The Living End

Twenty years ago it was hot, this collection of retrofitted and spit-polished early-20th-century warehouses. The neighborhood's edge was the sharpest in the city. Parking lots brimmed with the rides of the A-list. Bodies, money, sex and alcohol sluiced through the West End and its Dallas Alley "entertainment complex" of nightclubs. Limos sidled up to the mouth of the Alley, where curving arches, burning with multicolored neon, linked the West End MarketPlace with the old Coca-Cola building. In the late 1980s, Alley Cats, an Alley bar featuring dueling pianos, was said to be the highest-grossing nightclub per square foot in the nation.

"There was more to do down here than you could shake a stick at," said the late Dallas artist Ellwood Blackman. Blackman painted the people and buildings of the West End Historic District for roughly 20 years, since the time he was an art student (and later an instructor) at El Centro College. He remembered the days when the streets were so packed with people that any old hack with a saxophone or a guitar or even a pair of buckets upended for a beating could pull decent loot into the tip jar. "You didn't actually have to go anywhere to be entertained," he recalled. "They had entertainers in the street--jugglers, guys on unicycles, tumblers."

Blackman brushed and posted paintings on the red brick walls of the Spaghetti Warehouse, hawking them to passers-by. But his most ambitious work is inside: a 360-degree mural he painted on the interior of an old vault where cash was stored when the building was a pillow factory. Not much larger than a phone booth, the mural depicts a bustling West End street scene looking toward a steel and glass bank tower framed in glowing green argon tubing rising into the night sky.

But the crowds and the entertainers Blackman depicted long ago evaporated (Blackman died from a sudden illness on August 6 at the age of 44 as this story was being written). He rarely shared his stretch of Market Street with other entertainers or street vendors in recent years save for the rose pushers, who wheel their buckets of buds down the block in stripped-down shopping carts.

The West End isn't dead; that would be too dramatic. It isn't even in a coma. But it's not healthy. Its cluster of historic buildings and shrinking collection of retailers and mostly chain restaurants have been wheezing through a 10-year decline. The nearby American Airlines Center was supposed to trigger a resurgence, but so far the expected boost has proved elusive. Still, Greg Schooley, executive director of the West End Association, puts a good face on it. "It cushioned what would have been a loss," he insists. "It's what's kept everything going."

The West End is arthritic, but it can regain its stride. Some argue the process is well under way. The posh Victory project tethered to the American Airlines Center, with its planned W Hotel and upscale restaurants, is in the works. A 204-unit apartment complex opened at Ross and Lamar this past August with 104 units to follow across the street within two years. Residential development is crucial, Schooley insists, because it will smooth out the cyclical spikes and troughs the district suffers as a result of its dependence on tourists and conventioneers. Plus, an influx of residents will dilute the "tourist trap" stigma that some operators say drives locals away. Even the nightclubs have returned.

District boosters insist this is the shot the district needs to lift it from its stupor. And what a stupor it is. The West End MarketPlace, a "festival marketplace" mall that was once the crown jewel of this red brick complex, has two vacant floors. Its three anchors withered away in rapid succession. First to go was the West End 10 Cinema, which occupied the first four floors of the building, in 2000. Planet Hollywood slipped from view on September 11, 2001. Dallas Alley gave up the ghost the following year when Alley Cats and the club Oxygen ran out of gas. Only a few tiny spots in those cavities have been filled.

The West End began its transformation from blighted warehouse district to thriving amusement sector in 1972. It was then, before the area was designated a historic district, that Pier 1 Imports founder Robert Hawk converted the abandoned Pillowtex factory into Spaghetti Warehouse. "People thought I was crazy," Hawk says. "The only thing down there at night was wild dogs and rats." The threat of their return is closer than it has been in two decades.

The West End--there are some good restaurants and bars in the West End and places for shopping...but I still think of it as a tourist trap. Tourists just seem to end up here. It's not a bad place to walk around...there just isn't much substance to it. --Description of the West End Historic District on VirtualTourist.com.

Ceiling fans hum and squeak in the silent nightclubs of the Coca-Cola building. Bars sit idle and liquorless. Graffiti still tattoos the walls at Alley Cats, as do cartoonish felines. Fake foliage remains wired to sprinkler system pipes.

