, cozy-looking place called The Capitol Pub. On a Sunday afternoon the place is absolutely jammed with 20-something, employed-looking couples of the serious car payment variety.
For a split second I think, "I must have just gotten fatally rear-ended by a 1989 Pontiac La Felonia, the occupants of which are even now soaring over backyard fences like eagles, and this must be urban heaven." I pull into the next driveway to check for signs of stroke. This should be the parking lot of Jerry's Market. And now I am seriously disoriented.
Jerry's Market was always a wild and wacky jumble of people selling piñatas, telling fortunes and shaking their fists at each other. But in its place I see the sleek, emerging bones of a cool new oasis still under construction.
Somewhere in here I can still see the faint outline of Jerry's, but it looks like somebody has gone over Jerry's with a powerful chic-blaster. A sign on a door tells me part of this building will soon be the Glo Lounge.
Now as I pull back out onto Henderson my eyes are open at last, and I see all the same things I saw in the Cedars the weekend before—really serious investment, residential and commercial development just popping up out of the ground all over the place. This is all stuff the land-holders downtown would give their right gargoyles for. And it comes from where? From whom?
So later last week I went back and found out whom—the Andres brothers, Marc and Roger. Their grandparents, Harry and Chaya Andres, ran a grocery store where the Meyerson Symphony Center is now. Their father bought property in this area. They went to St. Mark's, UT and UCLA in the late '70s and early '80s, and then they came back to the family business, which by then was real estate. Now they sort of own Henderson, or at least control it.
"We've been here a long time," Marc told me. "We plan on being here a long time. We're not just financially vested in the area but mentally and physically, as you can see."
The transformation of Henderson has been nothing short of phenomenal. It has broken into public view so quickly and so recently that even I, who drive this street several times a week, didn't see it until I saw it.
In their offices a block down Henderson from Central Expressway, Roger and Marc Andres showed me before and after pictures. They were explaining that the Capitol Pub, which looks as if it has been there forever, just opened days before I drove by and saw it packed with thirsty payment-makers.
Like the old Jerry's, the building occupied by Capitol Pub is a very creative reuse of an existing older structure. Roger referred to one of the previous tenants as "Wino Pizza," which I took to be a derisive shorthand, until he showed me the before picture. There it was on the front of the building—a brightly colored sign that said, "Wino Pizza."
Also lost from the area, thanks to the recent changes, is a business named "Jugs" that was next door to a business named "Buns."
You know, you live in East Dallas long enough—or too long—and you develop a certain blind eye for sleaze. I wonder how many mature Parkies got only this far and started shrieking at each other, "Jugs, Buns, Wino Pizza! Turn the car around!"
Or their children: "'Jugs, Buns, Wino Pizza.' Park the car."
The Andres brothers drove me up and down Henderson but also deeper into the neighborhoods on both sides, where block after block of down-at-the-heels 1920s bungalows have been scraped to make way for fancy-pants condo and apartment developments.
I don't want to get into a whole thing here about gentrification and affordable housing, which are important issues. I have known enough people and families in these little neighborhoods to know that you had two kinds of residents previous to this change.
There were stable, upwardly mobile Mexican-American families who bought these houses for $10,000 in the mid-'70s and have now sold them for $250,000. They're up and out—the American dream.
Then you had completely ghastly God-awful crime-bin apartment buildings like the one my wife chased a purse-snatcher into in the early 1980s because when my wife gets mad she gets totally crazy. When I had to do the manly thing and go in there to look for her purse I was so scared I thought I was going to cry.
Sorry. I do not miss that building. Good riddance, and I hope they moved the whole thing—lock, stock and barrel—to Irving, which deserves it.
Because the Andreses are young, because they know this ground like the backs of their hands, and because their father got them into the area on a good basis, they have been able to perfectly capture the new zeitgeist.
"The planners always talk about how they want to develop 'live and work' environments," Marc said. "We think it's live and play."
The young payment-makers don't care where they work, he said. They work all over. But they want to live and play in a streetscape where they can walk their dogs to the Capitol Pub, meet friends and maybe do some more pub crawling without risking a D.U.I. Like in Paris.
My guess is that the opportunity the Andreses have spotted on Henderson is just a few degrees off from what somebody else sees in the area between Baylor University Medical Center and downtown, which is just a twist and a turn different from what somebody else sees in the Cedars, in Uptown or Bishop Arts.
Each of these areas happens because it taps into the new emerging urban class. That's not unique to Dallas. It's national. But each one happens a little differently on its own turf—and works—because somebody like the Andres brothers is right there waiting for it, knows the ground and also, for whatever reason, happens to be in the right position.
I worry that the old downtown is in the wrong position. I don't think many of the people holding downtown are especially tuned to the zeitgeist. The übermeister of downtown, Robert Decherd of Belo Corp., seems to think the secret will be tidier parks.
I was here a few decades ago when the owners of downtown did everything they could to scour away the sidewalk-level streetscape, which they thought was dirty and cheap. Now reproducing it from scratch is proving to be daunting.
Plus, when have you ever seen a single big government initiative to make things happen in real estate that ever worked? Especially in a top-down town like Dallas, how do we know we aren't just looking at 12 guys who hold a bad hand full of downtown real estate who are trying to use our tax money to bail themselves out?
Given the incredible energy bubbling up in the concentric rings, why wouldn't we just wait for the market to work itself out naturally in those areas? Then maybe 10 years from now there will be so many people jammed in cheek by jowl all around the edges of downtown and the rents will be so high, all of a sudden redoing those old asbestos silos downtown will begin to pay out.
I'm still a devout cosmopolitologist. But I'm kind of back-sliding on my faith in the Church of We-Have-to-Save-Downtown. I may go across the street and join the Church of Let-Downtown-Save-Itself.