Goodbye, Groovy East Dallas
I am concerned for my people. Last summer a neighbor spoke to me on my lawn in Old East Dallas—an artist, one of the original urban pioneers, a person who has lived an entire life of collapsing rooflines and spotty plumbing on our street midway between White Rock Lake and downtown. I wanted to believe she was looking over her shoulder while she spoke because she was ashamed. But she was not ashamed.
"I went inside one of those McMansions on the other side of La Vista," she whispered. "It was a real estate open house. And you know what, Jim? It was really nice!"
I said, "No, Valerie, stop. Please don't say these things."
"Everything worked. Even the windows! Everything. I bet they never have to call Roto-Rooter. And the kitchen! The kitchen!"
"You've got to get a grip on yourself. I'll tell Jordan on you if you don't."
"The kitchen was my dream kitchen!"
I am frightened. East Dallas, once a funky, diverse refugee camp for people on the lam from the real Dallas and maybe real life, is now well on its way to becoming the one thing none of us ever wanted. A nice neighborhood.
The nail in the coffin for me was the announcement in early January by Whole Foods Market Inc. that they will close their old store on Lower Greenville Avenue by the end of this year and open a gigantic new 50,000-square-foot foodie cathedral less than a mile away at Abrams Road and Skillman Street. When I went to neighbors hoping for commiseration, they stared at me instead with those unblinking, watery eyes the people had in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers after they'd been eaten by the space pods, and they said, "Oh, but Jim, the new Whole Foods will be so much nicer."
Nicer? Nicer? Like that's a good thing? In the old days we took pride in how crappy our part of town was. It took guts to live here. But that's all gone now.
Here's a story Jeff Liles told me. Jeff Liles is a filmmaker, one of the original creators and founders of the music scene in Deep Ellum, writes for the Dallas Observer sometimes, lives in Los Angeles most of the time. He told me about a time in the late 1980s when he lived in a little house just around the corner from my house:
"I can remember one night I was just sitting there by myself, and this guy climbed in through the window. I'm just talking to somebody on the phone. The guy was an African-American guy, probably 35 to 40 years old, and you could tell he was just cold. He was just cold and hungry.
"I didn't even have time to say, 'Hey, I'm going to beat this guy over the head with a bat,' or anything like that. I was talking to someone on the phone, and I said, 'Can you hold on a second?'
"I showed the guy the front door and walked him out. He was nice. He knew he was caught. But it never even escalated into a confrontation or anything like that. I said, 'I'm sorry, but I'm actually here at home.'"
See? That's what I mean. The guy apologized. And Liles did too. It was obviously a mix-up. In the Old East Dallas, people had respect. Even burglars. You notice how Liles asked the person on the phone to hold on? See, East Dallas was cool.
I don't think too many people realize that the Whole Foods on Lower Greenville actually evolved from a head shop across the street. The guy in the head shop started selling those very early organic energy bars—the ones that tasted like dirt—from beneath the glass counter with the rolling papers and the bongs. Next thing he knows, wow! He discovers that people actually need food more than they need marijuana.
The business went through a couple of owners and iterations, migrated across the street and eventually became Bluebonnet, which was so organic that the odor in the meat department was sometimes a bit bracing on hot days. But that odor made a statement: There are dead animals here. If you're going to eat meat, don't kid yourself about it.
Whole Foods, founded in Austin in 1978, bought out Bluebonnet in 1986. For a long time after the takeover, Whole Foods maintained the old hippie-dippy Puritanism of the place: no real chocolate, for example, just this fake brown stuff made out of soy or something that always gave me fits of spitting and pitooey-pitooey-pitooey every time I tried to eat it, you know—brushing at your mouth wildly with both hands to exorcise the flavor.
OK, let me stop right here and say that I know you hate me. Everyone I called hates me, because I'm sentimentalizing a period of decay and disarray in an American urban setting. Instead of whining about how much I love burglars, I should be on my knees giving thanks.
