A Blues For
Deep Ellum

The Times, They are a Changin
Photo by Terry Odis

It was fall of 2012, and I was in Deep Ellum, cruising down Elm Street on a clear Wednesday evening. I was looking for the Prophet Bar, where RC and the Gritz (Erykah Badu’s band) hosted a weekly jam session with poetry/music open mic. 

Engaged in the insane task of securing street parking, I sat at the Good-Latimer light scanning a full block ahead of me, looking for anything that resembled open space. The car in front of me made a quick right into the gravel lot next to the Union Bankers Building, a place I’d later discover was designed by William Pittman, nephew of Booker T. Washington. I mimicked that right turn, placed my dusty Jeep into park, and this vacant lot became my de facto free Deep Ellum parking for the next few years.  

I hustled across the street and toward the Prophet Bar. I felt its soulful, familiar vibe before I saw it, the brick building’s mouth spewing people and soul music.  

The place was my culture brought to life, given a heartbeat, lungs, and mouth. The city’s best singers, assembled from pulpits and acoustically sound showers, were in that shotgun room. The drinks were cheap and the bartenders heavy-handed.  

That Wednesday night, I found my tribe in Dallas, and for nine years I’d find myself as both a spectator and performing artist in Deep Ellum in venues from the Prophet Bar all the way east to the Sons of Hermann Hall.  

And it felt good to be another artist here, stitched into a patchwork quilt called Deep Ellum.  

But the times, they are a-changing. The patchwork of Deep Ellum is morphing by the minute. 

And the Prophet Bar is closed. 

“We are the No. 1 entertainment district in the region,” says Stephanie Hudiburg, executive director of the Deep Ellum Foundation, which preserves the elements vital to the character and safety of the area. “Even back in 2018, you could feel that the neighborhood was at a tipping point where it’s not exactly clear what’s going to happen with how the neighborhood is growing. Between 2018 and 2020, the residential community has grown 75%. How is it that this place grows and evolves while maintaining what makes it special to begin with? And continues to grow and be a leader in spaces like entrepreneurship and also arts and culture?” 

For those of y’all not from Texas, Deep Ellum is our cool, eclectic aunt of a neighborhood who always has the coolest stories. All her friends are artists, and she’s witnessed legendary bands in their early days. She is heavily tattooed, highly opinionated and loves openly, mostly. Aunt Deep Ellum has calloused hands and a manicure. She’s been married and divorced 10 times at least, each time changed in the way that marriage requires accommodation and compromise. She kicked a mean dope habit once, may or may not be homeless, dances when she walks and sings when she talks. Yeah. She’s that kind of neighborhood. 

“Deep Ellum has reinforced to me the fact that people are more important than anything. People of all walks of life are there, and it’s just exciting to be able to mix with many people who are different, but we’re all the same because we’re people,” says Scott Rohrman, who heads 42 Real Estate and is one of the stakeholders making sure Deep Ellum’s commerce remains active. “Designing a real estate project, taking into account everybody that will use the building instead of a select few, has reinforced something that I’ve known deep down.” 

The challenge lies in maintaining a similar scale between the buildings, who gets to inhabit and operate them, old and new character, the tall and short as Deep Ellum matures against the looming multistory office buildings, hotels, and residential towers. Deep Ellum’s portion of skyline mimics a heavy beating pulse, its dancing now frantic with 10- and 20-story buildings, as the city reaches for the heavens. 

Photos by Terry Odis

Deep Ellum began in 1873 with the rumblings of a train line east of downtown and with hardworking people with culture rolling heavy on their tongues, centered on Elm Street. African Americans and European immigrants stretched the three-lettered Elm into Ellum to fit the souls of several thousand people in its name, the way people stretch food, shelter, energy. The magic of Deep Ellum is rooted in survival, a reliance on community to get by. What manifested from the stretching is common of miracles that arise from struggle: Community. Art. Commerce.  

Commerce and a concentration of skilled, underpaid labor attracted investors like Robert S. Munger and his Continental Gin Co. and an early Ford Model T plant. The Pittman, once the Union Bankers Trust Building designed by William Sydney Pittman, was a cultural center and home to many Black lawyers and doctors. This is how Deep Ellum danced into the 1900s, with self-made shoes and its own tune. 

In the 1920s, imagine the streets of Deep Ellum scored with the blues. Mythical musical legends stepping off of a train and into a lounge for a gig. Somebody’s auntie laughin’ at the jokes of somebody’s uncle, carefree and closed-eyed. Conversation in a chorus of language. Streetcar bells. The smell of engines and grease and certainly something edible in the air.  

Looming always is innovation. How ironic it is that the very Ford factory that employed hundreds of its residents quite likely led to Deep Ellum’s decline, with the advent of highways and eminent domain and neighborhood splicing and the creation of the suburbs and desegregation.  

“You know, 345 goes right through what used to be the heart of Deep Ellum. We’re painfully aware that people have not forgotten this history,” says Hudiburg of the short interstate dividing the neighborhood from downtown. 

