Fowled Out

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"Jefferson, it used to be its own thriving street, but every time a space opens they put a Mexican restaurant in it or some other degrading business. It's overcrowded with minorities," he says. "I'm not a prejudiced man, but the Spanish people are taking over. It used to be the blacks, now it's the Spanish."

At the other end of the counter, Tommie and Charles shake their heads at the comments drifting their way.

"Twenty years ago, Oak Cliff was considered to be one of the better neighborhoods in Dallas. You want to know why it's gone downhill?" Tommie asks. "Money and the city of Dallas itself has disassociated Oak Cliff from most of its planning. A lot of people view things in Oak Cliff this way: If you beat your head on the wall long enough, the wall will fall on you."

Things are better than they were, says former city Councilman Bob Stimson, Miller's predecessor at City Hall. By the time he took office in 1993, activist Cliffites had spent three years drafting action plans for ways to improve basic services in Oak Cliff. Their effort was part of a movement in which area residents, tired of being ignored by the city, gave officials an ultimatum: Spend more tax money in Oak Cliff or we'll secede from Dallas. The secession movement captured national headlines and, at its peak in 1990, caused some 2,000 irate residents to boo former Mayor Annette Strauss during a public meeting.

Their fury had been fueled when secessionists took a look at the city's financial records and discovered that since 1962, Oak Cliff had received only 20 percent of the city's bond projects, a statistic that bolstered arguments that Oak Cliff taxpayers were disproportionately footing the bill for the construction of North Dallas.

"Oak Cliff wasn't getting its fair share," Stimson says, referring to basic city services. "There were more people involved in that effort, putting blood, sweat, and tears into it, than anything I've ever seen."

Stimson, who calls himself "Oak Cliffcentric," says the city's attitude toward Oak Cliff has improved because of the secession movement--even Mayor Ron Kirk has pledged to bring new business south of the Trinity. Of course, problems with streets and sanitation, building inspections, and code enforcement still rank as the area's biggest headaches.

The difference now is, everyone else in Dallas is making the same complaints.

A couple of roosters live in the Bishop Arts District, which lies behind the Oak Cliff Coffee House and consists of early-20th-century buildings. But roosters are the least of these shopkeepers' problems. They feel more threatened by the idea of a gentrified Oak Cliff, a homogenized neighborhood made of Gaps and Starbucks and Banana Republics--high-volume chain stores that would make it impossible for them to compete.

For almost three years, Michael Harrity has operated the Bishop Street Market, an upscale gift shop that sells candles, miniature water fountains, and furniture from the Far East. Harrity also shows the work of local artists, whose paintings and metal sculptures have enhanced the store's reputation even beyond Oak Cliff.

This Tuesday afternoon business is slow, and Harrity rests on a wooden bench that was made in Indonesia and has a "sold" tag dangling from its arm. A slow day a couple of years ago might have bothered him, but now Harrity is in the black; business is good.

"You have to risk everything you own," he says. "Perception is the No. 1 problem. If we can change the perception of Oak Cliff, the dollar will follow."

Harrity doesn't think roosters belong in the city, but the biggest problem he encounters is the prevailing belief that there are no retail stores south of the Trinity. He wants to see an increase in retail space, but fails to see the logic in Councilwoman Miller's love affair with chain stores. "It's tricky...There are people who think that quantity equals quality: If there are 500 Starbucks stores, it must be good," he says. "Why is she pushing so hard for a Starbucks rather than a Java Jones?"

Across the street, a massive cooler freshens a supply of roses, carnations, and other flowers on display inside Bishop Arts Floral. In the back office, Don Allen is passing the hours with a game of computer solitaire. Like Harrity, Allen and his partner Phillip Wheless put every dime they had into their store. And sales are ahead of what they projected when they opened just six months ago.

"I found the reception here in the [Bishop] Arts District much friendlier. It just seems like there's more of a neighborhood," says Allen, who previously worked at a flower shop in the Knox-Henderson area. "Barnes & Noble would be wonderful here, but I'd rather see more independent business come in than a chain store."

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley