Rich past fuels Oak Cliff's comeback - 100 years after becoming part of Dallas, diverse area is still carving its niche

Dallas Morning News, The (TX) - Sunday, March 16, 2003
Author: LAURA GRIFFIN and DAVID FLICK, Staff Writers

The story of Oak Cliff's annexation to Dallas began exactly 100 years ago Monday. No one yet knows how it will come out.

The community that a century ago was intended as a haven for the city's elite instead developed into a neighborhood of small, neat homes for working people. For the last third of the 20th century, it became a stage where some of the bitterest of the city's racial tensions were played out.Those tensions have subsided, leaving some areas with blighted homes and boarded-up stores but also leaving Dallas' largest neighborhood with the city's most diverse population and with a renewed sense of hope.

"Oak Cliff had a heyday, and it will have one again," said Laura Miller, Dallas' first mayor from Oak Cliff since 1947. "If you're from this side of the river, you understand the challenges. It doesn't happen overnight."

But, she adds, "We're finally getting there."

With the help of people such as Gary Burns.

Eight years ago, Mr. Burns moved into his home, a fixer-upper, on Kings Highway. Although the area had been declared the city's first Conservation District in 1988, the mid-1990s found it still plagued by absentee landlords, drug houses and prostitutes. At night, Mr. Burns recalled, he often heard gunfire.

Rather than leave, he said, he met his neighbors, helped start a crime watch, worked with police and code enforcement, and, eventually, became a leader in Oak Cliff's revitalization efforts.

"Once I moved into the area, it became my hometown," said Mr. Burns, who is now vice president of the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League .

Oak Cliff's rich and colorful past has made it what it is today - a mix of ethnicities, incomes, architecture and history.

"We have character that makes us unique," said Dr. Elba Garcia, an Oak Cliff dentist who represents the area on the City Council. "We have a mixture of everything - different races, religions, different sexual orientation. But we complement each other."

During the 1903 annexation election, opponents charged that the independent city of Oak Cliff would become a stepchild. The argument is still heard.

"We're making some progress, but much more needs to be done in terms of public and private dollars invested here," said Darren Reagan, a lifelong resident of Oak Cliff who is CEO of the Black State Employees Association of Texas. "I've been out here 44 years, and for some neighborhoods, not much has changed."

Until recently, Oak Cliff struggled to attract and keep businesses and residents, a legacy of profound changes that began in the 1950s and '60s: A 1956 vote to prohibit the sale of alcohol drove some restaurants and nightclubs out. The rise of desegregation in the following years would trigger even more profound changes.

Economic opportunity

The end of World War II brought economic opportunity to at least some black families, which for the first time in their lives could afford better housing.

"It's hard to describe what that meant to people," said Donald Payton, a Dallas historian who grew up in the Oak Cliff of that era. "You were a homeowner. You had your own house, you didn't just rent, you had your own yard."

But the migration of black families caused panic among some whites. Some real estate agents steered newcomers away from Oak Cliff and warned whites to get out before property values plummeted. There were charges of blockbusting, particularly in South Oak Cliff.

Whites abandoned neighborhoods at sometimes astonishing speed, Mr. Payton said.

In 1962, his father bought a house on Southerland Avenue from a white owner, who wasted no time in leaving.

"We got there and found there was still food in the refrigerator, there was furniture in the living room. All he knew was that he was getting out of there," Mr. Payton said.

A lot of stately homes, working-class neighborhoods and longtime businesses were left to decay. According to The Hidden City, by Bill Minutaglio and Holly Williams, the population of Oak Cliff, which had boomed in the immediate post-war years, was declining by the 1970s.

There was a feeling that the media often made a bad situation seem worse than it was. Residents say news reports often described crimes as occurring in "Oak Cliff," rather than naming a specific neighborhood within Oak Cliff.

Defining Oak Cliff is not easy. The original 31/2-square-mile city has expanded over 100 years to include a vast area of nebulous boundaries and an array of neighborhoods. Although there is no official designation - and much informal argument - the area is generally considered to encompass much of the city south of Interstate 30 and west of the Trinity River, approximately one-third of Dallas' land mass.

"One of the great misconceptions is that people don't realize just how large Oak Cliff really is," said Mike Harrity, owner of the Bishop Street Market and head of the merchants association. "Because of those misconceptions, it's been a long battle to get people who have been in Dallas any length of time to come over to Oak Cliff."

A secession movement in 1990 got the city's attention, and some long-sought-after projects and money. But it did not achieve as much as many Oak Cliff residents had hoped.

If the last 10 or 15 years have brought a quiet renaissance, it has been one neighborhood at a time, often through the efforts of individual homeowners and businessmen.

Making progress

But the progress is measurable. At the end of 2002, the median sales price of existing houses had increased 6 percent, during a year in which the comparable figure for North Dallas had declined 2 percent.

Because of Hispanic in-migration, the decline in population was reversed. Between the 1990 and the 2000 census, Oak Cliff's population grew 8 percent, to 279,249.

Meanwhile, new stores, cafes and restaurants continue to open in the Bishop Arts District. Above an art gallery is loft space for rent.

The Fiesta grocery chain opened a few years ago on Jefferson Boulevard, paving the way for more retail there. Upscale apartments have been built at the north entrance into Oak Cliff.

The legendary Texas Theater is under renovation. The Pinnacle Park office and industrial project has been a success, and a Wal-Mart Supercenter is under construction at the western edge of the park's neighborhood.

Planners and residents are hoping, too, that Fort Worth Avenue will become a mix of residential and retail properties. The 1-year-old West Cliff Shopping Plaza has also brought new retail to an underserved area.

