It's 2 a.m. on Lowest Greenville Avenue. As if on cue, the regular cast of clubgoers, bar hoppers and gang bangers spill out of the bars and onto the narrow sidewalks. The crowd gathers quickly, walking, stumbling, growing louder as the smell of hard liquor and stale beer scents the street.
It happens to be July 4 weekend but trouble is expected most weekends. The Dallas Police Department is ready. Empty squad cars fill the streets, their blinding red and blue lights already flashing warnings of intimidation. Officers from DPD's Central Patrol Division take up positions on the west side of Greenville, some waving long flashlights that double as nightsticks, many yelling at the crowd to disperse and disperse quickly.
It's no secret that this section of Greenville Avenue has become a high crime area; neighborhood associations and activists have been shouting as much for the last decade, bending the ear of any city official willing to listen. What was once an area whose biggest problem was frat boys peeing on neighborhood lawns has turned into a hot zone of robbery, burglary, assault and gunfire—by the end of August, there were 30 violent crimes in 2010 alone. And most of the crime occurred in the aftermath of last call, in and outside of clubs that have gained reputations as "bad bars" where a rowdier, tougher element has taken root. City officials refuse to identify these bad bars, but crime reports clearly reflect police activity directed at the west side of Lowest Greenville.
Lowest Greenville Avenue
Tonight, while a dozen officers stand tall in front of 180 Degrees and Malibu Bar (now called the Yucatan Bar), just two doors down, Chris Cook of the Greenville Avenue Pizza Company stands on the sidewalk in front of the pizza joint he owns with his brother. He smokes a cigarette while trying to drum up business from the late-night crowd, the same way bouncers at the bars reel in people with promises of drink specials and good music. "Pizza and wings until 4 a.m., guys! Pizza and wings."
But his pitch is shouted down by the commands of cops who seem edgy, suspicious. "Let's go! Let's go!" bellows one burly male officer at the crowd. "Go home or go to jail!" insists a young female officer, pointing her flashlight into the startled eyes of a group of even younger Hispanic women who have just left 180 Degrees. "That means y'all!"
Minutes later, and seemingly without provocation, Officer Perry Strickland fires 13 rounds of pepperballs against the facade of 180 Degrees, unleashing a cloud of powdery irritant to disperse the unsuspecting crowd. The officers back off. Patrons leaving the club, though, have no idea what's happening as the stinging powder attacks their noses and eyes. "It hurts fuckin' bad!" says Kimberly, 26, as she hurries to the safety of her friend's car, using her hot-pink dress to wipe her tearing eyes.
Cook hears the pops go off and notices people cupping their hands to their mouths, pulling their shirts over their faces, coughing uncontrollably. The peppery haze then gets in his face, his eyes burning and his breath hard to catch. He turns and runs into his shop, bursting through the back doors into the alleyway where he stops, his chest heaving as he gasps for air. The irritant leaves a film on his face and the peppery residue burns his skin.
"I'm fucking pissed," Cook says later that night. He knows these post-last-call crowds—he's been serving them pizza for the past three years. "It was totally uncalled for," he adds. "It was an average night, nothing out of the ordinary. People have every right to be walking down the street at their leisure. I'm trying to run a business, and instead I had to run to the back of the restaurant."
DPD's Assistant Chief of Police Vince Golbeck would later say that the incident was a "mistake" and called Officer Strickland's actions "heavy-handed." Disciplinary action was taken against Strickland, who was removed from his Greenville Avenue beat for a month and received a Supervisor's Report of Correction, which found he violated DPD policy that requires officers not to engage in conduct that "adversely affects the morale or efficiency of the department..." or destroys "public respect and confidence in the department." The correction will remain in his personnel file and could affect future promotions.
Golbeck, who has dealt with issues confronting the area much of his law enforcement career, also recognizes that "nearly all the chronic problems" facing Lowest Greenville occur between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m., and something has to be done to curb the crime.
