You can go home again

Here are two thirtysomethings in blue jeans slouching on the porch of a century-old white-pillared house in North Oak Cliff, one of them eating a fajita burrito and the other with his hand in his back pocket saying "yup." Most of us would have trouble seeing them as significant blips on the radar screen of the city's future.

Harder still is picturing their environs as the shape of things to come. In the dominant vision of the future, everything is Starbucks, Harleys have replaced automobiles, babies are born with tattoos, and the city is seamlessly cool.

This street, Bishop Avenue in North Oak Cliff, where these two young men stand jawing on a great spring day, is down at the heels--not in a scary-cool Nike ad way but in a dowdy, fusty, square kind of way. Low-slung one-story '60s brick commercial buildings are next to turn-of-the-century frame mansions that have been cut up into rooms and apartments. The side streets are tidy but modest, occupied mainly by Mexican-American families slowly working their way up the socioeconomic ladder.

It's OK, but can this possibly be the future? Doesn't the future have to be hip?

If you listen to people of keen eye--people who have a financial stake in inner-city real estate and who try hard to see the future--these men, Trey Bartosh and David Spence, are, in fact, out there on the far frontier in a place so cool and sophisticated that it's actually beyond Starbucks.

Beyond Starbucks...it's a place many may be afraid to go.

Usually when people talk about the "back-to-the-city movement," a question goes delicately unasked and unanswered: Who left?

But we all know. Mainly it's white people. It's also middle-class black and Latino people, but white, black, or whatever, for the most part the people coming back are young suburbanites. Only they aren't really coming back, technically, because they were never here. For them, the city is scary Europe. One of the best things about it is that suburban parents are afraid to visit.

Bennett Miller, a pioneer loft developer in some of the city's grittiest domains, argues that a manageable amount of fear, largely imagined, may be part of the appeal. He calls it the "we-two-against-the-world" mindset, which exists, say, in the Cedars area south of downtown where Miller has done lofts or in the early days in Deep Ellum, when there was just enough bad stuff going on in the 'hood to allow middle-class people to use that word.

The other face of downtown's redevelopment, Miller suggests, is what has happened to McKinney Avenue and the part of Oak Lawn that now has a made-up name, "Uptown." In that area, developers such as Robert Shaw and Post Properties have imported what was originally a suburban idea called "New Urbanism," grafting it on to what used to be an old urban area.

New Urbanism, born of suburban raw land, involves make-believe town squares and the deliberate mixing of architectural periods. In Uptown, making room for New Urbanism has required pushing the existing old neighborhood down the block and out of view. The result, with cobbled streets, a pretend trolley system, and barely a patch left of what used to be there only 20 years ago, is what Miller calls the "Magic Kingdom" school of urban redevelopment.

It's not that Oak Lawn was a bastion of rare and valuable architecture, anyway, but there were old-fashioned "community service" business strips with shoe-repair places and dime stores--things that spoke of a past of some kind. Their total erasure isn't a moral wrong, according to Miller: It's just that the template is lost, so everything there now feels instantaneous and thin the way it does in the suburbs.

"It's Never-Never Land," he says. "What it says to people is, 'There is nothing here that's real.'"

A certain absence of reality may appeal to people coming back to the city from the suburbs, if they come back because they want Parisian-feeling streets and sidewalk cafés and people-watching and so on but find the real thing intimidating or just crappy-looking.

But if Miller is right that these have been the popular paradigms so far--us-against-the-world behind razor wire and Mickey's Main Street--what in the world are Spence and Bartosh doing over on Bishop Avenue in Oak Cliff, in an area that is neither of these? That, Miller says, is what makes them special.

Gerry Henigsman, executive vice president of the Greater Dallas Apartment Association and a former deputy city manager, also sees North Oak Cliff on his radar, also is aware of Spence and Bartosh, and, like Miller, thinks they are interesting.

"They are probably rather unique," Henigsman says, "as is the area where they are working.