"We've had our very highs and very lows in Oak Cliff," Dr. Garcia said. "Right now, there's a 'Let's Go' movement. It usually takes one thing to jump-start more development."

Hispanic contributions

Oak Cliff owes much of its vibrant colors, aromas and culture to its Latino population, which has grown considerably in the last two decades.

La Calle Doce owner Laura Sanchez has lived in Oak Cliff since 1977 and opened her first restaurant there in 1981.

Just as the population in the area has changed, her customer base is no longer predominantly Hispanic, she said.

Diversity, however, often brings the additional tension of conflicting goals. Middle-class homeowners may welcome the rehabilitation of a neighborhood, but the rising housing values may push moderate-income renters out of the market.

Such conflicting visions came into play last week when some north Oak Cliff residents criticized plans to convert the Bronco Bowl, a popular entertainment venue, into a mercado (market), criticism that the proposal's backers labeled "racist."

But by and large, diversity has become one of Oak Cliff's strengths, residents and merchants say.

Mr. Reagan's Texas State Black Employees Association created one of Oak Cliff's most recent successful developments: the West Cliff Shopping Plaza.

The association, with the help of several banks, bought the dilapidated Rosa Parks Mall at Hampton Road and Ledbetter Drive, tore it down and replaced it with one of the largest Albertsons in the state. The new shopping center also has a Blockbuster, a Subway sandwich shop and other retailers. The 1-year-old $6 million project has spawned development nearby.

Retail closings

Still, many areas of Oak Cliff are spurned by retailers.

J.C. Penney and Montgomery Ward recently closed their stores at the Southwest Center mall (formerly Redbird Mall), leaving residents worried about the future of the mall.

"It would be a terrible statement if the only regional mall in southern Dallas closed down," Mr. Reagan said. "Once retailers leave, it's almost impossible to bring them back."

But Edna Pemberton, a longtime resident of Oak Cliff and a leader of the economic-development group Positively Oak Cliff, is resolutely optimistic.

Ms. Pemberton said she detects a seachange in attitudes. Despite tensions over such projects as the Bronco Bowl, Oak Cliff's diverse groups have become increasingly willing to see their common interests.

"I think the greatest thing we have going for us is a sense of commonality, and I see that mostly in everyday people, a sense that makes people say, 'I'm from Oak Cliff,'" she said. "I feel good. I believe that we're looking at a better hundred years to come."

Staff writer Dave Michaels contributed to this report.

Oak Cliff reflects on 100 years - In Oak Cliff, a century of memories to commemorate - Anniversary event allows residents 'to renew community pride'

Dallas Morning News, The (TX) - Monday, September 15, 2003
Author: KATHERINE MORALES, Staff Writer

A gray drizzle fell Sunday afternoon on a makeshift museum at Lake Cliff Park.

Photos and descriptions of the people and landmarks of the surrounding Oak Cliff neighborhoods decorated the pavilion's interior - reminders of 100 years of Oak Cliff's history.

In 1903, Oak Cliff residents voted in favor of annexation into the city of Dallas.

In 2003, residents, neighborhood associations and local businesses hosted an outdoor festival drawing attention to the diverse communities and rich history of one of Dallas' oldest areas.

Inside one of the pavilions, Scott Harris, 58, squinted at a small black-and-white map depicting neighborhood streets in Oak Cliff.

"I lived here," he said, pointing to the map. "On Clinton Street."

Mr. Harris explained that he was born at Methodist Hospital and raised in Oak Cliff.

"My family lived here for four generations," he said. "I wanted to show my wife a little history of this area - of my area."

He recalled hopping onto streetcars for day trips to downtown Dallas with friends during the 1950s. As he scrutinized the rows of old photographs, he looked up every now and then to survey the surrounding park.

"I have memories of Lake Cliff going back 50 years. It looks real nice," he said. "I'm glad to see all the changes."

Although Mr. Harris now lives in Garland, he was one of several Oak Cliff natives to attend Sunday's festivities.

Other attendees said that although they weren't native to Oak Cliff, they got there as fast as they could.

Vikki and Eddy Espinosa came to Oak Cliff from New Orleans seven years ago. They said they researched neighborhoods as far away as Fort Worth before falling in love with Oak Cliff and moving there.

"You wouldn't find these trees anywhere else," Mrs. Espinosa said, motioning toward a mammoth oak tree in the park.

Most of the residents rattled off architectural styles of the area's decades-old homes.

They chatted eagerly about renovations that people have done to keep the homes beautiful and how they cherish the neighborly atmosphere from block to block.

"People know each other - it's wonderful," said Nola Rae Smith, who bought a house in Oak Cliff in 1993.

Phyllis and Larry Seidemann made their way slowly throughout the displays, pausing to read brochures or chat with other visitors.

Both grew up in the area and talked about how much it has changed - although a few things remain constant.

"Oak Cliff is the only place in Dallas where there are always trees and it's always green," Mr. Seidemann said.

About 500 people attended the event, which also featured local artists, businesses and nonprofit organizations.

On a main stage, state and local politicians including Dallas City Council member Elba Garcia and U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Arlington, spoke. Mr. Frost's district includes portions of Oak Cliff. Musicians and dance troupes highlighting the diversity of culture in Oak Cliff also performed.

George Briggs, president of the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League , said volunteers began planning the anniversary festival at the beginning of this year.

"There are so many diverse groups in Oak Cliff, and this is the first time we have all pulled together for such an event," he said. "It's a way to renew community pride."