Deep Ellum Association Executive Director Sean Wisdom, right, and DPD's Lieutenant Vincent Golbeck work together to make sure the streets of Deep Ellum are Safe and Sound.
Deep Ellum Association Executive Director Sean Wisdom, right, and DPD's Lieutenant Vincent Golbeck work together to make sure the streets of Deep Ellum are Safe and Sound.
Mark Graham

Cruising for a Bruising

The guy barreling this way has been in trouble before. Maybe as recently as five, 10 minutes ago. He's a handful, 6 feet and change, 200 pounds of biceps and beer belly barely contained by his tight white T-shirt. Which is clearly splattered with blood.

The red stain appears to be a recent addition to his wardrobe, a last-minute accessory. Whether the blood belongs to him or someone else is a toss-up. Either way, he looks as though he wouldn't mind adding to his collection before he calls it a night.

"Why don't you pick on someone who can fight back?" he asks as he nears the small group of police and security officers at the corner of Main and Crowdus and the man in handcuffs at their feet. He speaks with his shoulders as much as his mouth, foolishly attempting to bully seven people with plenty of guns and very little patience. Smart money says the blood on his shirt is his own.

Before he can do something even more stupid, he's being shoved down the street by the first officer who can lock onto one of his meaty arms. He disappears into the quickly assembled crowd of onlookers, the people lined up for this impromptu street-corner performance. For them, this is nothing new. Handcuffs and hot tempers are like honey in Deep Ellum. Everyone wants a taste.

This is the real draw in Deep Ellum these days. Thousands of people roam the streets on this hot, breezy Friday in the middle of July. You might assume this means business is booming. It's not. It's down as much as 30, 40 percent, retailers say. The people who come to Deep Ellum may be bringing plenty of money to the area, but for the most part, it stays in their pockets. They don't go to see bands or dance at the clubs, grab a bite at one of the restaurants, knock back a few at one of the bars. Most of them are too young to get in anyway. No, they're here to check out the sights--the bikers parked over on Elm, the tricked-out rides creeping down Commerce, the drunks being cuffed and stuffed on Main. If that's not enough action for them, they make their own.

That's why the encounter at Main and Crowdus could have been worse--for everyone involved. You'd expect worse, based on the stories making the rounds: the tales of brawls flaring up without warning or provocation, the women being harassed by strange men, groped by strange hands, the stick-up kids looking for easy marks. These aren't merely stories. John "Beard" Brewer, who's been working the door at Club Dada off and on for 16 years, says violence and harassment are worse than they've ever been, worse even than when skinheads ruled the streets in the late '80s. All of the above has happened at some point this summer. Some of it has even happened tonight.

There were, for example, those three women half an hour ago. They're easy to remember. They would have stood out anyway. All of the other women here--girls really, too young to qualify--are straight out of a father's nightmare, a generation of daddy's little girls sauntering up and down the block in barely street-legal shorts and tops that leave only a few details to the imagination. And everything with a Y chromosome is trying to uncover those details. Even a cop riding shotgun in a Dallas Police Department paddy wagon openly stares south of one girl's border as she strolls toward Good-Latimer Expressway.

These three are different--a woman and her younger sisters, or maybe they're her daughters. Hard to tell. They wear flowing, fluorescent-colored knee-length dresses, and the youngest--or shortest, at any rate--has her hair wrapped in a swatch of matching fabric, as though she just walked off the set of an Erykah Badu video in 1997. The women are beautiful and elegant, the last adjective setting them apart more than anything else. Except for maybe this: They're furious.

Five minutes before officers from Texas Proforce--a security firm contracted by the Deep Ellum Association to help patrol the area--arrived in front of Lazerz, a dance club on Main, the women were the victims of the kind of random harassment that has everyone in Deep Ellum on edge. A group of five or so young men walked by and yanked on the oldest woman's hair. "You just don't do that to a woman!" she snaps to no one in particular. She is wild-eyed and shaken as she scans the crowd, searching for her assailant. She won't find him tonight, and even if she does, her night has been ruined. Another customer lost.