This makes me consider what the Elm Street terminus looked like before the Pittman, before Central Expressway, before the Sheraton, when Deep Ellum and downtown shared no physical barrier. It made me consider what it will look like when I am 50 and still walking Elm. 

“We’re scratching the surface on a lot of this, but this is a long-term process of continual engagement and advancement,” Hudiburg says. 

Downtown climbs and rises like a well-dressed suitor from good stock. Deep Ellum is well-traveled, creative. and intriguing. Deep Ellum’s got all the corporate suits laying gifts at her feet, the poets writing sonnets, and the bards musing. 

Photos by Terry Odis

The place ain’t all magical though, as big city problems such as drugs and homelessness occasionally overtake Ellum. The city responds to those problems in big city ways – either with a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound or with an ant to a sledgehammer. None of this can stop the vibe. 

It is 2020, and it’s date night. My wife and I are cruising down Elm Street sans offspring, and we are feeling free. It’s been a while since I’ve been in Deep Ellum, and even longer since I’ve claimed my old space behind the Union Bankers Trust Building. I cross Good-Latimer to discover that my space has been replaced by a revitalized Union Bankers Trust, now called the Pittman hotel. It looks nice, really nice. It looks like a place that artist me couldn’t afford, but architect me could. While I’m glad the building has new life, it’s heartbreaking that just across the street there is no humming from the Prophet Bar, its eyes black, mouth closed.  

As we cruise down Commerce hunting for parking, it appears the tide is rising on all sides of Deep Ellum, its skyline spiking at the edges like a pulse. We parked at the Henry for free because it is against my religion of starving artistry to ever pay for parking in Deep Ellum. 

There is still the feeling of life happening ahead of you, behind you, around you, over you at rooftop bars and piano rooms. Somewhere, a youth open mic has a room buzzing, 500 kids strong. On another corner, a man sells hot dogs and handmade jewelry. The vibe lies in the cadence of footsteps on the sidewalk, jaywalking across Commerce, hearing a band jam, then rock a few doors away, then salsa music. A digital coin jungle constantly sounds. At Quixotic World, a poetic theater has just let out. At Off the Record, a DJ begins his playlist. Multiple barbecue joints stoke smokers and season meat. While I wouldn’t be caught dead in High and Tight, Deep Vellum Books has taken my money and hosted my youth’s open mics. While the general consensus is that everything in Deep Ellum ain’t for everybody, I would hope that there is a place here for anybody. My wife and I camp out at a longtime Lebanese spot off Commerce, flirting like young adults, except with money. 

A vibe there is here indeed, young Padawan. And none of it is accidental. 

“I lived in Deep Ellum for a few years. When I was first established down here, it was just really artistry and free-spirited. We made it poppin’,” says Cody McDonald, a former resident. “We were throwing parties. It was all about the people, the vibes, the love. That was a legendary time in Deep Ellum. Those were the good days. But any time an area is growing and poppin’ you gotta be mindful of the darker elements. People out selling. Being belligerent, wildin’ out. It’s getting really … corporate, and there’s a heavy, heavy police presence.”  

“I think the stakeholders coming down here are important, because without them experiencing Deep Ellum,” Rohrman says, “it doesn’t make sense to have it. However, that can’t rule the day. You also have to have a good community for the employees, the bartenders, the waiter and waitresses, the employees.  

“And Deep Ellum’s not perfect in that respect, but we work really hard to make sure the people who work at these businesses feel like they are a part of the place, part of the community, and not second-class citizens,” he says. 

Then there are the business owners, most of them running small enterprises “who put their life savings into their businesses,” Rohrman says. “So we really worked hard to not have a typical landlord/tenant relationship, but rather a win-win partnership. We went into every negotiation wondering how we can walk out of here with a solution that helps everybody. We’re all in this together.”  

Harlowe is an adaptive reuse project that blends new construction within existing masonry building shells. The view looking east displays the new rooftop patio structure spanning across existing buildings and courtyard below. / Photo by Daniel Driensky

New communities and stakeholders have arisen like Deep Ellum’s perimeter, like new members of a century-old chorus. The silent conductors of the complex Deep Ellum symphony are well aware of the gravity of maintaining such a sacred vibration, each one coordinating their sections. Each section’s reception rests in the taste of the consumers, who reflect the ever-widening spectrum of Dallas’ population.  

With a background in public policy, Hudiburg of the Deep Ellum Foundation is confident that steps have been taken to preserve the elements vital to Deep Ellum’s existence, character, and safety.  

“We’ve really tried to take it upon ourselves to engage our stakeholders, the residents, and property and business owners. To do that we needed to take a step back, reflect, get everybody’s input, and make a plan. So, we went through a yearlong process to create the Deep Ellum Public Improvement District Strategic Plan 2019-2025,” Hudiburg says. “It lays out our mission, identifies the greatest challenges and opportunities, and what it is that people love about Deep Ellum.” 