It's not like I haven't sought perspective. I tried to talk about this with East Dallas people and with people who have observed East Dallas from beyond its borders. I called Lorlee Bartos, a political consultant whom I have known for years, who has run mayoral campaigns and who is a very nice person usually. She lives just south of East Dallas on the other side of Interstate 30 in a neighborhood that has come a long way under her tutelage but is still, shall we say, significantly challenged. Her neighborhood is where we were when I moved in.
But every time I tried to tell her how sad I was about Whole Foods leaving Lower Greenville, she told me stories about her side of the freeway.
"It got so bad this summer one time, there's a house between the whorehouse and the drughouse, and the daughter showed up with a 3-year-old. She was bringing him in to use the bathroom, and she threw her car keys down on the seat. Then the minute she was in the house the skank who was watching from the whorehouse stole her car."
I didn't call to talk about ugly things like that. I called to talk about the whole ethos of the Lower Greenville Avenue Whole Foods, how it was a tie to a kinder, gentler time. But she wouldn't listen.
"This young couple," Lorlee said, "I think they're from Balch Springs, they put up three Confederate flags, two on the outside and one in the window. And then they stole my neighbor's pregnant pit bull. Then they put some sort of chicken wire on the outside of the house around the windows with wood around it for trim, and somebody said that's because they've got a python in the house. And they've got a 3-year-old and a baby."
Her point, I gather, is that absolute stability is not an option. You can have change for the better or change for the worse. Pick your poison.
"I have some concern about McMansions," she said, "just from the size and in terms of destroying the character of a neighborhood, but a new house is nice. It's better than a whorehouse or a drughouse, and you can quote me on that.
"It's sort of exciting to drive through East Dallas to see new stuff pop up here and there. I'm not opposed to new houses."
Fine, fine, fine. Point taken. I talked to Neal Emmons, a denizen of Oak Lawn, just west of East Dallas on the other side of Central Expressway. His area is fancy-schmancy. Emmons is a member of the City Plan Commission and sort of a walking encyclopedia of the history of neighborhood politics.
He said East Dallas actually has a better shot at enduring and holding on to some of its original character than any other part of the city. For that he credits the people who went to war politically over the last 30 years to create historic and conservation zones.
"East Dallas has been proactive with its historic and conservation districts," he said.
Without that check and balance, he said, the upward march of urban property values can wipe out the earlier, more modest character and flavor of a district overnight.
"It happened in Oak Lawn," he said. "All of our older residential property is gone, or most of it is gone. Once the property values go through the roof, we don't have anything to stabilize moderate-income housing. People are going to have to move to Grand Prairie and less expensive subdivisions."
But the conservation districts and historic preservation overlays protecting some parts of East Dallas were a product, it seems to me, of the Old East Dallas. They were created by the kind of obstreperous, trouble-making upstarts who occupied the region back in the day. Someone might call me unfairly biased, but I don't see the new people moving into those suburban-looking McMansions with the garages on the front—"snout houses," we call them—having the moxie to do that sort of thing.
I ran that by Norma Minnis, a ringleader in some of the early political activism in East Dallas beginning back in the late 1970s, and she had an interesting response. She said I was unfairly biased.
Minnis and her buddy the late Mary Nash were at the center of a group with then-city council member Lee Simpson who fought City Hall on a huge program of street and highway building in the inner city called "The Thoroughfare Plan." It was the equivalent of the Trinity River Plan today.
City Hall's bright idea was to blast through East Dallas with highways and big-bore one-way streets to ease the daily flow of people out into the suburbs, where it was assumed decent people would want to buy homes. At the time, our Dallas mayors and most of the people associated with the Dallas Citizens Council, a semi-secret business organization, were involved in residential tract home development in the suburbs and stood to make a decent nickel.
