The Dallas Morning News - Sunday, May 8, 1988
Author: Norma Adams Wade: The Dallas Morning News

The roar of a passing truck's diesel engine momentarily blankets the persistent chirping of birds as James Lloyd turns the key to open his restaurant.

It is 7 a.m. on Oak Cliff's main street -- Jefferson Boulevard.

Hungry patrons have yet to arrive at Niko's Pizza and Grill, which Lloyd bought last November.

Outside, the sidewalks are empty. Vacant parking spaces stretch down both sides of Oak Cliff's most prominent and historic shopping street. Morning's quiet is punctuated only by a parade of commuter-filled buses and the grinding gears of delivery trucks.

But change is coming to this urban enclave. Its winds already have stirred far more than the storm of traffic that will blow onto Jefferson Boulevard just before lunch.

Jefferson has survived the turmoil of urban decay and been re-born. With more than $1 million in community development funds, the city of Dallas widened the boulevard, added median land-scaping, oak trees, fountains and 70-foot-tall flagpoles. Storefronts along a 10-block strip boast the facades of $4 million in renovation.

But now, within the restaurants, discount houses, pawn-shops and electronics stores, shop owners must wrestle with another problem: What will their community become?

Merchants, from second- and third-generation shopkeepers to self-described mavericks like the 26-year-old Lloyd, differ on the new image for their 100-year-old street: "Eclectic avant garde' or "preserved traditionalism.'

What has emerged is commerce with an ethnic influence.

"Today Oak Cliff is a beautifully blended community,' businessman and former politician Jim Buerger told a group of southwest Dallas County leaders recently. He said he feels the almost equal tri-racial mix -- black, white and Hispanic -- is a fact its leaders should promote.

An estimated 300,000 people live in Oak Cliff -- an area generally described as the city south of Interstate 30 and west of the Trinity River.

According to the 1980 census, north Oak Cliff was roughly 13 percent black, 27 percent Hispanic and about 60 percent white. Southwest Oak Cliff was 4 percent Hispanic, 42 percent black and just over 50 percent white in 1980. In southeast Oak Cliff, blacks were more than 90 percent of the population, according to the same census.

But none of those figures reflects the growth of the last decade, the area's leaders say.

For parts of Oak Cliff, the past decade has brought a reversal of decades of decline. The "young urban pioneers,' typical of other cities of the 1970s and '80s, moved into the tree-shaded streets of old Oak Cliff, to Lake Cliff, Sunset, Ruth-meade and Kidd Springs.

The rebirth these new residents are encouraging is closely monitored by the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League Inc.

And no neighborhood gets more scrutiny than Winnetka Heights. The largest historic district in Dallas, Winnetka Heights is the only area of Oak Cliff with an official designation as "historic.' Architectural integrity is protected by city ordinance. Remodeling on any of Winnetka Heights' 630 buildings spread across 41 blocks must conform to the prairie, cottage and bungalow architectural styles of the era, around 1908, when the neighborhood was developed.

In Winnetka Heights and most of Oak Cliff, the preservation effort has concentrated on restoring single-family residences.

But not far from Jefferson Boulevard, ethnic and eclectic mix along Bishop Avenue. Between West 8th Street and West Davis Street, a neighborhood of French, English and Cajun restaurants, art studios, novelty shops and beauty salons has evolved into the Bishop Avenue arts district.

Pat and Mary Ann Brem, husband-and-wife owners of the York-shire Room tea-house restaurant on West 7th Street, may typify the new breed of Oak Cliff entrepreneur. The Brems and their staff -- all residents of Oak Cliff -- opened the tea room in September. They decided to serve customers five days a week, at least until they found out how the idea of an English tea room in ol' Oak Cliff would fly.

Neighbors were their first customers. They became regulars. And word spread.

Beginning last month, the York-shire Room has been open seven days a week.

Neighbors proved a benefit to the businesses in the Bishop arts district. What they'll mean for Jefferson Boulevard remains the subject of some debate among the main street's merchants.

William King and his son, Bill Jr., owned Bridges Dance Wear Stores that opened on Jefferson in 1947. In December, they moved to West-cliff Mall in Oak Cliff.

"We decided this is the wrong place for us after 30 years,' said the elder King. His store caters to mothers of children who need ballet and tap dance costumes and shoes, he said. The boulevard, he said, had become too unpredictable.

But Ramon Gonzalez, who has owned Ramon's Barber Shop on Jefferson for 17 years, said he is encouraged by what he sees -- and the renovation was only a beginning.

"We've had a large influx of Hispanics and the business community is trying to reach out and communicate with them,' Gonzalez said.

Other merchants said the thrift shops, discount department stores, burgeoning Hispanic clientele and store windows proclaiming Se Habla Espanol add delightful variety to a commercial area that caters to pedestrian traffic and bargain hunters.

L.C. Mosley and his father, L.G. Mosley, said they did so well with a pawn-shop on the strip that they opened a new 24-hour Pawn Shop last year.

Some of the boulevard's business owners, such as S.G. Bonner, de-cry the influx of the pawn-brokers, electronics shops and street peddlers. Bonner has owned Bonner Appliance Co. on Jefferson since 1946, and said he misses traditional businesses such as Sears.

But he has no intention of leaving.

"This is still the best suburban shopping district in Dallas,' said Bonner, whose son, T.W. Bonner, is his partner. "We still have a lot of old customers. We own our own building.

"We won't think about moving.'