Spence, founder of a company called Good Space, and Bartosh, a solo architect, have for several years been re-developing small turn-of-the-century to 1920s apartment buildings in North Oak Cliff, in an area where some of the city's very first apartments were built. A number of factors, one of the most important of which may have been neglect, have allowed the area to endure as what it was originally--mainly single-family houses with a few small apartment buildings sprinkled in between.

Bartosh and Spence's tenants are not buffered by much from the urban realities around them. This is the city, and you have to be OK with the city as it really is to live and be happy here. Maybe the work Spence and Bartosh are doing should be referred to as the Old Urbanism, or, even more succinctly, Urbanism.

Waiting for a city inspector to arrive, Bartosh takes a moment to conduct a quick tour of 811 North Bishop, a white two-story frame house with rounded "novelty" siding, a broad-beamed front porch, and two enormous two-story fluted columns with elaborate Corinthian capitals--the kind of detail you can't even buy from the reproduction places. Part of what's cool about this place, a four-plex built in 1904, is that it may have been Dallas' very first apartment building.

"I bought it from the daughter of the man who built it," he says. "He went to New York in 1903 and saw apartments for the first time. He thought, 'What a great idea. Maybe I could build one of these, and it might provide some income for my daughters.' He saw a place just like this, and he got the plans."

The building was designed to look like one of the grand single-family homes that lined Bishop Avenue at the turn of the century. "That way, if it didn't work out as apartments, they could change it back to a single-family."

It worked out. In fact, it worked so well the original owner built another one just like it next door. The other one is now owned by someone else and looks bad, nothing like this one. The two buildings still share an eight-stall carriage house across the back with the original tack rooms at both ends. Bartosh has rebuilt his half of the structure to serve as garage space.

He's still redoing the apartments inside. They all have the original floor plans--a generous front room, large kitchen with all new appliances and cabinets, two bedrooms, small office, one full bath that is both antique and redone, and some shared space including a utility room with new laundry equipment, open porch, and new black steel stairs coming up from the back yard.

Rents are $750 to $800. Rent for the same space in nearby buildings that have not been re-done: $275 to $400.

Bartosh and Spence both say their buildings are virtually filled before they can get the doors open.

But by whom?

Lisa Anderson lives in Spence's "Bishop Terrace" at 835 North Bishop.

"I wanted a place that felt homelike," she says. "I moved from a house in the M Streets area. I've worked in West Dallas as a social worker since 1986.

"Oak Cliff in general has always felt more livable to me. I have a sense that I can get away from Dallas by living in Oak Cliff. I'm half Hispanic myself. The other thing I like about Oak Cliff is that it's so diverse. It's stimulating for me, and it feels rich. There is always something interesting for me to see in terms of people.

"I walk all around here in the morning. I enjoy walking around here.

"We have had barbecues at the building. Last Sunday, a woman from the building was moving to Chicago, so we got a little breakfast organized. I was looking for a place to live that wouldn't feel so anonymous. It's the whole concept of small is beautiful.

"I love living here. I really do. I have an incredible view of downtown at a very reasonable cost."

Spence started shopping for places to do in 1993, "when the economy was terrible and this neighborhood had nothing to recommend it," he says.

"I looked at every remotely for-sale cool old building in Oak Cliff, begging Trey to come along and look at foundations and roofs for me."

Bartosh had already done a small 1920s two-story brick apartment building called Bishop Court. Spence finally hit on a similar property almost next door and persuaded Bartosh to come in on it.

"Trey and I spent the next year on it," Spence says. "He contributed the architecture and the general contracting for an equity piece."

Spence contributed the cash and a lot of sweat equity.

"It instantly filled up. I filled it with mostly college-educated urban professional types."

Bishop Terrace now draws rents of a dollar a square foot--$600 for a one-bedroom with no bills paid--which Spence says is three times the cost of the housing around it.

"Two-thirds of the first 16 tenants were single women. Half were from outside Loop 12. Only two moved from other Oak Cliff addresses. Only one worked downtown. Two worked in Carrollton. Two worked in Arlington. One worked in Farmers Branch. Some of them were really suburban animals when they moved here."

