Feature Stories

Nearly Silenced by Coronavirus, Deep Ellum’s Community Bands Together

Deep Ellum is a quieter place when battling COVID.
Deep Ellum is a quieter place when battling COVID. Nathan Hunsinger
Dallas’ live music neighborhood is quieter these days.

Communal gatherings are in Deep Ellum’s blood. This district’s history is founded on live music, industry and togetherness; its historic plaques commemorate blues musicians, and its performance venues number in the dozens. From the beginning, this has been a neighborhood where outsiders came to find a sense of belonging, whether they were immigrants, African Americans, guitarists, artists or partygoers.

Come to Deep Ellum on a weekday now, and you’ll see something unexpected: locals. The coronavirus pandemic has muffled the sounds of Dallas’ liveliest neighborhood. Only a few venues, most of them with rooftop patios, are still blaring music any time other than Friday and Saturday nights. Many of the pedestrians are joggers and apartment dwellers walking their dogs. Deep Ellum’s residents have come out to play.

“I didn’t notice that there are many dogs around here before,” says Jimmy Niwa, owner of Niwa Japanese BBQ. “I kind of wondered, did everyone go out and buy a dog?”

“I’ve never seen so many dogs before in my life,” agrees longtime neighborhood resident Gianna Madrini.

The concentration of canines is just the most visible sign of Deep Ellum’s adaptation to a world in which a sense of community is harder to build than it was before, and in which mass gatherings are unsafe.

Patterns of activity have changed here, and businesses have responded in their own ways. But the bigger picture is of a Deep Ellum community which has banded together in the absence of state and federal assistance to support local artists and preserve the neighborhood its residents love.

click to enlarge Nightlife is still occuring in Deep Ellum, it just looks a little different. - NATHAN HUNSINGER
Nightlife is still occuring in Deep Ellum, it just looks a little different.
Nathan Hunsinger
During the pandemic, activity in Deep Ellum has come and gone in waves. Within days of the initial shutdown, in March, the neighborhood was nearly dead; April 10, photographer Joseph Uribe posted an album showcasing the area’s empty streets. In late May, activity surged again — the beer trolleys even resumed operation — before bars closed again as thousands of Texans fell ill.

Now bars exist in a sort of limbo, with many able to qualify for reopening under state rules if half of their sales come from food. On weekends, parts of Deep Ellum are bustling again, especially clubs with rooftop decks and patios. Bottled Blonde, a nightclub notorious for its cavalier relationship with social norms, faces a TABC investigation for allegedly violating safety protocols while calling itself a “pizzeria.”

On Aug. 28, amid a Saturday night crowd that witnesses described to Central Track as “like a music festival,” five people were injured in a shooting.

But during the quieter rest of the week, much of the neighborhood’s traffic is people from around Dallas who just want to escape their houses and go for a walk.

“Which makes sense,” says Josh Farrell, the chef at Will Call. “The buildings are cool, there’s artwork all over the place, a few places are open, so it seems like a lot of people are just out, going for a walk, just to be in Deep Ellum.”

click to enlarge Will Call owner J.R. Munoz (left) and chef Josh Farrell appreciate Deep Ellum's neighborhood vibe regardless of pandemic woes. - NATHAN HUNSINGER
Will Call owner J.R. Munoz (left) and chef Josh Farrell appreciate Deep Ellum's neighborhood vibe regardless of pandemic woes.
Nathan Hunsinger
Caroline Perini, co-owner of Easy Slider, says that foot traffic has swung up and down unreliably.

“There’s been some major lulls where we just didn’t know what was going to happen,” Perini says. “Closing the bars completely — and Deep Ellum being an entertainment district we’re surrounded by music venues and we’re surrounded by bars — when we don’t have those, our business suffers.”

Perini says she is aware of the area’s reputation for partying and poor decisions, but the vast majority of local businesses behave differently.

“I get that this would be an easy target because it’s a fun neighborhood and people gravitate to fun,” she says. “But that hasn’t been the case. There are a lot of small businesses down here that are really concerned about what happens next, and are concerned about protecting their staff and customers. It’s such a local and supportive neighborhood, and I think everybody wants to make it through this so that we’re all able to open our doors again.”

Visitors can create new challenges during the pandemic. The Aug. 28 shooting was the third of the month, all on Friday or Saturday nights. There are more mundane issues, too: Will Evans, owner of Deep Vellum Books, reports that a handful of pedestrians have attempted to enter his store, which is open by appointment only, without masks, seeking to test his limits.

click to enlarge Owner Will Evans says Deep Vellum Books has seen a sharp decrease in sales this year. - NATHAN HUNSINGER
Owner Will Evans says Deep Vellum Books has seen a sharp decrease in sales this year.
Nathan Hunsinger
“People are out looking for trouble,” Evans speculates. “Let’s just say they did not look like your usual Deep Ellum customers.”

Miley Holmes, who owns Easy Slider with Perini, uses a simple analogy when customers challenge her about safety regulations.

“It’s like asking to see your ID,” Holmes says. “If you don’t want to follow the rules to use our space, then maybe you belong in a different space.”