Minnis and her cohort were successful in getting most of the Thoroughfare Plan shot down—a big reason many of the cool older neighborhoods of East Dallas such as the Swiss Avenue district, the M Streets and Hollywood Heights exist today. But she told me on the telephone that she didn't think any of that made her or her group different from the people who are moving into East Dallas now.
She said most of the people she knew back then came to East Dallas to get deals on houses. "We paid $22,000 for one of those cute duplexes with arches, and we leased the upstairs out, which meant we lived for free. Then I moved to a house on Prospect in 1977. I paid $54,000 for that house and sold it for $455,000 in '01."
Minnis doesn't think her group brought a unique political quality into East Dallas. It was the other way around. She thinks East Dallas and the threats it faced from City Hall instilled unique qualities in them.
"When we all moved into the inner city and on Swiss Avenue, that group of people all moved in because there were great houses and they were affordable. We didn't know anything about zoning, but we just decided we were going to fight. What I learned about City Hall in those years I couldn't have learned from $100,000 worth of college.
"What went on in Old East Dallas was the classic Western movie. We owned the land. Somebody wanted the land, and they wanted to get us off the land. That's still the way I think about it.
"The people who always want to throw in with the developers and be nice, I think of them as the Vichy Government in World War II."
Minnis was a congressional aide during much of her East Dallas period. She is now a mortgage banker and lives in a mid-century modern house farther east near White Rock Lake. She thinks she and others who have moved on to other parts of the city have taken the Old East Dallas spirit with them in a kind of East Dallas diaspora.
"This area out here around the lake is now feeling the development pressure that we felt in Old East Dallas. They're tearing houses down here too. There's one just around the corner from us."
A controversy over a proposed mid-rise condominium tower on Emerald Isle Drive near White Rock Lake has drawn Minnis' new neighborhood together, she said, and some of the very people I am so quick to castigate as ninnies and McMansionites are becoming active in neighborhood politics.
Bob Weiss, the brand-new chairman of the City Plan Commission, described for me an elaborate process of meetings and consensus-building going on now among residents and business owners in Norma Minnis' area near White Rock Lake, which we might call Far East Dallas. The process, called an "Area Plan" by City Hall, is billed by city planners as an integral part of a citywide "master plan" that City Hall calls "Forward Dallas!" (please don't forget the exclamation point).
I would describe the process in Weiss' part of town differently. I would describe it as the people who live in neighborhoods around the lake trying to protect themselves from Forward Dallas! (please don't forget the exclamation point).
Forward Dallas! (please don't forget the exclamation point) calls for a bunch of dense high-rise development all along Garland Road, just like the Emerald Isle project that already has people's eyes bugging out of their heads in dismay.
Weiss, who is vice president for administration of the Meadows Foundation, is the plan commission member for the district where the Emerald Isle project is located. He was appointed to the plan commission by city council member Gary Griffith and was named chairman just a few weeks ago by Mayor Laura Miller.
Surprisingly, given Weiss' impressive credentials, he and I have a few things in common. We're about the same age, and he's from Newark. I'm from Detroit. Our hometowns went up in flames the same year—1967.
"Our cities were like sister cities," he said when we visited recently at the Meadows Foundation headquarters on lower Swiss Avenue.
Isn't that special?
But it's why he's enthusiastic and I'm conflicted about Dallas. We both know what a wonder it is that the inner city in Dallas has gone up in value and the outlying areas are also increasing, because we both know how bad it can get in the other direction, and how quickly.
"After University Park and Highland Park, we in Lakewood in District 9 have one of the highest retentions of value and appreciations of value in the area," he said. "And I think that's true because there's a whole confluence of factors here.
"It's easy to commute. It's residential. The landscaping is mature. Why wouldn't you want to live there? Crime is decreasing at a rapid rate. And you have the lake in your backyard. I can walk to the lake. This is good. I mean, why wouldn't I want to live here?"
That's the real estate happy talk—houses going up, up, up, lots going up, up, up and so on. But Weiss also talked about the inner life of the area—the internal values that have to be in place before the real estate stuff can happen.
