Oak Cliff Becomes Cool Embracing What Other Parts Of Dallas Have Fought: Builders, Bikes And Immigrants
Can an entire city reverse field?
From World War II until now, the beckoning horizon in Dallas has been the cool, air-conditioned neighborhoods north, where houses are new and low-slung, lawns are pool-table smooth and garage doors open by themselves.
But if North Dallas has been the city's field of dreams for decades, then 10 miles south and across the river, what do we call the clanging, potholed automercado of W. Davis Street in North Oak Cliff? The word we're never supposed to use—because it's snobbish, hurtful and has racist overtones—is slum.
But there you have it.
Until almost this very moment in the city's history, North Dallas has been the city's Sinatra-land of mid-century aspiration, and Davis Street, for at least 30 years, has been what people in Sinatra-land would call a slum.
Is it even conceivable, then, that half a century from now, Davis Street could be the city's leading edge—its realm of cool and aspiration, the Seinfeld-land of a post-automobile urban tomorrow?
Blessed with topography but cursed by abandonment, North Oak Cliff has always been the kid who should have had a date but didn't. It sits on a long, hilly limestone escarpment cut by deep-running limestone creeks, with craggy ridges and cliffs beneath a thick tree canopy of post oaks, cedar elms and red cedars.
There are enclaves of wealth and architecture. Stand on any one of the canyon-walled streets in Kessler Park near Interstate 30 and North Hampton Road. Gaze up at the mixture of traditional houses and ultra-modern glass-walled space stations. Blur your eyes just a bit and sniff the cedars. You could be in the hills just outside Austin.
A few blocks away is Winnetka Heights—a 50-block collection of 1910s and 1920s Arts and Crafts and Prairie-style wood-sided homes, most of them beautifully restored, on deep-shaded streets in the heart of North Oak Cliff. Stand looking down any of these streets, and you could be in Pasadena, California.
And then you might come to certain stretches of Davis Street or some other commercial artery nearby where you would look around, as a colleague of mine from South Texas did recently, and say, "Oh, I know where this is. This is Mexico."
Tire stores, taco joints, auto repair places, some rogue operations you don't want to know too much about, all sending up an endless jangle of steel on steel and thumping Mexican jam-box rock.
One day as an experiment, I ask Theresa O'Donnell, the city's Director of Sustainable Development and Construction, if West Davis in North Oak Cliff could become the city's new leading edge, instead of North Dallas, and she doesn't pause a heartbeat: "Oh, absolutely," she says.
Of course, she immediately hedges her bet. Too diplomatic as a city official to give one section of the city her endorsement over others as the Next Big Thing, she says: "There are so many good reasons to repopulate everything inside Loop 635. It makes sense for everything: transportation, gas prices, lowering our energy usage, reusing the stock that we have. It's everything."
But I ask her again: Does she think North Oak Cliff in particular might have a special edge because it seems more open to re-development than, oh, say, my own part of town— Old East Dallas.
She laughs. Another city official the day before, speaking to me off the record, had said, "Yeah, it stands a better chance, because it has fewer people like you, Schutze."
O'Donnell is demure: "It is an interesting concept, where they are embracing development, as opposed to East Dallas, which has been contentious."
That's what I thought. In fact, that's why I got interested. It seemed to me I was hearing people in the historic districts of North Oak Cliff say things that we in East Dallas would consider sacrilege.
In particular—and I don't want to drag you too far down zoning-talk lane here—there's a thing called the Bishop/Davis Plan about to come before the Dallas City Council, proposing things we in East Dallas would fight tooth-and-nail.
The plan, backed by a consortium of developers and neighborhood leaders, wants to give developers a huge break on the amount of car parking they are required by law to provide when they redo an old building. It would also allow mixed-use development in some areas where it is currently barred by city zoning laws.
Forget the ins and outs of parking requirements. It's too complicated. The parking thing is a marker for larger attitudes and culture having to do with so-called new urbanism. It's the Seinfeld thing—apartments over storefronts, buildings that crowd the sidewalks, people walking to shop instead of driving, people who need people instead of people who need privacy.
