Michael "Mongo" Smith has seen Deep Ellum at best and at its worst. A veteran of the scene and a longtime friend of Dimebag Darrell and his brother Vinnie Paul, Mongo still frequents the clubs in the neighborhood. In fact, you've probably seen him at some point, attending a show in his wheelchair. But after spending three years renovating two rundown spaces into beautiful studios, Mongo and his tenants were abruptly asked to leave -- and now he's setting his sights elsewhere in town.
All in all, Deep Ellum is changing for the better. New businesses are opening up seemingly every week, clubs are thriving and music fans are flocking back to the neighborhood that was all but brought to its knees less than a decade ago. With a newly reopened venue like The Bomb Factory around, there's a new standard being set and fresh hope for the future of Dallas music.
Perhaps inevitably, some players are getting squeezed out of the game -- and Mongo, who received his eviction notice only a few days ago, can perhaps be forgiven for not sharing in the optimism. In fact, he was just about to officially open the main studio, which has been functioning for a few months, when he went to renew the lease and was told by his landlord that the building had been sold.
From what he understands, the spot will become yet another restaurant and bar. His landlord offered him another rat hole across the street, but he won't be falling for the same trick. "No longer in Deep Ellum will I be told, 'You made my place real nice,'" he says. "'Now get out.'"
Mongo is no mere newcomer. Before Dimebag Darrell and his band Pantera sold millions of records, Mongo got to know them in Dallas on the local circuit. At the time he had a band called Dick and Jane. After Dick and Jane, Mongo was touring the globe in Tres Hombres, the official ZZ Top cover band.
"Dime was always a friend of mine," says Mongo. "Vinnie Paul and I always got along [and we] became better friends after Dime got shot." Mongo was also close with Jeff "Mayhem" Thompson, Dimebag's head of security who also lost his life over 10 years ago in the Ohio shooting that claimed the guitar legend's life.
At 51, Mongo has been involved with music in Deep Ellum for most of his adult life. In the '80s, he did sound for a local venue called On the Rocks and had bands called Sluggo, Crazy From the Heat and Strychnine. He had a place called Club Mongo and over the years he has provided sound for most of the clubs in Deep Ellum. Even now that he's in a wheelchair, he continues performing with his latest band, Hillbilly Orchestra. The band name and its HBO acronym is something his late great friend Dimebag Darrell helped him come up with.
The new studios, then, were meant to be the latest chapter in a decades-long affiliation with Deep Ellum. Instead, Mongo's plan is for everyone to relocate to a space in South Dallas and start over. His predicament seems to perfectly explain why art galleries, studios, music venues and even a movie theater are showing up in an area like The Cedars: The artists are being priced out of Deep Ellum.
"I'm just going to rebuild this in another place," he says, with a shrug. "Plan B is always in my mind." Its worth noting that the one-of-a-kind 8-Track Museum down the street recently announced that it will be shutting its doors as well. "The same thing happens every time," Mongo says about Deep Ellum. "It starts to boom, corporate people move in, start jacking the prices up, and run all the artists off."
It's a little premature, of course, to start sounding the alarm bells for the neighborhood; the influx of new business at once makes it hard for older tenants to remain while also speaking to its overall health. But for Mongo in particular he made a substantial investment: When he took over these spaces they were so ratted out all that remained was the structure. For the first year they were completely unusable and the city considered them abandoned.
After spending over $150,000 of his own money to renovate these studios, Mongo is somehow cheerful about starting over. "This time nobody can come and jerk the rug out from under my feet," he says, of the new building he has already set his sights on. "I'm rundown physically," he continues. But mentally and emotionally he is very strong.
The new and improved Deep Ellum has now evicted one of the veterans of its scene. Mongo is lucky and plans to be setup in his new South Dallas location within a few months. But many artists in the area will not have a Plan B when their rent is raised.
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