"What makes community?" he asked. "Do we want to have a mix of ages? Do we want a mix of lifestyles? To me, the question is, 'How do we define who we are?' What do we perceive ourselves to be, and where do we want to be in 50 years in terms of church, house, neighbors, schools, all these things that make community? That's the discussion that's going on."
He said he thinks the physical process of those discussions—neighbors getting together and talking it out—can provide an essential political glue that people don't get anywhere else.
"We talk about this around here," he said, meaning the Meadows Foundation, which is involved in civic philanthropy at every level of city life. "Where do people learn how to conduct themselves in meetings? We don't have the same kinds of associations. People don't join bowling leagues. Maybe it has to happen in neighborhood organizations."
The problem Far East Dallas will confront at some point, however, is that the values Weiss describes will wind up in direct conflict with Forward Dallas! (please don't forget the exclamation point), which expresses the values of the professional city managerial class ensconced in City Hall.
This all goes straight back to the problems we had with City Hall in the days of the Thoroughfare Plan. To professional city managers and planners, everything is an engineering problem, a matter of weights and measures, yards of sand and tons of asphalt.
I heard a great quote from a top city official recently about the Trinity River Plan. At a public meeting in front of several people the official was asked about a problem with the plan. She said, "We are engineers. We can do anything."
I love engineers. They tend to be smart and honest. But engineers can do nothing. They can't put a hammer to a nail or a nut to a bolt until the people paying for the nuts and bolts settle the politics. The problem we have with Forward Dallas! (please don't forget the exclamation point) is that we've got the engineers doing the politics. And my question is whether the new folks moving into East Dallas since East Dallas got tamed are up to the fight.
I called Lee Simpson, a lawyer for the school district and a unique figure in local politics. During the battle years of neighborhood politics in the early 1980s, Simpson represented Old East Dallas on the city council and was a standard-bearer for the so-called neighborhood movement. Later he served on the board of Dallas Area Rapid Transit during the formative battles over rail transit in North Texas.
We talked about neighborhood politics in the East Dallas of today. Simpson used to live on my street in Old East Dallas, but now he lives in Lakewood, which is really an amalgam of neighborhoods west of White Rock Lake. He is the immediate past president of the Lakewood Homeowners Association. As president he found himself in the eye of the storm two years ago when the city council was debating new enabling legislation for conservation districts.
Conservation districts, like historic districts, legally restrict the changes people can make to their property and may set rules for demolition and limits on construction. Some people love the limits. Others truly hate the idea.
Old Lakewood by the Lakewood Country Club has been a conservation district since the late 1980s. But the northern reaches of Lakewood, closer to Mockingbird Lane and the north end of the lake, are not in a conservation district. Yet.
"In the fall of 2005 when the council was debating the overlay ordinance," Simpson told me, "we had a big debate in our neighborhood association. It was pretty heated. It was as heated as anything I saw in the old days.
"There was a real split between a lot of new people over here who are the same age we were when we got started over by Swiss Avenue. A lot of them were of the view that, 'I'm not going to tear my house down, but I sure don't want my property values interfered with, and I just don't think I'm for this.'"
Other people in the neighborhood, Simpson said, were just as adamantly in favor. "So there was this real kind of interesting split. It was hard to project really who might be for and who might be against it.
"So from that I took the view that, yeah, there is still a serious potential for neighborhood politics. Neighborhood politics is alive and well."
Angela Hunt, who represents my part of East Dallas on the city council now, took issue, if not umbrage, with my suggestion that the newcomers may lack the feistiness of the old guard, our energy, our charisma and, yes, I suppose, even our consistently good looks. In our day.
Hunt said, "I think there actually are more people embracing the character of East Dallas than people coming in and tearing down. It's just that the ones who are tearing down stick out like a sore thumb.