Last March a special study by the Texas A&M University Real Estate Center found that Dallas was way ahead of all other Texas cities, including Houston, in construction of new and rebuilt apartments near downtown. Since 1990, the report found, developers had built 8,600 residential units near downtown Dallas, compared with only 2,100 in Houston, a much larger city, in the same period.

Since the report came out, the downtown and close-in residential market has grown even more heated, maybe overheated. Greg Willett of MPF Research, a real estate market-study firm, says there are 2,538 rental units now under construction and reconstruction in the close-in area, enough to increase the existing supply by almost 30 percent when they all open their doors to renters by late this year or early next year.

That's so much supply so fast that it's probably a little ahead of the demand, Willett says. "We're taking a hit on rent growth, especially in the in-town area. In-town rents went down recently, about 1 percent in the year that ended with the last quarter. Obviously that's not a big hit, but rents had been growing by 4 to 5 percent a year previously."

Even with all that growth, living downtown still requires a certain missionary zeal: Things like grocery shopping and car repairs involve treks back out to the land of shopping malls and fast food. Downtown has the big culture of the symphony and opera but precious little small culture, like movie houses and book stores.

Robert Shaw's projects in Uptown have been built around courtyards and common rooms, a concept borrowed from the suburban model of New Urbanism, in order to create a sense of community. But, of course, even the best "sense of community" isn't quite the same thing as community.

In a way, all of the new back-to-the-city developments so far tend to re-create the basic circumstance of the suburbs. Because it's all so new and instant, there has been no time yet for the subtle layering and accretion of schools, shops, bars, parks, churches, temples, mosques--all the fabric and detritus that make a place a real community. For at least the next few years, the new downtown rental market will be another moon colony waiting to feel like home. But for the new apartment people moving into North Oak Cliff, the fabric of community is already in place and wrapped all around them.

When MPF Research turns on its real estate radar, Spence and Bartosh don't show up at all. North Oak Cliff is not even included in MPF's in-town study area. MPF's general Oak Cliff study area, from the west side of Interstate 35 and south of downtown all the way to Loop 12, shows zero. Nada. No new units completed at all. Nothing going on. In upscale rental market terms, this is the great void.

David Spence chose North Oak Cliff as the place he wanted to live and work for basically unbusinesslike reasons.

"I was studying for the Bar exam in Waco. I drove up here on I-35, got off, took a right on Clarendon, and all of a sudden I was in this neat little community with all these ice cream [pushcart] guys all over. They have those guys all over Guatemala like gnats."

He and his wife had served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. The very things about Oak Cliff that might be off-putting to a white-bread suburbanite appealed to Spence because they reminded him of special times. "Especially if you're a Latino-philic person, this is an attractive place," he says.

Son of a Waco physician and businessman, graduate of A&M with an English degree, Spence later picked up an MBA and a law degree at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill with specialties in both poverty and corporate law and in private-sector and nonprofit management. He came to Dallas in 1992 to work for Jim Reid, executive director of the Southern Dallas Development Corp., a nonprofit set up by the city to recruit and help launch businesses in the city's southern sector.

Spence says his father had imparted to him a strong commitment to community service. The two years he and his wife spent in Guatemala persuaded him he probably would spend most of his life working for nonprofits helping the poor. But brief stints with SDDC and another nonprofit convinced him he was wrong. Something hadn't clicked. Spence, a product of the educated white upper middle class, says his commitment was a little more cerebral and less visceral than, say, the manner of Reid, his boss, who glides over social boundaries like a bird over stone walls.

"Apparently I lacked the first-hand emotional connection to the target population," Spence says.

Determined to set off on his own, Spence still hadn't brought himself around entirely to the P-word--profit. He began drawing up a proposal for a nonprofit enterprise engaged in housing in the inner city. With the meticulous habits of a scholar, Spence set out to interview a number of people in the community, seeking their perspectives on inner-city housing. High on the list was Bennett Miller, who owned the space where SDDC's office was. For the last 20 years, Miller had been taking junked-out but sturdy brick industrial structures and turning them into hip loft space.