Oak Cliff wants re-development—restaurants, stores and, horror of horrors, drinking establishments. In East Dallas we're at war against those same things. Think Lower Greenville in East Dallas. Think years of guerilla warfare by neighborhood activists fighting to keep bar patrons from parking on surrounding streets and urinating on surrounding shrubbery.
East Dallas landlords tell me they can't get investors interested in restaurants on Lower Greenville because nobody wants to fight the neighborhoods. Right now on Henderson Avenue in East Dallas, neighbors are fighting to prohibit crank-out awnings for outdoor tables at restaurants, probably in the hope the patrons will get sunburned and stay home.
In North Oak Cliff, the neighborhoods are beckoning, if not begging, for the developers to come. The Bishop/Davis Plan would cut developers some serious breaks in exchange for their agreement to reuse old buildings instead of tearing them down.
Here's the stunning thing: In a month of talking to people in North Oak Cliff, I did find some who were worried about the plan, but the much larger trend was for neighborhood activists and leaders to support the idea of giving developers a break, in the interest of attracting more re-development.
That's the kind of talk that could get you tarred and feathered anywhere within three miles of Lower Greenville in my part of town. But it's also one of several reasons why North Oak Cliff could become the city's new leading edge.
When I started hanging out in North Oak Cliff and talking to people, the first thing I was forced to admit to myself was that a more congenial attitude in some neighborhoods has already drawn some very cool re-development there. On Davis, one alley away from Winnetka Heights, Edwin Cabaniss, an Oak Cliff resident and entrepreneur, is restoring an old movie house, the Kessler Theater, built in 1941, as a community cultural center, dance studio and music venue.
His main consultant on the music venue is Jeff Liles, one of the creators of the club Trees, in Deep Ellum, that in 1990 helped spark that district's famous and then infamous career as an entertainment district and then high-crime area.
If someone drove down Live Oak Street, a block from where I live in the Swiss Avenue Historic District, leaned out the window and even whispered, "music venue," angry peasants from my street would pour onto the cobblestones with torches blazing, shouting, "Give us the monster! Give us the monster!"
We're what you might call emotionally scarred.
But from the leadership of Winnetka Heights, Cabaniss gets something like hugs and kisses. David Haedge, the current president of the Winnetka Heights Neighborhood Association, says, "Cabaniss is the kind of guy you can trust, and if things don't work out, you feel that he's going to bend over backwards to make sure that the neighborhoods are happy."
Paul Maute, a past president of Winnetka, says, "Cabaniss has the neighborhood's interests at heart, because he is a neighbor. He's not coming in from somewhere else."
Yeah, we have neighbors like that in East Dallas. We have a name for them if they say "music venue": people moving to Waxahachie.
But we're also coming from the other end of the dial. We suffer from too much fun. Or think we do. Maybe we just don't like fun.
Oak Cliff does, according to Maute. "For a long time there were a lot more people in my community who liked it just the way it was, even though they had to cross the river to go to a grocery store they liked or, heaven forbid, a liquor store, or go out to eat or any entertainment.
"There are fewer of those folks these days and more that are interested in development, even what some people refer to as gentrification. They don't want to drive across the river. They want to ride their bikes or walk or maybe take a streetcar if that comes along."
Haedge, the current president, thinks it has at least a little to do with generations: "We've got the guys that are 40 and under," he says. "They're the new people. They're moving in. They want the development. They want the theaters, the stores and the restaurants and stuff.
"And there are guys that are 50 and older. They're probably more like East Dallas—still kind of leery about all these new things coming in."
Cabaniss is far from the only developer in North Oak Cliff betting on acceptance. Monte Anderson, a developer of both commercial and residential property in North Oak Cliff, is wagering all his time and money on a demographic he calls "cool people" coming into the area looking for what he calls "the grit."
The people he sees arriving already are just what the doctor ordered, he says—community-builders with some money to spend, people who are urban-tolerant and not out to ethnically cleanse or mall-ify the areas they colonize.
"We're getting people whose kids are grown, who are moving back from the suburbs, wanting to be in closer," he says. "Then we are seeing couples who went off to college, got educated, got their careers going and are having kids, 35-year-olds and 40-year-olds."
