Deep Ellum Still Keeps It Real

Two pillars—one an old stalwart, one a new roustabout—of Deep Ellum were Q&A'd on local Web sites last week. The stalwart was Frank Campagna—the feisty proprietor of Kettle Art, the rebellious art space in the heart of the neighborhood—who was featured on, and the roustabout was Chelsea Callahan—a local music distributor who mans the bookings at the Double Wide—who was interviewed on Quick's blog.

You have to give props to the Dallas Internet media on this one; they chose their subjects well. Both Callahan and Campagna represent a unique kind of loyalty that is specific to Deep Ellum. The kind of dedication they both display is an outgrowth of a burning ardor for Dallas' subculture that is often a chore to maintain consistently. It's easy to succumb to naysaying when the hounds of development are barking. Or when we think we can hear them in the distance, but we're not really sure.

What is it about this neighborhood that lights such a fire? Part of it is nostalgia for that one special moment when Deep Ellum achieved that rare balance—the one that never lasts—between hope and hype. There was a time when the "underground" creative world of the place simmered at just the right temperature. This was a time when the borders of Elm, Commerce and Main streets were swollen past their boundaries and surrounding roads such as Crowdus and Canton and Pacific caught the overflow with banks of clubs and music joints. This was a time when the "right people" knew to go there and did, just milliseconds before Deep Ellum was "discovered" and suddenly there were loafers amidst the Doc Martens, button-downs and chinos amidst the leather and latex. And you know—we always know—the paradoxical physics that have plagued every burst of creative energy that man has ever known, at least music-wise: Every scene has an apex that takes place in semi-obscurity, in the shadows, when everything is perfect, but only for a few. As soon as the spotlight exposes it to a mass audience, it dies, or as Campagna puts it more simply, "Things come and go."

Or things become something different. For instance: Recently, The New York Times Magazine published an article about a new Donald Trump development—a large, upscale condominium building—being built in the midst of SoHo. Though the designers have chosen to downplay Trump's usual aesthetic of gaudy, literally gilded buildings, the article notes that the condos in a way represent the final nail in the coffin of the heyday of creative SoHo. I read the article around the same time I watched a VH1 documentary focusing on New York in the year of 1977, and the combination of the two provides some meaning—or at least some context—for Deep Ellum.

New York City, 1977, was a shithole. It was not the city we know today: Safe, buzzing with neon lights singing the gospel of The Lion King, Budweiser and Home Depot, with nary a bad neighborhood to be found, clean and orgasming with new development.

Nope, back then New York was a bankrupt shell. Sure, parts of the five boroughs were as ritzy and money-drenched as they've always been, but those places were surrounded by rotting hulks of buildings in SoHo, Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, the Lower East Side and Hell's Kitchen (now renamed by real estate developers as the less intimidating "Chelsea/Clinton" part of town, which reminds me of a certain part of Dallas 10 years ago that out of nowhere fell under the tag "Uptown," just before the concrete was laid for a gazillion overpriced apartment buildings). There was piss on the streets, graffiti-coated subways and abandoned buildings everywhere. Much of the city was also, literally, on fire—there were record numbers of arsons, both random and in conjunction with a number of riots (some of which coincided with the 28-hour citywide blackout) related to race, poverty and general hopelessness.

But the city was on fire in another way too: musically. The empty warehouses and deserted tenements provided ample room for a startling amount of very different—but equally revolutionary—creative movements to be conceived, and soon hotspots of disco, punk and hip-hop flared up. Of course, these three movements later became nationally significant in and of themselves, before spawning every other pop music genre since then (house, grunge, grime, industrial, post-punk, synth-pop, new wave, etc., etc., etc.), but at the time, they were known only to the "right people," creating a scene large enough to be important and dynamic, but small enough to stay under the radar, and part of that underground nature was due to locale: The gentrifying types were still afraid to venture into these neighborhoods.

In the VH1 doc, for example, house music godfather Frankie Knuckles reminisces about venturing to weekly parties at "The Loft" in SoHo. This was a SoHo much different than the one today; though any piece of unused NYC real estate is unimaginable nowadays, back then the neighborhood was practically empty, filled with rotting old sweatshops and cavernous closed factories. Rent, as a consequence, was damned cheap, and poor bohemian types began to slowly trickle in (abetted by tax breaks granted by the city government to artists who agreed to live where no one else wanted to). Knuckles remembers people wondering, "Why the hell would you go down there?" He wouldn't really answer, just knowing his destination, on a silent SoHo street, was The Loft, where new types of music were playing and people like him—black people, gay people, poor people—were creating something new and having a damn good time doing it.

Inspired by these humble beginnings, Knuckles went on to almost single-handedly create a new form of music, house, which might be the most popular music in the world. Like the genre from which it came—disco—house didn't just have a danceable beat or an up groove to snort coke to (though those two things are disco/house qualities to be sure). Disco and house weren't just party music; rather, they were, and remain, the soundtrack to burgeoning sexual and social freedom, born in some crappy old cracker factory or some such. And, in the city, similar pockets of similar liberation revolved around a different aesthetic—with punk, it was CBGB in the bum-riddled Bowery, another place no one wanted to go.

Until they did. The SoHo scene reached the apex of balance, and then the pendulum swung toward popularity, hype and finally empty parroting of what it all once meant. And of course, what followed was gentrification. As the Times article notes, you have to be rich—very rich—to afford to live in SoHo now. What was once a sketchy part of town, a haven for the disenfranchised, is now home to "pricey shopping, high-end dining, wildly expensive living spaces and posh hotels."

So the pattern, and it's one that has been repeated any number of places, is basically this: Start with a rotting part of town where no one wants to live or work. Artists and musicians decide to live/work/open clubs there because it's cheap. Brief halcyon period ensues. Part of town is discovered. Part of town gets popular, overpriced. Artists move out/are forced out. Trump moves in. Neighborhood becomes opposite of what it was before.

The fear is that this is happening with Deep Ellum. Modern Ellum also began as a shell of—you guessed it—empty, crumbly warehouses and industrial sites. "Hell," says Campagna, "I used to get my transmission fixed where Clearview is." It was a perfect spot not for gentrification but for revamping, "evolving," as Campagna puts it. Understandably, since Ellum's apex of the '80s and '90s and its subsequent denouement, fears are rising that SoHo-like Trumpism is on the way.

But here's the thing: So far the wolves have remained at bay. Sure, many venues and businesses have closed down, but the glory days could never have lasted forever. And those spaces have still not been replaced by Starbucks and Prada. The dark red bricks of those former warehouses are still covered in Campagna's paint, with his recent Re*Cov*Er project having added new murals of storied Dallas musicians. Kettle Art continues to bust boundaries and attract patrons and push the music scene. Club Dada is off the respirator, with a new, inspired booking process bringing in fantastic acts. The Darkside keeps the shadows alive. And, just down the street, the new generation packs the Double Wide, with its bookings growing ever stronger. There's not a Trump to be found. Not yet, anyway.

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Jonanna Widner
Contact: Jonanna Widner

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