"When I talked to Bennett, he scolded me for doing this as a nonprofit. He said, 'Why would you want to put up with a board?'"

Spence had worked with boards before and didn't especially mind them, but Miller's next argument struck home.

"He said, 'If your point is to show that these neighborhoods are viable for improvement, then what better way to go in and show they are viable than to make a profit?'"

Oak Cliff. Profit. Maybe it was just that Spence had never heard the two terms used in the same sentence before. The light bulb came on.

Bartosh, whom he had met by then, invited Spence to move in to some spare space in Bartosh's architectural firm's offices. Spence did his first building out of his own pocket, and he has done seven since then, completing them at a rate of one a year. He is still self-financed, and his buildings still fill up as fast as he can finish them.

Paraphrasing another Oak Cliff real estate investor, Spence says his investments are "like buying an annuity." Because of what he must invest to fix them up, the buildings are not instantly resalable at a premium the way apartments can be in the city's silkier climes. His profit comes from renting them out over a period of years.

The way to keep them filled at good rents is to make them attractive in the first place and then keep them up carefully. It's the contrary of the ride-it-down school of inner-city apartment management, in which a slumlord stays on a property's back and rides it into the mud, hoping to get his final pound of flesh from the city council in the form of some kind of rezoning.

Spence doesn't tell you that his way is the only one that makes sense. "There are solid, indisputable economic reasons for milking a property until it is dry," he says. "It is a financial imperative that, absent laws that make you do otherwise, you keep renting and avoid maintaining, avoid spending money."

In fact, he argues that "managed decline" is inevitable unless something happens to interrupt it. The first interruption can be tough code enforcement by the city. "The other interruption is a dramatic upswing in the demand for a quality that still resides in a building or a neighborhood."

Because he sees this special "quality" as his most important selling point, Spence is willing to go to some unusual lengths to find it and show it off in his properties.

Spence's building at 835 North Bishop, called Bishop Terrace, is a two-story brick complex coiled around a lushly landscaped inner courtyard. By relentlessly mining old city records, he was able to dig out the original plans, drawn by California architects famous in the 1930s as popularizers of the bungalow style.

By rebuilding shared porches, fencing and landscaping the front yard as a common area, and restoring other original features, he has been able to re-create a chummy kind of neighborhood-gardens feeling. Even though it's a major element in the quality he finds in old apartment buildings, he doesn't think it was designed into them originally with any kind of self-conscious intent. "I think it was just an ethic at the time, like exercise is an ethic now," he says.

Combing old phone books at the library, Spence sleuthed out the name of the man who was the original caretaker in 1930. He tracked the man down in a rest home in Richardson. "He said this building was 'real high-class' when it was built."

It was important information--a clue that, buried beneath decades of architectural scar tissue, Spence would find the bones of good taste and sophistication.

He shows off a single-bedroom apartment with entry through a narrow kitchen. The kitchen, redone with period-looking black-and-white small tile, is ingeniously crammed with a new stove, dishwasher, refrigerator, and other small appliances. In an adjacent open closet are a new clothes washer and dryer. The front room is airy, with what must be a fantastic view of downtown by night.

The lines of the rooms, the clean symmetry of the woodwork, and the flow of the floor space demonstrate the "real high-class" look the old caretaker had promised would be there beneath the years of patches and paint.

But a few blocks away at 425 Neches is what Spence calls "the zenith of my efforts"--Bishop Green. Again he knows the history: two Victorian houses that stood here originally were wrecked in the 1920s, and a two-story brick veneer apartment complex was built using scrap lumber from the houses. Beneath the plaster are sections of wall, he says, still covered with Victorian wallpaper.

What he has brought out in the building are the stick-work brackets, Mission-style metal lanterns above the doors, and other details. The unit he shows is a second-floor two-bedroom with its own dramatic hardwood staircase up from the front door and a lush view of the huge back yard.

