Live music still provides the beat that summons crowds to Deep Ellum.
The neighborhood at the heart of Dallas' nightlife scene is endlessly changing. The Anvil Bar and the Lizard Lounge are long gone, but new places have shuffled onto the stage, such as the Wingbucket franchise on Elm Street and Ruins on Commerce Street. A block south on Main Street, you can play video games and down shots at the Select Start arcade bar, suck spiked popsicles from Picolé Pops and treat your hangover with New Orleans style beignets and chicory coffee at Le Bon Temps.
Meanwhile, old favorites like Three Links, Trees and the swanky Twilite Lounge music and cocktail bar all light up the nights on Elm Street, drawing live music fans from across DFW. But a sour note is spoiling the neighborhood's soundtrack. Some musicians say they'e not planning gigs in Deep Ellum anytime soon because of the fear of crime.
“Deep Ellum dangerous AF these days,” musician Jah Born posted on his Facebook page in mid-May. “Stay safe fam.”
The two-time Grammy winning producer says he and other musicians have seen crime rising in the neighborhood, and it's making them reluctant to lug their gear there for a late-night show.
“I posted that because first off, I got wind of a few violent attacks in Deep Ellum,” Jah Born says. "My concern was with them first: my music family and friends who have to go down there to work. ... In light of all the craziness and shooting and violence and random crimes down there, I wanted to send a message to my friends to stay vigilant and stay safe out there.”
Producer Jah Born, a collaborator of Erykah Badu’s and RC Williams’, says he just wants his fellow musicians to be vigilant in Deep Ellum.
Joe Schillage, the drummer for the Denton death metal band Lament Configuration and percussionist for Acoustic Devil, says he’s noticed a change in the neighborhood that’s made him wonder if he should go there.
“I’ve already been going [often] for somebody who lives pretty far away,” Schillage says. “There are events that happen down there that you can’t see anywhere else. I wanna see my friends play if it’s a good lineup, but I feel hesitant. I don’t go as much as I would if it was safer. It also makes me feel sketchy about bringing my girlfriend around. It just doesn’t feel safe.”
Scott Beggs, a talent buyer, concert promoter and part owner of Three Links, says that sometimes it seems as though shootings are weekly occurrences in the neighborhood.
“It definitely seems to be a lot more active this year than in the past and earlier in the year,” Beggs says. “A lot of this stuff doesn’t start to go on until the summer.”
Violinist Sharla Franklin says she thought about making a return visit to Deep Ellum until she heard about the burglary of the band Brother Moses' tour van at the Deep Ellum Art Co. last fall. Drummer Corey Dill and bandmate Moses Gomez discovered a man inside their tour van. He ran. Dill chased him and ended up critically injured when the thieves ran over him with their vehicle before they sped off. No one has been arrested.
Even before that attack, Franklin says her last trip to Deep Ellum had already left her uneasy. She and musician Poppy Xander were walking through the neighborhood before the pandemic lockdown in stage costumes, "so we didn't go unnoticed," she says. She and Xander stuck close to each other and witnessed “at least two loud and rowdy crowd fights that broke out,” and there were “not enough cops to break it up.
“I just remember getting harassed,” Franklin says. “A sketchy, non-valet guy wanted to park my car and was upset when I said no. Later, I found a sticky substance all over my door handle. He must’ve splashed something on it.”
Musician Poppy Xander will still frequent Deep Ellum as long as she brings her running shoes, she says.
Is their fear of crime in Deep Ellum supported by numbers? Crime statistics from the Dallas Police Department are a mixed bag. During the period of January-May this year, DPD reports that overall crime in the neighborhood is up by 2.7%, but violent crime is up by 28% while the number of nonviolent crimes was flat compared with 2021. (The number of violent crimes is relatively small, though, so even a small bump in crime can produce a large jump in percentages. Keep in mind as well that the number of crimes is influenced by the number of people in Deep Ellum, and the pandemic has affected that.)
According to DPD's count, crimes like rape and murder are rare, with no rapes and one homicide reported in the first five months of this year, though the latter may not account for a shooting that left two people dead in May. For most heading out for a night of music and drinking, the bigger worries are less extreme: Will someone break into your car? Will you be mugged? Will you get your ass kicked?
Looking at the period of January-May over the past three years, DPD counted 48 motor vehicle burglaries in Deep Ellum in 2020 as the pandemic shut down venues, 193 in 2021 and 180 this year. The department reported seven robberies of individuals in both 2020 and 2021 and 17 so far this year, a sizable increase. Non-family aggravated assaults stood at 22 incidents in both 2021 and 2022, down substantially from 47 in 2020.
So the counts are up, down and flat, but DPD's numbers don't take into account a sketchy guy hassling a woman who later finds her car door smeared with a "sticky substance." Incidents like that might not generate a police stat, but they add to the general sense of unease afflicting the neighborhood.
And while homicides are rare in Deep Ellum, it doesn't take many to drive the fear factor up. Shark attacks are rare too, but if the media reports that someone was eaten at the beach on Friday, people will naturally be reluctant to jump into the water on Saturday. That helps explain why one of the biggest contributors to this fear among local musicians are recent shootings at some of Deep Ellum’s most prominent locations. A fight in the early morning hours of Friday, May 13, on Elm Street near the Crowdus Street intersection led to a shooting that injured three people and killed two others. The shooting happened a day after the Deep Ellum Foundation, a neighborhood group, unveiled a new community safety plan
“I saw the bodies on the floor,” says Joseph Cabrera, who provides security work and promotion for venues in the Deep Ellum area. “I heard the gunfire and went to the roof and saw people injured and one was deceased, I believe. Seeing that was very shocking and scary.”