Dallas City Council members Angela Hunt and Pauline Medrano, who represent the Greenville Avenue area, don't think more cops and aggressive shows of force are the answer. "Annually taxpayers are spending at least a quarter of a million dollars to babysit the drunks on Lower Greenville after midnight," Hunt says. "And we're not going to expend taxpayers' money to create an oasis for frat boys and gang-bangers to get their swerve on." The two council members instead propose a comprehensive solution, which includes reduced crime, decongesting traffic and revitalizing the neighborhood by narrowing streets, widening sidewalks and putting up street lamps. Their plan: Rezone Lowest Greenville Avenue into a Planned Development District (PD), which includes requiring a Specific Use Permit (SUP) for any business seeking to operate past midnight on Greenville Avenue south of Belmont Avenue and north of Bryan Street. Targeting just these troubled late-night businesses would be "unfair" and "discriminatory" according to city staff, but insisting every establishment submit to the same PD and SUP process would enable the city to weed out the bad bars—those that attract late-night crime, serve underage drinkers and habitually violate liquor laws.
But the proposal is not without its critics. Some businesses worry the SUP process will bury them under a mountain of red tape, while others fear it vests too much power in city or neighborhood leaders, who might retaliate if they don't succumb to their demands for change. The Greenville Avenue Restaurant Association, the newly formed Lowest Lower Greenville Avenue Business Association and outspoken neighborhood advocate Avi Adelman all oppose the one-size-fits-all approach of the plan. And most of the good bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors and other small businesses feel they are being punished for the actions of a few bad bars.
Because his pizza place is open late, under the proposed rezoning, Cook will be required to go before the city to get an SUP. And, while he's not too worried, he is concerned some good businesses may suffer if the city doesn't invest in the area before the bad bars get weeded out.
Yet he is keenly aware how violent crime is tainting the area's image. In June, 29-year-old Evans Wright was gunned down in the parking lot of Char Bar, shortly after he got into a fight while waiting in line to place an order at the pizza shop. Most media reports mentioned Greenville Avenue Pizza Company.
"Now, it's to the point where there's just something crazy almost every night," Cook says. "And it's starting to get really old."
When Cook and his half-brother Sammy Mandell opened Greenville Avenue Pizza Company in 2007, they hoped to fill the void left on Lowest Greenville after Café Nostra burned down in the fire that claimed the Arcadia and several other businesses. "No one was doing pizza or pizza by the slice down here at the time, so we started tossing around the idea," he says.
Cook, now 42, has been hanging out in the Greenville Avenue area since he was in high school, and few have seen the dramatic changes in the neighborhood that he has. Historically, Greenville Avenue has been divided by Mockingbird Lane into Upper and Lower strips, and eventually Lower Greenville south of Belmont became known as Lowest Greenville. Cook has worked in the bar and restaurant business throughout the entire area most of his adult life. The walls on his pizza joint are decorated with music mementos and memorabilia—many of them tickets and promotional flyers from shows reflecting Greenville Avenue's past. He's quick to point out that the area's been a hub of late-night activity for decades.
In the early 1980s, Tango's nightclub was a popular hot spot and many still reflect fondly on the dancing frogs that once called attention to the club that sat where Taco Cabana does today. In March 1983, Poor David's Pub moved from McKinney Avenue to Lowest Greenville, and by the mid-'80s, crowds were spilling onto the streets from places like On the Air and Rick's Casablanca. By 1985 even Texas Monthly took note, mentioning the bustling street and its long lines.
In the mid-'80s, Cook landed his first job at Bluebonnet Café, the restaurant located in the old Whole Foods store on Greenville, which now sits empty. While waiting tables at Terilli's in '91, he began bartending at Mick's on Lower Greenville, becoming general manager there in 1993. "Back then was when all the bars like Harder Bar, Whiskey Bar and ZuBar started popping up down here, and everybody up there [businesses north of Belmont] was watching Lowest Greenville because they were worried they'd be taking a hit."
When the brothers opened Greenville Avenue Pizza Company, they just served dinner and late-night pizza, but as they made a name for themselves, they opened for lunch. But now the street is dead during the day. Sure, Pipe Dream, Good Records and EZ Pawn do their share of day-time business, but when Lula B's Antique Mall made the move to its new spot in Deep Ellum, Cook says that was the proverbial "nail in the coffin" for their lunch trade, which ended in July.
Cook says he understands the sensitive situation in which some bars on Lowest Greenville find themselves. The entertainment scene is fickle; people want to be seen at the hottest, trendiest bars and clubs. Lowest Greenville has given way to Knox/Henderson, Uptown and a recently resurrected Deep Ellum.
