Feature Stories

Reimagine Crowdus Could Be a Glimpse Into the Future of Deep Ellum

Deep Ellum looks a little bit different this week. No, it's not because another restaurant opened there (although you could be forgiven for losing track). Starting last Sunday, three blocks of Crowdus Street have been closed off, from Emerson to Commerce, under the auspices of Reimagine Crowdus. For the next month, those blocks will be turned into a pedestrian space with picnic tables, trees, artwork, live music and movies.

At a time when Dallas' chief entertainment district is as crowded as it's been in a decade, such a self-proclaimed experiment could feel foolhardy in the face of growing congestion. But the hope, organizers say, is to get Deep Ellum to think about itself differently.

"A gathering space would just make it more of a complete neighborhood. Deep Ellum is this destination where you come out for a show or a beer. Or beers and a show and then another beer," says Jessica Burnham, the executive director of the Deep Ellum Foundation, who's spearheading Reimagine Crowdus. "Right now, Deep Ellum doesn't have any public space besides sidewalks and patios. If you're a resident, the closest place you have to just hang out in is the dog park."

The idea behind Reimagine Crowdus is to figure out a plan for just such a space. But don't call it a park. "A lot of people keep calling it a pop-up park and it's not," Burnham says. The street will remain paved in order to allow for service vehicle access. "We're not putting grass on the street, just trees. We want it to be a comfortable gathering space." Burnham cautions that the next month is intended simply as an incubator of ideas, with no commitment to permanently shut down any street in the neighborhood. 

Activities kicked off Thursday night with a screening of Dazed and Confused, and will include programming each night through Oct. 1.

"I like that stuff like this is happening down here. Five years ago, nobody was coming down here trying to do anything like this. It looks cool and I like the design of it," says Gavin Mulloy, the creative director at Trees and The Bomb Factory, who admits the real test of the concept will come on the weekends. "I think it's cool something that isn't being done anywhere in the nation is being tried out in Deep Ellum."

Not that closing Crowdus is a totally new idea. "The idea of turning Crowdus Street into some kind of pedestrian street has been talked about for several years," Burnham says. She points out that the same stretch of road is closed down each month for the Outdoor Market, and a similar concept to Reimagine Crowdus took place last year — though only over the course of one weekend.

Burnham says that, in such a car-centric city as Dallas, Deep Ellum is the perfect place for such an experiment, and Crowdus' central location makes it the ideal guinea pig within the neighborhood. Closing it off could also be in the interest of safety: "[The intersection of] Main and Crowdus, especially, has a lot of accidents there, and a lot of potential accidents," Burnham says.

But even in the course of the monthlong experiment, there are some practical implications to consider, particularly for the businesses located along Crowdus. "My take is obviously a bit negative and a bit positive," admits David Murry, the owner of Reno's Chop Shop, who confirms that he was consulted by Reimagine Crowdus organizers before the closure took place. "It's only a month, so it isn't going to make or break us. I look forward to seeing how it pans out."

While access to parking has been rerouted by the changes, Reno's on-street parking was already limited along Crowdus, and Murry is mostly optimistic about the potential effects. "We're a destination bar. We're not one of those bars people walking up and down Commerce, Main, even Elm wander into," he says. "All these picnic tables and places for people to sit are going to be sitting right in front of Reno's, so it may be a reasonable way to introduce a few more people than we might normally see there."

Kerry Crafton, a longtime sound engineer who's worked in clubs and recording studios throughout Deep Ellum since the 1980s, likes the idea behind Reimagine Crowdus, but fears its execution will put an undue burden on the venues along that street. "The access to those places on Crowdus — Curtain Club, Wits End and Reno's — is on Crowdus for a band loading and unloading," he points out. "There's absolutely no way to get into some of those places without street exits. [Bands] can't just park five blocks away and carry their gear."

If an idea like Reimagine Crowdus were to be put into place long term, there would be plenty of issues like that to sort out; space is already of the essence in Deep Ellum without closing streets off. But solutions are possible: "In Austin on Sixth Street they do this all the time, right?" says Crafton. "But they don't block it off till like 8:00 so bands have access to load in. And they don't put stuff there [in the road]; the streets are just walking paths."

While traffic has become more congested in recent months, broader concerns about reduced parking in the neighborhood could still be easy to overstate. "I don't think the people driving around are circling. They're driving down, parking and walking around. I don't know that walkability is even effected," says Mulloy. "I remember coming down here when they [used to] shut down Elm Street [on the weekends], I was like 15 to 18. I didn't care if I parked in downtown and had to walk to get here."

Burnham says the Deep Ellum Foundation has already been in exploratory talks about some possible solutions to relieve traffic flow issues in the neighborhood, including setting up a queueing station for Uber drivers or providing a shuttle service. But, she contends, "Maintaining [Crowdus] just to have parking there doesn't help the neighborhood as much as the added value of having public space."

It's that kind of thinking that Reimagine Crowdus is really out to kickstart. "After September, we could discover this is the worst idea ever," Burnham says. "There's no concrete plans on what will happen except that there will be a case study to gather everything we've learned. ... We really do want all the feedback we can get."