In some ways Dallas has become the quintessential “Texas” city. Its name evokes images of cowboys, oil barons, football, southern socialites, Indians, the old west, and the sun belt all converging in one highway crossed hodgepodge where the post oaks meet the plains in the middle of North Texas. Comparatively, Houston is its own city. It is definitely Texan, but it’s Houston first and all else second. Despite being the largest city in Texas, older than Dallas, and the birthplace of the Republic, you’ll be hard pressed to find a Texans or Astros fan in the Rio Grande Valley or the Panhandle like you can Texas Rangers fans or, of course, the multitude of Dallas Cowboys fans. San Antonio, despite being the oldest major city in Texas, is very “new on the scene” and it has a cultural flair of its own that is part old Texan, part new Texas, part old Mexico, and part new Latin America. Austin, of course, remains its own strange city-state (seriously, what Texas city doesn’t have a proper beltway?!). And far-flung places like El Paso, Amarillo and Laredo help make Texas what it is, but they are far too remote to be “quintessentially Texan”. Even old small town Texas like Shiner or Fredricksburg, which has its charm, fails to capture what Texas has become when one dives into the heart of Houston or Dallas.
For a Houstonian, like myself, this is a begrudging recognition because in many ways Dallas and Houston are the same city. They are governed by the same laws, come from the same culture, are centers of trade and culture, and even have similar city-scapes. Both feature sprawling suburbs, world class universities, gentrified city cores and are booming onto the world stage. In some ways you can’t help but wonder “what if”. What if JR had been shot in Houston and not Dallas? What if Mirebeau Lamar hadn’t moved the capital to Austin because of his personal feud with Sam Houston? What if the Oilers, not the Cowboys, became the Texas football powerhouse and became the icon? Any one of these scenarios could have landed Houston as the synonymous Texan city while Dallas dug deep to find its own identity.
While Dallas and Houston are very similar and Houston has built its own unique culture…do not sleep on what is happening in Dallas. The same forces that have been working in Houston for decades to make Houston into Houston are hard at work in Dallas. The leading example centers on an east of downtown neighborhood called Deep Ellum.
Before visiting I had always heard that Deep Ellum was Dallas’ attempt at copying Houston’s Eado (East Downtown) neighborhood no different than how Uptown was just the Dallas version of Houston’s Midtown. Other than the geographic location, and the relative newness on the scene, the two areas couldn’t be more different and that is a great thing in my opinion.
Deep Ellum was established in 1873 and was originally known as Deep Elm, and sometimes “Central Track” due to its proximity to the Houston and Central Texas Railroad. Deep Elm grew to become a major commercial center for blacks and European immigrants. To this day, Elm Street remains a main thoroughfare. Henry Ford built a plant in the area in 1914 which remained until the 1930’s. Many of the area’s turn of the century brick buildings come from this time and got their start as warehouses. By the 1920’s the area was a musical hotbed hosting countless early Texas jazz and blues legends. The area peaked in the 1950’s as a center for nightlife, musical venues and parlors. Unfortunately for Deep Ellum, the end of the age of rail, and the coming of the age of the auto, devastated the vibrant community. After World War II, many near-downtown communities were wrecked as railroads and street car lines became unprofitable and shut down as the automobile became the primary method of transportation. The Central Expressway cut through the neighborhood and when it was elevated in 1969, it ran right down what was then considered the old neighborhood’s center. From the 1970’s until recent years the neighborhood became the type of place you didn’t want to be found in while alone at night. Even today, there are still many rundown warehouses and stores that are strewn around.
It should be no surprise that music reignited life into the old community. In the 1980’s and 1990’s the local music scene started underground and grew in prominence. Nirvana, the Flaming Lips, Pearl Jam and Radiohead have all played at local venues in Deep Ellum. Today, venues like Trees, Club Dada, Sons of Hermann Hall, Adair’s Saloon, The Bomb Factory, The Door, The Prophet Bar, Curtain Club, Reno’s, AllGood Cafe, DoubleWide and The Free Man all continue Deep Ellum’s century-old musical tradition.
The artistic roots of the community are no longer just limited to music. Galleries, murals and public art are everywhere. For every worndown brick facade lining one side of a street, the other side features a vibrant mural adding to the character of the neighborhood. Since 1994, the Deep Ellum Arts Festival has grown into a massive event in its own right with hundreds of musicians, artists, local foods and even a pet parade.
As in many inner-city neighborhoods, art seems to lead to entrepreneurship and Deep Ellum is booming with investment. Cafes, restaurants, bars, tattoo parlors, tech boutiques, a few great local breweries, and even a few new lofts have all reared their heads in recent years. The chariot in our own Deep Ellum tour came in the form of a Buzz Bike tour that left a garage in the area and took us in several loops around the neighborhood.
While all of the new business is a good thing and adds to the character of the area, it does seem we are following the same song with a different verse. Gentrification seems to follow a pre-set formula and Deep Ellum, so far, is following the same route countless neighborhoods across the country have taken. Let’s check the list:
A vibrant innercity community gets shattered in the post-war urban crash: check
The neighborhood becomes a rough part of town from the 1960’s through the early 2000’s: check
Low costs, isolation and tradition attract Bohemian artists who start an underground art scene: check
The internet and increasingly connected cities lead to the “discovery” of the scene and further investment: check
Recent college grads who work downtown and have no desire to spent countless hours and dollars on a commute move closer to downtown further growing the neighborhood: check
The neighborhood becomes an “it” locale with prosperity and problems that increased attention bring: In Progress
Deep Ellum is not so unique that it is going to transcend the same economic and culture path that places like Midtown, Uptown and Sixth Street have taken. In Houston’s Midtown neighborhood, the old occupants that gave the place a unique feel were forced out by increasing costs long ago. Even successful young 20-somethings are finding ever increasing rents unreasonable. This is the original impetus that drove initial development in Houston neighborhoods like Eado, the Fourth Ward and Rice Military. Surely Deep Ellum has acted as a pressure valve in its own way as Uptown becomes increasingly expensive an crowded. As entrepreneurship and investment boom in Deep Ellum the first exodus of locals has likely already begun with another slated to take place in about 5-10 years in the direction of the next “it” locale.
To its credit though, Deep Ellum still has a very distinct feel. Midtown and Uptown almost feel corporate and Eado and the downtown developments in Dallas and Houston feel like they have grown because they were readily available more than because they had unique local flavor. Deep Ellum is both readily available and has unique local flavor. To its credit it almost has a Sixth Street feel in that its artistic history and the culture surrounding the area might allow it to overcome becoming “just another Texas city district” and instead become something more. Yes it is becoming commercialized but it is becoming commercialized because of its history, not necessarily just because of its location like many other trendy districts.
Whether Deep Ellum ends up maintaining its character while it develops is yet to be seen.