There Goes the Neighborhood: The Ups and Downs of Gentrification in Dallas

Christina Casas has lived on Rusk Avenue all her life. She remembers sitting on the front porch early one afternoon in about 1973 as her family bustled past her, lugging furniture and boxes into their new home, a small, wood-frame workman’s bungalow at the corner of Rusk and Carroll Avenue on the fringe of Old East Dallas. She was 5 years old, too young to do anything but get in the way, so she just planted her feet on the second step and watched, more impressed by the strawberries she was nibbling than the prospect of moving. Their new house was a slightly nicer, slightly larger version of the home she’d been born in, which she could see from her perch on the front steps, two doors down.

That was her family’s way. Her grandfather, a chef, had accumulated homes around East Dallas like he was dropping pennies into a piggy bank. Her father, also a chef, did the same. He bought his first house on Rusk in the mid-1960s, a couple of years before Casas was born. When he paid it off, the family moved into the corner house. Casas would tag along with her father when he delivered monthly payments to the home’s previous owner, always in cash. “Another payment, and this house is ours!” he exulted. By the time he died, he had accumulated four adjacent properties on Rusk.

It was a well-functioning, working-class neighborhood when Casas was growing up in the 1970s. The homes, built a half century earlier, were modest but well-kept. Neighbors knew one another and everyone kept an eye on the kids, who were typically allowed to run free. All of this was a small miracle. During the 1940s, the construction of Central Expressway a few blocks to the west and the Roseland Homes housing project a few blocks to the southeast leveled blocks of similar homes but left their pocket intact.

The neighborhood dipped into a sustained period of decline during the 1980s. The remnants of the middle class fled to the suburbs, leaving behind a fractured community. Crime spiked. Gunfire became like a soundtrack. “There was always [police] helicopters,” says Oscar Casas, who married Christina and moved to Rusk Avenue in the late ’80s. “You could always hear them — thwock, thwock, thwock.”

About the same time, Southland Corp., 7-Eleven’s parent company, bought and leveled acres of homes in adjoining neighborhoods to make way for its grandiose Cityplace project, which included plans for twin office towers on either side of Central that would be linked by a pedestrian bridge spanning the freeway. Fallout from the savings and loan crisis combined with Southland’s crushing debt caused plans to be scaled back mid-construction. Only a single tower was built; much of the surrounding land remained fallow.

After their son Oscar was born in 1990, the couple considered moving somewhere safer with better schools, but their search was put on hold after Christina’s father was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1992. Their daughter Crystal was born in 1993, and by the time they were once again in a position to consider relocating, Oscar Jr. was enrolled in Dallas ISD’s Dealey Montessori in North Dallas, which they were happy with. Listening to the lamentations of friends who had decamped to far-flung suburbs reminded them that living five minutes from downtown had its advantages. They decided to stay put. “Why move?” Christina says. “This location right here, it’s close to everything.”

“We knew that development had to happen there — it just had to.”

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The neighborhood stabilized during the 1990s and remained gritty but livable for the next decade. Then, in 2007, around the time Oscar and Christina were replacing one of her father’s cramped old bungalows with a new, two-story model with gleaming wood floors and three-and-a-half bathrooms, a developer named Alan Kagan began approaching Rusk property owners to see if they were interested in selling. Kagan was betting that Uptown’s boom was about to start spilling over Central Expressway. “We knew that development had to happen there — it just had to,” Kagan says. “It was just too close to everything.”

The Casases told him they weren’t interested, but others were, and pretty soon eight modern townhouses, all right angles and glinting aluminum, had sprouted at the end of the block. In 2010, the Casas family watched two bungalows across the street give way to modernist dwellings. In 2011, two more modern homes appeared, making their stub of Rusk Avenue evenly divided between the tiny homes Christina had grown up in and sleek rectangular homes that were selling to young professionals for a quarter of a million dollars.

