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The little boarded-up shops he saw were the kind of things someone like Roberts considers cool—intimate, service-oriented businesses, walking distance from nearby houses and apartments, as opposed to big-box retail five miles away on the freeway and surrounded by a sea of parking.
"It was kind of fascinating to see we had these neighborhood businesses before, and we had zoned those away," he says.
By "zoned away," Roberts means city laws passed after World War II, especially parking requirements, which had worked in favor of big-box retailers and to the detriment of small neighborhood shops.
The gleam in the eye of Roberts and his ilk is the pre-war street grid in old North Oak Cliff—the basic bone structure of Seinfeld-land, a walkable urban universe like the ones 30-somethings grew up watching on TV and thinking of as cool.
Still there but buried beneath a detritus of post-war zoning, the old grid and the way of life it supported can be brought back to life, they believe. When that happens, they say, North Oak Cliff becomes the city's new-urbanist leading edge, with advantages over other old parts of the city like North and East Dallas.
Roberts and the group he helped found, the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, scored an enormous coup February 17 when the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a $23 million start-up grant for a trolley system in downtown and North Oak Cliff.
Before Oak Cliff Transit Authority wrote the original grant request, no one at City Hall was even thinking about trolleys in Oak Cliff. Apparently the grant writers convinced somebody in Washington that North Oak Cliff is Dallas' best bet for trolley-based new urbanism.
If the new-urbanist future does arrive in North Oak Cliff, it will owe a debt to the old urbanism of the Latino immigrants, according to Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico working on a book about the Hispanicizing of American cities. Dallas is one of five American cities Sandoval-Strausz has chosen for his study.
"Since 1950," he says, "roughly 25 million people have moved from Latin America into American cities, based on U.S. Census numbers."
Blighted inner cities that have not seen much foreign immigration, such as Detroit, have not experienced much recovery since the urban crises of the 1960s and '70s, he says. But inner cities that have been targets of an immigrant influx have done better.
"In the recovery from urban crisis, one of the things that really saves American cities is enormous numbers of people moving into them again," Sandoval-Strausz says.
Now, given the interest in new urbanism here and around the country, those places with large immigrant populations could be especially well positioned. Sandoval-Strausz believes that one reason why Latino immigration has been good for the cities is because Latino businesses occupy storefront spaces that Anglo businesses can't use.
"The new Anglo-dominant retailing strategy is the big box out on the interstate. However, Latinos generally depend on the bodega, the botanica, the panaderia, and those businesses are perfect for the small 25- or 50-foot lots. So they are able to use urban spaces that have been abandoned by English-speaking people."
The immigrants, he says, are "the perfect new urbanists" because they are old urbanists. And on a more personal note, when he sits over coffee in North Oak Cliff's Bishop Arts District, Sandoval-Strausz, a product of the northeast, loves what he sees.
"It's beautiful. It's a walking community. If it develops just right, people will walk to get their groceries. They will walk and see each other on the streets. The reason the Bishop Arts district is so cool and groovy is that it's a human-sized streetscape."
Bishop Arts has become a kind of town center for North Oak Cliff. On a mild winter morning, people meander amiably across the streets with coffee in their hands and rolled up newspapers under their arms, stopping to chat in the middle of the traffic lanes.
An Oak Cliff Mardi Gras Parade, only two years old but already promising to become a tradition, was created as a deliberate effort to draw people into Bishop Arts from the surrounding blue-collar Latino areas. From the looks of the crowd last February 7, the event accomplished its aim.
Lots of people agree the Bishop Arts District is groovy—a clutch of galleries, shops and restaurants, some high-end, some funky, in gently re-purposed 1920s low-rise brick buildings on half a dozen blocks near the southern reaches of North Oak Cliff.
Given that the entire planet is real, it seems strange to give any one spot credit for being more real than others, but everyone does it for Bishop Arts. In fact, Bishop Arts always gets credit for being the two things that seldom go together in Dallas—cool and real. Less well-known is how it got that way.
Dallas has many residential historic and conservation districts, but a thin track record on the preservation of commercial districts. Deep Ellum, the entertainment district just east of downtown, is battling to recover from a near fatal bout with street crime. The West End lingers on. West Village is cool but fake.
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