Lost and found: Edward Harris hopes to save Second Avenue from extinction.
Lost and found: Edward Harris hopes to save Second Avenue from extinction.
Robert Wilonsky

Here's Hoping

It is the privilege of all dreamers to see hope and promise where others see gloom and rot, so Edward Harris will understand if you scoff at his plans for growing an urban paradise in this field of weeds and trash. The 56-year-old grew up in this very neighborhood; his father still owns an automotive repair shop nearby. Harris has heard countless others make, then just as quickly break, the same guarantees he makes today. "I've always been on the receiving end of those promises," he says. So he will understand if you jeer, because all those promises all these years have resulted in all that now lies before Harris as he stands on the busted sidewalks of Second Avenue in Fair Park: a street that's all but gone to hell.

There remain but a few businesses open on Second, between Fitzhugh Avenue and Scyene Road. Among them are a few hair salons, a dry cleaners, a liquor store, a few storefront churches, a fish market and catfish restaurant, a tire retailer and a tiny recording studio. There is also a child-development center, which recently opened a beautiful roller-skating rink on the premises, and a no-tell motel that charges low, low rates. And, in the interest of full disclosure, there is my father's auto parts store, which has been on Second Avenue since moving from Deep Ellum on January 1, 1955.

Among these few businesses are long-shuttered buildings, some on the verge of collapse, and vacant lots. At any time of the day, you will also see prostitutes trolling parking lots.

But none of this is what Harris sees when he walks down Second Avenue.

"This is where I would like something like Reciprocity," he says, referring to the bohemian poetry cafe in Oak Cliff. "I see a theater here on the corner, a one-screen theater. We might go multi-screen. We're gonna do independent films, all-black casts. And this is no kiddin', but a lot of black folks say, 'What about the old Batman and Green Hornet serials we were raised up on?' And I say why not? Get your cup of java, see a movie."

"Tex" Harris walks and talks, pointing out the amphitheater he envisions sprouting out of the vacant lot. He promises new retail outlets, with new homes behind them--two-story residences with balconies that will allow people to see their shining new Second. Every inch has been planned for development, which Harris wants to begin within three years. Never mind that there is not yet money for this project, which Harris estimates will cost $75 million. Hope and vision, for now, will have to do.

Harris' plan for Second Avenue was unveiled January 4 on the front page of The Dallas Morning News' Metropolitan section. My father, Herschel, read the story, which promised a "bustling entertainment district" along Second Avenue from Fitzhugh to Scyene. He pointed to the map of proposed development. "For the first time, I am one of those dashes on a map," he said, trying to not let himself pretend it meant anything.

"If I'd been anyone but myself," Dad said a few days later, "I would have read that story and thought, 'Wow, that's neat. When's that gonna happen?' But knowing what's here and spending my whole life here, I find it almost too hard to swallow. No matter how much money they put into Fair Park, it doesn't attract anyone."

Harris swears this is different. And maybe he's a guy you can believe. Certainly, city council member Leo Chaney believes him. "We gotta give people hope," he says. "We want to make Second Avenue grow, make it better. It's a dream. It's a vision." Many of the other merchants up and down Second all use the word "hopeful" when talking about Harris and his plans.

He possesses legit credentials: a degree in urban planning from the University of Texas at Arlington, a job since '98 serving as a community liaison for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a recipient only last October of his mini-MBA certification for nonprofit management from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. All of this checks out; the guy is who he says he is. But can he do what he says he will do?

He wants to turn Second Avenue into Beale Street, which he discovered on a trip not long ago to Memphis, Tennessee. For decades, Beale Street was a hotbed of prostitution and gambling, a boulevard dotted by vaudeville theaters and corner cafes and juke joints; the street's official Web site recalls when the street was so thick with customers it would take an hour to walk a single block. And it was on Beale Street where the modern-day blues were said to be conceived by W.C. Handy; his offspring would include the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King and countless others who provided the dirty boulevard's soundtrack in the '50s and '60s. "To me," said Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, "Beale Street was the most famous place in the South." Certainly, after private and public money came to Beale more than two decades ago and started opening nightclubs, it became Memphis' most famous tourist attraction.

There are at least two problems with the comparison: Recently passed zoning doesn't allow bars and nightclubs along Second Avenue, and the street has no such storied history. For decades, it served as a major thoroughfare in and out of South Dallas; it got you from the Grove to downtown, from the country to the city. South Dallas has been home to many musicians famous and anonymous, but Second Avenue has never served as a gathering place for them. My father recalls that in the '50s, there were diners and an A&P grocery store and an ice house and a hardware store called A Million Items and a few department stores, even the Dal-Sec and Lagow movie theaters.

It was the city that killed Second Avenue in the mid-'70s, when work began to expand Third Avenue and make it, not Second, the main thoroughfare. When Robert E. Cullum Boulevard opened in '81, Second Avenue died as quickly as a severed limb. The blood flow had been cut off from the main artery, and Second became a forgotten and abandoned street. Thriving businesses quickly emptied; empty buildings were quickly abandoned; abandoned buildings were quickly torn down and replaced by trash-strewn lots. "And the problem was," my father recalls, "nothing ever developed on Cullum. It's just a faceless parkway, because there's nothing on it. And Second never came back. Drugs moved in, and then, six or seven years ago, came the prostitutes."

Last October, city officials spent $1.5 million for a well-regarded San Francisco-based architectural firm to tell them what they already knew: Fair Park, and the neighborhood around it, is dying and needs to be saved. Among the recommendations made in the 103-page report was a Second Avenue Entertainment District, to feed off the Smirnoff Music Centre and the South Dallas Cultural Center. There's mention of residential apartments over "community retail" (which current zoning prohibits, actually), "re-creation of historic street fabric on Second Avenue" and new retail at the corner of Second and Scyene. There are even lovely sketches of an idyllic and bustling street bereft of crack houses and prostitutes. It's like a picture of what Harris sees in his head. Dad, too. Till he wakes up.

"It's kinda like the time we thought the Olympics were coming and didn't," says my father. "Everyone went home sad, but it was a wake-up call: Most things that are supposed to happen don't happen. Dallas wants to be a big city but has no idea how to go about it. But I will say this: I'd like to say I'm wrong. I'd like to say I missed the whole deal. I hope I'm wrong."


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