The new homes were simultaneously popping up on other streets: a couple around the corner on Carroll, a smattering on Deere Street, an enormous block of townhouses on Cabell fronted with stucco and topped with a mansard roof. In 2012, a luxury apartment complex went up on Central Expressway. A sea of others — Metropolitan at Cityplace, Fitzhugh Urban Flats, the Strata — soon flooded the area around Fitzhugh Avenue to the north.

Kagan, who estimates that he has now built close to 50 homes in the area, says the initial challenge was convincing the young professional types he was targeting that the neighborhood was safe. Early on, “most of the buyers were men,” he recalls. “Women who looked at it, they loved the product, [but were scared off by] the area.” Gradually, that changed. “Now we get everybody buying: women, singles, straights — the whole gamut.”

The Casases were amazed at the speed of change. A few years ago, Oscar says, “you wouldn’t see ’em [Anglos] walking dogs around this neighborhood.” Now, the sidewalks are flooded with them, even after dark. This, as much as anything else, highlighted a fundamental truth for the Casases: They were being gentrified.
Dallas has spent the 70 years since World War II oozing from its core. In the north, development followed Central Expressway to Richardson, moved on to Plano, then jumped to Frisco, McKinney and beyond. The advance south has been somewhat less dramatic, but places as far-flung as Red Oak and Waxahachie have become fertile ground for new suburban-style subdivisions.

That process hasn’t stopped; Dallas’ exurbs are still growing at a fantastic rate. At the same time, a countervailing trend has emerged as people began moving back toward the center of the city. The explosion of high rises in Uptown and Oak Lawn starting in the 1980s was an early sign, but it has moved beyond that over the past decade or so. Head any direction out of downtown — east down Ross Avenue or into Deep Ellum, south into the Cedars and Oak Cliff, west into Trinity Groves and the Design District — and you’ll encounter thousands of new apartments and townhouses, either already built or on the drawing board. Even downtown now has a residential population of respectable size. Between 2000 and 2013, the population of the three main downtown Dallas census tracts, bounded by Young Street on the south and Woodall Rodgers Freeway on the north, more than doubled, from fewer than 2,000 residents to nearly 4,700.

The inward push is undeniably good for the city as a whole. The new development increases tax revenue, which may someday help Dallas catch up on its backlog of potholes, and offers hope that Dallas might not become the hole in a suburban doughnut. The newcomers inevitably make the city a more vibrant and interesting place to be, which further redounds to the city’s benefit.

Of course, building townhouses or revitalizing a neighborhood near Dallas’ core is a far messier process than building a subdivision on an expanse of Collin County farmland. There are existing buildings and people living in established neighborhoods. With occasional exceptions (e.g., a vacant Cedars warehouse turned into lofts or a downtown office building converted to apartments), old residents and buildings have to make way for the newcomers, who tend to be richer and whiter than the people they’re displacing. This, in a word, is gentrification. (By one measure, anyway.)

Gentrification has a bad rap in Dallas, and little wonder, given the pre-eminent example from local history is Uptown, which sprung from the ruins of the minority enclaves of Little Mexico and Freedman’s Town. Little Mexico stretched north and east from present-day Victory Park, hugging the Katy Railroad on the west and bleeding into mostly black Freedman’s town along McKinney Avenue. Freedman’s Town continued east past the Houston & Texas Central Railway (present-day Central Expressway) into the Cityplace area. St. Paul United Methodist Church on Routh Street is one of its only surviving landmarks.

Both communities sprung up along rail lines, which provided jobs and, just as important in deeply segregated Dallas, were places where the white population wouldn’t deign to live. Both were poor — Freedman’s Town began as a community of freed slaves, while Little Mexico was heavily populated with refugees who fled the 1910 Mexican revolution — but they were tight-knit and self-sufficient, with a strong sense of culture.

“All neighborhoods are going to change and transition, but this was done with an eye to obliterate it.”

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Sol Villasana, an attorney and author, grew up in Little Mexico during the 1950s and ’60s. By then, the neighborhood had survived more than a half century of official neglect, thriving despite the noxious operations — a coal power plant, slaughterhouses, the city dump — that had been dumped in its midst. Villasana’s father operated a grocery store on Routh Street that, like most of the small businesses in the area, catered to the neighborhood. Restaurants like El Fenix and Luna Tortilla Factory were already well established. Churches and schools were social hubs, though it was Pike Park that served as the center of community life.