The man who pulled her hair was black. The guy mouthing off to the cops was white. The people arrested tonight, most for public intoxication, form a rainbow coalition of petty criminals and drunken loudmouths, all races and subcultures represented. The problem Deep Ellum is facing at the moment, and for the past year or so, isn't black or white. It's not even blue--you can't walk too far without seeing someone from the Dallas Police Department or Texas Proforce.

"As I've said to a lot of people, this has nothing to do with who you are or what you look like," Deep Ellum Association Executive Director Sean Wisdom says. "This has to do with whether or not you're an asshole."

There are plenty of those in Deep Ellum right now, and that's the biggest threat. The crime rate in the area is up, but the real danger is the crimes that aren't reported--the women being fondled as they try to leave clubs, the gangs of thugs who intimidate for sport. This kind of thing doesn't appear in any crime statistics, yet it's exactly what keeps customers away. And they are staying away. Even though there are more people in Deep Ellum than ever before, fewer of them actually make it into the bars and restaurants, preferring to parade up and down the streets, looking for love or trouble. After sitting on the sidelines and watching the problem fester, city government has finally gotten into the game, shutting down streets, scheduling meetings to focus on the area's problems. But it might be too late for meetings.

"Everyone needs to wake up and smell the roses and realize that if things continue the way that they are right now, there's a very good possibility that we won't be here in two or three years," Wisdom says. "I get businesses calling me on a weekly basis--of every type: restaurants, shops, everything you can imagine--saying, 'We don't know if we can make it anymore.'"

Sean Wisdom has been in and around Deep Ellum for most of his life. In the late '80s, he fronted a band called Drastic Steps, which played regularly in the nascent club scene developing in the area. When the group split in 1989, after bassist Chris Costoff was killed by a drunken driver, he gigged around with Soul Food Café until 1997. (Former Dallas Observer music editor Matt Weitz called his voice "a great emotive vehicle" in a 1996 review of the band's So Bright, So Blind.) He eventually left music behind to take a square job in corporate marketing and sales.

Before that, before there were any clubs or restaurants or bars to worry about, his father, Tom, owned Metro Construction on Main and Exposition from 1975 to 1985. Sean used to sweep floors there. "I can remember the day that [Club] Clearview opened," he says. "I was driving home going, 'What in the hell is all this about?'"

Since taking over at the Deep Ellum Association in March, he's been asking that question for a different reason. Wisdom didn't sign on for this, after all. The association wanted him for his marketing experience, a résumé that also includes shilling for a film company while he was in Soul Food Café.

Instead, he spends most days meeting with frustrated business owners who want to know what's being done to stop the cruising, to stop the fights, to stop the harassment. He tries to rustle up more cash to pay for additional security officers and extra overtime for Dallas police on weekends; so far, he's gotten $10,000 from the Deep Ellum Foundation, the nonprofit group that oversees the Deep Ellum public improvement district. He also talks to Lieutenant Vincent Golbeck, the DPD's main liaison to Deep Ellum, every day on the phone, and meets with him weekly. Since they've been working together, Wisdom and Golbeck have initiated Safe and Sound, a neighborhood watch program that relies on area doormen to keep one another, as well as the DPD and Texas Proforce, abreast of any potential problems via Nextel two-way radios.

"I've worked half of my day on this stuff," Wisdom says, "which is too much, because I'm actually getting paid to generate positive publicity, marketing and funds for the neighborhood."

Talking about the problems in Deep Ellum doesn't exactly fit that job description, and Wisdom admits that most people in his position wouldn't do it. Business is already bad enough--why publicize it? But there's nothing else he can do. Anyone who's been to Deep Ellum in the past few months knows what's going on. Wisdom can't hide the obvious.

"We're doing everything we can do to whip this thing," he says. "It's just out of our hands. I'm not a fucking expert." He lets out a short, exasperated laugh. "But I'm becoming one. I'm becoming the public safety ingress and egress and blah blah blah expert, and I don't have the credentials for that."