Scott Griggs, 35, an attorney and Oak Cliff community activist, recently provided a driving tour of the main area of impact—a triangle of territory with its vertex just across the Trinity River from the southwest corner of downtown Dallas.
We met at the Belmont Hotel on Fort Worth Avenue, a sophisticated re-imagining of an old Travel Lodge motel, developed by Monte Anderson. A steep lane up from the hotel lobby took us to a ridge where Anderson is developing new townhomes: We gazed out over downtown Dallas as if from a low-flying aircraft, a strange sensation for me after so many years of thinking of Dallas as a flat place.
Not here. From the Belmont, Fort Worth Avenue plunges downward to the Trinity River, very much the way Austin's South Congress Avenue falls to the Colorado River. I remember Fort Worth Avenue just a few years ago as junk car lots and super-seedy tumble-down motels. But what's left of that stuff now is mainly boarded-up behind wire fences or scraped to the bare dirt, probably being held while somebody waits for the economy to come back.
Griggs grew up in North Dallas, attended Richardson schools, went to Texas A&M, then UT law school in Austin. For him and his wife, Mariana, North Oak Cliff is a reminder of places they would rather be.
"Austin is hard to leave," Griggs says. But he sees direct parallels between what's going on currently on Fort Worth Avenue and the successful re-development of South Congress, Austin's south-of-the-river movie star and hipster hangout.
"You would say the Belmont is the San Jose," he says, a reference to a famously cool retro hotel on South Congress. "Another parallel would be a place like Jack's Back Yard," he says, referring to a compound of once-grungy metal buildings artfully repurposed as restaurant, bar and music venue just off Fort Worth Avenue, down the hill from the Belmont.
"It's like Barton Springs Road," he says, speaking not of Austin's famous swimming hole but of a district of beach volleyball and music bars where Barton Springs Road meets South Congress Avenue.
"The story of South Congress has parallels here," Griggs says. "They had some rough years. There were some great neighborhoods around it. People reinvested, and now it has a character."
North Oak Cliff is a tiny area when compared with what people refer to loosely as North Dallas. Measured from the northern tip of the Park Cities, North Dallas comprises about 70 square miles. Even a generous measurement of North Oak Cliff, bounded by West Dallas on its north, extending west into Cockrell Hill, south not quite to Executive Airport and east to Interstate 35E, barely makes up six square miles.
Griggs, Anderson and a host of other Oak Cliff movers and shakers all promise that they don't want to see the ethnic nature of the area changed drastically. Good thing. Whatever is to be the flavor of North Oak Cliff in the years ahead, that character will reflect ever greater numbers of working-class Hispanics, many of them recent immigrants from central Mexico.
Robert V. Kemper, a professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University who has studied the roles immigration and gentrification play in American society, says the demographic projections don't lie: North Oak Cliff is going to be predominantly Latino and blue-collar for some time to come. Detailed demographic maps for ZIP code 75208, a rough overlay of North Oak Cliff, reveal that most of the area will be 90 percent Hispanic in 2014, with household incomes under $50,000. The exceptions are Kessler Park, Stevens Park, Winnetka and North Wynnewood—longstanding enclaves of affluent Anglos, gay people and middle-class this-old-housers.
Kemper says the movement to Oak Cliff of immigrants from Central Mexican states, especially Guanajuato, reflects at least as strong a trend as the arrival of Anderson's cool people.
"The core of that," he says, "goes back into the 1990s when they set up Casa Guanajuato," referring to a community resource center in the center of North Oak Cliff.
"Then Governor [Vicente] Fox, who became [Mexico's] President Fox, came up and inaugurated it. There was a program he helped start in his state where migrants would send funds back to their villages, and the Mexican government would provide matching funds for infrastructure improvements."
So which is it to be? New Austin? Or New Guanajuato?
District 1 City Council member Delia Jasso should know the ground. She is Latina and immersed in the Mexican-American politics of her Oak Cliff district.