Planted with berry bushes, broken by little rocky dells and crossed by water, the back yard is designed to attract wildlife. Spence, who recycles plants and rocks from demolition sites nearby, is applying to the National Wildlife Federation to have the yards at three of his projects declared "back yard habitats."

This building is not an expensive rental venue for Dallas, but it's not cheap, either. A space of 1,300 square feet goes for $1,100 a month, and the people who live here are mainly professionals. Spence calls them off proudly: "A paralegal, an actress, a nurse, a sales rep, two ad execs, a librarian..."

But isn't it fair to wonder, then--wonderful though this building may be--how all of this fits in with Spence's original idea of helping the poor? Nobody poor lives in Bishop Green. Poor people probably did live here back when it was still junked out. So isn't this just gentrification and displacement, even if it's happening at a gentler pace than what went on in East Dallas in the 1980s?

Walking down Bishop Avenue, a broad thoroughfare that slopes gently down toward Methodist Medical Center, Spence argues that what he and Bartosh are doing will not become the fatal Yuppie nose under the tent--the beginning of the displacement of the people who are already here--because in this neighborhood, he says, those people aren't going anywhere. Their fortunes are improving, too, he says, and as that trend continues they will dig in deeper and improve their own properties.

"The Hispanic population is so strong, so upwardly mobile," he says. "I hope nobody has the hope that we are going to turn this into Yuppieville, because that is not going to happen."

On another day in another conversation, Trey Bartosh expresses pretty much the same view. If anything, he sees the increasingly Hispanic population in the area since the mid-1980s as its own form of gentrification.

"It's amazing how the demographics have changed. It was much more white, mainly little old couples." Most of them, he points out, were beyond the point in life when they could do much for their houses.

The Mexican-American families who have moved in, he predicts, "will continue to achieve more economically and will be able to reflect that in their houses and their yards."

Lupe Garcia, proprietor of Calvario Funeral Home on West Davis Street and a pillar of the Hispanic community in North Oak Cliff, says the Hispanic people he knows applaud what Spence and Bartosh are doing because they see it as enhancing their own property values.

"What they're doing, they're taking these decrepit buildings that are boarded up and waiting for the bulldozer, and they turn them into a beautiful piece of jewelry that melds with the surroundings. But inside, it's the state of the art."

On another walk through the area, Spence points out all the houses that have been painted and fixed up by the families that live in them. Silent midday streets roll gently up and down through tidy green lawns. At moments there is a strange sense of dislocation. The sharp towers of downtown are in full view across the river, and yet the neighborhood itself is velvety quiet like a small town, an odd, appealing, elfin little town exactly midway between Mexico and Mayberry.

Devon San Filipo says two friends of hers had seen Bishop Terrace on a home tour three and a half years ago and told her about it. She drove over on a lunch hour from her job as an administrative assistant.

"It was incomplete. The front yard was all muddy. I looked in the window of an apartment on the ground floor, and I said, 'This is mine.' I crawled in through the window in a business suit and high heels."

San Filipo bikes and walks throughout the neighborhood. She's a member of the neighborhood organization. She is especially happy not to be in the suburbs.

"When I was married, I lived in the suburbs in New Jersey and Mississippi, quite a few different places. This is peace.

"There are bird feeders out in front and a wrought-iron table and chairs. On Sundays I sit out there for an hour with my coffee and my newspaper. I hear the church bells ringing all over Oak Cliff. I see parents walking their children to church. It's that old neighborhood feeling."

The church bells and the parents walking their children may not be everyone's cup of tea, of course. But for the market of people who do find that texture appealing, it's a hard thing for the New Urbanist developers to reproduce, short of using elaborate animatronics or hiring actors. In fact, the special quality both Spence and Bartosh try to evince and then sell in their properties is love of the terrain--a difficult thing for anyone to fake.

"There was an article in the paper," Spence says, "about a real estate guy who bought a building downtown. The guy said, 'I violated a cardinal rule of real estate. I fell in love with my building.'

"I thought, what's wrong with falling in love with your work? I can't imagine not falling in love with a building I'm going to spend a year of blood, sweat, and tears on."

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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

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