Go to Ellum
Let's face it--bad press and gossip about Deep Ellum hurts local music. It's one of those vicious cycles--banter about crime and unseemliness increases, fewer bands book shows in the historic downtown district, people complain about the lack of good bands, fans stop seeing shows, etc. etc. etc.
I visit Deep Ellum on a regular basis (by myself, no less), and for the past few years, I haven't seen or experienced any crime. Sure, I've heard stories but nothing too terrible to keep me away, and I know that skinhead beatings are as rare these days as 80-year-olds at punk concerts. That's why I camped out in Deep Ellum last Friday night. My mission was to stay as late as possible and keep my eyes on the crowds to report exactly what a music lover can expect on a given weekend.
Like I'd assumed, I didn't see any fights, beatings, muggings or killings. Most of the night was peaceful. But once 2 a.m. rolled around, fear gripped Elm and Main streets like something out of a comic book.
10:10: After following a tow truck through the Deep Ellum tunnel, I arrive at the well-lit, city-run parking lot on Main Street across from the Gypsy Tea Room. I see two panhandlers immediately, who Dallas law forbids, but no cops are in sight.
10:20: Inside Trees is a sold-out crowd for emo band The Rocket Summer, and there couldn't be more than five people over the age of 20 in the house. Every Hot Topic-loving teen is screaming and singing along like at a Hilary Duff concert. It's not my scene, but I'm happy to see this many teens having a good time at a Deep Ellum concert.
10:45: Two white bouncers sit idly in front of late-hours hangout Club One. They tell me Deep Ellum isn't as bad as people say--pretty slow through the week, really--but since they're open until 4 a.m, they see a crazy crowd on late weekend nights. "It's Nairobi and Palm Beach," says the one with a nose piercing. "They attract a...rough crowd." He pauses and makes gestures, unwilling to say out loud that those dance clubs draw a predominantly black clientele. "At around 2 a.m, people walk or drive by, throw bottles in the street, threaten to kill us." Does anything violent happen, though? "No, nothing really bad."
10:57: Tom Cats hosts a local hip-hop show, and the mostly black crowd is into the set, even though the MCs and the beats are boring. One guy wearing a long basketball jersey sneaks up behind someone in the crowd, presses two knuckles into his neck and quietly says "bang." When the "victim" turns around, they slap five.
11:05: Half a block down Elm, a Galaxy Club concert combines the worst traits of Stone Temple Pilots, Our Lady Peace and Creed. The crowd is half fraternity, half good ol' boy, and the only people paying attention to the show are four girls in the front row singing along. Methinks those're the girlfriends.
11:15: At vintage clothing store Counter Culture, I speak to the clerk when he's between customers. "The bad reputation [in Deep Ellum] is exaggerated," Chris says, "but it's not. Purses get snatched. I sure wouldn't come by myself." When I point out that he's running the store alone, he says that he's totally safe--especially since Counter Culture closes before the rest of the bars and clubs do.
"As long as you're out by 1, before the black clubs fill up, you're fine; the crowds are fine." Then Chris, a tall, skinny black guy in his early 20s, asks if I know how to contact David Cunniff, the man beaten by Jesse Chaddock at the Gypsy Tea Room last year. Uh, I suppose, but why? Chris nervously laughs. "Well, I'm kind of the reason that the fight happened."
I gasp because I immediately remember the police reports--one of Chaddock's friends allegedly flicked a cigarette at a tall, black kid walking out of the club. This is the kid. The one that Cunniff defended before being attacked. Chris goes on to say that he didn't even know about the fight until weeks later, since he'd walked by without hearing any of it. He wanted to call Cunniff and offer his sympathy. I told him I'd check.
Wow. I guess if anybody's gonna have a realistic opinion about Deep Ellum, this guy's the one. I look across the street, where Nairobi has already reached capacity and a line stretches around the corner. My attempts to get in or speak to anyone at the club are futile--it's just too crowded. Outside the club, a posse of rap promoters hassle a trio of women as they walk by.
11:16: As I jot a few notes, a 40-something man stops me and asks what I'm writing. I notice he's drinking a beer, and it's not even in a paper bag. I ask if anybody's hassled him for drinking on the street. He smiles. "Not yet!"
11:20: Four guys dressed in Ellis County police garb stand outside super-huge dance club Uropa. I ask why they're here--shouldn't Dallas cops work this part of town? They say that they're subcontracted, off-duty officers. No further comment. I still haven't seen a Dallas cop.
11:25: I'm finally propositioned by a panhandler. When I try to interview him, he gets nervous and walks off, so I speak to a well-dressed black man sitting on a nearby curb. He was released from jail earlier in the day after serving six months for burglary, and he says he's "just looking for a party." I shake his hand and walk to the Gypsy Tea Room, where I immediately down a shot of tequila--I didn't think I'd meet my first ex-con so early in the night, for Christ's sake. The Gypsy offers a calm, relaxed scene as concertgoers wait for the next country band to take the stage.
11:40: The Trees concert must've let out, because the 7-11 at Good Latimer and Elm is filled with sweaty emo teens buying Big Gulps. The panhandler I'd met is walking through the checkout aisle and bugging the kids for change. Outside, I finally see a Dallas cop. Four of them, actually, and they're writing their first anti-cruising ticket, even though the streets are only beginning to fill with cruisers--people who drive through Deep Ellum all night to blare their stereo systems and show off their cars. It's a Deep Ellum trend that has grown exponentially in the past few years, and in spite of anti-cruising laws, I suspect that this ticket won't do much to stem tonight's tide of big cars, loud systems and expensive rims.
