Last week the city council shot down a six-lane bowling alley on Lower Greenville Avenue next to Good Records, denying zoning for a $1.5 million project there because activists told the council the bowling alley and attached bar would draw hordes of loud drunken outsiders to the neighborhood.
Really? We can't have a bowling alley? Old East Dallas is now opposed to bowling alleys attached to bars because they threaten us with moral ruination? For the life of me, I can't get the lyrics from The Music Man out of my head.
The Music Man was a hit Tony-award-winning Broadway musical by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey in the late 1950s, made into a hit movie in the early '60s and kept alive ever since in countless high school productions. It's about a scam artist who goes to River City, a hick town in Iowa, and convinces the populace they need to buy marching band instruments from him in order to rescue their youths from the corrupting menace of a pool hall.
So all last week I'm reading back over the dire warnings about the corrupting effect this six-lane bowling alley is going to have on my part of town, and I can't stop hearing lyrics from The Music Man.
If I close my eyes, I can almost see professional Lower Greenville neighborhood activist Avi Adelman doing the Robert Preston part from the movie.
I imagine a big neighborhood picnic at Tietze Park one hot Saturday afternoon. Avi has mounted a picnic table to catch the attention of a vast crowd. Hundreds of moms and pops push in closer to hear him.
"Well, either you're closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge," Avi starts out, "or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a bowling alley in your community."
Now Avi steps down and dances out front to the ominously building thrum of snare drums in the background. He waves his arms to and fro, weaving the yokels into his spell:
"Ya got trouble, my friends, right here, I say, trouble right here in Old East Dallas! The first big step on the road to the depths of degradation, I say, first, medicinal wine from a teaspoon. Then beer from a bottle!"
A shocked moan goes up from the crowd. Mothers and fathers snatch sons and daughters by the earlobes, eying them accusingly.
"An' the next thing ya know," Avi tells them, "your son is bowlin' for money in a pinch-back suit. And list'nin' to some big out-a-town jasper, hearin' him tell about horse-race gamblin'!
"Ya got one, two, three, four, five, six lanes in a bowling alley. Lanes that mark the diff'rence between a gentleman and a bum, with a capital B, and that goes with O and that stands for bowling!"
Now we yokels, utterly hypnotized by Avi's sermon, chant it back to him: "Trouble! Oh, we got trouble! Right here in Old East Dallas! With a capital T that rhymes with B and that stands for bowling!
"We've surely got trouble! Right here in Old East Dallas! Right here! Gotta figger out a way to keep the young ones moral after school!"
When I watched some of that city council meeting last week, I could still imagine the crowd whisper-chanting in the background: "Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble."
What the hell? When did Old East Dallas become River City? I thought we were the hip part of town. When did we become a bunch of Bible-beating yokels? I must have slept through that part.
Look, I've known Avi for years, and I respect him for what he does, and I'm not going to start now accusing him of being a scam artist in a 1950s Broadway musical. For that, maybe tune in next week.
Avi and I talked last week after the vote. He and the other activists have an entire conspiracy theory about the bowling alley. They say it's a speakeasy cover story for some gigantic rooftop snake pit that's going to be like a scene from Dante's Inferno. It's an interesting vision. Take some years off me, I might want to go.
What troubles me more is Avi's vision for what he thinks the future of Lower Greenville ought to be. I don't want to get boring, but when he talks about it I start hearing that damned marching band music again.
I asked him last week how he sees the future. He said the street, which is lined by low-rise 1920s brick buildings on 25-by-50-foot lots, is "designed for community retail."
Community retail? I admit, it knocked me back for a second. I had to think. I said, "community retail is a pretty big shift."
"What shift?" Avi said. He said that's what was there before it became a bar zone in the 1990s. "That's the zoning down there," he said, "with mom and pop stores like the original Bluebonnet [an organic grocery store] and the African bookstore."
I said, "You're really looking at the elimination of the so-called entertainment district."
"As a district that's a regional draw, yeah," he said. "That's gotta stop."