"In the bar and restaurant business, you have to cater to the crowd that frequents your place," Cook says. "If people walk into your establishment and they're paying cash, buying drinks, buying their friends drinks and tipping well, it's pretty hard to say, 'Hey, I don't want your money.'"
And, his pizza shop, like the bars on Lowest Greenville, now depends on late-night traffic. "All of a sudden you find that you're making all of your money on one or two nights a week in a small window of time," Cook says.
For the bars, that magic hour starts around 11 p.m. and runs until last call before 2 a.m. Extend that until 3 a.m. and that's the time interval during which, according to the Dallas police, the majority of the crime occurs on Lowest Greenville and its surrounding neighborhoods.
Chief Golbeck has a long history with Lowest Greenville, dating back to the late '90s when he was a lieutenant working evenings with Central Patrol Division. Back then, the majority of the problems, he says, were "loud music calls" coming from the neighbors. Though he was transferred from the area, he returned in 2007, serving as commander of Central Patrol, and soon noticed things had changed. Police started seeing a younger, brasher crowd establishing themselves on Lowest Greenville. "Lots of cocky 18-and 19-year olds," he says.
Some of these new bar patrons were Hispanic gang members—Eastside Homeboys, Oak Cliff Thugs (OCT) and Tango Blast. "It isn't against the law for them to be going to these bars," Golbeck says, but when "members of opposing gangs," some of whom are drinking underage and getting over-served, mix together, that's a "recipe for violence."
"Lowest Greenville has always been a very challenging area to police," Golbeck says. "This has been going on for 20 years." But, what has changed is the types of bars down there and the demographics of Dallas itself—and, well, the guns.
He cites the confiscation of AK-47s, banana clips and other weapons from gang members and felons after the bars close. Even if they are not threatening a particular person, Golbeck says, it's not uncommon for patrons to pop off a few rounds to celebrate as they leave bars—especially on holiday weekends.
"It's a problem when you have families with young children repeatedly getting woken up by gunfire at 2 a.m.," Golbeck says. "This is an area that is zoned for commercial retail and when you have single-family homes backed up to these clubs, you have a problem."
Golbeck says that it's difficult to attach blame to certain bars because there is a good amount of barhopping and pre-drinking. "We do the best we can to connect the dots," he says. "If officers witness a fight spill out of a club, or see people stumbling out the door, or they have receipts from a certain bar, then we can link it to that bar."
So when the police do connect the dots, why doesn't the city just shut down the bad bars? "If only it were that simple," responds Assistant City Attorney Melissa Miles, who often addresses this question at public meetings. "They aren't supposed to be bars." While the city can regulate the location of bars, state law defines bars as establishments that derive more than 75 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales. The city conducts 75-percent audits, which Miles says are "easy to pass." That's why Lowest Greenville has so many bars that operate as "restaurants." And even if these bars fail their audits, then "like magic," Miles says, they'll sell more T-shirts, charge a steeper cover or raise valet rates so they can pass the next audit. Or they'll get a change of occupancy and "presto-change-o": Establishments formerly categorized as "bar lounge taverns" then hold themselves out as "commercial amusement."
The "bad bars" also can get cited for not having a dance-hall permit, over-serving or over-crowding. The city refers certain bars to state agencies such as the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission or the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. But the bars just pay their fines and keep plugging along—business as usual.
Says Golbeck, "Nothing has ever worked to get it in check—not [neighborhood] initiatives. Not bar-adopted dress codes. Not city attorney audits." Frustrated, Hunt and Medrano began working with Golbeck, Miles and other city staff, to find what they term "a loophole-free solution," a planned development district—"with teeth."
"We're here to discuss the future of Lower Greenville," Hunt said in late July while kicking off the first public meeting on the PD held at Vickery Towers, a gated retirement community that sits at the northwest corner of Greenville and Belmont. More than a hundred folks turned out—most of them neighborhood residents and business owners. During the meeting Hunt and other city officials made their case for rezoning.
Hunt detailed the proposed PD, and presented a PowerPoint that included a vision of Lower Greenville in the not-too-distant future: Narrow resurfaced streets, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and crosswalks, shade trees, antique lighting and park benches.
The estimated cost of these improvements would run approximately $3.2 million, about $800,000 of which had already been earmarked from the 2006 bond election. Hunt and Medrano said the balance could come from a 2012 bond election.