The neighborhood was, to a large extent, the victim of Dallas’ postwar obsession with the automobile. The widening of Harry Hines Boulevard around 1940, a modest gash through the neighborhood, was an early portent, but it was the Dallas North Tollway, completed in 1968, that opened up a mortal wound, just as Central Expressway had done to Freedman’s Town further east. Split in two, commerce and community ties withered, a process that accelerated as Little Mexico’s younger generation followed the new freeways to the suburbs.

Developers moved in and quietly began buying up properties, anticipating and helping create the Uptown real estate boom that would swallow Little Mexico with breathtaking speed. Little Mexico’s residents, long disenfranchised and unsophisticated in the ways of zoning and real estate, were easy marks. “A lot of it was just robbing people blind,” Villasana says. Eventually some homegrown attorneys emerged to help protect the interest of residents, but by then the neighborhood was all but gone.

Today, visitors to Victory Park or Uptown will be hard-pressed to locate traces of Little Mexico. Villasana and allies seeking to preserve the community’s history are struggling to find a spot for a plaque commemorating one of the darker days in modern Dallas history, the point-blank murder of 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez by a Dallas cop in 1973. “All neighborhoods are going to change and transition,” Villasana says, “but this was done with an eye to obliterate it.”

The erasure of Freedman’s Town, where Central Expressway paved over a portion of a cemetery of freed slaves, was just as thorough.

What happened to Little Mexico and Freedman’s Town is regrettable, but it’s fundamentally different from the processes that are transforming Dallas’ inner-city neighborhoods in 2015. This is not because developers are suddenly more scrupulous or because Dallas has developed a robust historical conscience, but because the system isn’t rigged like it used to be. Minority communities are no longer shut out of the political process. Single-member City Council districts, for instance, allow residents to choose representatives who will protect their interests. If a state agency decides to ram a highway through their neighborhood, or if a developer wants to build something awful next door, they can offer meaningful resistance. Much of what used to be Little Mexico is represented by City Council member Adam Medrano, who grew up in the area and has established himself as a fierce advocate for neighborhoods. Zoning changes and infrastructure projects in his district, he says, have to pass muster with neighbors before he’ll offer his support.

This isn’t enough to stop gentrification, which is driven by market forces that are stronger than politics, but it levels the playing field and makes it much harder to dismiss gentrification as wholly evil. Whether the native culture is extinguished, and to what extent longtime residents benefit from the process, depends on context. Take the West Dallas enclave of La Bajada, which sits alongside Trinity Groves at the foot of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. In an earlier era, it might have been wiped off the map in the land rush that accompanied the construction of the Santiago Calatrava-designed span. That may happen yet, if development continues apace and some residents decide to cash out, but if it happens, it will not be a case of exploitation. The city was remarkably proactive about balancing the needs of the neighborhood with its desire to promote development. When neighbors decided that the city’s protections weren’t strong enough, they organized and waged a successful campaign at City Hall to limit the height of developments within the neighborhood’s boundaries.

Down the road in Oak Cliff, a similarly nuanced story is playing out. Developed around the streetcar line in the early 20th century, with well-built, middle-class cottages and commercial strips reminiscent of a small-town Main Street, the neighborhood was hollowed out by white flight, becoming increasingly poor and Hispanic. “Winnetka [Heights] was basically a slum,” says Monte Anderson, a developer who grew up in Oak Cliff. The neighborhood’s stately homes were subdivided into multiple, dirt-cheap rental units and fell into disrepair.

The area’s resurgence began the way gentrification often starts: with a cadre of cash-strapped creative types looking for somewhere cheap and cool. In the early 1980s, they began buying and fixing up homes in Winnetka Heights. Next came developer Jim Lake, who purchased and leased out storefronts around Bishop and 7th Street, which he would later christen the Bishop Arts. Dave Spence, now a major property owner in Bishop Arts, settled in Oak Cliff in 1992 and bought the building that would eventually house Dude, Sweet Chocolate a couple of years later. The next major steps in Oak Cliff’s evolution Spence ties to restaurants: the opening of Hattie’s, around the turn of the millennium, was when people north of the Trinity River began to perceive Bishop Arts as cool; Bolsa, in 2007, was when hipsters began arriving wearing funny hats.

The resurgence is captured in census data. In Winnetka Heights, for example, inflation-adjusted median income doubled between 1970 and 2010. Median home values are up to nearly $200,000, 50 percent higher than the city as a whole. The percentage of adult residents with college degrees leaped tenfold, from 5 percent to 52 percent. The neighborhood, formerly mostly Hispanic, is now 60 percent Anglo.

Oak Cliff is now becoming a victim of its own success, which can be seen most clearly in the changing face of businesses in and around Bishop Arts. The Mexican-owned businesses are gradually being squeezed out. A beloved Davis Street ice cream parlor, La Original Michoacana, announced over the summer that it was moving to Arlington after its rent quadrupled. So, for that matter, are some of the original gentrifiers. “The artists are nearly all gone, especially the smaller artists,” Anderson says. “It’s mostly the Bishop Eats now.”

Not even the eats are immune. Zoli’s, the 2-year-old New York-style pizzeria, will close next year to make way for a five-story apartment development proposed by Alamo Manhattan. The project, which envisions a trio of monolithic apartment blocks with underground parking and ground-level retail along the newly opened streetcar line, has become the subject of intense controversy in Oak Cliff. A Change.org petition, currently with just over 5,000 signatures, laments that the plans “are not consistent with the neighborhood’s vibe” and that they have “real potential to squelch the beautiful, organic growth of a neighborhood that has happened on its own through the hard work of the founders, the business owners, residents and patrons of the businesses, without greedy developers imposing their model for growth.”

Something similar could have been written by Oak Cliff natives a couple of decades ago when the area was beginning to transition from Hispanic to hipster, but in both cases, there have been few passive victims. Spence, the pioneering Bishop Arts developer, argues that longtime residents have been well-positioned to take advantage of Oak Cliff’s boom. “In 2010, the homeownership rate in the neighborhood around Bishop Arts was 71 percent. And 72 percent of the homeowners have Hispanic surnames.” There are undoubtedly instances in which lower income renters have been forced to find new homes elsewhere because their landlords decided to cash out and sell or rent to monied white people, but for many more people it has been an economic boon.

David Rosas, a truck driver, bought a duplex two blocks from Kidd Springs Park in 1992. He and his wife lived there happily for two decades and raised a family. In 2012, they sold it to Spence for what Rosas calls “good money.” With the proceeds, he bought an acre of land in Cedar Hill. “It’s better for my family living over here,” he says. Jason Roberts, one of the pioneers of the neighborhood’s hipster generation and the driving force behind the new Oak Cliff streetcar, among other neighborhood projects, recently offered $200,000 for a home near Bishop Arts. The Hispanic owner, who’d paid maybe a fifth as much when he bought into the neighborhood, laughed him off; he planned to sell for way more than that.

That’s less true of businesses that have been displaced, but it’s not because the businesses lacked agency. Anderson doesn’t particularly care for Bishop Arts’ transformation into a boutique eatery, but he blames the exiled artists and small businesspeople for not taking control of their economic fortunes by buying their own property. “If they owned the property — the builder, the baker, the candlestick maker — it would be harder for them to [be pushed out].”