But even well-meaning visitors have run into a different problem: broken parking meters, which incorrectly tally money paid and lure customers into almost certain citations.

“Customers have told me they’re not coming back to Deep Ellum anymore because they’re afraid of vandalism and they got a parking ticket,” Niwa says. “One of our servers, that last day [before restaurants closed in March], got a $42 parking ticket and got $65 in tips that night. I can’t put people at risk if they’re not even making money to work here.”

Niwa himself received a parking ticket on March 16, the day that dining rooms were ordered closed. Despite the assistance of City Council member Adam Medrano, Niwa’s attempts to resolve the issue with city bureaucrats have been futile so far; at one point they told him not to pay while they resolved the issue, but then began charging late fees. He fears that customers may simply give up.

Although visitors still come to dine, promenade and shoot photographs on weekends, most of the weekday traffic is Deep Ellum’s locals. Behind the outsider-filled nightclubs, a number of smaller businesses — including retail shops and restaurants like AllGood Cafe, Will Call and St. Pete’s Dancing Marlin — provide escapes for neighborhood residents.

“Everything that’s here is supported by the neighborhood, not just the tourists that come here,” says Madrini, who has lived in Deep Ellum for 20 years. “We have a real diversity of small businesses here, and we’re doing everything we can to try and help support them.”

Deep Ellum reveals a patchwork of adaptations by businesses. Pecan Lodge launched a charitable food service, the Dinner Bell Foundation, that provides low-cost meals to frontline health care workers. Will Call was the subject of an Observer restaurant review that ran on the same day that Dallas County mandated closures and is using the pandemic to recenter its business around food rather than drinks. Trinity Cider turned its patio into a drop-off point for popup groups like Momo Shack and Not Your Lola’s to serve takeout orders.

click to enlarge Chef-owner Regino Rojas is facing city fines for his impromptu taco tables outside Revolver Taco Lounge. - NATHAN HUNSINGER
Chef-owner Regino Rojas is facing city fines for his impromptu taco tables outside Revolver Taco Lounge.
Nathan Hunsinger
Revolver Taco Lounge rebuilt its dining room, which is now available by reservation only for evening tasting menus and Sunday seafood brunches. Chef-owner Regino Rojas also created a patio by placing white picnic tables and fencing on the edge of his street. But then his property owner chopped down the trees that provided the ad hoc patio with shade, citing termite damage, and Dallas officials became upset about the tables themselves. Rojas says the city has told him to remove or relocate the tables, warning of a $2,000 fine.

At Deep Vellum Books, where a publishing company shares space with a retail shop, Evans says bookstore sales are down 75% compared with last year, but his publishing arm is growing slightly. The bookstore had functioned as a community center and event space, activities it has had to suspend.

“We have the benefit of being able to sell stuff online, but if it wasn’t for government relief programs, I don’t know what we would have done,” Evans says.

Kettle Art Gallery just launched its online shop as a means of recovering from a 75% decline in sales. The store’s two employees, husband and wife Frank Campagna and Paula Harris, are both in high-risk groups, so they only recently felt safe enough to reopen the gallery for limited Saturday hours. Prospective customers can order online and come to the gallery for pickup.

“We’re putting together these beautiful mystery bags of sorts,” Campagna says. “You definitely get your money’s worth, but you also get amusement out of it. We have some old merch to put in. There are definitely some surprises in there where you’ll go ‘Oh my god, what the hell is this?’”

Campagna first opened a business in the neighborhood in 1982, and he says that even at its worst, the coronavirus downturn was nothing compared to the desolation of Deep Ellum in the early 1980s.

“It’s interesting to see it go from light industrial to a walkable neighborhood,” he recalls. “I got my car fixed here. There was a radiator shop across the street, which is now a flower shop. There were these empty pawn shops, boring, they’d have like a pair of shoes and a hose in their window.” That long-term memory helps Campagna see the virus as a blip in the area’s long-term growth and improvement.

Jon Hetzel, president of the Deep Ellum Foundation and a leader of Madison Partners, one of the neighborhood’s biggest landlords, says that many tenants have seen sales fall by half, though numbers are recently trending upward. Madison Partners moved quickly to reassure tenants when the pandemic broke out and has become known as one of the city’s more lenient landlords.

“We’ve seen a lot of cycles,” Hetzel explains. “We’ve seen a lot of mom and pop tenants, so I think we’ve gained a pretty good perspective on what’s in the best long-term interest of us as landlords, businesses and the community. Often that takes not getting too stressed out in the short term. Often that takes remembering that business was successful before, let’s make sure it will be again soon.”

Not every business has survived the move away from in-person interaction. In early August the Dallas Comedy House closed permanently, as it became clear that comedy, especially improvisation, is hard to produce and consume at a safe distance.

Hetzel is surprised there haven’t been more closures.

“We’ve seen some, but not as much as I initially feared,” he says. “But it’s hard to say how long that will last.”

Seeing the plight of artists, musicians, bartenders and others in her neighborhood, Madrini launched the Deep Ellum 100 charity drive in the spring. The concept is simple and unusually democratic: 100 donors give $100 each for a total of $10,000, and then the donors themselves vote on four recipients to receive $2,500 grants.