Chris Cook was at the meeting. For him, the PowerPoint was a "wet dream." With streets repaired and sidewalks widened, he could put a patio in front of his pizzeria—he could serve lunch again. But to him, those plans seemed like a carrot on a stick that stretched years into the future. "The next year is make or break for us. We can't just sit here and lose money," he says.
Hunt and Medrano would later maintain that the city has no interest in creating another West Village. Instead, Hunt regularly insists that their goal is to keep the area "real and local" while promoting a mix of daytime and nighttime retail. She has lived in the Greenville area since 2001, and says she is "familiar with the area's chronic problems." After her election in 2005, she began searching for ways to assist the area.
"Lowest Greenville has deteriorated to where it's very little retail and a regional bar attraction, which is not what's really appropriate for an area surrounded by neighborhoods," she says. "And it's a waste of our well-trained police officers, because we are having to pull those officers out of the neighborhoods and off the streets to make sure that one patron doesn't murder another patron."
So, about a year and a half ago, she and Medrano began "tossing around" the idea of a Planned Development District, whose initial plans called for a more limiting PD—one that restricted rooftop patios, light and noise levels, and mandated double doors to help dampen loud music. But after months of haggling with neighborhood associations, businesses and property owners, everything was stripped from the plans except for the requirement that businesses staying open past midnight go through the SUP process. "We started off with a very complex plan, and ended up with what we're told is the simplest PD in the entire city," Hunt says.
The SUP process calls for these businesses to be held accountable to the neighborhood by presenting themselves and their reputations before the City Plan Commission, which will conduct a hearing at which time neighborhood associations, neighboring businesses and the police can offer evidence of their behavior—good and bad. "There's hopefully going to be a greater sense of responsibility on their part to the surrounding community," Hunt says. "Right now there's no sense of concern. There's nothing at stake if the bad bars aren't good neighbors."
While convincing city officials to name the names of the bad bars is an impossible task, there are a number of businesses that remain open past midnight that "have proven to be good neighbors," Hunt says. Greenville Avenue Pizza Company, The Libertine, Winedale Tavern, The Cavern and Taco Cabana are businesses Hunt says should have no trouble obtaining long-term permits to operate after midnight. But bar operators who consistently pop up on police reports and cause problems for the neighborhood won't have an easy time.
"Right now we have the six area neighborhood associations, representing thousands of people affected by this, voting in unison to support [the PD]," Hunt says. "And there's a unity that speaks volumes about the problems down here, the proposed plan and the desire to work together to improve the area."
Of course, not everyone on Lowest Greenville thinks a planned development district is the answer.
Sitting on a stool at the Service Bar, Neil Ludwig sips a drink at the bar. Ludwig is the self-described "general manager/head janitor" of Service Bar, Sofrano's and Whisky Bar. And most nights he can be spotted walking the sidewalks, keeping an eye on his bars and clientele.
"We know there's problems down here," he says, while swirling his drink. "And we want to do everything we can to fix those problems, but we don't want to put businesses out of business who are doing the right thing because of the ones that are doing the wrong things." Because Ludwig feels the PD is too restrictive and will hurt good and bad actors alike, he has formed the Lowest Lower Greenville Avenue Business Association—and hired a lawyer.
Craig Sheils represents the new business association as well as a handful of the bars and businesses that will be affected by the PD. Shiels says that even if the PD eliminates the bad element, the time-consuming nature and costs involved with the SUP process may discourage "prospective businesses" from moving in.
Instead, Shiels advocates for a permit system that would be just as tough on bad actors, but would involve fewer applications, fees and hoops for businesses to jump through than the convoluted SUP process does. His permit idea has found some support with area businesses, but it's failed to gain any traction at City Hall.
"The permit process would just look at police calls and raw data, not allowing for additional input," Hunt says. "And it wouldn't address the cumulative effects from things like traffic and inebriated people all in one area."
And based on her conversations in recent weeks with property owners like Andres Properties and Madison Partners, two companies that control the majority of the rental properties on the Lowest Greenville strip, Hunt believes that the SUP process won't be so onerous that good businesses will refuse to move into the neighborhood. "It's not going to prohibit daytime businesses like clothing shops, bookstores or coffee shops from moving in," she says.