"Here is the empirical proof of that. We have had just an insane influx of conservation districts and historic districts—Junius Heights, Belmont, M Streets, M Streets East, Vickery Place, Edgemont. All of these are brand-new in the last five years.
"The fact is, Jim, the people who are creating those conservation districts and historic districts are not folks who have been there 20 years. They aren't even folks who have been there a decade. So many of them that I know personally are people who moved there five years before, a couple years before and said, 'Gosh, this is worth protecting.'"
Hmph. Well, we'll be the judge of that. How would these newcomers even know what to protect? Us. That's what they should protect. Protect us from windows that work, thermostatically heated pipes and Sub-Zero wine storage units. From sin!
I talked to Patty Turner, who owned Shakespeare Books at 1922 Greenville Avenue from 1982 to 1993. That street number no longer exists, but the building still stands and is occupied by Billiard Bar, where the Dallas Observer's Christmas party was held this year, which I missed, because no one told me Christmas was coming up. I may also have been held away by a certain sentimental regret, since that address, when it was Patty's store, was home to many wonderful evenings and afternoons.
Robert Trammell read his poetry there. He sometimes brought his buddy, Roxy Gordon, the Choctaw storyteller who lived around the corner in a house with animal bones hanging from the porch. Trammell died in 2006 at age 66. Gordon died in 2000 at age 54. There you have it.
Patty Turner told me exactly why she was drawn to East Dallas. She grew up in the area around Northwest Highway and Midway Road, in what was then brand-new white-bread heaven. She went to Austin to college.
"After Northwest Highway and Midway, when I went to Austin and saw the hippies and everything going on there, I thought I was in heaven."
Later she went to New Mexico. And then in the early 1980s she came back to Dallas. So if you've been to Austin, and you've been to New Mexico, and now you're back in Dallas and the thought of white-bread suburbs makes you want to die, what do you do? You keep driving around, all night and all day if you have to without food or water, until you find East Dallas.
Get out of the car. Fall on your knees and kiss the ground. Open a bookstore. Makes sense to me.
Turner, who says she's not a big fan of regimentation, resisted the creation of a conservation district in her East Dallas neighborhood, Hollywood Heights.
"Now I'm so glad they did it," she said. "They were right. Someone was really smart."
"I think the conservation district will save some of the flavor of the area, but the flavor also comes from the proximity of downtown, the closeness of Hispanic areas, the diversity. I love the fact that I can go down the street and buy really good tamales."
Craig Holcomb, who was the city council member for my area after Simpson and long before Hunt, doesn't live in East Dallas anymore. Now he's a high-rise cosmopolite on Turtle Creek, over in Neal Emmons' part of town. But he told me he thinks East Dallas will always maintain its character, not just in spite of the newcomers but because of them.
"Your premise, that you're moving to Old East Dallas to get away from certain types of people, that was never my motivation," Holcomb said. "I grew up in a solid white neighborhood with 3.2 children, and everybody had a car. There were no Jews. There was one Catholic family. There was nobody of color.
"I moved to East Dallas because I wanted to experience all the diversity, including diverse opinions, that a big city has to offer."
Holcomb also rejects the assertion that all of the new homes are cookie-cutter and the ones they are replacing have character.
"The thing that has intrigued me for a number of years is that 10 years ago if you drove down the streets in Old East Dallas, you would be able to pick out some older houses that were cookie-cutter homes, homes that had been built with the same plan, windows in the same place and so on.
"As much as I love [Clifford D.] Hutzel [designer of many of the houses in Old Lakewood], you know that there had to be a catalog that said, 'For this much money you get a wrought-iron balcony on the front, and for this much more you can also have a wooden balcony.'
"If you read the history," he said, "Old East Dallas was the suburbs."
A good point. The staff of the Texas/Dallas History Department of the Dallas Central Library found an aerial photograph for me of East Dallas when "old" Lakewood was just being cut from the fields, before any houses had been built. That was 1925.