Gotta stop? The entertainment district has gotta stop?
See, now I'm back on my scam artist thing. I am not calling Avi or the other people who fought the bowling avenue scam artists. Yet. But this is not at all what they said they were up to when they talked the property-owners up and down Greenville into changing the zoning earlier this year.
That was supposed to be a dodge to get rid of only the really bad bars. Nobody talked about changing the fundamental nature of the neighborhood.
This is a huge paradigm shift, in fact. If we were talking about a real estate transaction — and I recognize that we are not — this would have been what they call a "material disclosure," like lead-based paint.
Last year when the city first started talking about rezoning Lower Greenville, if anybody had whispered the words, eliminate entertainment, none of the property owners would have gone along.
I've written about this before. I don't want to get back into all of that. It's all this super-technical zoning crap. But I do want to talk about two things.
The first is: What community retail? The African bookstore? Yeah, and while we're at it, let's bring back the fix-it shop where you can get new tubes for your Emerson radio and the neighborhood pharmacy where Old Doc Molestorino makes malts for the Scouts at the back counter.
I talked last week to a landlord on Lower Greenville who absolutely would not talk to me for attribution for fear of drawing the wrath of Avi. He said the kind of tenants who will be able to make money on the street, if Avi's roll-up-the-sidewalks vision takes place, will be what he calls "national credit tenants" — Subways and UPS stores — and maybe something like Korean and Chinese restaurants that can make money without booze.
He said the scene will not include The Gap — not enough foot traffic, not enough parking, wrong demographic. He predicted Walmart will move into the old Whole Foods site at the corner of Belmont Avenue and draw even more suburban-style strip-mall marketers to the street.
I don't know about you. I could cry. I don't think Avi and the others are protecting East Dallas. They're destroying it.
Another guy I talked to last week was Jeff Liles, who is the producer/manager now at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff. Liles goes way back in the Dallas entertainment scene. He's kind of a walking oral history.
He watched the bowling alley thing unfold from afar and was aghast at what he saw. He said Avi's version of history — first it was Doc Molestorino and the malt shop, then it was bad bars drawing drunks from far and wide — is wrong. It skips a very important chapter.
Liles said that in the 1980s the concert scene at the Arcadia Theater and the satellite music scene up and down Lower Greenville created a magic that helped fuel the entire rebirth of Old East Dallas. Lower Greenville was this city's Park Slope, the trendy, revived Brooklyn neighborhood. "It was live music inside the Arcadia Theater that validated the neighborhood in the first place," Liles said.
He talked about the cool little restaurants that were part of the scene. "Like Little Gus'. All the musicians would eat there on Saturday morning," he said. "It felt like a musical community."
He remembered when Oram Street was home to a long list of poets, indie movie-makers, impresarios and musicians including the late Roxie Gordon, the company that produced David Byrne's True Stories, Reverend Horton Heat, Dollar Bill Johnston and Liles himself.
See, I remember that stuff too. East Dallas was unique then. Here's how it used to go: Somebody would move here from Toronto or Miami. They'd drive around Plano first looking for a place to live and decide to kill themselves. Then they'd get to East Dallas and say, "Thank you, Lord, thank you for bringing me home."
This whole vision of Lower Greenville as reverting to some kind of fantasy from the 1920s is so bogus on every imaginable level. What's the fantasy, anyway? Wasn't that when they had Prohibition? And tell me again what the activists are protecting us from now?
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Oh, no. The lyrics are coming back. Not again. Please make it stop.
"Never mind gittin' dandelions pulled or the screen door patched or the beefsteak pounded. Never mind pumpin' any water till your parents are caught with the cistern empty on a Saturday night.
"One fine night they leave the bowling alley, headin' for the dance at the armory! Libertine men and scarlet women! And ragtime, shameless music that'll grab your son and your daughter in the arms of a jungle animal instinct! Massteria! Friends, the idle brain is the devil's playground!"
I think this is the part where we all pay Avi Adelman for the musical instruments and then he catches the next thing smokin' out of town. I mean Robert Preston.