What’s happening now with Alamo Manhattan is merely the next stage in the process. First came the creative types, looking for something cheap, who paved the way for middle-class families and professionals craving a neighborhood that felt cool and urban. Now, with demand for Oak Cliff living badly outstripping the supply of attractive homes, developers are moving in. Some of the neighborhood’s charm will probably vanish in the process. Spence, for instance, was smitten with Oak Cliff in 1992 while driving around Elmwood and spotting a paletero selling ice cream from a pushcart. Such sights are becoming rarer, but Spence doesn’t bemoan their disappearance, just as he doesn’t bemoan the arrival of big developers. “Either a city reinvents itself or it dies — period,” he says. “What do you want? Do you want Alamo Manhattan? Or do you want Detroit?”
The forces that are causing gentrification in Christina and Oscar Casas’ neighborhood near Cityplace are different from what’s happening in Oak Cliff. Oak Cliff has become its own magnet, drawing people and businesses because it’s vibrant and unique. The area around Cityplace, as well as other places around the core, is catching spillover from Uptown, which isn’t nearly large enough to accommodate Dallas’ demand for urban living.

Christina and Oscar Casas are OK with this. They don’t mind the sleek new houses that have consumed half their block, though they would have preferred it if the driveways across the street, which they used to be able to reverse straight into, had been kept where they were and that the city hadn’t somehow been persuaded to allow on-street parking along one curb, which constricts Rusk to a narrow passage. Just backing out of the driveway has become an ordeal.

They also aren’t overly concerned with the oil-and-water mix of old and new, even if Christina does chafe at developers’ self-congratulatory insistence that the neighborhood she’s lived in for 47 years is being “improved” and Oscar, bald and sturdy with a pugilist’s compressed features, is intensely conscious of the looks he gets when he mows the lawn in front of the couple’s stately, two-story house. More than once, Oscar, who sells heating and air conditioning systems (Christina works in medical billing), has been mistaken for a hired landscaper.

The Casases have nevertheless become close friends with several of their immediate neighbors, thanks in large part to a shared enemy: the Trammell Crow Co., which is locked into a year-old court battle with the neighborhood over plans to build a Sam’s Club at Cityplace. One of their new neighbors, Jonas Park, has been handling PR for the group. Another, Alex More, is an attorney whose close examination of city zoning documents has at least delayed the project. Just like their new neighbors, the Casases find a big-box warehouse store antithetical to their vision for the neighborhood.

“It’s great that everything’s changing and evolving, but you get that tax bill and — crap.”

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That’s not to say that the Casas family always understands the newcomers. Take Park, for instance. He moved into one of Kagan’s early houses about four years ago, having grown bored with Knox-Henderson, where he’d lived for the previous decade. His background is in commercial photography, but he currently devotes himself primarily to running his yoga studio and fighting the Trammell Crow Co. He is infectiously good-natured. What baffles the Casases is his laissez faire approach to security. The area around Cityplace is safer than it was in the ’80s and ’90s — safe enough, clearly, for affluent dog-walkers — but property crime remains common. And yet Park insists on routinely leaving his doors unlocked.

Park tells of coming downstairs one afternoon a while back to check on a noise and finding a large burglar standing just inside his back door. “Can I help you?” Park asked placidly. The man jumped at the words, taken aback by the question, and stammered something about losing a football; Park offered to help him look. After a few moments of peering in corners and under furniture, he guided the man to the front door. “Next time if you lose your ball,” Park told him as he left, “just knock.” Park later called police, but only after being chided by neighbors for failing to do so.

Oscar marvels that Park is still alive. His approach to security is more pragmatic. When he recently caught someone breaking into his shed — a bad idea for many reasons, not least the Army and Navy flags (his son’s and daughter’s respective military branches) flying from his porch — he grabbed his gun and shot at the trespasser, who managed to jump a fence and escape. Next time, Oscar vows, he’ll wait until after he fires to call out a warning.

Over the past couple of years, the Casases have begun to experience the most acutely painful downside of living in a gentrifying neighborhood. “It’s great that everything’s changing and evolving, but you get that tax bill and — crap,” Oscar says. The tenth-of-an-acre lot their house sits on — just the dirt — is now valued at $66,000, a sixfold increase since 2002. The house has ratcheted up in value as well. Last year alone, the combined taxable value of house and lot jumped by $35,000, an increase of 17 percent.

Oscar appealed the increase and pleaded his case before an appraisal review board but they denied his request for a reduced valuation. “‘Well,’” he recalls being told, “‘you’re just a victim of your own success.’”