The problem is complicated and wide-ranging, but it begins with cruising. Cruising clogs the streets and packs the sidewalks, attracting those who only want to hang around and watch the shiny cars drive in circles. It's the gateway leading to more people and more crime. Wisdom and Golbeck believe reducing the number of cars going in circles is the antidote to the poison slowly killing Deep Ellum. "The loitering and the cruising are the container in which the majority of unlawful activity takes place," Wisdom says.

It's not a new idea. Deep Ellum has officially been a no-cruising zone since August 1998, thanks to an ordinance spearheaded by John Loza, Deep Ellum's representative on the city council. This means any vehicle in Deep Ellum that passes the designated traffic-control point three times within a two-hour period is subject to a citation.

But there are too many chrome-coated coupes, souped-up Fast and the Furious wannabes and bass-booming SUVs slowly running laps from Commerce to Elm and back again to enforce the law. The majority of the cruisers began coming to Deep Ellum last summer, after police chased them away from their previous spot, Northwest Highway. Communicating via e-mail, they flirted with Oak Lawn briefly before setting up shop in Deep Ellum and have been going in circles since.

Besides the traffic snarls it creates, cruising is bad for entertainment districts such as Deep Ellum because it promotes a street-scene atmosphere rather than a club-going crowd. The more crowded the streets, the harder it is for people who want to go to a bar or a restaurant to get around, and the more likely it is that trouble will unexpectedly erupt. And anytime there's a big group of people in the street, criminals follow. As one Texas Proforce officer says, "They think they've got easy pickings."

The numbers support this last point. Statistics from the DPD show that crimes against persons in Deep Ellum are the highest they've been in years; there have been 48 (including four rapes) through June 30, compared with 61 last year and 54 in 2001. Of course, the rising crime rate isn't limited to one neighborhood: According to FBI reports, Dallas is No. 1 among larger U.S. cities for all crime and ranks just behind Chicago for most violent crimes. (See "No. 1 With a Bullet," July 31.) In Deep Ellum, the thinking goes, eliminate cruising and you cut the head off the snake.

Yet the volume of traffic makes the no-cruising ordinance "almost unenforceable," as Lieutenant Golbeck says. Not that they don't try. The Deep Ellum Association has funded a couple of stings; the first, on July 11 and July 12, netted about 50 tickets. But the process is costly and time-consuming, not something they can do every weekend.

"It's kind of like working out on I-45 during the busy part of the day and doing drug interdiction," says Texas Proforce's William Deal, the officer in charge of the firm's Deep Ellum detail. "You've got so much traffic out there that you can't pick out the person that's a good target for something like that. It's kinda hard when you've got three lanes of traffic."

So they're eliminating the traffic altogether. For the next few weeks, maybe more, the DPD is attempting its most radical measure thus far: shutting down Commerce, Main and Elm streets, beginning around 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. (The shutdown began August 1.) Main has been closed on weekends for a while, and so have many of the side streets between Commerce and Elm. Some business owners don't think shutting down more streets is the solution. It's just another problem for them to deal with.

"Saturday night, come down to Deep Ellum about 11:30," says a club owner who asks not to be identified. "Stay until 2:30, then try to get out. Try to get out of Deep Ellum. It's impossible." And this was before the owner found out Commerce and Elm were to be closed, too.

"People can't get into Deep Ellum that come out late," the owner continues. "So if you don't have a crowd by 10:30, you're screwed. You're basically out of it."

Most, however, are willing to take their chances. "From what I've heard from the business owners, they think anything would be preferable to the current situation," says Councilman Loza, who recommended the shutdown.

One of them is Jackson Fulgham, who owns the building that houses the Factory Outlet and the Chocolate Bar on Commerce. He's been living in Deep Ellum for 18 months. Lately, the silver-haired Fulgham has taken to tooling around the area at night on his bike, getting a better feel for the situation.

"My eyes have been opened," he says. "I'm usually in my house by midnight. I just haven't realized how bad it gets out on the street. It's pretty wanton out there. In the beginning, I guess I didn't know enough to really look at it, but the problems didn't seem to be near what they are today. They're horrible on a Friday night, a Saturday night and some other nights, too. They'll be eight, 10, 12 people thick on a sidewalk. This is just a gathering place. It's more and more a drawback to the person who wants to come enjoy something. They can't do it."

