First Stop: The Tenth Street and The Bottoms
Every neighborhood needs a Lester Houston fighting for it. In Houston’s case, he’s the Cedar Haven Neighborhood Association leader located just southeast of the Zoo. Houston grew up in the area and actually lives in the home he grew up in. But Houston’s life story adds to this often-told tale of activists reclaiming their childhood. As a Marine for 35 years, he’s lived and traveled all over the world. This gives him a local and global perspective often lacking in neighborhood revivalists. He also understands hard work, discipline, and the realization that “overnight” is a pat phrase.
The area surrounding the Zoo didn’t slide into neglect overnight, and it won’t rise again overnight. The area has had several building cycles, usually after some war — be it Civil (one of the oldest black areas), or after both World Wars when the area was mostly Caucasian. During the 1960s, two things happened: White-flight took whites to the ‘burbs and U.S. Highway 77 was upsized to I-35E, severing the connection with Oak Cliff. Because of this, the area slid into decline and became almost exclusively black. I’m sure we all understand the racial motivations and freeway mania of the time, as we strive, decades later to begin healing that wound.
From a housing perspective, this has left the area challenged. As Houston put it, new blood is needed with the disposable income needed to maintain property and patronize businesses. There are two main reasons homes are not maintained. Either residents can’t afford to or are physically unable to (and lack income to spend on maintenance), or there is a sense of hopelessness.
In Houston’s own neighborhood, he reports a variation of the broken window concept. Trash used to be thrown all over the blocks surrounding his home. Former marathon runner Houston got in the habit of walking around and picking it up, sometimes to the confusion of neighbors. As time went on, less and less trash was thrown because cleanliness is less likely to draw litter. In the same vein, new owners spiffing up properties “infect” others to spiff up theirs. That’s how neighborhoods change.
Businesses suffer the same fate. However, business blight reverberates well beyond the street it’s on. If neighborhood services leave, it’s harder to live nearby. The oft-used example is of grocery stores that abandon an area leaving a food desert in their wake. While mainline grocery stores left long ago, today the area has a Walmart Supercenter, a Fiesta, and the nearby Oak Cliff options. But if you want the upwardly mobile to move in, what about dry cleaners, coffee shops, and the like?
Both Ewing and Marsalis pass the Zoo and should be acting economically in concert with the Zoo. Today, people visit the area for the Zoo and leave. What if restaurants and shops came to these streets to give Zoo visitors a reason to hang around the neighborhood? In business, we call that stickiness.
Given that a Zoo ticket is good all day and the myriad of events held at the Zoo, people would be free to come and go and experience more of the area. This is not to paint the Zoo in a bad light. Houston and others tell me that the Zoo, very un-Fair Park-like, want to be part of area revitalization efforts. Certainly as Bishop Arts prices their quirky shops and galleries out of the neighborhood, they would be welcomed here, a mile-ish away.
The Bottoms and Tenth Street Historic District
Between the Zoo and the Trinity is the Tenth Street area that housed freed slaves after the Civil War. On its eastern edge is the 8th & Corinth DART Station serving both red and blue lines. That places residents one stop from The Cedars and three from Union Station. Part of the area, bordering the levee, used to be called The Bottoms near the Oak Cliff Cemetery. The Bottoms name comes from being lowland near the river. There are no “tops” in Dallas; the closest are various flavors of “Heights” and “Cliff” and “Crest.” The Tenth Street area has local and national historic designation, but a lot of the original homes in this area are long gone, victims of fire and neglect. The Bottoms doesn’t have the same designation and has seen some limited in-fill housing in recent years. The lots furthest from the levee are also on the highest ground and offer spectacular in-your-face views of the city.
As you might imagine, the housing stock is far from palatial and likely unsuited to today’s buyers. It’s also pretty run down, in part because of the small housing sizes. I’d hazard a guess and say that more than one Park Cities bathroom is larger than a home around Tenth Street. The future of the area is unclear. The historic designation for Tenth Street hamstrings new in-fill development. Would it be better if the historic designation were removed? Or would it be possible to work with builders to recreate streetscape façades while being given leeway to build home sizes and interiors that match likely residents? Would a revived Bottoms increase interest in Tenth Street? Will the coming deck park between Ewing and Marsalis and it’s hoped for sparks be able to light up this area? Will Cienda Partners’ 30 acres of development on the other side of I-35E also spill interest over the highway? These are all questions to be worked out as the neighborhood is revitalized.
Usually I’m a preservationist but if it handcuffs a place like this, I’m torn. Houston reports that one investor has plans to renovate nine of the original homes in the Tenth Street district in hopes of catalyzing the area. Fingers crossed it’s enough to get the ball rolling in earnest.
For those wanting the challenge of bootstrapping an area, Tenth Street and the area surrounding the Oak Cliff Cemetery might be for you. Now that the Trinity Toll Road is dead, there’s less risk the city will tear down the levee that would’ve allowed the area to flood and thereby take pressure off the Trinity during floods. Whew!
Housing-wise, you have to pounce on things here. There’s not a lot on the market as the coming Deck Park has seen investors snap up properties. As I said before, developers and investors are knocking on doors and leaving flyers all over the area in hopes of scoring a property before it hits the MLS. If you’re looking, I would contact the neighborhood associations and get to know them, they’ll know when homes are coming to market and may be able to arrange a meeting. Individual buyers wanting to revitalize the area may have appeal over developers and investors.
Many, many of the empty lots you see driving around the area are investor owned. If you’re serious about building from scratch, I’d work on securing one of the city-owned lots. They’re cheap and with a builder familiar with the area, perhaps a great deal.
There is some in-fill housing in the area, but one development worth noting, if for nothing else than their street names … Sphinx, Fiji, and Tonga. It’s a small cul-de-sac off South Corinth, south of East Clarendon Drive. They’re a series of the remaining 25 newly-built three bedroom, two and a half (or three) bath, townhouses with 1,442 or 1,545 square feet that are listed from $195,000 to $250,000. My only nit is that they demolished darn near every tree to fit as many townhouses as possible.
The remainder of what’s for sale in the area are either empty lots, some as little as $5,000, that are part of the city’s program to get in-fill housing in less desirable areas. Some aren’t part of the city’s program and are significantly higher ranging from $45,000 to $85,000. One thing they all have in common is their touting of the coming Deck Park and other developments. Search Ebby.com here.
With the Deck Park and other improvements coming to Oak Cliff, crossing I-35E sooner, rather than later may be the budget-friendly move. Heck, by some measures, you’re already too late for the best bargains. One thing is certain, it’ll be a great vantage point for the coming revitalization.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. If you’re interested in hosting a Candysdirt.com Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors has recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org.