Still life

It's dusk in Deep Ellum, still too bright for the frat boys, poseur chicks, and Uptown yupsters who congregate in the restaurants and be-seen bars of what was once alternative Dallas. This August eve, there's plenty of parking in front of 2808 Commerce St., the site of a venue in search of its soul. The Deep Ellum Center for the Arts is entrenched behind a burgundy banner, 84 panes of glass, and a history of the way things were and never will be again.

DECA was once the home of Theatre Gallery, a club run by Russell Hobbs and booked by Jeff Liles that Hobbs once called "the open sore of culture." Its black-walled, wooden-staged performance space showcased the likes of the New Bohemians, Three on a Hill, and Shallow Reign. Back in the day, Jim "Reverend Horton Heat" Heath both slept and wrote there, and sometimes its walls were even decked with visual art. Along with the neighboring Prophet Bar, Theatre Gallery was Deep Ellum in the mid-'80s.

That was before the real estate developers started moving into the neighborhood, making it trendy, changing warehouse space to loft space, and imagining the Prophet Bar as a profit center. It's that same old story: Starving artists need a place to starve, and when rents go up, they move out -- whether it's SoHo to Brooklyn in New York, or Deep Ellum to Oak Cliff in Dallas. What was once an alternative lifestyle becomes just one more bedroom community.

It's dark inside the DECA building, save an office where a board meeting is taking place. Large, riotous abstract paintings would otherwise brighten up the cavernous interior. The artwork hangs on crumbling plaster and exposed brick walls. Toward the rear of the space, a new stage is shrouded in black curtains. No one is looking at the art, and nothing is happening on stage.

As the board meeting ends, the assembled begin to gather papers and shove them into briefcases. Two men wear suits, two women don't, and two other men apparently don't realize grunge is dead. Chris Kahanek takes a phone call. She is the latest in a string of DECA executive directors who have attempted to define and energize, then redefine and re-energize, the fledgling arts center.

As Kahanek starts to leave, her film background is showing. She looks very Sharon Stone, only younger; blonde hair in an updo; wearing cropped white pants, short top, black slides. She seems very Hollywood as she kisses each board member good-bye. Very, very Hollywood. Only, this is Deep Ellum, and her history is here, working in local independent films. Her exuberance for her new job is admirable but exhausting. The four board members who have turned over the center to Kahanek seem tired just watching her.

"Let's go for it," she says. "It's happening. I've mapped out the next five years, and we're six months ahead of schedule." But Kahanek has had her new position for less than a month, and she sounds a tad naive. Her job is to solve the year-old art center's identity crisis. Since opening, DECA has been a rudderless mess, struggling for survival as its vision shifts from an upscale gallery to a museum for Deep Ellum's past to a clone of Uptown's McKinney Avenue Contemporary.

She, like those who came before her, must search for a way to salvage the myopic vision of Don Blanton, the real estate developer who ironically holds himself in part responsible for driving the artists out of Deep Ellum and now hopes to lure them back by offering them a venue for their work. Perhaps it was Blanton's fuzzy marching orders and hands-off administration that threw everyone off-track in the first place. How can you bring artists back to an area they can no longer afford? How can you pay homage to an art movement that may not even exist? Blanton knew only one thing for certain: What he didn't want was a Theatre Gallery redo.

There are those who are suspicious of his motives with DECA. Is he just trying to make a buck to protect his substantial investment in Deep Ellum? Could it be that he is interested in soothing his own conscience by trying to rebuild what he had a hand in destroying? Or perhaps he's just doing it for the love of art.

Don Blanton seems determined to re-create Deep Ellum in an image that hasn't existed in more than a decade, if it ever did at all. Trying to recall the Deep Ellum of the early to mid-1980s is like trying to recall a thousand dreams the following morning. They're there, but only in fragments -- the punk-rock clubs that have since been shut down, the skinheads who used to populate the area before the tourists from Plano moved in, the musicians who saw their demilitarized zone turn into the West End almost overnight. What was supposed to be a mini-SoHo -- at least, that's what Newsweek said in 1986 -- never really materialized.

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Annabelle Massey Helber