Deep inside Dallas, just west of Fair Park and a mile or so east of the West End, you’ll find a historic district called Deep Ellum.
Exactly why it’s called this no one really knows, except that “Ellum” is a corruption of “Elm” perpetrated by the jazz and blues musicians who used to congregate here ninety years ago. The name itself probably comes from one of the streets than passes through the district, since there are no elm trees here now, and probably never were (trees are plentiful, but they’re mostly live oaks). One thing I do know is that Deep Ellum has been there since 1873, because that fact is proudly included on all the sign posts.
Deep Ellum is hard to describe, because it’s a study in contrasts. One the one hand it’s a tony residential, arts, and entertainment district, and on the other it’s tottering toward decrepitude. Drive through its neighborhoods, especially on the eastern side, and you’ll see plentiful Porches, Mercedes, BMWs, Jaguars, and the occasional Lotus, often parked right on the street. The people who own these high-end machines live in high-end lofts and apartments in lovingly renovated buildings that are often close to a century old.
Meanwhile, on the west end of the district, homeless people push around grocery carts full of their worldly possessions and huddle in the doorways of the clubs, tattoo parlors, and hookah bars, many of which seem to be in a constant state of reconstruction. Consider Club Europa, on the right side of the picture below. Like most of the clubs in the area, it was plastered with notices announcing a pending rezoning request so they could do some more construction, and looked like it had been shut up for at least six months. There was a person of indeterminate gender folded up in one of the doorways, fast asleep, so tightly wrapped up in a hoody that they didn’t seem to have legs. Maybe they didn’t.
It seems odd that something so seedy would be just a few blocks away from such conspicuous wealth, but that’s America for you. I saw it in New Orleans, too, and I’m sure it’s present in any other city.
The short story of Deep Ellum is that was just another old Dallas neighborhood easing gently into decay when the local artists discovered it. Back in the ’20s, it was a Mecca for jazz and blues artists, but by the time the artists moved in, those days were long past. The artists fixed it up, made their homes here, and started up businesses and art venues that took off like a rocket once the local yuppies discovered them — then were pushed out as the property values rose, and they could no longer afford to live in the place they’d created. The yuppies that loved the culture glommed on and stayed. Since the early 1990s it’s been a local center of art and culture; popular music is probably the biggest focus. A lot of famous people have played here, including Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, back before <> they were famous. It seems to be getting shabby again in spots, but I’ve been assured it’s still going strong.
I’m not all that familiar with Deep Ellum, frankly. My favorite memories of the district involve the Texas Brewer’s Festival, which was held there once or twice…I seem to remember going two years in a row. You could buy a beer mug and a shot glass and a bunch of tokens, and you could go around to dozens of booths tasting all kinds of Texas-brewed hefeweissen, root beer, ales of all kinds, lagers, pilsners…it was Beer Heaven. There were artists, performers, and food booths. Last I heard, they were holding it in Austin, but that was back in 2005. I don’t think it still exists as such, which makes me a Sad Panda.
Between the two extremes of Deep Ellum there are plenty of odd little shops and high-priced restaurants — you know, the kind that last about a week before they go out of business — along with a number of more stable, fairly-priced places. I’m fond of the Angry Dog café and the Twisted Root burger bar, with its “Slap Your Momma” burgers (because they’re so good that’s what they’ll make you do). Luckily for my Mom, who happened to be with my when I was wondering Deep Ellum last, they were closed when we walked past, so we ate somewhere else.
If you’re one of those people who feels most alive in a crowd, Deep Ellum’s definitely the place to go on a Friday night. The crowds can get a little rowdy, though (as in head breakingly rowdy; no kidding), so if you prefer to deal with the other culture, come early on a weekday, like we did. There’s generally very little traffic (especially if you wander off Main Street), and the district is only a few blocks wide and long. They’re plenty of parking in the local lots for $2-4, but you can usually find a metered spot on the street; and the best thing is, parking’s free before 6 PM during the week. That makes it easy to enjoy a quiet walk through the area, checking out the public art, of which there’s quite a bit.
For example: on the seedy end of the district, adjacent to and underneath a highway mixmaster, there’s an attractive little installation called the Deep Ellum Art Park. It consists of a variety of standing stones, painted front and back with different scenes by different artists. Here’s a shot of the part that’s right under the highway. Watch the pigeons up above, please.
Here’s my favorite picture, though there were a lot of great ones. It’s some kind of cowboy critter riding Reunion Tower, as you can see. I know I’ve seen this artist’s work somewhere else, but I’ll be damned if I can remember where.
Folks have also used the buildings as artistic canvases. Some of their work is fairly plain, but striking — I was taken by the way that whoever owns this particular block had painted the storefronts different colors. It’s attractive without being overwhelming. This isn’t the best picture ever, but you can get an idea of what they did.
Unlike other areas in Dallas, Deep Ellum really decorates its external walls; where there aren’t murals and cool ads, there are markers commemorating things like the local chapter of the Guardian Angels, the famous citizen crime patrollers (I didn’t know we had any). Over near the Art Park, some wag has created this Periodic Table of Dallas, which apparently contains the names of folks important in the local art scene. I have to tell you, I hardly recognized any of them. But then, I don’t have to remind you that I’m a cultural philistine, now do I? You probably already realize that by now. Whatever — I like the composition itself. The bright colors against a black background really make it stand out.
Further east, we encountered a store-side advertisement that made me smile. I think it’s pretty cool what they’ve done with old Benjamin. Or should I call him Benji? Check out that soul patch. Damn; half-price food? I need to get out there on a Thursday night. And by the way, there’s an URL on the ad — www.DeepEllumTX.com — if you want to learn more about the district.
Here’s another mural I like, on the side of the Velvet Hookah hookah bar. I’m not a smoker, so hookah bars are not for me, but they seem to be gaining popularity lately. There’s even one in downtown Richardson, of all places. In any case, the art is rather striking, I thought.
And so ends our brief tour of the wonder that is Deep Ellum. Let me point out that what I’ve shown you in this blog entry is only a small portion of what you can find there. I couldn’t show you everything I took pictures of, or we’d be here all night, and of course on our recent visit, we didn’t cover every inch of the place and see everything there was to see. For example, I would have liked to have visited a few of the businesses and patronized a restaurant or bar, but Deep Ellum doesn’t wake up until after 11 AM, and we were there much earlier. (Ironically, I was up late — I generally work during the night, when it’s quiet).
Despite its occasionally hoity-toity pretentions, which can get on the nerves of a beans-and-cornbread everyday Texan like me, Deep Ellum really is one of our local treasures. It’s steeped in history, and there’s plenty to do, whether you’re looking for smoking novelties (translation: bongs), music, tattooing and piercing (cringe), or good food and drink. It’s not far from Fair Park and the West End, if you want to do other touristy things, or the concrete canyons of the business district, for that matter. If you really wanted to stretch your legs, you could park somewhere and walk it all. I’d recommend a daylight visit, but if you’re a music fan, you can find it here. Hey, who knows — you might find yourself listening to the next Kurt Cobain or Robert Earl Keen.