Simon McDonald of the Libertine and Chris Penn of Good Records disagree. Each moved to the area in recent years after operating businesses on the outskirts of Deep Ellum; each run businesses that are held up as examples of "good operators." But both say that the PD and the SUP process might have dissuaded them from relocating to Lowest Greenville.
"I'm worried that there will be some good businesses that fall by the wayside," McDonald says. "Maybe they don't have enough support from the neighborhood or can't afford the SUP [$1,170] and the legal fees involved with applying for it. But some of these clubs need to go. I think it's time for a change, but I'm just not sure this is the best way." If the SUP process was in place today, he says, "We would have definitely moved somewhere else, because that's a big expense to a small business in an already very expensive process."
Penn says that since they close at midnight the SUP won't apply to Good Records, but he's still worried the PD will hurt sales. "I don't understand why the city doesn't just deal with the troublemakers," he says. "Because even if we only lose a few bars, there won't be much left down here to draw people to the area. Had I known that this would be happening, I don't know that we would have moved the store here."
"I think, in the end, it will be great for the area," Penn adds. "But in the meantime, if it's a ghost town, then we'll have to re-evaluate where we're going to do business, because I need things to be happening around me to attract business."
After initially supporting an SUP, long-time neighborhood activist Avi Adelman has become the PD's most vocal critic. Like others, he's concerned that the PD will prevent new businesses from coming into the area. As a board member of the Belmont Neighborhood Association, he abstained from voting when the association's board lent its support to the plan. And the Greenville Avenue Restaurant Association, which employs him as general manager, has also come out against the proposed plan.
People on the street have been scratching their heads about Adelman's about-face, trying to discern his motives; other neighborhood associations are even spreading the word that he's actually helping the bad bars. "Some people are badmouthing me, saying Avi's a turncoat—he's now pro bad bars," Adelman says. "I haven't switched sides. I have come out against the proposal that will supposedly close the bad bars because it will kill the restaurants. I work for the restaurants...There's no secret there."
Adelman points out that he's one of the few people who actually walks the streets at night and makes it a point to get to know the businesses, bar managers and owners, developing a level of rapport and trust. "Am I helping Neil [of Service Bar] out with ideas, yeah," Adelman says. "He calls me up and says, 'How do we do this?' or 'What's the answer to this?' and he knows that he can call Avi and get the answer without paying $250 or $500 an hour."
So Adelman suggested that Ludwig form the Lowest Lower Greenville Avenue Business Association. "I'm not ashamed to say that I'm helping them out," he says. "I think there's no reason for them not to be organized. Start organizing, I'd tell that to anybody that asks me my advice when I agree with them, and I agree with these guys that there are some legal issues that need to be resolved. So is that turncoating? No."
Mounted behind the counter at Greenville Avenue Pizza Company, to the left of the pizza ovens, is a large wood-framed mirror. Stuck to the mirror are four small strips of black tape, which mark the passing of four pizza places that have opened and closed since the brothers opened their spot. The last thing Chris Cook wants to do is to stick another black strip on the mirror marking the demise of his restaurant.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Although he says he is a"glass half-full kind of guy," in recent weeks, he and his brother have had some serious conversations about what's referred to on the streets as the "tumbleweeds scenario." He's not worried about getting a special use permit. The restaurant is known as a good neighbor. But by closing the bad bars before other new businesses arrive, he's concerned the SUP might inadvertently create more empty spaces on Lowest Greenville than it already has. In early September, more than half a dozen prime locations sat empty.
"It's so hard to predict what's going to happen down here, and at least people are being proactive," Cook says. "But what's going to happen to the businesses in the meantime, while we wait for the improvements to the street and sidewalk?"
Hunt and Medrano have said that the plans for the new streetscape will commence as soon as the PD is passed. But that could take months. First, there will be a public hearing in front of the City Plan Commission, and then a second public hearing in front of the city council. No dates have been set. And, though Hunt says it's not "over until the fat lady sings," she's optimistic that with the support of all six of the affected neighborhood associations, the PD will pass.
Though Cook feels less certain about the merits of the PD than Hunt, they share the same sense of urgency about Lowest Greenville. "The area's a landmark—the whole street—and it would be a shame to see it all wither up and go away," he says. "The area's just got to come back...It just has to."