12:20: At Club Dada, I run into Matt Kellum (Chomsky, Peter Schmidt Band) and Jess Barr (Slobberbone, The Drams), both of whom used to play in Deep Ellum quite often. Neither has been to the district in a year. "It's not the reputation," Barr says. "Any place worth seeing shows at has to be a little rough. It's just that Deep Ellum doesn't support the scene anymore. People aren't here for music." They also talk about bands they know who used to rehearse in Deep Ellum and had their cars broken into on a repeated basis. "They refuse to come back," Kellum says.
12:24: As I walk out, I talk to Beard, the bald door guy at Dada. "I just saw four well-dressed black guys walk down the street grabbing door handles. Meanwhile, there are cops right down there," and he points at policemen writing a ticket down the block. "Dallas cops do a great job, man. There just aren't enough of 'em."
12:30-1:20: The streets are emptying, as most patrons have found their club of choice, so I duck into a few venues and see bad band after bad band after bad band. Most of it is lousy pseudo-metal, but nearby rap and country acts are just as boring.
1:35: A stomach cramp hits me--I blame the music. At 7-11, the store's sole bathroom has an "out of order" sign. I cross the street and order a sandwich at Subway, and after eating half of it (and watching cruisers through the window), I walk to the bathroom. It, too, is out of order. "Can't use," the clerk says. He explains that "all the places in Deep Ellum" close their bathrooms after 8 p.m. on weekend nights because "people come in and do drugs." I give him a puzzled look. "Even I can't use them," he responds. "I go in the alley." Gives new meaning to "eat fresh."
1:45: I sit and reflect on my night so far. The sidewalks aren't packed and the concerts have ended (though the dance clubs are still bumping). The music has sucked (aside from Fort Worth's Goodwin, who rocked Club Dada earlier), and a few bums walk the streets, but no fights have broken out and nobody's screamed bloody murder. Deep Ellum isn't all that bad.
1:53: As I walk toward Nairobi, I see two groups of people pass each other, one of which tries to pick a fight. "Fuck yo' bitch! Fuck yo' stupid ho!" Luckily, both groups keep on walking.
1:58: What was that? I hear popping noises and see a crowd gather on Main Street, and as I get closer, a guy starts screaming. "He was maced," a passerby tells me. "Resisted arrest." The man, surrounded by cops, is soon loaded into a paddy wagon, where he continues to scream.
2:05: Nairobi and Club Hush kick their patrons out, which means Main Street's sidewalks are packed. Nobody's going anywhere, either, with large swarms of people milling about. A cop approaches with a flashlight and shines it in everyone's eyes. "Keep moving! Keep moving!" Nobody moves very far. But these people just finished their last drinks--must Dallas police shuffle them into their cars so quickly? Hell, the street is closed to traffic for the sake of extra pedestrians. I don't understand the rush.
2:10: I pass a tattoo shop whose employees are watching the crowd and ask if this happens every weekend. Before I get an answer, Ace in the Hole employee Tom taps my shoulder and says, "Here they come." Two bike cops zoom toward the milling crowds. They hold paintball guns.
"Those are filled with mace pellets," Tom says. "When the crowds don't move, the cops come through and shoot at the ground. That's when people move in a hurry." This is news to me (though I'm later told that Dallas police control crowds on Lower Greenville this way), and I don't see any clouds, but the crowds certainly thin out. No more than a dozen cops cover Main Street, yet even if they're outnumbered, nothing from my time in the crowd has justified the use of such crowd control force. "This is disrespect," Tom says.
(I later spoke to Officer Rivera from the Dallas police's Central Business District division, who confirmed that a "shots fired" call and a "major disturbance" call, along with a report of rival gang activity, preceded the use of the mace-loaded guns.)
2:20: Elm Street is a different story. The cruising, which has kept up all night, has become parking--nobody's moving. One guy in the passenger seat of an SUV stands through a sunroof, holds a bottle of liquor in the air and shouts "Woo!" before chugging it. I see no cops on Elm--only a security guard in front of Condom Sense chatting with about six of his friends. Within a minute, his friends start shouting at the cars.
2:32: The crowds on Main Street have largely cleared out. I walk back up Elm, where cruisers are still parked, and many people in cars sit on their windowsills while yelling at other cars and passersby. One shouting match between a black man in a car and a white woman on the street nearly gets violent. "I'll stop this car and beat your fat white ass!"
My stomach starts killing me, and I decide that I've seen enough. I run into an old friend and walk her to her car so that she can drive me to mine. As we leave, my friend (who watched much of this shouting with me) explodes. "Deep Ellum used to be about art! Now it's shit."
2:45: I'm dropped off near the well-lit, city-run parking lot, and only two people remain in a 50-yard radius--me and a huge man walking toward me. If he attacks, nobody will hear me scream. And that's the problem. Not the crowds, not the cruisers and certainly not the rap music--most everyone visiting Deep Ellum is looking for a good time, in spite of the racist rhetoric I keep hearing.
But the little things, like carrying beer around the streets or making violent threats at pedestrians, go unchecked. For hours, I walked circles around Deep Ellum and didn't see anyone get attacked. For the most part, I felt safe. But by the end of the night, the little things reminded me that if serious crimes had occurred, nobody would've been able to stop them.
There aren't enough cops to cover Deep Ellum, and Uropa knew that when they hired off-duty officers. Rivera said that the Dallas Police Department brings in forces from other districts to boost the numbers on late nights in Deep Ellum, but he admitted that officers are often taken away from certain posts to help at "the more violent clubs." That may be necessary action, but it's a stopgap measure that leaves the district vulnerable. Until cops start taking Deep Ellum more seriously, musicians--and fans--will not.
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