With the myriad species of thug life that hung out there, the fast food shop at the corner of Commerce and Griffin streets developed a nickname all its own: CrackDonald's.
This very urban Mickey D's was Exhibit A in the average person's case against ever setting foot in downtown again--ground zero in the Dallas Cowboys parade riot of 1993, the spot in front of which a crazed homeless man shot a police officer to death in 1988 while a crowd looked on.
Not that the McDonald's was to blame for any of this chaotic, even deadly, street life, what with dozens of bus lines converging within blocks of its glass doors, and a nearby Greyhound station serving as a pipeline for trouble.
Nevertheless, as a former manager recalls, even the counter help inside looked a little dangerous in their gold jewelry and mismatched uniforms. Things got to be so bad a few years ago that gang members began eyeing a percentage of the burger money, says James Oby, a former manager who now works for a sister store in Lancaster. "You couldn't sell anything without them wanting in on it," Oby says. "Everybody wanted it as their turf."
But that was before Ludwig von B. and his boys, the Dead European Males, began sweeping out the joint with their violas, glockenspiels, and flYgelhorns.
Just over a year ago, management set out speakers and began playing a mix of watered-down Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Telemann, Haydn, Chopin, Scarlatti, and the like. The music was piped into the store and onto the surrounding sidewalks and heavily trafficked stone-and-concrete Commerce Street plaza.
Baroque, classical, rococo, or romantic, you name the period, it ended up working like punkicide. As one loose-limbed guy with a stylized gait and baggies down his butt put it as he hustled by the shop last week: "I HATE that shit."
Although the cops say other factors are at work--a change nine months ago in DART bus lines that moved downtown's west transfer station is perhaps the biggest--the drop in police calls to the restaurant's address since it turned on the classical is fairly astounding.
In the two-year period from April 1, 1994, to April 1, 1996, just before the concert barrage began, records show that police were called to the store's address 782 times--an average of 391 times a year.
In the year since, that has dropped to 146 calls--and the cops say a lot of those calls are actually coming from the pay phones outside Downtown Corny Dog in the 900 block next door.
The same trend holds true with arrests. They went from 115 a year in the 1994-1996 period to 36 in the past year.
"At first I thought it was a joke," says Oby, recalling his response to business manager Mike Hom's idea of using the music. "Now I think there's a thousand percent improvement in the way the customer perceives the store."
As for the hoodlums, he says, "They don't want to stay in an atmosphere that is a little too upbeat. You wouldn't hang in front of Neiman Marcus.
"You don't walk or act the same way when there's classical music on," says Oby, who's been working in fast-food franchises all over town since the early '70s. "It's just the way it makes you feel."
Says James Jackson, 16, who stopped in the restaurant between buses last week, "It's elevator music...very uncool."
With several homeless shelters in the area, McDonald's #4777 remains home to a certain number of guys looking to stay out of the elements by nursing two-hour cups of coffee, not to mention kids playing hooky. But in terms of clearing up what was once one of Dallas' most visible command posts for undesirables, the music clearly has worked.
On a recent afternoon, there was no hangin', no chillin', no dealin'--just office workers, commuters, school kids, and conventioneers queuing up for their Mcburgers and fries.
Muzak, the Seattle-based company which supplies the sound, has been marketing some of its fare as anti-loitering music since the early '90s, when several 7-Eleven outlets began using it to discourage teen loitering. A Vancouver, British Columbia, convenience store owner is generally credited with starting the trend, using a particularly effective blend of Perry Como and Barry Manilow.
What Mickey D's downtown is getting is Muzak's "Light Classical" program, which is beamed from Seattle to Dallas via an uplink in North Carolina.
"It's meant to be soothing," says Todd Berna, an account executive in the company's Dallas sales office. According to a sales brochure, a computer mixes the music, which is based on a "light, non-symphonic sound."
"Loud, boisterous, as well as solemn, grave works are avoided," the brochure states. In other words, no Mahler or Wagner here--no highs or lows, just a lot of middle movements. Picking parts of works, the soporific soundtrack runs through a Brandenburg Concerto, then a little Blue Danube Waltz, then on to 10 or 15 other condensed pieces every hour.
"Old man's music" is how 22-year-old Duwayne Evans describes it as he waits on a customized double cheeseburger. "It's nothing you feel comfortable with."
Berna, with Muzak, says "we probably could get them to hang out all day" with Muzak's "Urban Beat" program, which includes artists such as Dr. Dre., Ice Cube, and Heavy D--not your father's Muzak.
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Lt. Jeff Cotner, commander of the Dallas Police Department's Central Business District unit, says the McDonald's management has been committed for several years to making its high-profile corner safe and attractive. Besides the music, they've put up lights and kept the area litter-free. It's called "crime prevention through environmental design," Cotner explains. "Basically it means doing things to your surroundings that enhance safety versus lending itself to criminal opportunities." Loitering in the plaza in front of the restaurant went down, for instance, when the parking lot across the street installed fences and landscaping that stopped people from cutting through mid-block, Cotner says.
As for the music, says Cotner, "They wanted to bring down the intensity of that corner. I think of it as soothing, relaxing music."
Which is just what Martin Roth says it was doing to him one day last week as he picked at his extra-large fries. "I never used to come in here," says the Houston businessman who has clients in Dallas. "For some reason it feels safer now."
When told about the music, a smile flickered across his face, as if civilization had struck a blow. "Well that's great. I have [season] tickets to the symphony.