“We need more than the normal level of city services,” says Hudiburg, and the foundation coordinates efforts among Deep Ellum’s stakeholders and raises concerns to City Hall and at the regional and state levels. 

“There’s also more commonality between the stakeholders than one would think,” she says. “One of the top three things that came back is a concern for neighborhood identity. Where is there going to be space for artists and musicians as the area continues to grow? How do we preserve Deep Ellum’s history? How do we ensure the very thing that made this neighborhood special continues to have a space as all these other business entities are drawn to Deep Ellum?” 

“We made a cultural plan for the district, which includes uplifting artists by putting money in their pockets, putting the neighborhood’s history on display for people to see. In 2020 we applied to the state to become a recognized cultural district, and that was an effort from our cultural committee. That’s Will Evans from Deep Vellum Books, that’s Frank Campagna of Kettle Art Gallery, and also people from our development community,” Hudiburg says. 

For the vibe to be maintained, must it pay homage to its roots?  

“We are also building what we call the Dallas Cultural Trail by connecting the Arts District and Fair Park to highlight our historical sites, art galleries, and music venues, all these things that create the culture of Deep Ellum. We want that person there for the ice cream shop or the office building to also walk down the street and have at their fingertips the ability to learn that there’s a lot more history to this place,” Hudiburg says. “Now we are going for National Register for Historic Places certification, and Preservation Dallas has really been a leader and great partner in helping us with that. We did a partnership with the city of Dallas. We were able to do an assessment to confirm the number of historic buildings that we have and we have well over enough to apply for national register status.”  

I wonder if the Union Bankers Building was considered. Did the same conversation and planning occur before Ford’s Model T plant was opened on Commerce Street? Is Deep Ellum in its own cycle with the stakeholders that be? 

So many factors. So much at stake. 

“Great cities are cities that have become great through trial and error,” says Rohrman. “My hope is that the district continues on an upward trajectory. Hines just built an office building. Westdale is building the Epic, so we’re getting more residential, more office and the hope is that it matures and really becomes a self-sustaining community but yet is open for people who don’t live and work there to come and play as well. What we were excited about is that we feel like Deep Ellum still maintains a human scale, and when you walk through you don’t feel overpowered by the buildings and the architecture, but you feel like a part of it. The concept is how we make a walking neighborhood, and not just focus on my plot of land, but also how my plot interacts with the properties across the street. We spent more money for Radiator Alley than anything, but it was so important for us to connect Elm Street to Main so that you didn’t have to walk to the end of the block,” Rohrman says. 

“We have a vision for what the transportation and mobility could and would look like in Deep Ellum and we’re involved with the city with that. For example, Commerce Street is a really fast street and we’re part of an effort to raise money to make it flow more like Elm Street with wider sidewalks, street trees, acorn lighting, etc. Adding a bike lane and maybe even a trolley car, or a D2 train option,” says Hudiburg. 

But still, my free parking spot is gone. 

With a vision to transform uninviting storefronts into a vibrant streetscape, LandDesign worked collaboratively with the architect, GFF, and the developer, Asana Partners, to create a one-of-kind space reflective of the edgy, eclectic style of the Deep Ellum neighborhood. Inspired by the historic, industrial atmosphere, steel beam structures and reclaimed brick generate a rhythm of patterns and spaces to guide pedestrians along the site, while planting and soft materials create balance and invite visitors to linger. / Photo by Denise Retallack

I came back alone to Deep Ellum a week after our date. I wouldn’t call it mourning, but my soul was heavier than usual. A construction fence made the entire south facade of Good Latimer inaccessible. Even though the Pittman and the neighboring Hamilton high-rise trade the traffic on the street between them secretly, the pulse is scary low. Maybe it’s just because it’s 11 a.m. Maybe it is the shadow from a rising tide of masonry and glass, some 20 stories above me. 

As there is in a chorus, there is a certain vibe that persists. Some parts reduce or even drop out, while others take the solo. Discord still stands to harsh the Deep Ellum vibe. A string can be loosened out of tune or come undone completely. This blues in deep Ellum rings true, and comes from a place; maybe the past? A lick from Blind Lemon’s guitar? Maybe the present? Some poet’s ode to the place? Or perhaps, as always, the future? 

The stakeholders are painfully aware of the largeness of the task but seem as committed as ever, motivated by hoping to contribute a lasting verse.  

The more aware I become of the rich history of Deep Ellum, the more value I find in paying homage to it. I do think that to truly honor it is to ensure that those notes also are carried on as loud as the new ones. The efforts and ingenuity of those who came before, especially the unsung heroes of the area, should be honored. Also, we must mind missteps. 

Just because you can no longer see the tracks, we must not forget that a train once ran through Deep Ellum, one that brought with it culture, food, music, industry, layered too thick into the concrete for it not to hum. There is still the echo of people’s stories who have walked on and slept in these streets. Though the businesses have come and gone, new life arrives to occupy many of the structures. The buildings are there like children with their grandparents’ faces. 

Deep Ellum is ever changing. And while she waits on no man, there are some patches in her quilt that cannot be replaced. 

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