Last week, intangible rumors solidified into cold, hard fact: On March 31, the Gypsy Tea Room in Deep Ellum will close its doors for good. The casual observer cannot say he or she did not see this coming. The Tea Room's parent company, the Entertainment Collaborative, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 2005, and since then, the last man standing at the company, Whit Meyers, has turned over the set of keys to every last one of the EC's once-formidable properties: first Trees, the legendary nightclub where Kurt Cobain once had his head bashed in by a bouncer; then Green Room and Jeroboam, restaurants possessing renowned culinary reps; and finally, last week, the Gypsy Tea Room, which will not be around to celebrate its ninth anniversary.
The Austin-based booking agent who put shows into the Gypsy had already moved on. In November, Charles Attal Presents signed a deal to work with House of Blues, scheduled to open in May in the old White Swan Building in the gleaming new Victory Park. Attal knew which way the wind was blowing—toward a chain property, away from decrepit Deep Ellum. And Meyers too knew saving the Gypsy was a losing proposition, despite his spending the last several months trying to keep hope alive. Two weeks ago, he abandoned his reorganization plans and walked out of a federal judge's courtroom knowing, yeah, shit, that was that.
Perhaps Meyers knew something else was afoot as well: The Deep Ellum into which the Gypsy had wandered in 1998 bears little relation to the Deep Ellum of 2007—and certainly, it looks nothing like the Deep Ellum of not-so-far-off 2009, the year DART is scheduled to open its new rail station where once stood the spray-painted Good-Latimer Expressway tunnel that greeted visitors with a bright and friendly howdy-do.
Says Barry Annino, president of the Deep Ellum Foundation: "Deep Ellum as everyone knew it is over."
Annino has in his office renderings of the "new Deep Ellum"; folks from the city's Office of Economic Development make their way down there on occasion to glimpse the bright possibilities—the sidewalk cafés, the upscale boutiques, the classy galleries, the bookstores and CD shops, the upstairs lofts and parking garages and all the other amenities that will turn the formerly funky paradise into yet another LiveShopDineHere strip-mall.
Annino, who's been in Deep Ellum through the go-go upswings and crime-ridden downturns, is optimistic about Deep Ellum's future—and unabashedly pragmatic too, meaning he knows it will never again be what it was during the 1980s and early to mid-1990s. Back then, Deep Ellum was a city unto itself, barren warehouses and abandoned auto-parts stores and gutted pawn shops resurrected to house a thriving music scene that lured the "tourists" from Plano, record-label execs who snapped up anyone holding a guitar and high-school kids who popped their rock 'n' roll cherries to everything from Reverend Horton Heat and Bedhead to Funland and Last Rites. The clubs came, then the kids, then their parents, then the restaurants and clothing stores and coffee shops—and then everybody, for better or for worse.
And then, one day, nobody was left at all, save for the, ahem, troublemaking all-ages dance clubs and the tattoo parlors, which the Deep Ellum Association sought to kick off the premises by getting the city council in June to pass a specific-use permit ordinance. Obtaining a SUP is no easy feat; indeed, it makes it pretty much impossible for anyone to keep their doors open without jumping through a thousand fiery hoops. "It's an unhappy process for some," says David Cossum, the assistant director of the city's plan division. One need only ask Kenny Brattain, who wanted to reopen Trees, about how unhappy the process is. Three weeks ago, after several months spent trying to plant a new seed at the famed Elm Street club, he walked away disgusted. In short, Brattain said, Fuck this.
Which is not to say Deep Ellum is a corpse: Club Dada's back in business and doing better than it has in years. Frank Campagna, a punk-rock vet from way back, has his Kettle Art gallery—where he's "reaching out, backing up and hoping to define something in the visual art scene that we can take out and beyond to herald as our own," as he wrote in an e-mail last week. And there are few better live-music venues in town than the AllGood Café, where Mike Snider serves up longnecks of local alternacountry with the occasional sidecar of handcrafted pop. But for every sign of life, you will also find dozens of darkened storefronts and abandoned buildings—proof that a bright future's still more a thing of the past.
So now the landlords are banding together—no easy feat there either—to try and sell their properties to an outside developer as a collective whole. At the moment, sources say, there is one in Chicago who is particularly interested in taking the plans in Annino's offices and making them a reality. Whether it will happen is anyone's guess; the landlords tried this years ago and failed when they couldn't agree about a host of issues, chief among them money. They all wanted more. They all got squat.
But, Annino says, "No developer in his right mind will buy a building here and there, so they'll have to buy big chunks at a time. There are talks of assembling things. Developers are looking. But the sale price and the buy price are pretty far apart."
Deep Ellum should have fared better than this, some failed entertainment district being auctioned off to the highest bidder. There should be a museum there commemorating Dallas' rich musical history; instead, it's likely to wind up in Fair Park, a poor place to store old ghosts. There should be rows of restaurants and live music venues and funky-junky shops; instead, they've all migrated to Lower Greenville again or moved to the Cedars. There should be historical markers and tourist destinations and hangouts; instead, there are plans to demolish the old storefronts along Commerce and Main streets, which have no city-designated landmark protection.
This, apparently, is what the city council meant when it called its latest plans for progress "Forward Dallas!" There is no looking back, only tearing down. And Deep Ellum's future—this city's future—will have very little to do with its past, which is erased one brick at a time as it moves forever and ever forward, Dallas.
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