Deep Ellum’s Rich History Contends With New Developments
Today, Dallas residents know Deep Ellum as a hip place to pop in for a craft IPA and indulge themselves in a little retail therapy. However, as the area’s remaining long-term inhabitants will tell you, it hasn’t always been that way. Deep Ellum has experienced many bouts of prosperity, mostly centered around nightlife and entertainment — but this latest time in the spotlight is much more than that. Due to Deep Ellum’s booming popularity, many of the area’s longtime residents are being priced out of their neighborhood.
Brief History of Deep Ellum
After the Civil War ended in 1865, many formerly enslaved people sought economic opportunity in the city of Dallas. By the 1870s, the railroad made its way to Deep Ellum, where several hundred Black Americans were already living; as the area became more accessible, thousands more Black Americans settled there, and the area quickly became a cultural and economic hub.
By the late 1800s, theatres and taverns were being built in the neighborhood, paving the way for the years of drinking, music, and entertainment that would lie ahead. In the 1920s and 1930s, the area became so well known that many legendary Black artists like Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, and Bessie Smith all performed in Deep Ellum clubs.
Deep Ellum remained predominantly Black until the early 1980s when bands like the Dead Kennedys and the Old97’s began performing in the area, attracting more artists and newcomers who eventually decided to stay.
What Is Gentrification?
Gentrification, simply put, is the process of wealthier homebuyers purchasing in traditionally poor urban areas — either due to a shortage of housing, changes in economic opportunity, or social reasons — thus attracting new types of businesses and other wealthy individuals to the area. As a result, the characteristics of the neighborhood change, and current residents are forced out by rising rents and taxes.
Can Gentrification Be a Good Thing?
Of course, there are pros and cons to most evolutions, but the increased property values and economic opportunities brought about by gentrification benefit those who own property in the surrounding areas. The only problem?
In the state of Texas, only 8% of Black families own their home — and, as explained above, Deep Ellum has traditionally been a predominantly Black neighborhood. That low figure is due largely to the racially biased housing and lending laws that predate the Fair Housing Act and the real-estate-driven multi-generational wealth accrual from which many racial minorities have been historically barred.
Resident Kimberly Correa had the following to say in an interview with Medium regarding the gentrification she’s witnessed: “It’s strange to grow up in a part of Dallas that people try to stay away from because of how “dangerous” it is. But then seeing it turn into something different as you grow up is also weird. You have this idea that they’re making it something better and supposedly a lot safer, but nobody really warned us on what it was going to do for us socially or financially.”
Why Gentrification Has Preservationists Concerned
Considering Deep Ellum has been a traditionally Black economic and entertainment hub since the 1870s, there’s a rich cultural and artistic history to Deep Ellum that’s at risk of being muted — though nods to its past, like this mural of Blues legend Robert Johnson, still exist.
As paraphrased in D Magazine by Peter Simek, Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities conveys that: “the activity of the street is driven not merely by a variety of commercial functions but by a communal life that plays out among the residents of a neighborhood who share both space and memory.”
Still, Deep Ellum is exploding with housing and mixed-use space.
“There will be a 75% increase in the residential units in Deep Ellum between 2018 and 2020, and a 90% increase in office square footage,” Jon Hetzel, president of the Deep Ellum Foundation board and partner at Madison Partners told D Magazine. “It is a fundamental shift because, for better or worse, the built environment is changing with the construction of the new projects.”
What’s Being Done to Help Strike a Balance
While balancing the new with the old can be a tricky dance, preservationists are trying to get as many buildings registered on the National Register of Historic Places as soon as possible.
“We do have a set of property owners that understand the value and the richness of arts and culture [in Deep Ellum],” Stephanie Hudiburg, Executive Director of the Deep Ellum Foundation and Preservation Dallas told D Magazine. “And from a business standpoint, they understand it as an amenity. It is what is bringing people to Deep Ellum.”
Meanwhile, the Deep Ellum Foundation and Preservation Dallas and the Urban Land Institute are working together to potentially develop the Dallas Central Services Station area into affordable housing so that longtime residents can continue to call Deep Ellum home.