Fulgham has a point. Deal and the eclectic crew of Texas Proforce officers working with him--among them: Ron Eggleston, a cargo pilot; Dale O'Connor, a heavily tattooed former bouncer from England; Yvonne Dupont, who works with her daughter Jocelyne--spend most weekend nights riding herd over the scores of people wandering the streets. On this Friday night, they move them from one end of the street to the other like seasoned ranch hands.

Deal, a burly former Maypearl police officer and 25-year Navy veteran, diffuses any tension with humor. The jokes are somewhat corny--"We just saw the Backstreet Boys," one woman tells him; "Yeah, well I'm a Fatstreet Boy," he answers--but they work. Most people do what he asks and leave laughing. He makes the rounds like the mayor of Deep Ellum, glad-handing every doorman, greeting everyone else with a friendly nod and his signature "How you folks doing tonight?" The routine makes the hours go by faster--his crew works from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays--but the nights can be monotonous. The same faces appear over and over; the only change is the address. No one goes anywhere, it seems, except to a different street corner, the sidewalk in front of another club.

The sidewalks in front of a few clubs in particular--Palm Beach Reggae Club, Nairobi Sports Bar and Main Street Sports Bar--have been cause for much of the alarm. Few will single them out by name, but they make it clear whom they're talking about. This is where the problem becomes even more complicated: All of these clubs have a predominantly black clientele.

"You really can't say anything, because as soon as you do, they pull the race card on you," says one club owner. "It's not the point that we don't want them down there. The point is that they don't go in anywhere. They just hang on the streets, and they give the girls a hard time walking to their cars."

Comedian Chris Rock had a joke in his stand-up routine once, a staple of his act for a time. It even showed up in his 1997 book Rock This! "Ever notice how every city has two malls? The white mall, and the mall the white people used to go to. That mall must be something awful to actually keep white people from going. 'It's too black in here.' White people like black people the way they like their seasoning: just a dash."

"It's too black in here." This is the real reason behind the recent problems, some say. The increasing number of black faces in the neighborhood scares the white business owners.

"Although I know that some teen-agers have the tendency to get into trouble, you just can't single out one race, no matter how intimidating they may be to you," says Pikahsso, a local rapper who hangs out in Deep Ellum. "Because it's some white teen-agers, Hispanic, Arabic or whatever getting into the same mischief that the police allocate 90 percent of their time watching the African-American teen-agers for."

It can certainly appear that way some nights, especially since most of the police activity after 1 a.m. is focused on Main Street, where Palm Beach, Nairobi and, obviously, Main Street Sports Bar are located. But if you pay attention, it's not just because that's where all of the black faces are. That's where everyone winds up around the time the clubs and bars start closing--black, white, Hispanic, Arabic or whatever. Which means that's where most of the potential trouble is, too.

"When they hang out there, that's when the problem starts," Texas Proforce's Deal says. "Either the people who are sitting there will start saying something to the passers-by, or the passers-by will say something to them. But it winds up eventually causing a little bit of a problem."

One African-American employee at Nairobi Sports Bar doesn't mind the attention from the police. He wouldn't even mind a little more. Fourteen, 15 cops? That's not enough for a Saturday night, he says. The kids on the street are as bad for their business as they are for anyone else. Maybe even more. "It just makes the clubs look bad," he says, taking a long drag on his cigarette. That's why on weekends, he adds, the bar tries to be strictly 21 and up. "The youngsters are just looking to have a good time," he says, eyeing the street, "or cause trouble." The bar doesn't want any potential troublemakers pointing their fingers back at Nairobi's door. They just want a good crowd.

Everyone wants that. If you could assign the problem in Deep Ellum a color, it wouldn't be black or white; it would be green. The fights, the harassment, the crime--these are problems that make it difficult for everyone to do business. The police scrutiny on Main Street's clubs doesn't bother Augustine Ekukpe, owner of Palm Beach. He just wants those problems to go away.