Across the way at Oxygen, the air is pungently musty. Old couches molder, and cages with red metal bars--presumably for dancers--sit idle in the corners like hardware in a circus junk heap. Paintings by Patrick Nagel, the late-1980s iconographer whose simple, art deco-stylized women graced the pages of Playboy and the cover of Duran Duran's Rio album, collect dust on the walls.

The West End is Dallas' ground zero; the seed bed from which the city eventually sprouted from the time Tennessee lawyer John Neely Bryan established a settlement in 1841. But it remained a relatively small settlement until 1872 when the railroads arrived, spawning a huge wholesale market serving the Southwest. The Trinity River originally flowed close to the area, bringing with it thousands of frogs that croaked incessantly. Hence the area between Pacific Avenue and the edge of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway was christened Frog Town, an area that thrived as a red light district packed with whorehouses and saloons patronized by both visitors and "respectable residents" alike.

"In 1914, a citizen's movement led ironically by wives of some of Frog Town's best patrons began the long overdue effort of cleaning up this West End neighborhood and eliminated the 'undesirables,' making the city safe again," reads a document posted on the Dallas West End Historic District Web site.

But the West End lost its breath after World War II as the truck rapidly replaced railroad transport. Pressure to raze the buildings and open the area to skyscraper development was enormous. "It was blighted, to say the least," says real estate developer Preston Carter. In the late 1970s with developer Robert Bagwell at the helm, Preston Carter Co. slapped options on virtually every major red brick structure in the district. Carter's company grabbed control of 42 acres and 18 buildings, triggering a rash of speculation. "I saw something that made a lot of sense," he says.

Carter's move came years after the Dallas City Council, fearing the district's slide into decay, unanimously approved plans to create the West End Historic District in 1975. The West End is a 36-block, 55-acre national historic district that grips about 20 percent of the city's downtown core. It contains what remains of the old warehouse district as well as the Dallas County Government Complex, the Kennedy Memorial, Dealey Plaza and El Centro College.

Yet the move drew fierce opposition from some city developers. "Critics of it would say, 'You've taken away the development potential for all of this land, trying to protect these outdated obsolete warehouses,'" says one Dallas developer. There was no real historical significance to the structures, they scoffed, deriding preservation proponents' comparisons of the West End to Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco or Pioneer Square in Seattle. These historic areas succeeded, they argued, because they were on waterfronts and had some character and history.

"Dallas has been characterized as a city that lacks character," frets Jean Gath in a September 1986 monograph published by the Institute for Urban Design. "It is dominated by the automobile, and its streets are devoid of people. To some extent this is true. As in other cities, freeways in Dallas have demolished entire neighborhoods, and historic buildings have been razed to make room for McDonald's golden arches. The West End, however, is an exception."

Yet the transformation of the area into a mix of artists, professionals, restaurants, retail and office space--"Another Greenwich Village set on the edge of Dallas' glass and steel jungle," as a May 1981 edition of D magazine gushed--was agonizingly slow. By 1980, most of the buildings were still vacant.

Development lagged until 1982 when the federal government put its two cents into the district via the Economic Recovery Act of 1981, which granted developers investment tax credits of up to 25 percent for preserving and renovating historic buildings. Finally, the development sluice gates were busted open.

In time, restaurants converged on the district with a vengeance: Grumbles Grill, Nick's Barbecue, Record Grill, Ferrari's, West End Oasis and Silvano's (later 311 Lombardi). "They came and went so fast," artist Blackman remembered. "I guess they looked good on paper."

Perhaps the most famous restaurant to land in the West End was The Palm. When it opened in 1983 in an abandoned icehouse, the West End steak house became the ninth Palm Restaurant nationwide and the second in Texas. It was also the first deal Preston Carter says he struck to bring some luster to the warehouse district.

The move seemed to lift the West End over the last hurdle. "There's quite a lot of things you have to go through in order to get the building renovated and people in it," Schooley says. "It's cost-prohibitive. It's time-prohibitive. Those are the things that were hard for people when they thought about moving businesses down here...But sometimes it only takes one to get the ball rolling."

And once it rolled, it moved rapidly. "We didn't really get started until '82, and by '84 it was done," Carter says. "And it was a beautiful thing. It ran like a top until about '89."