Jasso says her part of town is drawing affluent but tolerant newcomers who will meld comfortably into a Latino-dominant community, settling in well beyond the borders of the enclaves on Kemper's maps. She says the newcomers seem to be seeking modest incremental improvement, as opposed to socioeconomic bulldozing.
"These people are trying to bring in the good things from where they lived before and trying to incorporate that into Oak Cliff, and everybody here has open arms," she says.
Jason Roberts, 35, is emblematic of this new breed. He grew up in Garland and went to Richardson schools. After traveling Europe with an indie rock band, he let his wife talk him into moving to Oak Cliff, where her grandfather had lived for 50 years.
But the pair tired of seeing friends decamp from Dallas for cooler places like Portland and Seattle. Roberts became an activist for bike lanes and trolleys as a way to make Oak Cliff cool too, all of which brought him into contact with the early 20th-century street grid in North Oak Cliff.
"I would notice these tiny little commercial buildings nestled inside residential areas," he says, "most of them boarded up, of course. I just kind of got curious as to what were those things."
He researched the grids and learned the old buildings were the ends or junction points of streetcar lines. He spoke to some elderly residents like his wife's grandfather. "He told us the stories about how this one grouping of small structures here would have been a butcher, a barber and a few other things."
The little boarded-up shops he saw were the kind of things someone like Roberts considers cool—intimate, service-oriented businesses, walking distance from nearby houses and apartments, as opposed to big-box retail five miles away on the freeway and surrounded by a sea of parking.
"It was kind of fascinating to see we had these neighborhood businesses before, and we had zoned those away," he says.
By "zoned away," Roberts means city laws passed after World War II, especially parking requirements, which had worked in favor of big-box retailers and to the detriment of small neighborhood shops.
The gleam in the eye of Roberts and his ilk is the pre-war street grid in old North Oak Cliff—the basic bone structure of Seinfeld-land, a walkable urban universe like the ones 30-somethings grew up watching on TV and thinking of as cool.
Still there but buried beneath a detritus of post-war zoning, the old grid and the way of life it supported can be brought back to life, they believe. When that happens, they say, North Oak Cliff becomes the city's new-urbanist leading edge, with advantages over other old parts of the city like North and East Dallas.
Roberts and the group he helped found, the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, scored an enormous coup February 17 when the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a $23 million start-up grant for a trolley system in downtown and North Oak Cliff.
Before Oak Cliff Transit Authority wrote the original grant request, no one at City Hall was even thinking about trolleys in Oak Cliff. Apparently the grant writers convinced somebody in Washington that North Oak Cliff is Dallas' best bet for trolley-based new urbanism.
If the new-urbanist future does arrive in North Oak Cliff, it will owe a debt to the old urbanism of the Latino immigrants, according to Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico working on a book about the Hispanicizing of American cities. Dallas is one of five American cities Sandoval-Strausz has chosen for his study.
"Since 1950," he says, "roughly 25 million people have moved from Latin America into American cities, based on U.S. Census numbers."
Blighted inner cities that have not seen much foreign immigration, such as Detroit, have not experienced much recovery since the urban crises of the 1960s and '70s, he says. But inner cities that have been targets of an immigrant influx have done better.
"In the recovery from urban crisis, one of the things that really saves American cities is enormous numbers of people moving into them again," Sandoval-Strausz says.
Now, given the interest in new urbanism here and around the country, those places with large immigrant populations could be especially well positioned. Sandoval-Strausz believes that one reason why Latino immigration has been good for the cities is because Latino businesses occupy storefront spaces that Anglo businesses can't use.
"The new Anglo-dominant retailing strategy is the big box out on the interstate. However, Latinos generally depend on the bodega, the botanica, the panaderia, and those businesses are perfect for the small 25- or 50-foot lots. So they are able to use urban spaces that have been abandoned by English-speaking people."
The immigrants, he says, are "the perfect new urbanists" because they are old urbanists. And on a more personal note, when he sits over coffee in North Oak Cliff's Bishop Arts District, Sandoval-Strausz, a product of the northeast, loves what he sees.
"It's beautiful. It's a walking community. If it develops just right, people will walk to get their groceries. They will walk and see each other on the streets. The reason the Bishop Arts district is so cool and groovy is that it's a human-sized streetscape."
