Deep Ellum: The Neighborhood that Refuses to Die

May 15, 2011 by · 3 Comments 

By Fernando Valdes
jvaldes@smu.edu

Barry Annino, president of The Deep Ellum Foundation, moved to Deep Ellum during its heydays in the 1990s. Annino saw Deep Ellum thrive. He remembers having a Deep Ellum MasterCard, starting the Deep Ellum Film Festival and driving through a graffiti covered tunnel to enter the neighborhood.

Today, none of those things exist.

Deep Ellum was once one of the most vibrant entertainment districts in Texas, known for its rich history, live music venues and restaurants. Today, after having survived a major downfall, Deep Ellum is once again transforming into an integral piece of Dallas city life.

During the mid 2000s, Deep Ellum became plagued with crime and saw many tenants go out of business. The decline of Deep Ellum led to the abandonment of the neighborhood. Empty streets and vacant buildings filled the landscape.

Many residents and loyal visitors knew the community had gone through this before and would once again revive itself. Today, community residents and organizations, such as The Deep Ellum Foundation, are working hard to give the streets of Deep Ellum new life.

“It’s booming now and thriving and going on its own,” said Kayce Phy, a Deep Ellum resident for more than 12 years.

The green line of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) has helped improve the neighborhood by connecting Deep Ellum to Downtown and other parts of the city. This has alleviated parking issues and brought more visitors to the area.

According to Paula Ramirez, a Deep Ellum resident and a member of the Deep Ellum Enrichment Project (DEEP), the streets are no longer desolate during the day. Ramirez has seen an influx of people walking in the streets and enjoying the neighborhood.

During the past year, many new businesses have sprung up in Deep Ellum. Several iconic restaurants, bars and music venues, such as Trees and Club Dada, have also reopened.

Mike Turley, co-owner of Serious Pizza, is one of many business owners who decided to open their new restaurants in Deep Ellum. After searching around the country for the perfect location, the Orlando native and his business partner, Andrew Phillips, discovered Deep Ellum and immediately knew they had found the perfect location.

According to Turley, the culture of the neighborhood combined with the cheap rent sold them on the neighborhood.

“Deep Ellum has been a great time,” said Turley. “The community is awesome.”

According to Annino, restaurants, bars and music venues are opening in Deep Ellum because the rent is cheap and it is conveniently located close to downtown, Baylor Medical Hospital and a major police department center.

Additionally, Annino said venues will benefit from the plans the City of Dallas has to improve Deep Ellum. The city has proposed making all streets two-way streets, widening all of the sidewalks and adding more benches and trees around the neighborhood. This will allow restaurants and bars to have patios on sidewalks. It will also make streets pedestrian friendly and slow traffic down exponentially.

Although Deep Ellum is well known for its nightlife and restaurants, visitors sometimes overlook another aspect of the neighborhood.

“People are going to realize people actually live here,” said Ramirez. “It’s not just bars. There is a community.”

Members of the community have been putting in the work necessary to revive Deep Ellum and make it a unique and vibrant place to be.

“People talk about Brooklyn, they talk of these neighborhoods, like cities it reminds them of, but they can’t say they have the closeness of their neighbors like they have right here,” said Phy.

The 170-acre community, which houses nearly 2,000 residents, is mostly comprised of people in their 20s and 30s who are looking for an inexpensive, diverse neighborhood near downtown Dallas.

Inside the walls of Deep Ellum, you will find people brimming with creativity. The neighborhood has always been known for its diverse and eclectic artists.

“There’s a lot of talent here,” Annino said. “It’s not a sophisticated talent in that it’s not a rich group; there’s not a lot of money necessarily… but they do what they do special. You can see it in the art, the pillars, the music.”

The residents of Deep Ellum know their neighborhood has a history of ups and downs. During the 1920s, Deep Ellum was known as one of the premier areas for jazz and blues musicians in the South. Several iconic artists, such as Blind Lemmon Jefferson and Bessie Smith, played in clubs all over the neighborhood.

By the time World War II ended, the city had expanded and Deep Ellum had lost many iconic music venues and nightclubs. Slowly, the residents moved out of the neighborhood and Deep Ellum became a warehouse district.

Deep Ellum came roaring back to life in the 1990s, when it became known as Dallas’ liveliest entertainment district. By 1991, the neighborhood had 57 bars and nightclubs. Artists from all over the country started to book performances in the area.

But once again, crime, zoning restrictions and the rise of other entertainment districts led to the decline of Deep Ellum.

History seems to be repeating itself. Residents and enthusiasts say Deep Ellum has a bright future.

“The city is making a lot of changes,” said Phy. “I think it would be hard to tear apart the love that this community has for the actual history and for what we all together see as the future.”