Longform

Oak Cliff Becomes Cool Embracing What Other Parts Of Dallas Have Fought: Builders, Bikes And Immigrants

Can an entire city reverse field?

From World War II until now, the beckoning horizon in Dallas has been the cool, air-conditioned neighborhoods north, where houses are new and low-slung, lawns are pool-table smooth and garage doors open by themselves.

But if North Dallas has been the city's field of dreams for decades, then 10 miles south and across the river, what do we call the clanging, potholed automercado of W. Davis Street in North Oak Cliff? The word we're never supposed to use—because it's snobbish, hurtful and has racist overtones—is slum.

But there you have it.

Until almost this very moment in the city's history, North Dallas has been the city's Sinatra-land of mid-century aspiration, and Davis Street, for at least 30 years, has been what people in Sinatra-land would call a slum.

Is it even conceivable, then, that half a century from now, Davis Street could be the city's leading edge—its realm of cool and aspiration, the Seinfeld-land of a post-automobile urban tomorrow?

Blessed with topography but cursed by abandonment, North Oak Cliff has always been the kid who should have had a date but didn't. It sits on a long, hilly limestone escarpment cut by deep-running limestone creeks, with craggy ridges and cliffs beneath a thick tree canopy of post oaks, cedar elms and red cedars.

There are enclaves of wealth and architecture. Stand on any one of the canyon-walled streets in Kessler Park near Interstate 30 and North Hampton Road. Gaze up at the mixture of traditional houses and ultra-modern glass-walled space stations. Blur your eyes just a bit and sniff the cedars. You could be in the hills just outside Austin.

A few blocks away is Winnetka Heights—a 50-block collection of 1910s and 1920s Arts and Crafts and Prairie-style wood-sided homes, most of them beautifully restored, on deep-shaded streets in the heart of North Oak Cliff. Stand looking down any of these streets, and you could be in Pasadena, California.

And then you might come to certain stretches of Davis Street or some other commercial artery nearby where you would look around, as a colleague of mine from South Texas did recently, and say, "Oh, I know where this is. This is Mexico."

Tire stores, taco joints, auto repair places, some rogue operations you don't want to know too much about, all sending up an endless jangle of steel on steel and thumping Mexican jam-box rock.

One day as an experiment, I ask Theresa O'Donnell, the city's Director of Sustainable Development and Construction, if West Davis in North Oak Cliff could become the city's new leading edge, instead of North Dallas, and she doesn't pause a heartbeat: "Oh, absolutely," she says.

Of course, she immediately hedges her bet. Too diplomatic as a city official to give one section of the city her endorsement over others as the Next Big Thing, she says: "There are so many good reasons to repopulate everything inside Loop 635. It makes sense for everything: transportation, gas prices, lowering our energy usage, reusing the stock that we have. It's everything."

But I ask her again: Does she think North Oak Cliff in particular might have a special edge because it seems more open to re-development than, oh, say, my own part of town— Old East Dallas.

She laughs. Another city official the day before, speaking to me off the record, had said, "Yeah, it stands a better chance, because it has fewer people like you, Schutze."

O'Donnell is demure: "It is an interesting concept, where they are embracing development, as opposed to East Dallas, which has been contentious."

That's what I thought. In fact, that's why I got interested. It seemed to me I was hearing people in the historic districts of North Oak Cliff say things that we in East Dallas would consider sacrilege.

In particular—and I don't want to drag you too far down zoning-talk lane here—there's a thing called the Bishop/Davis Plan about to come before the Dallas City Council, proposing things we in East Dallas would fight tooth-and-nail.

The plan, backed by a consortium of developers and neighborhood leaders, wants to give developers a huge break on the amount of car parking they are required by law to provide when they redo an old building. It would also allow mixed-use development in some areas where it is currently barred by city zoning laws.

Forget the ins and outs of parking requirements. It's too complicated. The parking thing is a marker for larger attitudes and culture having to do with so-called new urbanism. It's the Seinfeld thing—apartments over storefronts, buildings that crowd the sidewalks, people walking to shop instead of driving, people who need people instead of people who need privacy.

Oak Cliff wants re-development—restaurants, stores and, horror of horrors, drinking establishments. In East Dallas we're at war against those same things. Think Lower Greenville in East Dallas. Think years of guerilla warfare by neighborhood activists fighting to keep bar patrons from parking on surrounding streets and urinating on surrounding shrubbery.

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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