Not Easy Being Greenville: The Neighborhood Isn't As Bad As Some Think, But Can New Zoning Rules Make It Better?

Recently when I spent time over in North Oak Cliff talking to people for a story about what North Oak Cliff wants, the most consistent theme was, "Not Lower Greenville."

They want cool entertainment venues in North Oak Cliff, but they don't want drunks, public urination and an atmosphere of rampant crime.

Like we do? Lower Greenville happens to be my part of town. So what are we? Urinetown? I guess I missed the chapter when we became the second circle of Dante's Inferno reserved for carnal malefactors.

Of course I am aware of stubborn issues in the small bar and restaurant district where Greenville Avenue meets Ross Avenue, two miles east of downtown in Old East Dallas. And especially in the last year I have heard people bitching about a general decline there.

Recently I found myself wondering if the part of town on the east side of Central Expressway where I live is really more crime-ridden than the one on the west side, where I work.

So I did some checking. I was able to come up with a rough apples-to-apples comparison of the area five blocks deep on both sides of Lower Greenville compared with a similar area in both size and population along the Lemmon Avenue/McKinney axis (taking in West Village and Uptown, along with some of Turtle Creek Drive and Oak Lawn Avenue).

The apple I came up with—crimes per acre—offers at least a crude benchmark with which to make a comparison. In a four-year period ending January 1, my Excel spreadsheet counted 8.62 crimes per acre in the East Dallas area around Lower Greenville and 12.90 crimes per acre in the Oak Lawn/McKinney axis.

Quite a dramatic difference—a crime rate west of Central 50 percent higher than on the east side of Central.

I will allow for my own considerable lack of expertise as a statistician by backing off from tightly drawn conclusions. Except for this one: If there is a perception out there that the general Lower Greenville Avenue area is notably more crime-prone than any other mixed commercial and residential area in the inner city, that perception is not based on reality.

In the next breath, it must be said there is trouble on Lower Greenville. By two and two, the civilized venues like Ibero Latin Cuisine and Gezellig Jazz Club on Lower Greenville have shut their doors to be replaced by gang-banger clubs or college puke bars where the bouncers carry out the alcohol-poisoned SMU students and stack them on the curb like cordwood.

When I talk to the people who have tried to operate cool places on Lower Greenville, they tend to tick down the same laundry list of reasons why civilized places have more trouble surviving, but basically it comes to this: It's all about the ability of the community to control the type of businesses that take over rental spaces.

As it stands, that ability is not much. Straight-up police enforcement on the street quickly becomes a trap—something the city should have learned in the West End and then again in Deep Ellum.

Certain young male idiot-types—absolutely without reference to ethnicity or class, just maleness—actually like it when you crack down on them. It draws them in instead of pushing them away. What you wind up with is a playground for aggressive young males who like to fight. Aggressive young gang-bangers. Aggressive young fraternity boys. Aggressive young cops.

State liquor laws are even more useless, full of loopholes and Catch-22s put there by the booze lobby. State law says a business is a bar if 75 percent or more of its gross receipts come from liquor. But bars can dodge that formula in a number of ways.

They can lie about it, but they can game the system even without lying. They can charge fat cover charges, slash the price of drinks and then count all of the cover charge money as non-liquor sales. They can do that legally.

Bobby Hood, who operated Gezellig, told me his place was driven out of business by a law enforcement and code enforcement climate that only works against you if you have some intention of obeying the law.

"I'm a lawyer. I have a law license. I'm not going to deliberately violate the law," he said. But he said plenty of other operators on the street seem to have business plans based on intentional violations that local and state law are impotent to correct.

It's a theme echoed by Bruce Richardson of the Lowest Greenville Neighborhood Association. He said illegal operations—bars masquerading as restaurants in violation of their zoning—know exactly how long they have to rake in the cash before a city or state audit can nail them.

"They have three months before that audit is completed, and then they just shut their doors."

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze