X marks the spot

Not content to let Dallas school trustees corner the market on racial skirmishing, Dallas City Hall seems ready to reclaim a bit of its old territory, even if it needs a largely symbolic issue to do it. The subject: a proposal to rename Oakland Avenue, which runs from Deep Ellum through South Dallas, after slain Black Muslim leader Malcolm X.

Though discussion before the Dallas Planning Commission last Thursday was particularly restrained--revolving mostly around the cost to business owners of changing promotional brochures and cards--the sideline comments of several name-change proponents, and a few Deep Ellum property owners who oppose the move, showed that harsher feelings lie just below the surface.

"I think it's a racist proposal. That's what I wrote on my response to the city," said Don Blanton, a Deep Ellum landlord and developer who owns four businesses that abut Oakland, one of which fronts on the street.

"Quite frankly, everybody wants to sweep this under the rug, but as far as I'm concerned, Malcolm X is not somebody I idolize. He was the one calling people like me blue-eyed devils."

The fact that the nearly all-white Deep Ellum business bloc would find reason to oppose the name change--and to wonder who besides a handful of black politicos are pressing it--was enough to prompt a few accusations from pro-X people as well.

"I thought Deep Ellum was supposed to be so artsy-fartsy and progressive," remarked Charles Hillman, a director with the Afro-American Artists Alliance. "These folks are acting like the Klan...I think they're racist."

Says Marvin Crenshaw, a minority rights activist and perennially unsuccessful political candidate who is leading the name-change push: "I don't know what else it could be."

The issue and its crabby subtext go on to the Dallas City Council next month after the planning commission voted 6-3 to approve the change. "People were avoiding some of the issues, trying not to hurt anyone's feelings, and quite frankly, I think that isn't a bad thing," said Planning Commission member Rick Leggio after Thursday's vote. Leggio was appointed to the panel by council member John Loza, whose district includes Deep Ellum.

The last time the X question came up, in 1994, Crenshaw collected one misdemeanor assault charge for scuffling with a security guard at a planning meeting, and another for attempting to pop council member Bob Stimson, who opposed renaming a 10-mile stretch of Illinois Avenue. Opponents filled nearly half the City Council chambers, with some saying they feared the change would inhibit people from visiting their businesses or cause them trouble selling their homes.

Proponents this time include Crenshaw, council member Al Lipscomb, and former council member Diane Ragsdale, who say renaming the 3.2-mile avenue will instill a sense of community pride and spark the same kind of economic revitalization that began on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard after it was renamed in 1981.

"We had whorehouses everywhere...we had crack houses; you know we did. Today you can't find a one because of that name change," Lipscomb told the planning panel. "What we are talking about is instilling something."

On South Oakland, he said, "You see prostitution, drugs, complete decadence...We're talking about saving the community."

The issue reached the agenda under city rules that allow a street to be considered for a name change if a request is made by three council members--in this case Lipscomb, Don Hicks, and Charlotte Mayes.

Ragsdale, who weighed in for a historic neighborhood group, told the planning panel that Oakland is ideally suited for the name change because most of the street runs through African-American neighborhoods. It is also fitting for the six-block swath it cuts through Deep Ellum because of the area's history as a center of black commerce and entertainment, she said. "We cannot ignore the strong African-American history in Deep Ellum, particularly in the area of the arts."

According to Mamie McKnight, founder of Black Dallas Remembered, Deep Ellum was the home of two black theaters, numerous blues clubs, rooming houses, and black- and Jewish-owned retail shops in the 1920s and 1930s. The name itself is a variation of Deep Elm, for the street that runs through the center of what now is a district of clubs, restaurants, and boutiques.

The organized voice for those businesses, the Deep Ellum Association, gathered about 100 signatures on a petition opposing the name change. "The response has been a resounding 'No,' said association president Michael Morris.

He said his group's members have a variety of concerns, but the only argument the association is making is a financial one.

"We spent a lot of money this year on marketing the area, about $20,000, and we don't have that money to spend again," Morris said. "We'd be opposed to this if they wanted to change it to Bob Hope Avenue or Walt Disney Avenue or whatever."

He said maps printed on promotional materials show Oakland as a cross-street marking the eastern edge of the district. Only one or two businesses front directly on Oakland, he said. "I don't presume to know all the reasons why people are against it, but the most widespread concern is that a change will bring confusion."

He also questioned whether there is support from anyone on the street, given that only four people spoke for the proposal last week. The city sent 223 landowners a survey on the issue, and only 10 replies were in favor of the change; 33 said they were opposed. "It strikes me, if you want to change a street name, you'd need to arouse a little support," Moore said.

Only two of the nine Deep Ellum business owners who spoke against the proposal last week mentioned the substance of the request. "I'm involved in a development right now at I-30 and Oakland and have spent over a half a million dollars there," Steve Click told the council. "It may come as no surprise that all of my investors are white. They may not have an adequate knowledge of Malcolm X, but they do feel it's a controversial name...Maybe it's our problem, but it is a problem that can hurt the economic development of South Dallas."

Monica Greene, owner of Aca Y Alla, a restaurant on Main Street, told the panel, "We have worked very hard to change people's opinions and attitudes toward Deep Ellum...Without taking anything away from Mr. Malcolm X's achievement, there are other people who have affected more positively the condition of black Americans."

Leggio said the Deep Ellum business group is obviously concerned that the change could hurt business. But in that, they're probably a lot more cautious than their clientele.

"I've been going to Deep Ellum since 1983, and one of the things that drew me to it was that it had many types of people listening to many different types of music," said Leggio. "Many different types of people were having a very, very good time. The city was tolerant. They knew people were living in buildings where they shouldn't. Tolerance marked that area for a long time, and you sell the people who go there today a little short if you think a perception of controversy is going to drive them away."

He said the concern that brochures will need to be reprinted is a real one and that the city should feel obligated to help defray that expense. The only other expense associated with the project would be $8,500 to change street signs, according to city planner Elias Martinez.

Planning commission member Mark Housewright said he was disappointed his compromise solution to the dispute was prohibited by city rules. An overpass at I-30 provides a clear division in the street, making it logical to rename only the southern part Malcolm X Boulevard, he said. Seizing on all the symbolism involved, planning commission chairman Hector Garcia said, "I hope that for once we don't allow I-30 to separate our communities."

Dallas City Council is expected to take up the issue November 12.

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