I found my house in the bottom corner of the same picture. It was built nine years before the picture was made. I've lived in it now 22 years.
Nothing here is really that old to begin with, is it? Well, me maybe.
There are nooks and crannies still here and there in East Dallas where I can go, squeeze my eyes shut and imagine for a moment that it's 1982 and everybody still has sideburns. In fact in one of those places when I open my eyes again everybody does have sideburns, including half of the women. I speak, of course, of the Gold Rush.
Ah, the Gold Rush Café at 1913 Skillman Street near the intersection of Live Oak Street—an outpost of the old boho-rococo East Dallas, where some people were born weird and others have to work at it. On any given afternoon, the Gold Rush hosts a full lineup of whispering booth lizards, hungover rock musicians, proper young Lakewoodites with soccer children and people who look like they just came in on the Mars Express—"Uh, uh, excuse me, uh, do you guys happen to know what planet this is?"—and all of them in a harmony and bliss sublime. A symphony, a picture to behold.
In people who are tightly bound to a certain joint the way the Gold Rush clientele are bound, there is commitment beyond mere customer loyalty, perhaps in some cases even bordering on obsessive-compulsive disorder. For example, the Gold Rush, a small place now, was tiny before "the expansion." In the mid-1990s it doubled to its present modest size by taking in an adjacent shop and knocking down a wall.
George Sanchez, proprietor/spokesman for the extended clan that runs and owns the Gold Rush, told me his original customers, who date to the pre-expansion era of the Gold Rush, won't sit on the "new side."
"They all want to sit on the old side, not on the new side," he said. "We even have our new East Dallas in the Gold Rush, and they won't sit over there."
Isn't that interesting, that people who see themselves as either fleeing from the monotony of sameness or drawn to the interest of diversity can be so extremely conservative in their own habits? But not me. I stopped trying to eat those soybean chocolate balls a long time ago. I have grown.
"If a development comes in across the street, it's a business development anyway, and it's going to make my values go up. Nobody cares if I weep for the hippies. I'm not upset either way. Development happens. Shit happens. Whatever you want to say. You cannot stay stuck in a time frame."
Well, thank you, Avi. I certainly feel uplifted by that.
So here it is, then. Fine with the McMansions. Fine with the new development, the whole deal. Things are better in most ways. The conservation districts will preserve the architecture. The new people will learn. Some of them may even start hanging out at the Gold Rush.
But certain kinds of stuff just won't happen anymore. It's a ghost, a whisper, a will-o'-the-wisp. And it's gone, gone glimmering down the dirty alleyways and through the tangled forests of neglected backyards, lost beneath sodden clothing and furniture of evictees dumped in front of tottering apartment buildings, gone and lost now because East Dallas is too good for it. Too nice.
Jeff Liles told me this story:
"I miss seeing Roxy Gordon's house," he said. "I would drive by, and that would just make me feel like I was in East Dallas. He had all these animal bones, these bone sculptures that hung down on the front porch. His house was like a living museum of outlaw culture. Now it's a vacant lot.
"I remember going over there one night, and the door was open, and you could tell a bunch of people were all hanging out in the living room. There were all these guys sitting around drinking straight from the bottle, and this guy was sitting in the corner, singing.
"And it was Townes Van Zandt [legendary Texas singer-songwriter, died in 1997]. He was just sitting there singing all of his songs for a handful of people in this living room.
"Roxy went back into the kitchen, and I kind of followed him back there, and I was, like, blown away. I wanted to thank him. I said, 'Roxy, I can't believe I'm getting to experience something like this. Thank you so much.'
"He said, 'Dammit, Jeff, can you take him with you? He's been here a fuckin' week.'
"I said, 'Well, I'm staying with my parents in North Dallas. I don't know if I can bring Townes Van Zandt over to my house.'
"Shit like that happened all the time, man."
In the upper right-hand corner, you can see "old" Lakewood being cut out of the fields. That was 1925.
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