"There was a time when the skinhead was doing the same thing that a lot of African-Americans are doing right now," Ekukpe explains. "Of course, the city of Dallas took care of it. I don't know how they did it. Then after that, the Spanish people took over. That's almost a year or so ago. The city system, I don't know how they did it, they took care of it. Now, it's the African-Americans who are predominantly here right now. So I think they have to use the same system on everybody."

Tommy Miller has been coming to Deep Ellum for almost 20 years, long before he could get into any of the bars. Not if he was showing his real ID. The 34-year-old has been in more bands than he can remember, and spent more time in clubs than he probably should have. But he has no regrets.

Well, maybe one.

On July 26, Miller went to the Curtain Club to see a band, have a few beers. A normal Saturday night for him. By the time he started walking back to his car, the streets were teeming. "It was packed," he remembers, "like it was a fair or a riot, just shoulder-to-shoulder people."

As he tried to squeeze his car out of the parking lot, a man calmly walked up, reached through his open window and grabbed a camera lying in the front seat. Watching the man run down the street, Miller knew he should cut his losses, chalk it up to bad luck and go home. "Man, if I leave my car, it's gonna be bad news," he thought to himself. But screw it. That was his camera. "Like an idiot," he says, "I start running after him. I didn't get 10, 15 feet from my car and I just got pounded on."

A forearm whipped against his neck stopped Miller in his tracks. Kicks to both legs sent him to the sidewalk. Then fists and feet came from everywhere, each blow reminding him why getting out of his car was a bad idea. "This is happening while I am chasing a thief," Miller says, not quite believing the words. He doesn't think the group of black men who assaulted him and took his wallet even knew he had already been robbed.

"They just saw me running and figured, 'Hey, let's beat his ass,'" Miller says. "There were things like that going on all night when I was walking to my car. There was just, like, surges of crowds, where one guy'd be chasing another guy and the whole crowd going in that direction. It was weird."

Despite this, Miller intends to keep going to Deep Ellum. "I'm just going to walk very carefully," he says. It's good advice, but many people believe there are even better words to live by: Don't go there at all.

Stuart, who works in one of the stores on Elm Street and asked that his last name not be used, is just waiting to put those words into practice. His lease at the Gaston Yard Apartments is up in October. After that, he'll find a new place to live and a new job, too. Stuart just wants out.

He's been feeling this way since April 19. After closing time, he stopped by Franzini's Pizzeria, picking up a couple of slices to take home and unwind with. His boss trailed behind Stuart in her car, making sure he got home safely--same thing she does every night after work. She was, he guesses, maybe 100 feet away. She might as well not have been there at all.

Halfway home, Stuart saw a car out of the corner of his eye, edging its way toward him. Something about it spooked him. Actually, everything about it did. Before he knew what he was doing, Stuart was running toward his apartment. Then he heard the screech of brakes and a voice: "Stop! Get down or we'll shoot! Don't run!" He turned and saw two men with guns.

He threw his dinner into the parking lot and followed it onto the pavement. The men took his cell phone, breath mints, the caffeine pills he takes to combat the late hours and the few bucks he had in his pocket. Even the change.

"Thirteen cents," Stuart says. "To the penny, they took it. I went back the next day, and there was no change on the ground. Not even a penny." He began planning his escape.

He's not the only one. Promoters and club owners have had fairly serious discussions about opening alternate venues, far from the growing concerns in Deep Ellum. The Arrangement and East Wind, both longtime fixtures on Elm, are leaving the neighborhood. And the list of lost customers is too long to even begin. "I've got women telling me they're scared to come down there now with their purses," says Club Dada's Brewer. "I've known them for 12, 14 years."

Robberies and assaults are a problem. But the thing keeping people away, however, is the stuff that goes unreported.

"Harassment, sexual harassment, intimidation, physical confrontation, assault--this kind of stuff is way out of bounds," Wisdom says. "And that's the kind of stuff that doesn't get on anyone's blotter. If you're walking down with your girlfriend, heading to Trees to see a show and some guys reach over and grab her breasts, and then the next thing you know, you're looking at six or seven different guys and they're all just dying for you to say something--that never gets on anyone's blotter. But you aren't coming back down here again."