The mood didn't get any better when rapper T-Pain moved his show last month at The Factory in Deep Ellum to Grand Prairie. He first took to TikTok last April to complain about low ticket sales for his Dallas show. The shooting prompted T-Pain to make the move to the Texas Trust CU Theatre.
Drummer Joe Schillage is hesitant about playing in Deep Ellum because of crime in the neighborhood.
“At the DEF, we consider public safety our number one priority,” says DEF President John Hetzel, a partner at Madison Partners, which oversees properties across Lower Greenville and Deep Ellum. “We think it’s critically important for us.”
The foundation’s plan recommends a number of measures, such as covering the neighborhood with DPD foot and mounted units when incidents are most likely to happen and bringing in officers from specialized units that target gangs and can control traffic.
Hetzel says the DEF is also adding security cameras in the neighborhood with a third party consultant and scheduling street closures on Main and Elm Streets between Good Latimer Expressway and Malcolm X Boulevard, since most gun violence involves autos.
“We have to sweep our own sidewalk here in Deep Ellum, and we’re not gonna just use the excuse that violent crime is happening everywhere so what can we do?” Hetzel says. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure people are safe in Deep Ellum.”
Crimes are more likely to happen as shows end and crowds pour out of venues starting around 11 p.m.
Chris Lewis, a security officer with Exclusive Protection Services watches over venues like The Nines and Cheapsteaks and says reducing loitering crowds is key to reduce the potential for violence and crime.
“I tell my guys, use words like ‘police,’ ‘jail’ and ‘let’s just go home,” Lewis says. “It seems like there’s more people just hanging and looking for things to do and there’s no after-hours life for a lot of those people who want to hang out. Just being able to do crowd control, you’ve gotta push the option for these people to want to go home.”
Franklin says she’d like to see a police presence trained to calm crowds rather than just control them.
“When crime goes up, there should be more protection,” Franklin says. “Of course, getting rid of bad apples and adding someone specialized in mental health would be great, but violent crime must be stopped first. The fights I saw after hours were ridiculous, dangerous.”
Another easy target for criminal activity are musicians who have to load and unload their instruments and equipment. The DEF has installed special band loading zones with clear signage that run from 2 p.m.-12 a.m. every day.
“Playing on the weekends and loading gear is a nightmare,” says Xander, a pianist, singer, producer and composer who performs with several groups including The Polyphonic Spree. “Backing out of spots, drunk folks swarming the streets and stepping out in traffic. It’s intense, and it feels like I have to get in and get out.”
Some neighborhood regulars like Beggs can see the plans being implemented but aren’t convinced they’ll cut crime. Street closures, Beggs says, are “not good for business” because they cut off access to establishments.
Dallas Fire and Rescue officers look into Three Links in Deep Ellum to make sure it’s not over capacity. The show’s promoter had to get on stage and ask that 14 people leave the bar and go stand on the sidewalk.
"They definitely don’t help especially in a place where we’re already having issues trying to find parking, and it’s hard enough getting into the neighborhood," Beggs says. "I feel like the city is maybe doing what they can to show they’re doing something, but I’m not sure that it’s having much of an effect at this point. I don’t know.”
These crime trends aren’t a new development for Deep Ellum and have been almost built into its culture since the district's blues heyday a century ago. In the late 1920s, bluesmen wailed about Deep Ellum's brothels, gambling and drugs. As the 1980s came to an end, the sounds of the late-night punk scene were drowned by a wave of violent Skinheads
who terrorized the area.
In the last decade, as Dallas' population skyrocketed and the neighborhood made a comeback, so did its share of crime, which can seem as particular to Deep Ellum as its unique character, and certainly disproportionate to its size: There was the string of muggings in 2019 in which victims were drugged
after taking a hit of what they believed to be a joint, and the three weekends in August 2020 during the height of the pandemic when Deep Ellum had four shootings, one that killed a 15-year-old boy.
Jah Born says he recognizes that crime reports have ebbed and flowed throughout the neighborhood’s history and the solutions need to involve everyone who’s part of Deep Ellum.
“It’s going to take the minds of not only police but also the community there in Deep Ellum,” he says. “Bar owners and musicians get a chance to see people walking up and down the street every day. They know what’s up out there: a community that’s friendly, meaning people of all walks of life, races, nationalities and lifestyles have to come together. The community folks can make the difference, and the businesses that are coming in, these new businesses and influx of money that’s coming into Deep Ellum should be dedicated ... to create a safer environment for the people who love to go down there for the music, nightlife and food.”
Crime or not, Deep Ellum is busier than ever.
Beggs says the city and its leaders could help by focusing resources more on the streets and less on venues over issues such as noise levels and crowd capacity at venues.
“These aren’t problems that are occurring inside the building because of how loud it is or how many people are in there,” Beggs says. “... I would say the bars aren’t the problem. There are a lot of things going on in this city. There’s no other entertainment district in town right now to take the pressure off of Deep Ellum because this is where everyone wants to be, and there’s too many people in too small of an area.”
Musicians like Schillage still want to perform in Deep Ellum and even watch concerts just like any other music fan. He says it's worth making the effort to make Deep Ellum feel safe because “it’s just a cool fucking place.”
“I will still suck it up and go,” Xander says. “I just gotta make sure I’m in my running shoes.”
Police stand outside of Three Links on Elm Street.
These days, there are more police than buskers in Deep Ellum.
DPD has closed off several streets in Deep Ellum in order to deter crime.