“We really feel a connection to all the people who are here because we know so many people, from restaurant owners to servers to artists and musicians,” Madrini says, recalling the origin of the Deep Ellum 100. “Many of them have worked at some of our favorite spots for 20 years, like the staff at St. Pete’s, or the different musicians who have worked at AllGood. Those guys have been there for 20 years. They are like family to us.”

Madrini began with the barest of ideas — helping Deep Ellum’s creatives — and enlisted a group of friends and neighborhood allies, including Central Track Publisher Pete Freedman, who acts as media partner. (The web-based publication's office is in the neighborhood.)

“Every one of us has a different skillset,” Madrini says. “That’s the thing about Deep Ellum. You’ve got creatives in spades.”

click to enlarge Owner Jimmy Niwa says they spent $2,500 expanding the patio at Niwa Japanese BBQ. - NATHAN HUNSINGER
Owner Jimmy Niwa says they spent $2,500 expanding the patio at Niwa Japanese BBQ.
Nathan Hunsinger
The initial campaign was such a success that in August Deep Ellum 100 began the quest to put together a second 100. Now it looks possible that more rounds of funding will continue in the future.

Evans says that he became one of the original 100 donors because, as one of the more fortunate business owners in the neighborhood, he felt obliged to “try to do what we can.” His publishing company is also offering small grants to independent writers all across Texas.

“I’m really grateful that they did [the Deep Ellum 100] because they gave a pretty substantial contribution to these folks that needed it,” he explains. “That’s what’s always attracted me to the neighborhood and what inspired the name of my business. It’s one of those few communities in Dallas that really feels like a community.”

The first round of grant recipients included the band Cure for Paranoia, muralist Isaac Davies, live show sound technician Lance Brown and Niwa Japanese BBQ, which spent its $2,500 on expanding its patio for safe outdoor eating.

“It’s going all towards our patio,” Niwa says, and any leftover money will be spent on replenishing food supplies. “We’ve definitely suffered quite a bit of losses, especially with inventory. We tried to open three different times, one of them being when the riots hit. We were going to open the following Monday. We’ve definitely taken hits.”

Madrini and Freedman say the effort to rally behind Deep Ellum businesses and artists resonates because so many Dallasites have strong ties to the neighborhood.

“Everyone has some Deep Ellum memory or story that was a special experience, a unique experience, and I think that was something that was in our favor,” Madrini says.

“It’s the heart and soul of Dallas,” Freedman says. “Deep Ellum remains a place where people want to go for congregation of some sort. I don’t know how much they necessarily appreciate it right now, but culturally, it is the beating heart of the city. That’s not a new thing. It’s been that way for a long time. As far as the real culture and historical significance in Dallas, a lot of it can be traced back to those three streets.”

click to enlarge Some storefronts are shuttered in Deep Ellum. - NATHAN HUNSINGER
Some storefronts are shuttered in Deep Ellum.
Nathan Hunsinger
If it’s hard to imagine Deep Ellum without live shows, it’s even harder to imagine Dallas without this neighborhood. In recent weeks, as COVID-19 case numbers decline, the neighborhood has gotten livelier again, for better or worse.

“It’s promising, but if you get self-assured too quickly, we’re just setting ourselves up for another wave of this crap,” Campagna points out. “How the hell do you win?”

Hetzel believes the keys to revival will be more residents and more diverse businesses. The ongoing wave of high-rise construction and new residential projects could roughly double the area’s population, and it will be important to provide the newcomers with more than just bars and music.

“One of my goals is to create more of a mixed-use environment including residential and office, so the neighborhood’s more resilient to shocks and changes,” Hetzel explains. “Not being solely dependent on being an entertainment district, that transition will seem very wise, because for the restaurants and bars it will be easier to bounce back when there’s a lot of other stuff going on in the neighborhood.”

He adds that although new small businesses are basically “paused” and the office market is in jeopardy, the major developments in Deep Ellum are still moving forward since planners expect that their long-term projects will be opening after American life returns to a more normal state.

“I hope the neighborhood comes back stronger than ever because it’s shown the value of what the Deep Ellum businesses offer,” says Evans, who is one of Madison Partners’ tenants. “That mix of entertainment and art and now residences. It’s going to be an interesting future.”

“I think the neighborhood will be fine,” Campagna adds. “The neighborhood’s always fine. It’s just about bouncing back.”

For the most part, business owners in the neighborhood are keeping optimistic about bouncing back. In the absence of a medical miracle or a government bailout for the service industry, Deep Ellum is turning to the one thing it can rely on: its sense of community.

“There have been a lot of times throughout the years where tragedy has struck,” Freedman says, pointing to events like the 2018 death of Brick and Bones general manager Ian Brooks, killed in a hit-and-run traffic accident. “And time and time again when that sort of thing happens, you see people come to the aid of one another. It’s a real tragedy that it has to happen, but it’s a beautiful thing that it does.”
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Brian Reinhart has been the Dallas Observer's food critic since spring 2016. In addition, he writes baseball analysis for the Hardball Times and covers classical music for the Observer and MusicWeb International.
Contact: Brian Reinhart