Brewer remembers the night when a throng of men crowded onto the sidewalk outside of Club Dada, creating an unwelcome gauntlet for every woman who tried to leave. "I should have just popped off some Mace and gotten rid of them, but I tried not to do that," he says. "But yeah, there was like 20 of them grabbing every woman's ass who came out of the club."

Everyone in Deep Ellum, it seems, has a story that mirrors this one. Brewer does his best to make sure every sentence of each one finds its way to the ears of someone who works for Mayor Laura Miller. He thinks the police are doing the best job they possibly can, but it's not enough; they don't have the resources. So he hands out slips of paper with the number of the mayor's office to just about everyone who comes through the door at Dada. He's appeared on the radio discussing the issue. Whatever it takes. The way he sees it, the mayor is breaking the law.

"Well, the Department of Justice stipulates that the mayor of a major municipality is responsible to offer ample security to its citizens," he says. "I've got 10, 12,000 people down there. Some nights we got six cops, and two of them are on overtime. I'm pounding. I've been pounding people--give them her phone number, call her, call her. Because supposedly they log those calls. And I want her phone to get jammed up. 'Cause, you know, she wanted the job, and she got it. Well, let's do it, sweetheart."

The Commerce-Main-Elm shutdown is the first signal that city government is, at last, taking the problem in Deep Ellum seriously. Another good sign: The mayor's office has scheduled a sit-down with all the major players, a brainstorming session to come up with a solution. The summit will happen September 9, according to the mayor's chief of staff, Crayton Webb. Deep Ellum also will be a focus of the mayor's new Friday-morning accountability meetings with Chief Terrell Bolton and other city leaders.

"I do think that people in city government really care about us," Wisdom says. "But we're a collection of little fish. Because of that, we don't have as much immediate pull as the big fish. Obviously, if Ross Perot Jr. or Tom Hicks or somebody calls the mayor, I'm pretty sure that he gets a call back, even if she is on vacation. When guys that are down here who own a restaurant and live in a loft behind it, when they call, it's just not the same priority."

It helps now that Loza is around to do some of the heavy lifting. Deep Ellum needs someone who knows that Drastic Steps isn't just a band Wisdom used to sing for. It's what has to be done.

"I think it's going to send a message, I hope, that they're going to need to look elsewhere if they're just going to drive around without stopping or actually going anywhere," Loza says. "Hopefully it will get the point across. I've talked to a lot of people down in Deep Ellum over the past couple of weeks, and clearly the situation that they've got going down on the weekends right now just isn't satisfactory. We've got to do something about it. I can't say that closing down Commerce and Elm necessarily is going to be the only solution, but certainly, hopefully, it will be a good start on getting a handle on the crowds down there."

Not exactly strong language, but it's a start. Wisdom will take all the help he can get.

"I think there's a perception problem in Dallas," he says. "Part of my mission in taking over this job, and being involved in this area for 25 years in different capacities, is that if you look at Dallas' culture, if you look at the fact that people have a tendency to think that Dallas is a really shallow cultural town, well, Deep Ellum isn't. It's the one part of town that really isn't. It's not prefabricated. It's not a corporate chain idea that was built in some marketing room. It's the real deal. It has history back to the 19th century, and these are entrepreneurs who are down here because they believe in the idea. And my focus, my goal, is to get Dallas to start recognizing how important the area is and support it and look at it probably how New Orleans looks at the French Quarter, or New York looks at Soho. It's just as important to Dallas' cultural fabric as those places are to those cities.

"We need people to realize that we don't want this behavior in any neighborhood, not just Deep Ellum. West End had a problem like this years ago. For some reason it's moved over into this area. It's not as if we want it moved; we don't want it anywhere. Any place in this city, if we're running it the way that we should be running it, you should be able to go out, eat dinner, have a drink, see a band, do whatever you want to do and feel totally safe, particularly in our neighborhood."


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