While the city's hookers and drunkards once dubbed the West End Frog Town, Dr. Elise Bright of the University of Texas at Arlington calls the district TOADS: temporarily obsolete, abandoned, derelict sites. In a 2003 study, she traced the ebbs and flows of the West End. "In the early 1980s and the early 1990s the West End's market suffered," Bright writes. "[I]n the first case due to insufficient development incentives and lack of public investment in infrastructure, and in the second case due to a major economic downturn in North Texas."

It was in the mid-1980s that the West End seemed most potent. In this go-go decade, a blessed formula of investment and ideas floated by a vibrant economy converged on the district, juicing it with an urban energy as distinctive as its architecture.

The West End MarketPlace was its apogee: a $25 million 250,000-square-foot bazaar tucked under an atrium. Five levels of small specialty retailers, food and beverage vendors and nightclubs slipped into the circa-1911 Brown Cracker & Candy Co. building. An investment group that included Robert Bagwell, Preston Carter and Atlanta retail specialist David Levine bankrolled the project.

But the district's reactor core was Dallas Alley, the nightclub complex created by bar wizard Spencer Taylor. Straddling both the West End MarketPlace and the Coca-Cola building next door, Dallas Alley opened in October 1986, rapidly morphing into 10 nightclubs. Its flagship was the 8,000-square-foot Boiler Room with multilevel seating. Feeding around the Alley edges was the rhythm-and-blues bar Froggy Bottoms slotted in the basement of the Sunshine Biscuit building; the pseudo jazz club Take Five; the pub-like Plaza Bar; a nostalgic grill called Bubbles Beach Diner; and a private piano bar called Backstage. The blockbuster Alley Cats, a dueling sing-along piano bar patterned after Pat O'Brien's in New Orleans, followed within months.

Strings of clubs threaded through the complex over the years, and the pull was phenomenal out of the chute, stoked by an annual $1 million entertainment budget Carter and his investors devoted to the project, half of which went to parlay talent while the other half was channeled into advertising and marketing. "Once we opened Dallas Alley it really put the West End in a huge play," Carter says. "It made it the center of entertainment for Dallas."

Dallas Alley exploited a persistent nightclubber yearning: the club-to-club safari. But it allowed them to indulge in the sweaty roam in close quarters for a single cover charge that ranged from zero on Mondays to $5 on weekends. Just four months after the mix opened, it was drawing some 17,000 visitors a week, making it the top-grossing alcohol sales venue in the state, siphoning a reported $748,482 for the month of July 1987 alone--more than twice that of the then-second-place Loews Anatole. Dallas Alley was quickly racking up $12 million in annual revenues, tossing off some $5.5 million in sales and liquor taxes in 1987, ranking it first in the state.

"There was nothing like it," says Teresa Rynell, Dallas Alley's one-time marketing lieutenant. "Dallas needed it." Along with Taylor, Rynell spearheaded a number of West End events that compounded the area's popularity. Free outdoor concerts on Monday nights, with acts that included Midnight Oil, Van Halen and Guns N' Roses, drew throngs, packing the West End all the way back to Main Street. "We started fearing for our lives," Rynell says. "There were thousands of people down here...They were hanging from the buildings. They were on every fire escape. It was the most incredible sight you've ever seen. Back in '86 or '87, nobody came downtown, and we were drawing these thousands and thousands of people."

But Rynell says the developers became delirious on cash streams and began whittling away at her events and staff. Taylor, who went on to help develop Gilley's Dallas before moving on to Deadwood, South Dakota, to stoke a $38 million entertainment, gambling and lodging complex called Deadwood City Limits, was let go in 1988 (Taylor couldn't be reached for comment).

"[Taylor's] an absolute genius as far as laying out a club and an entertainment complex," Carter says. "But he's real artistic and creative, which means he's a terrible manager." Rynell landed on the chopping block the following year. Not long after, she maintains, Dallas Alley began its decade-long decline. Instead of top talent on Monday nights, bookings featured rock-geezer retrofits such as Bad Company's Paul Rogers with Journey's Neal Schon, Kansas, REO Speedwagon, Bachman Turner Overdrive and Three Dog Night. There was even a rock cadaver vigil called "A Candlelight Tribute to Elvis," featuring Elvis impersonator Dave "Elvis" Tapley. Concerts shared billing with promotions such as wet T-shirt contests and The Kiss-A-Pig campaign. "Everything just seemed to kind of begin unraveling," Rynell says. "It got a lot sleazier."