Bishop Arts has become a kind of town center for North Oak Cliff. On a mild winter morning, people meander amiably across the streets with coffee in their hands and rolled up newspapers under their arms, stopping to chat in the middle of the traffic lanes.
An Oak Cliff Mardi Gras Parade, only two years old but already promising to become a tradition, was created as a deliberate effort to draw people into Bishop Arts from the surrounding blue-collar Latino areas. From the looks of the crowd last February 7, the event accomplished its aim.
Lots of people agree the Bishop Arts District is groovy—a clutch of galleries, shops and restaurants, some high-end, some funky, in gently re-purposed 1920s low-rise brick buildings on half a dozen blocks near the southern reaches of North Oak Cliff.
Given that the entire planet is real, it seems strange to give any one spot credit for being more real than others, but everyone does it for Bishop Arts. In fact, Bishop Arts always gets credit for being the two things that seldom go together in Dallas—cool and real. Less well-known is how it got that way.
Dallas has many residential historic and conservation districts, but a thin track record on the preservation of commercial districts. Deep Ellum, the entertainment district just east of downtown, is battling to recover from a near fatal bout with street crime. The West End lingers on. West Village is cool but fake.
In my part of town, East Dallas, the city's first older area to be reclaimed from decay, our assumption has always been that salvation is in restrictions—tougher laws to prevent radical remodeling, re-purposing or plain old bulldozing of old buildings. In East Dallas anywhere within five blocks of the Lower Greenville bar district, neighborhoods have gone vigilante, not to say postal, on parking restrictions. The neighborhoods have insisted that developers purchase expensive land for parking lots. But they also have used political muscle at City Hall to get residential streets posted, making it illegal for non-residents to park there. In part it's an effort to starve the beast.
So it's a surprise to hear Oak Cliff neighborhood leader Rick Garza's explanation of how he thinks Bishop Arts was saved from the wrecking ball. It started in 1992 with Bishop Arts becoming a "conservation district," under city law—a kind of legal island carved out from citywide zoning requirements, with its own local rules, sanctioned by the city but specific only to Bishop Arts.
Where I live in East Dallas, in a similar kind of district, we used very tight architectural rules to control things. You can't even repaint your house the same color without permission.
But Garza, an architect who has rehabbed several apartment buildings on King's Highway near Bishop Arts, says the architectural rules in Bishop Arts are slack and were not a big factor in rejuvenating the district.
"Most people would naturally think Bishop Arts has all of these architectural guidelines and restrictions when, in fact, it really doesn't," he says. "Those are pretty lax."
Indeed, the Bishop Arts ordinance contains language that would have been anathema to preservationists in East Dallas: It says an owner who changes the façade of a historic building in the district is "not required" to conform to the architectural styles of the district but is "encouraged" to do so. In the East Dallas historic and conservation districts, encouragement is what we call a subpoena.
Garza says Bishop Arts flourished less because of restrictions than because the 1992 ordinance that created the Bishop Arts District radically reduced the amount of parking that building owners had to provide when they re-developed a building. Instead of tightening the reins, the ordinance loosened them in some ways.
The carrot, then, for keeping an old building in operation was that the owner who kept an old building standing had to provide only half the parking required of another owner who tore down an old building to put up a new one.
"The relaxation of the parking requirements is the single biggest tool that has been used to preserve and revitalize the Bishop Arts District," Garza says. "Can you believe that?"
The relaxed rules may have pushed some overflow parking into surrounding residential areas. But it also meant buildings in the district were not replaced with parking lots. Every time you walk out of one shop in Bishop Arts, you see a row of other interesting shops right across the street from you. You feel like Jerry and Elaine.
The city's parking code for new development and major re-development is a touchstone for what those like Garza and Griggs see when they look at the street grid in North Oak Cliff. They see a community that was designed for trolleys and buses, strangling beneath a silt of post-war, suburban-style zoning designed for the automobile.
