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Out of the rubble

It can be difficult to define precisely what Deep Ellum was. Visual representations of its earliest street life are scant, aside from this 1922 photo of streetcar track being laid on Elm Street, several photos of Jewish shopkeepers, and a couple of images of blacks walking along Central Track. Deep Ellum was not a neighborhood, strictly speaking. Few lived there, at least after the turn of the century. It was a business district--more accurately, the confluence of two business districts, one white (and mostly Jewish) and the other black. Put simply, Deep Ellum was a few blocks of New York City plunked down in Dallas.

Deep Ellum as it exists in 1998 is not even a ghost of the neighborhood that stood in its place 70 years ago. A shell, perhaps, but only that--a frame upon which the savvy hustlers of today have hung their neon banners hoping to attract the young, the monied, most often the white. Seventy years ago, Deep Ellum was a little bit of New York stuck in the middle of downtown Dallas--where white Jews opened their pawnshop doors to black customers, where black club owners and theater operators provided cheap and glorious entertainment for their brothers and sisters; where the city converged to eat, drink, sleep, party, carouse, and gamble from dusk till dawn. It was the center of the city, though it existed on the fringe--not quite downtown, not quite uptown, not quite anywhere.

Oh, there are vague similarities between then and now: Commerce, Elm, and Main streets still smell of food being prepared in restaurants, still echo with the sound of music being made in the myriad nightclubs, still teem with crowds that fill the streets at night looking for a fast good time. But just look at the photos scattered throughout Alan Govenar and Jay Brakefield's book Deep Ellum and Central Track (which appear here, along with corresponding condensed excerpts), pictures that reveal a world lost to history, ignorance, and bulldozers. Gaze upon the beautiful buildings, the hand-painted storefronts, the black and white faces commingling in shops and on street corners, the legendary and never-known musicians caressing their instruments, the shop owners offering their wares, the nightclubs bursting with elan. The pictures are black and white (in more ways than one), but the images explode with radiant color. You can almost hear the notes coming from the photo of sax player Buster Smith as he leads his band through a swing set in the 1940s; you can almost smell the pie served up in Issy Miller's cafe at Elm and Central Track (which eventually would give way to Central Expressway), way back in 1932.

That was what Govenar and Brakefield wanted their book, which will be published by the University of North Texas press in January, to accomplish--to revive a bit of mowed-down, paved-over history, and to set straight so many of the myths that exist about what used to be this city's most vibrant neighborhood. Govenar, a Yankee who has spent the past two decades preserving this city's lost history, recalls that when he moved to Dallas in 1980, he was shocked to find that the only information the Dallas Historical Society had on Deep Ellum was an excerpt from the WPA Dallas Guide and History, written in 1940 but unpublished until 1992. And even then, the chapter--titled "Deep Ellum: Harlem in Miniature"--managed to get a few things wrong, such as the boundaries that actually defined the neighborhood.

"That was all they had on Deep Ellum," Govenar says. "It was then I decided to do something about it."

Govenar and Brakefield, a longtime writer at The Dallas Morning News, met at the funeral of pianist Alex Moore, who died in 1989 on a city bus--alone, penniless, forgotten. Govenar had rediscovered Moore and brought him some national acclaim, but it wasn't enough to rescue the brilliant musician from the footnotes of history; it's his ghost that permeates the entire book in some ways, beyond the chapter dedicated to his life and death. Govenar had been asked to deliver a eulogy at Moore's funeral, which Brakefield was covering for the Morning News; the two men met and became friends, a bond strengthened when Brakefield did a story on the history of Deep Ellum for Black History Month a short time after that.

"I started checking around, and somewhat to my surprise, found out no one had really done a book on Deep Ellum," Brakefield says. "It had been touched on in a lot of other places, so Alan and I started talking about it in November 1991, and we started working on one." Govenar had long wanted to do a book on the neighborhood--at least since 1985, when he made the 12-minute film Deep Ellum Blues for the Dallas Museum of Art. Its accompanying soundtrack cassette featured many of the musicians who performed around town in the 1920s and '30s. But Govenar had always thought the project was an "insurmountable task for one person to do." They decided to collaborate, and began full-swing on the book in 1992.

 

That the book took so long to complete is not surprising; it's more astonishing that they finished it at all, given that so many of the musicians and store owners from that era had long since been buried, or possessed failing memories at best. "It was very hard to get a handle on something you knew you could never do completely," Govenar says. "When we started, we knew this book should have been done 20 years before we started doing this work."