The West End was also racked with crime. Case in point: In October 1988, a 21-year-old Tulsa man spending his vacation in Dallas was shot to death in a nearby parking lot. The next day a man was arrested for shooting at a man who flung racial slurs at him. From that point on newspapers bulged with reports of bottle attacks, confiscated shotguns and pistols, gang fights and arrests for public intoxication, glue sniffing and public urination. In October 1989, police lost control of a crowd of more than 20,000 when fights broke out during a free concert featuring the heavy metal band Warrant. Outdoor heavy metal concerts were subsequently throttled.

"Initially it was all positive and upward and buoyant and enthusiastic," says Vincent Meyer, who has operated the polo equipment retailer Texas Polo for close to 30 years in the Brewery nearby. "Then the gangs started moving in, and they ran everybody off." To be sure, the advent of teen clubs such as Level V in the MarketPlace and electronic game arcades such as Tilt in Dallas Alley flooded the area with teens, repelling families and young professionals. Level V was closed after one year, but Carter says the opening of the DART line did nothing but bring more gangs to the West End--for a dollar. "I started playing Bob Wills music on the loudspeakers," he says. "That irritated 'em."

Much of the petty crime in the West End stemmed from cruising teenagers and young adults, says the West End's Schooley. "The problems that Deep Ellum and Lower Greenville are having, we actually went through about 10, 15 years ago," he says. "We worked that out of our area."

The "workout" was as innovative as the Dallas Alley arches. Property and business owners chipped in cash and bought the police a laptop computer. On weekends, patrolmen would post on key street corners and punch in the license plate numbers of passing cars. If the same tag number turned up multiple times within a narrow time space, the cops pulled the vehicle over and scrutinized the ride. "They all of a sudden didn't like it here anymore," Schooley says.

Carter says it was crime that drove a stake into the West End's heart. He dumped his interest in the district in 1997 after he and his partners invested more than $70 million to clear its cobwebs. In the late '80s and early '90s, he pressured the city to earmark $400,000 to beef up lighting around the district perimeter and enhance security. The city turned him down.

"Until people feel safe and secure, they're not going to go there. And the city of Dallas is so totally inept in everything they do," he frets. "I accomplished a tremendous feat that nobody in their right mind would have done. And then to see it destroyed through incompetence, it just makes me sick. That's why you will never see my name on another development in the city of Dallas, because I cannot deal with the bureaucratic bullshit down there."

Yet one pesky fact wags its finger in Carter's face: Crime is not a serious problem in the West End, though perception of it might be. According to police statistics, violent crime in the West End has been virtually nonexistent for at least two years through June 2004, while business and residential burglary has registered steep declines.

"Statistically, this is one of the safest entertainment districts in Dallas," says Rob Paynor, co-founder of the West End Comedy Theatre, which opened in the West End MarketPlace at the beginning of the year. "Of course, the reason it's so safe is that there's no one down here." And his assessment is borne out. Over the Fourth of July weekend, the West End was a ghost town: empty parking lots, desolate restaurants, vacant patio furniture--a game preserve for the fanny-pack set. During a show featuring the comedy troupe Voodoo Mechanic, the comedy club was barely a third full. But this doesn't bother Paynor and his partner Doug Ewalt. They were lured to the West End by the abundance of reasonably priced space and the belief the West End would claw its way back to glory. "Eventually, this is going to kick back out," Ewalt says.

There are no hard figures on the number of visitors filing through the West End each year, but Schooley estimates between 5 million and 7 million visit annually--the numbers that were reported in the 1980s. A ranking of the most popular Dallas-Fort attractions published last March by the Dallas Business Journal plugged the West End MarketPlace in eighth place with 3 million visitors, just behind Traders Village in Grand Prairie and the Dallas Public Library.

Yet Paynor believes the presence of tourists actually repels the locals. "Dallas is a city that really thrives on being on the edge and being trendy," he says. "Dallas felt that this was passé, that the West End was more of a tourist area, and for them being on the cutting edge they didn't want to be associated with a place that was so...mundane."

Scott Melton, who has struggled in the district with his restaurant Atomic Sushi for two years, agrees. Melton says he's frustrated with the unpredictable ebbs and flows of running a business in an area that is largely driven by the vagaries of tourists. "What's the reason for someone who's local to come down here?" he asks. "It gets crowded, but it gets crowded with the wrong element--certainly the wrong element for selling sushi...The vibe is always different, but it's so vanilla. It's like Six Flags."