Current Dallas law assumes that stores and restaurants will be set back far from streets with plenty of parking out front, as in a strip shopping center. The only way the owner of a 1930s curbside commercial building could afford to meet that requirement would be by tearing down his building and putting up a strip shopping center. By cutting parking requirements in half and making the old buildings in Bishop Arts commercially viable, the city, through its carved-out ordinance, has effectively excavated and revived the old commercial grid, thereby connecting past with future.
David Spence, one of the early developers in Bishop Arts, is emphatic that the same medicine now must be dosed out to a longer reach of Davis Street in order to expand the success of Bishop Arts.
"The idea," he says, "is to use parking concessions to give people a real strong financial incentive to not tear down that 1947 showroom on Davis or that 1937 garage building or that 1953 Humble filling station."
Spence is one of the sponsors of a proposed regional "planned development district" for a large chunk of North Oak Cliff contiguous to Bishop Avenue and Davis Street—roads that intersect at the entrance to the Bishop Arts District. The plan, expected to reach the Dallas City Council in late March or early April, includes a number of developer-friendly provisions similar to the breaks given developers in Bishop Arts.
Michael Amonett, president of the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League, wants to keep an open mind. "How do you make an old building more valuable to the developer standing than torn down?" Amonett asks. "That's my biggest thing. How can I work with all these people and make that happen and allow us to retain our character and our culture and our heritage?"
Maute, the former president of the Winnetka Heights Neighborhood Association, says the plan will actually redress problems with the city's zoning laws as applied to North Oak Cliff. "What we have are very suburban requirements overlaid on vintage buildings, and they don't work."
Opinion in the area is by no means universally supportive of the breaks for developers championed by Spence and other developers. Darryl Baker, a retired City of Dallas planning official and longtime Oak Cliff resident, worries the new plan for the Bishop/Davis area is somebody's way to make easy money shoehorning more apartments into single-family areas that don't want or need them.
"What Oak Cliff needs is more rich people," he says, "and more homeowners and people with skin in the game."
But Maute says the days of knee-jerk reaction against City Hall and developers are over. "I'm a heck of a whiner," he says, "but, you know, gee whiz, can we move on now?"
Susan Mead, one of the city's best-known zoning attorneys, has been involved in zoning battles in literally all of the city's redeveloping older districts. She says the attitude of neighborhoods in North Oak Cliff probably is less hostile toward commercial developers because of Oak Cliff's more acute need.
"The entire southern sector of Dallas is prime for more retail," Mead says. "It would not surprise me, along with all the historic preservation activities that have occurred in Oak Cliff for decades, that there is also a big dose of realism, because they have gone without basic retail."
She says the Cliffies are tired of driving. "People in Oak Cliff drive to the Kroger on Cedar Springs or the Albertson on McKinney Avenue, so they are in a little bit different position in terms of their level of need."
There could be other reasons, of course, why North Oak Cliff's enclave neighborhoods—the demographic islands that show up on Professor Kemper's maps—may be feeling more soft-hearted than they did a decade ago toward developers who want to do small projects in older buildings. Just before the bottom fell out of the financial markets, huge blocs of low-end apartment buildings near West Davis Street were purchased and bulldozed by speculators. Now the land sits vacant.
District 6 City Council member Steve Salazar, who represented the Davis Street area before district maps were redrawn in 2001, suggests there may be a certain amount of uneasiness over what will happen when all that land comes back into development. "When I represented that area before 2001, the neighborhoods wanted to do away with the tire shops on Davis. Ten years later, those are the same people who are saying, 'Well, maybe those are not so bad.'
"What they don't want are big, multifamily-type communities that could pop up there," he says.
Theresa O'Donnell, the city's planning and development director, sees it more Susan Mead's way: "I think we've seen a sea change in Oak Cliff. People who live there and work there don't want to have to drive to Uptown or Oak Lawn or East Dallas to shop or go to a restaurant or find entertainment any more, so they are certainly willing to be a little more development-friendly."
O'Donnell concedes East Dallas has legitimate historical reasons for its leeriness, especially having to do with what she calls "the alcohol factor."