Brakefield began his research by going through old city directories, tracking down the names of families who once had businesses in Deep Ellum; it was "like pulling string," Brakefield says, as one name led to a dozen more. Govenar used some of his older interviews with musicians who had since died, including Alex Moore, Bill Neely, and Buster Smith; he also expounded upon the research he had done for the 1992 book Bluesland, to which he contributed a chapter about Blind Lemon Jefferson.

"We were just finding anyone and everyone who had anything to say about that whole area of Deep Ellum and Central Track," Govenar says. "It was very hard to pull together as a book, because there were a lot of disparate stories, lots of fragments of information." The authors would then collect the information and try to authenticate it--as best they could.

The result is a book that's less a cohesive narrative than a patchwork tapestry, beginning with the pastures and hog pens of Dallas in the 1870s and ending with Deep Ellum's slow rebirth in the 1980s. It chronicles the men and women who built Deep Ellum, who laid the track along Central Avenue, who ran its shops and cafes and nightclubs. The book is built upon characters--not just old buildings that, for the most part, are no longer standing--folks such as pawnshop owner "Honest Joe" Goldstein, nightclub owner Ella B. Moore, gambler Benny Binion, musical icons Blind Lemon Jefferson and Marvin Montgomery, restaurateur Quintan McMillan, and, most interestingly, architect William Sidney Pittman, who designed some of Deep Ellum's most distinctive buildings. His is a name seldom uttered, perhaps because most of his structures no longer stand; his legacy has been reduced to rubble.

But such is the way Dallas preserves its history, by tearing it down till it exists only in old photos kept in a closet--at least until someone like Govenar or Brakefield comes snooping around, asking questions about something that happened a lifetime ago. It is often said that history is written by the winners. Not in this case. Rather, it is penned by two men who just wanted to know a little more about a corner of Dallas, who pried away the old bricks and brushed off the dust and discovered they could never learn enough.

"At the beginning, I sort of had this idea of Deep Ellum--the way it's sort of presented in musicals: Here's Deep Ellum in 1925, and all the folks are out dancing and singing in the streets," Brakefield says. "And you know it wasn't like that. That's a heightened fantasy image of it. What we tried to do was home in on the specifics: This guy had a pawnshop, this guy had a cafe, and so on. And then get those specifics and pull back and see the bigger picture."

--Robert Wilonsky

Many of the pawnbrokers and merchants of Deep Ellum had migrated from Eastern Europe, fleeing oppression and seeking opportunity. Some landed at New York's Ellis Island before moving south and west to cities such as Dallas. Others were among the 10,000 Jews who entered through the port of Galveston between 1907 and 1914 under the Galveston Movement, or Galveston Plan, organized and funded by New York financier Jacob Schiff. All the pawnshops in Dallas during the 1930s were owned by Jews, and for years, virtually all were in Deep Ellum. Most made their money primarily on small loans at 10 percent-per-month interest. People hocked, or "soaked," virtually everything: shoes, suits, guns, musical instruments, artificial limbs. For poor blacks and whites alike, the pawnshop operated as a bank, lending money and giving credit and selling merchandise at reasonable prices. Some customers of pawnbroker Label Feldman--who remained in business on Commerce and Harwood until the mid-1990s--even had their checks mailed to his shop for safekeeping and drew out money as they needed it.

Deep Ellum was, in effect, the "black downtown" of Dallas. It was, in the words of former judge Louis Bedford, "centrally located...the heart" of the city, where white and black converged out of convenience, if nothing else. "If [people] wanted to have a bite to eat and they had no place to eat because of the segregated atmosphere, there was Deep Ellum," recalls Bedford, an African-American. "It was someplace where people could go. There were people living in Oak Cliff, people living in South Dallas, people living in North Dallas, but Deep Ellum was the core." In this picture, taken some time between 1910 and 1914, black soldiers march down Elm, near Akard, toward Deep Ellum.

 

In 1947, pianist Alex Moore, a fixture in Deep Ellum during the 1920s (when he cut six sides for Columbia Records), was recorded at KLIF's studios, but only two sides were issued, "Miss No More Good Weed" and "Dishwasher's Blues." The latter song may have been autobiographical, since Moore was never able to support himself through his music and worked at a variety of jobs, including dishwashing, driving mules to haul gravel, and serving as a custodian and hotel porter. This photo shows him playing for dancers while still clad in the coat he wore to wash dishes. In the background is his boss, Walter E. Wilden, dancing with his wife. On the photo Moore inscribed his name followed by the address where he was performing, noting that the venue allowed "white patrons only." In 1960, Moore finally recorded at length for the Arhoolie label, and in 1987, he was awarded the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. A year later, Moore died of a heart attack on a city bus, and when he died, he didn't have enough money to cover the cost of his own funeral and burial.


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