As Downtown Struggles Back To Life, It’s Survival Of The Fittest For Urban Pioneers

Just a few feet from his hot dog cart, "Uncle Vinny" takes a man's neck into the bend of his arm and twists him to the ground. Uncle Vinny is breathing heavily, and his teeth are clenched. The man kicks at the ground and taps at the arm tightening around his neck.

"You're taking me. You're taking me, man," he wheezes hoarsely, but Vincent Navarro, who prefers to be called Uncle Vinny, doesn't let go.

It looks like the guy might croak, right here, in downtown Dallas on an early spring evening at the corner of Main and Ervay streets, except for the man's girlfriend. She had appeared moments earlier looking distraught and needing a cell phone. Navarro lent her his, and then her angry boyfriend showed up, jealous of whomever she might be talking to. He grabbed the phone and threw it to the ground, but as he took another step toward the woman, Navarro grabbed him.

Love—or whatever is going on between the couple—is a fickle thing, though, and as soon as Navarro seizes the boyfriend in the chokehold, the woman starts pounding on Navarro and screaming for him to lay off.

Navarro frees the man, and he takes a step toward his girlfriend, so Navarro shoves him and the two head off in different directions.

Navarro walks stiffly back to his cart, his ribs hurting.

That's it. All over. Just another day in business downtown.

Then the waiter from Porta di Roma, an Italian restaurant on the corner, pushes open the door, stands on the eatery's stoop and lights a Marlboro. He asks Navarro what just happened.

"I asked him to stop several times. I was just holding the man, that's all," Navarro says, keeping his back to the waiter, reluctant to talk.

Navarro's just stepped away from one fight and doesn't need another. There's already plenty of bad blood between him and the restaurant. Porta di Roma's owner, understandably unhappy with having a food cart plunked right outside his restaurant's door, has threatened to forcibly remove Navarro and has sicced the city bureaucracy on him. Treating the restaurant's customers to the sight of a wrestling match outside the restaurant's windows isn't likely to help matters.

Navarro can't wrap his head around what the restaurant's problem is. He's just trying to make a living, trying to sell his $3 hot dogs. The office workers in the Comerica Bank tower have no problem with that, peering down to the street level from their high offices to see if Navarro's arrived so they can grab some lunch. Downtown's ever-growing numbers of new residents want him to stick around later at night because he brings a new element of street life.

Unfortunately, he also draws an unwelcomed element of Dallas' downtown milieu. Not all of Navarro's customers are office workers. His stand sits like a rest stop on the path that the down-and-out trek daily, from The Bridge, Dallas' new homeless center, to the central business district. Panhandlers hustling for change on the streets might go for a cheap dog, but they're not going to be sitting down to a plate of Porta di Roma's ziti. They're the reason the Downtown Improvement District, supported by the urban pioneers trying to bring retail and dining back to the center of the city, hires a safety patrol that hikes and bikes the streets, hustling away the homeless. It looks like one convenience store close to where Navarro sets up may soon be forced out of business because the store sells almost exclusively to the homeless, who go there to buy cheap food and drink.

The friction between Navarro and Porta di Roma and between a small shop catering to the homeless and its neighbors are facets of the growing pains afflicting downtown streets as city leaders grasp for ways to breathe life back into Dallas' moribund heart. Dallas dreams of a vibrant city center, where residents, shops and restaurants mingle. But this is not a report on what city officials envision. This is a look at downtown from the street-level. Restaurants are still struggling. Homelessness is still an issue. People still perceive the area as dead, although that perception is beginning to change. Navarro is the first street vendor on Main Street for as long as anybody can remember. He's a tangible sign that life in downtown exists.

But is Navarro the sort of street life Dallas can get behind? Consider Victory Park, for example: a high-end, antiseptic, faux Times Square developed with city support on downtown's northern fringe that in recent months has seen a slew of tony retailers high-tailing away for want of customers. How does Dallas reach that just-right stage and cook up a porridge of city life that includes guys like Navarro, restaurants like Porta di Roma, and a mix of retailers and residents not averse to rubbing elbows with the homeless, perhaps the only demographic group that didn't abandon downtown over the past few decades?

That Navarro is having trouble getting along with his neighbor doesn't surprise developer Larry Hamilton. He came to Dallas 12 years ago to invest in downtown and wait for the trend sweeping other cities—the return to the urban lifestyle—to hit Dallas. Hamilton's a history buff who knows that in the '40s, '50s and '60s downtown Dallas was a happening place, before everybody fled to the suburbs.

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