By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Not here. From the Belmont, Fort Worth Avenue plunges downward to the Trinity River, very much the way Austin's South Congress Avenue falls to the Colorado River. I remember Fort Worth Avenue just a few years ago as junk car lots and super-seedy tumble-down motels. But what's left of that stuff now is mainly boarded-up behind wire fences or scraped to the bare dirt, probably being held while somebody waits for the economy to come back.
Griggs grew up in North Dallas, attended Richardson schools, went to Texas A&M, then UT law school in Austin. For him and his wife, Mariana, North Oak Cliff is a reminder of places they would rather be.
"Austin is hard to leave," Griggs says. But he sees direct parallels between what's going on currently on Fort Worth Avenue and the successful re-development of South Congress, Austin's south-of-the-river movie star and hipster hangout.
"You would say the Belmont is the San Jose," he says, a reference to a famously cool retro hotel on South Congress. "Another parallel would be a place like Jack's Back Yard," he says, referring to a compound of once-grungy metal buildings artfully repurposed as restaurant, bar and music venue just off Fort Worth Avenue, down the hill from the Belmont.
"It's like Barton Springs Road," he says, speaking not of Austin's famous swimming hole but of a district of beach volleyball and music bars where Barton Springs Road meets South Congress Avenue.
"The story of South Congress has parallels here," Griggs says. "They had some rough years. There were some great neighborhoods around it. People reinvested, and now it has a character."
North Oak Cliff is a tiny area when compared with what people refer to loosely as North Dallas. Measured from the northern tip of the Park Cities, North Dallas comprises about 70 square miles. Even a generous measurement of North Oak Cliff, bounded by West Dallas on its north, extending west into Cockrell Hill, south not quite to Executive Airport and east to Interstate 35E, barely makes up six square miles.
Griggs, Anderson and a host of other Oak Cliff movers and shakers all promise that they don't want to see the ethnic nature of the area changed drastically. Good thing. Whatever is to be the flavor of North Oak Cliff in the years ahead, that character will reflect ever greater numbers of working-class Hispanics, many of them recent immigrants from central Mexico.
Robert V. Kemper, a professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University who has studied the roles immigration and gentrification play in American society, says the demographic projections don't lie: North Oak Cliff is going to be predominantly Latino and blue-collar for some time to come. Detailed demographic maps for ZIP code 75208, a rough overlay of North Oak Cliff, reveal that most of the area will be 90 percent Hispanic in 2014, with household incomes under $50,000. The exceptions are Kessler Park, Stevens Park, Winnetka and North Wynnewood—longstanding enclaves of affluent Anglos, gay people and middle-class this-old-housers.
Kemper says the movement to Oak Cliff of immigrants from Central Mexican states, especially Guanajuato, reflects at least as strong a trend as the arrival of Anderson's cool people.
"The core of that," he says, "goes back into the 1990s when they set up Casa Guanajuato," referring to a community resource center in the center of North Oak Cliff.
"Then Governor [Vicente] Fox, who became [Mexico's] President Fox, came up and inaugurated it. There was a program he helped start in his state where migrants would send funds back to their villages, and the Mexican government would provide matching funds for infrastructure improvements."
So which is it to be? New Austin? Or New Guanajuato?
District 1 City Council member Delia Jasso should know the ground. She is Latina and immersed in the Mexican-American politics of her Oak Cliff district.
Jasso says her part of town is drawing affluent but tolerant newcomers who will meld comfortably into a Latino-dominant community, settling in well beyond the borders of the enclaves on Kemper's maps. She says the newcomers seem to be seeking modest incremental improvement, as opposed to socioeconomic bulldozing.
"These people are trying to bring in the good things from where they lived before and trying to incorporate that into Oak Cliff, and everybody here has open arms," she says.
Jason Roberts, 35, is emblematic of this new breed. He grew up in Garland and went to Richardson schools. After traveling Europe with an indie rock band, he let his wife talk him into moving to Oak Cliff, where her grandfather had lived for 50 years.
But the pair tired of seeing friends decamp from Dallas for cooler places like Portland and Seattle. Roberts became an activist for bike lanes and trolleys as a way to make Oak Cliff cool too, all of which brought him into contact with the early 20th-century street grid in North Oak Cliff.
"I would notice these tiny little commercial buildings nestled inside residential areas," he says, "most of them boarded up, of course. I just kind of got curious as to what were those things."
He researched the grids and learned the old buildings were the ends or junction points of streetcar lines. He spoke to some elderly residents like his wife's grandfather. "He told us the stories about how this one grouping of small structures here would have been a butcher, a barber and a few other things."