The answer angered Oscar. The family had been fine with the neighborhood the way it was, which was why they’d been there for a half century. “Why do I have to move because you’re jacking up my taxes and forcing me out?” Oscar wonders.

If they ever do move, they’re not sure where they’d go. Home prices in North Texas are at record highs, and close-in neighborhoods like theirs are fast pricing out the middle class. In many ways, Dallas seems to be on the cusp of what journalist Alan Ehrenhalt, in a 2012 book, described as a “Great Inversion,” in which the inner city is increasingly dominated by the rich and upper middle class while the immigrants and lower-income minorities who used to dominate those areas move to the suburbs.

The Casases haven’t been forced out yet and probably won’t be for the foreseeable future. They can handle the taxes for now. Christina’s mother, who lives in the bungalow on the corner where Christina remembers eating strawberries 42 years ago, also has no plans to leave; she has admonished Christina’s sisters not to sell the vacant plot next door until she dies so she can enjoy the pecan tree that grows there.

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Gentrification is in the eye of the beholder. Here’s what we see.

People often think they know gentrification when they see it. When skyrocketing rent forces an Oak Cliff ice cream parlor to close or when well-off white people start snatching up homes in a long-neglected inner-city neighborhood, it is hard to miss. But gentrification isn’t always so easy to spot, at least in the earlier stages of the process, and it can be impossible to define with any objectivity.

Some measures of gentrification include poverty rates in the calculations, as well the racial and ethnic makeup of neighborhoods. Others don’t. For a neighborhood to be classified as gentrifying, who has to be displaced and who has to move in is an open question. “Even researchers don’t agree on what ‘gentrification’ means, let alone how to identify it,” the Washington Post noted in an article last year about the fuzziness of a politically loaded word.

Not that the warning stopped us.

In our effort to identify what we’ll loosely call gentrifying neighborhoods in Dallas, we defined the process broadly as an influx of high-income, well-educated residents into a formerly low-income neighborhood. To measure this, we compared data for all census tracts within the city of Dallas from the 2013 American Community Survey with equivalent data from the decennial census in 2000 across three metrics: median income, median home value and the percentage of the adult population with at least a bachelor’s degree. We pulled data for the 2000 census from Brown University’s Longitudinal Tract Database, which adjusts for changes in census tract boundaries. To qualify as gentrifying — by our rough calculation, anyway — a census tract had to jump from below the city’s median income in 2000 to above it in 2013; outpace the city’s median growth in home value; and see an increase in the percentage of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree. The map below combines all three measures into a weighted score.

This approach isn’t perfect. It excludes places like Knox-Henderson, Lowest Greenville, the Design District and downtown Dallas’ Central Business District, which have seen significant growth since the turn of the millennium but which had incomes slightly above the citywide median. On the other hand, it identifies as gentrifying areas that don’t pass the eye test. The area immediately northwest of Walnut Hill and Central Expressway shows up not because rich people moved in but because hundreds of dilapidated apartments were razed to make way for what eventually became a Trader Joe’s-anchored shopping center. The data also doesn’t capture any change that might have taken place over the past two years, which, given the amount of construction around Dallas’ core, is significant.

Still, our review suggests that North Oak Cliff and Uptown aren’t the only neighborhoods seeing rapid redevelopment, whether you call it gentrification or not. The demand for close-in living is real, and it’s changing the face of neighborhoods. The precise nature of these changes varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. In the area around Cityplace, an incredible number of high-end, modernist cubes are packed on tiny lots alongside 1920s bungalows. At Maple and Oak Lawn avenues, developers have captured some of the spillover from Uptown with a sea of luxury apartment complexes. Then there’s the area around Bishop Arts, where the existing housing stock has merely changed hands.

Whether any of the individual changes is cause for celebration or lament is a matter of context and perspective, but the overall picture is a positive one for anyone concerned about Dallas’ future. For all the continued growth in the suburbs, people increasingly want to live in the city. 
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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson