I visit Deep Ellum on a regular basis (by myself, no less), and for the past few years, I haven't seen or experienced any crime. Sure, I've heard stories but nothing too terrible to keep me away, and I know that skinhead beatings are as rare these days as 80-year-olds at punk concerts. That's why I camped out in Deep Ellum last Friday night. My mission was to stay as late as possible and keep my eyes on the crowds to report exactly what a music lover can expect on a given weekend.
Like I'd assumed, I didn't see any fights, beatings, muggings or killings. Most of the night was peaceful. But once 2 a.m. rolled around, fear gripped Elm and Main streets like something out of a comic book.
10:10: After following a tow truck through the Deep Ellum tunnel, I arrive at the well-lit, city-run parking lot on Main Street across from the Gypsy Tea Room. I see two panhandlers immediately, who Dallas law forbids, but no cops are in sight.
10:20: Inside Trees is a sold-out crowd for emo band The Rocket Summer, and there couldn't be more than five people over the age of 20 in the house. Every Hot Topic-loving teen is screaming and singing along like at a Hilary Duff concert. It's not my scene, but I'm happy to see this many teens having a good time at a Deep Ellum concert.
10:45: Two white bouncers sit idly in front of late-hours hangout Club One. They tell me Deep Ellum isn't as bad as people say--pretty slow through the week, really--but since they're open until 4 a.m, they see a crazy crowd on late weekend nights. "It's Nairobi and Palm Beach," says the one with a nose piercing. "They attract a...rough crowd." He pauses and makes gestures, unwilling to say out loud that those dance clubs draw a predominantly black clientele. "At around 2 a.m, people walk or drive by, throw bottles in the street, threaten to kill us." Does anything violent happen, though? "No, nothing really bad."
10:57: Tom Cats hosts a local hip-hop show, and the mostly black crowd is into the set, even though the MCs and the beats are boring. One guy wearing a long basketball jersey sneaks up behind someone in the crowd, presses two knuckles into his neck and quietly says "bang." When the "victim" turns around, they slap five.
11:05: Half a block down Elm, a Galaxy Club concert combines the worst traits of Stone Temple Pilots, Our Lady Peace and Creed. The crowd is half fraternity, half good ol' boy, and the only people paying attention to the show are four girls in the front row singing along. Methinks those're the girlfriends.
11:15: At vintage clothing store Counter Culture, I speak to the clerk when he's between customers. "The bad reputation [in Deep Ellum] is exaggerated," Chris says, "but it's not. Purses get snatched. I sure wouldn't come by myself." When I point out that he's running the store alone, he says that he's totally safe--especially since Counter Culture closes before the rest of the bars and clubs do.
"As long as you're out by 1, before the black clubs fill up, you're fine; the crowds are fine." Then Chris, a tall, skinny black guy in his early 20s, asks if I know how to contact David Cunniff, the man beaten by Jesse Chaddock at the Gypsy Tea Room last year. Uh, I suppose, but why? Chris nervously laughs. "Well, I'm kind of the reason that the fight happened."
I gasp because I immediately remember the police reports--one of Chaddock's friends allegedly flicked a cigarette at a tall, black kid walking out of the club. This is the kid. The one that Cunniff defended before being attacked. Chris goes on to say that he didn't even know about the fight until weeks later, since he'd walked by without hearing any of it. He wanted to call Cunniff and offer his sympathy. I told him I'd check.
Wow. I guess if anybody's gonna have a realistic opinion about Deep Ellum, this guy's the one. I look across the street, where Nairobi has already reached capacity and a line stretches around the corner. My attempts to get in or speak to anyone at the club are futile--it's just too crowded. Outside the club, a posse of rap promoters hassle a trio of women as they walk by.
11:16: As I jot a few notes, a 40-something man stops me and asks what I'm writing. I notice he's drinking a beer, and it's not even in a paper bag. I ask if anybody's hassled him for drinking on the street. He smiles. "Not yet!"