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People 2015: Jeff Liles is The Kessler's Do-Gooding Boy from the Not-'Hood

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. Click here to find all our People Issue profiles.

Oak Cliff is not the ’hood. Certain women from University Park might think otherwise, but leave it to Jeffrey Liles — whose recent viral Facebook video caught a visitor ranting about “the ’hood” — to set them straight. Liles, The Kessler’s artistic director, is a leading force in Oak Cliff’s flourishing arts community. He believes in this neighborhood, and the neighborhood believes in places like The Kessler.

It hasn’t always been that way. Liles first lived in Oak Cliff in the early ’90s, when he was booking shows for the first incarnation of Trees, and back then the neighborhood was overrun with drugs and gang crime. Kids would stumble along the sidewalks in a daze, high on paint thinner, and the sound of gunshots could be heard nightly. This is not the same neighborhood, by any stretch.

Instead it’s a neighborhood that’s rediscovering itself and reclaiming its past. That promise is what drew Liles to return. He’d bounced back and forth between Dallas and Los Angeles for years, doing everything from playing in bands to video work to recording voice-overs for startups. But the prospect of reviving The Kessler — an old art-deco theater once owned by Gene Autry that had stood empty for over a decade — was enough to entice him to leave his job at the Roxy Theatre on Sunset Boulevard and post up in Dallas for good.
In many ways, Liles is like a walking history book of Dallas. He was at the Sex Pistols’ infamous Longhorn concert as a teenager, was close friends with Edie Brickell and New Bohemians and was a part of Deep Ellum when it first took off in the ’80s — a time he feels is parallel to modern-day Oak Cliff. He has no shortage of stories and he never loses sight of the city’s or the neighborhood’s origins.

The Kessler has helped steer Oak Cliff toward a brighter future because of that thoughtfulness. Ever since he helped reopen it in 2010, Liles has demonstrated a knack for zigging where other concert bookers zag, recognizing opportunities to bring legacy acts like Mavis Staples or the Zombies to a unique setting for once-in-a-lifetime shows. There’s a reason why so many customers are regulars and why they tend to show up early.

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The Kessler is, at its root, a neighborhood spot. There’s easy access to free parking, and when it’s not hosting a concert, someone’s typically using the space for a dance recital or guitar lessons. Liles himself lives around the corner. The challenge now, he says, isn’t to keep growing but to keep things from growing too much.

At a time when residents are signing petitions to keep developers out of the neighborhood, Liles’ words ring true. This is Oak Cliff, after all. It’s not University Park.

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