Oak Cliff, once totally dry by local option, has lots of permitted alcohol sales in restaurants and clubs today, but O'Donnell points to a key difference: "Typically the residents in Oak Cliff are the ones going to the nightclubs and bars there," she says. "But on Greenville, you've got people coming in from the outside that don't share the same values as the people in the neighborhood."
In fact, the saga of the Lower Greenville bar district and its bad relationship with surrounding residential neighbors is a kind of scary bedtime story told by just about everybody in North Oak Cliff as That Which Must Be Avoided at All Costs. And where O'Donnell is diplomatic about whom she means when she talks about "people from the outside," the Oak Cliff people think they know exactly who the scary drinkers are.
"Kids from Highland Park and SMU," says Chris Zielke, a co-owner of Bolsa, a sophisticated eatery and bar just down Davis Avenue from Bishop Arts. "I don't think there is the same demand here for a bar that is only a bar and not a restaurant as there is on Lower Greenville. You don't have the same SMU population."
Oak Cliff has a drinking crowd but not much of a puking crowd, according to Zielke. "It's a little bit of an older, more professional crowd that's moving down here."
And yet the specter of Lower Greenville darkens the brow of almost every Oak Cliff mover and shaker who talks about the future of Oak Cliff. Imagine that Oak Cliff persuades the city to loosen the parking requirements on Davis Street and expand the success of Bishop Arts: What is to stop Davis from turning into Lower Greenville? Zielke of Bolsa, a veteran of liquor license negotiations, concedes there is no reason liquor licenses couldn't be granted to booze-only bars in Oak Cliff.
A scary thought. Oak Cliff people tend to pronounce even the name, Lower Greenville, with a certain sidelong glance. Maute, the former Winnetka Heights president, says, "For Winnetka Heights the big deal is that we don't want Davis Street to turn into Greenville Avenue."
Amonett, head of the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League, vows with a certain fervor it will never happen to Oak Cliff. "Nobody's going to come over here and piss in anybody's yard," he says.
But how do they know that?
O'Donnell says it's not easy to control drinking and behavior with ordinances. "If it's a handful of neighbors going down to have a sandwich and maybe a beer at a restaurant and they walk over, that's one thing. If it's a bunch of college kids driving in from SMU or from Allen, and they're parking in the neighborhood and causing trouble, that's where the rub is. You can't zone responsible behavior."
And all of that—to drink or not to drink and how much—is a debate within the non-immigrant minority. The larger question about North Oak Cliff—New Austin or New Guanajuato—remains on the table, unanswered.
Brent Jackson, a grocery store developer, may have a hint. Jackson, 35, a product of St. Mark's School and the Park Cities, is president of his own company, Oaxaca Interests, which has acquired property near Kessler Park for an organic grocery store.
He had his own demographics done. He won't disclose specific information, which he says is proprietary, but he will say that his demographer saw both elements—upscale professional and Hispanic blue-collar—in the crystal ball for North Oak Cliff and that both elements together are a good fit for his purposes.
Jackson concedes his plans for a high-end grocery store are on ice right now until the financial markets calm down, but he says North Oak Cliff is worth waiting for.
"We believe our site to have sound fundamentals, and that is our investment strategy—to really find something that is a long-term investment."
That's pretty good skin in the game.
Mariana Griggs, a teacher and community garden activist, wife of Scott Griggs, the lawyer, is an ardent partisan of Oak Cliff, not so much for what it is at this moment as for what she intends it to be.
She spoke recently of returning from a trip to Amsterdam with her husband, where they had sought ideas on how to make Oak Cliff more bike-friendly. She admitted that re-entry from beautiful Holland to scrappy Oak Cliff involved moments of pain on the way in from the airport. "Oh, I have to come back here?" she said to herself. "Miserable!"
"But then," she says, "you have to look at it again from a point of view where you say, 'Here, I have the chance to move everybody in that [bike-friendly] direction.'"
Even if the rest of the city's older areas are also coming back and began doing so ahead of Oak Cliff, Grigg's sense of adventure—her pride of pioneering—may be what sets this particular realm of Dallas apart and gives it a leg up. And who knows? North Oak Cliff may already be a leg ahead of the game.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.