The district's dependence on tourism is why it has suffered its deepest and most persistent slump since its birth. Convention Center construction dramatically stalled conventions and hence, West End vitality. "Then 9-11 just knocked the lights out," says Tom Persch, general manager of the West End MarketPlace. Persch subsequently shut down the top two levels of the MarketPlace, consolidating the remaining vendors in the lower three levels to make the building seem more vibrant.

But Robert Bagwell, who developed the MarketPlace and is now a partner in the West Village at McKinney and Lemmon avenues, says the district's problems go deeper than just the slumping convention and tourist business. He says the West End, specifically the MarketPlace, went from a destination venue with unique retailers to a cluster of mostly cheesy souvenir shops ringed by chain restaurants that people can find anywhere--a combination that mocks the distinctiveness of the architecture. "Putting in Planet Hollywood was fatal," he says. "It destroyed the whole ambience of the atrium...Just walk through it. It's lost its sparkle. When we had it, it was hot."

But new buds have broken out of the Dallas Alley corpse. Not only is the West End Comedy Theatre rising out of the 1950s "laser karaoke" club Bobby Sox previously in this Dallas Alley space, but Teresa Rynell has revived Froggy Bottoms, last a cigar bar called Stogie's.

One level above, Rynell and her partner Ed Campbell installed a country bar: Honky Tonk Heaven, a tiny two-step paradise in the space that used to be the RoadHouse Saloon. She's also revived outdoor concerts on the MarketPlace plaza. They call their tiny club cluster Market Street Square. "We just thought we'd create a place...to take advantage of this incredible number of people who are down here looking for the old Dallas Alley, looking for entertainment that doesn't exist anymore," Rynell says. If the clubs kick in, they hope to invade more of Dallas Alley's dead space.

But the West End will not be reanimated by clubs alone. It will take diversity. The city has allocated some $4 million to turn the huge parking lot next to Spaghetti Warehouse into a park. Property owners have also chipped in cash to develop a green space in the barricaded area in front of The Butcher Shop Steakhouse.

There are other signs of health, too. In 2000, Owen Hannay, president of the advertising agency Slingshot, purchased the Awalt building, a structure that was in danger of being demolished. After a costly refurbishment, Hannay claims, the building is 97 percent leased with "creative companies and law firms." So giddy was he with his success, he picked up Landmark Center after the FBI vacated it and has similar plans for refurbishment. "I really feel like there's going to be an enormous amount of rebirth down here," he says.

But perhaps the most potent pieces of development in the area are the residences rising out of the ground on Ross Avenue by the Fram Building Group. In late August a 204-unit apartment complex called 1001 Ross opened with underground parking and 14,000 square feet of retail space at street level. In two years, Fram will deliver a historically correct 104-unit complex in the district on what is now a parking lot next to Y.O. Ranch Restaurant. "The West End three years ago was dying a slow death," says Luciano Bettin, who heads the Dallas office for the Toronto-based developer. "This can rejuvenate it."

Schooley insists the Victory project will further vitalize the district; the project will serve the "platinum level" arena visitors while the West End takes care of the rest. "We serve a very specific role," he says. "We take care of the upper and lower bowl, the regular fans in either the seats up above or down below."

District boosters say this formula boils with genuine urban vigor, the type that has eluded Dallas for years. "There's a helluva lot more life in that district than there is in Deep Ellum. I'll tell you that," says one Dallas developer. "Talk about tired."

Ellwood Blackman didn't live to see the West End resurrected. But just before he died, he predicted it would soon hum with the buzz he remembered and painted. "I see it coming back," he said, pointing his paintbrush toward the street. "But you got to bring it back. You can't just pussyfoot around."

There is no pussyfooting, insist the district's cheerleaders; the coming red brick renaissance will not be an illusion or hype. The West End's Schooley says the city council's move last month to raise parking fees in the district points to the confidence the city's leaders have in the area, though he wishes that confidence didn't sting so much. It says something, he notes, especially when the city gave Deep Ellum, a district suffering from crime and plunging entertainment revenues, a 45-day reprieve from parking fees. The West End will succeed, he insists, because the city and developers whose investments ring the district have too much at stake to let it whither. The upcoming Victory project depends on it. "We're mutually important to each other," he insists. "If we die, they've got a dead historic district between them and downtown."

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