Preservation Dallas just released the list of their 2020 Most Endangered Places in Dallas. Guess what is on the list? Our own Deep Ellum.
That’s right — we could lose Deep Ellum. If that doesn’t alarm you, I worry about your soul, as well as your sanity.
“Gentrification run amok”
Drive to Deep Ellum and see for yourself what’s happening in one of the most historic neighborhoods in Dallas.
I call it gentrification run amok. There’s a seriously ugly building at one end attached to the beautiful 1920s Knights of Pythias building. I don’t care who gets mad at me. There was zero thought put into the design. It bears no relationship to the surroundings. Another incredibly horrific multi-story apartment complex has overtaken the center of Deep Ellum. Nondescript apartment blocks, like circled wagons, are surrounding this lovely neighborhood.
The hypocrisy here is the very thing that draws developers to this neighborhood is what they are destroying. Of course, change is inevitable, but to what end? If developers were creating buildings sympathetic to the original architecture, it might work, but what is happening now does not work. Not at all. It seriously impinges on the character of the entire area.
If you are not familiar with Deep Ellum other than a place to party on the weekends, think first about why it’s a place you want to party.
Let’s have a history lesson.
After the abolition of slavery, Deep Ellum was where former slaves settled, built homes, and farmed. It rapidly became one of the largest Black communities in Dallas. By the time train service began in 1872, there were already over 500 residents.
The train brought opportunity, and the neighborhood started to thrive as both a commercial and cultural center.
In 1888, Robert S. Munger built the Continental Gin Company, and Henry S. Ford brought Model T manufacturing to 2700 Canton Street in 1914. Adam Hats bought the building in 1959. These structures have been beautifully repurposed as loft apartments, showcasing how to appropriately honor the existing historic architecture of this community.
The Pythian Temple
The Grand Temple of the Knights of Pythias is just one of the buildings that make this neighborhood significant. The Deep Ellum, Texas website has the following information:
The building was designed by architect William Sydney Pittman, the state’s first Black architect and the son-in-law of Booker T. Washington. In addition to serving as the state headquarters for the Knights, the temple housed some of the city’s earliest offices for Black doctors, dentists, and lawyers, and served as the cultural center for the African American community until the late 1930s.
The architecture of Deep Ellum is important, but the culture is also vital, and it’s deeply rooted in music. In the 1920s, this was the heart of the jazz and blues scene. Musicians like Blind Lemon, Lightin’ Hopkins, Bessie Smith, and Robert Johnson were regulars.
Ignoring Historic Capital
But, Deep Ellum has continually received the short end of the stick. Time after time, what was deemed progress led to further demolition of the neighborhood. With the construction of a new elevation of Central Expressway in 1969, the 2400 block, considered the center of Deep Ellum, was leveled. By the 1970s, most of the original businesses were gone, and the music scene was almost nonexistent.
Thankfully, rebirth is in the DNA of Deep Ellum. The 1980s saw the beginning of a new punk rock music scene unfolding. That, unfortunately, led to another brief downturn as crime temporarily increased.
Deep Ellum, as you see, regularly gets knocked down, yet it comes back stronger each time. The 90s saw local artists like Erykah Badu and the Toadies gain national prominence. The Curtain Club, Lizard Lounge, and Trees joined neighborhood originals like the century-old Sons of Hermann Hall and the Gypsy Tea Room in opening their doors to a wide variety of musicians that included Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, and countless other national and international acts. At one point there were 57 bars and nightclubs in the district.
There was also a rebirth of a dynamic public art scene with murals painted on buildings and under bridges. Photographers, artists, designers, retailers, and restaurants were attracted to the historic buildings, bringing them renewed life without damaging the structures. The ebb and flow continued with the 2000s, bringing in more diversity and gentrification.
This was a double-edged sword. Preservation Dallas offers the following synopsis:
The success of the redevelopment efforts has brought new development pressure to the historic area. In the late 2010s large scale high-rise apartment projects began transforming each end of Deep Ellum, and now mid-rise and high-rise apartments are starting to develop towards the center of the district. As the district continues to be successful, there will me more pressure on the historic one- and two-story buildings to be demolished for large scale development projects. There is nothing to stop a developer from coming in and purchasing large swaths of commercial blocks on Main, Elm, Commerce, and Canton Streets for out of scale mid-to high-rise development, thereby erasing an essential segment of Dallas’ black history. Preservation of this district should be of paramount importance to ensure all Dallas citizens can witness and celebrate their ties to the development of our cityPreservation Dallas, 2020 Most Endangered Places List
I reached out to my former Dallas City Council representative, Phillip Kingston, for a primer on how things have reached this point.
Instead of protecting the area with appropriately crafted regulations that serve the community, the present policy is almost guaranteed to chip away at the historical legacy of Deep Ellum, property by property.
On the preservation side, the policy of the Landmark Commission is to consider the individual property. These property-by-property approaches are not fair to the owners. In an area like Deep Ellum, it will take protection for the neighborhood. In Europe, there are clear rules and expectations, so you don’t wind up with uncontrolled development.
It’s important to build in forms that are compatible with the neighborhood. What is happening now is not a model that works. The Westdale development is out of character, and the Case building is out of scale. It’s not fair to put the burden of historic preservation on owners who don’t have a clear set of rules to follow. You need to preserve the parts of our community that have special character.
Among property owners of these historic buildings, there is no desire to change the fundamental character, but fortunes change, people sell buildings, and they pass away. I don’t think anyone is focused enough on the problem yet. It must be a community effort with a wide buy-in. it’s a political process and it needs to begin.
We can all agree Deep Ellum is a neighborhood rich in architectural, musical, and artistic heritage. Most importantly, we can all also agree it is critical to Black history.
Don’t we want to remain a culturally diverse city that values history and preserves architecture that reflects our heritage? We are at risk of losing one of our most important neighborhoods.
Are you willing to let that happen?
Black lives matter. Shouldn’t Black history? Shouldn’t OUR history?
I encourage you to call Adam Medrano, the city council person representing this area, and ask for Deep Ellum to receive the preservation status it deserves.