Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Deep Ellum blues - 1

Here today, gone tomorrow. Those four words pretty well sum up the bar and nightclub scene in the once-thriving Deep Ellum area east of downtown Dallas. From the mid-1980s through the 1990s, dozens of bars, nightclubs, restaurants, art galleries, tattoo parlors, trendy furniture stores, and other business lined the streets of Elm, Main, and Commerce in the aging warehouse district east of downtown. Located at or near the locations of prohibition-era blues and jazz clubs, bars like Clearview, Dada, 2826, and Trees were staples of Dallas nightlife, especially for those interested in the local music scene. Crowded sidewalks and gridlocked streets were the norm, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Even on weeknights, something was always happening somewhere. And then things began to die down...

Deep Ellum welcome sign

With the resurgence of the bar scene on Lower Greenville and the growing popularity of the South Lamar area, Deep Ellum has begun to empty out. Early last year, the Gypsy Tea Room, one of the last of the "big name" music venues, padlocked its doors and quietly shut down. I'll fondly remember the shows I saw there, like Hagfish (a Dallas-based punk outfit) and local alt-country favorites the Old 97s. Trees, a club I began visiting during my freshman year of college (in 1990), has been closed since the end of 2005. I couldn't begin to guess the number of shows I saw at Trees over the years -- acts ranging from Tripping Daisy to Deep Blue Something to the Lemonheads... and an especially memorable "KISS cover night" on Valentines Day of '91 when various local bands, some donning KISS makeup, performed nothing but covers of songs by Gene, Paul, Peter and Ace. And Trees and the Gypsy only begin to scratch the surface of the long list of Deep Ellum's late 80s / early 90s hotspots that are no longer around.

Trees night club / bar - closed since 2005

As if the closure of many of the area's premier attractions wasn't bad enough, recent acts of violence and other criminal activity have worsened the situation, tarnishing the neighborhood's reputation and scaring potential visitors away. Some business owners interviewed by the Dallas Observer attribute the trouble to the opening of a handful of 18-and-up dance clubs which attract a lower scale of clientele -- "thugs and gangsters", as described by some of the longtime locals. ( Click here for full article)
Still, there seems to be at least a small amount of hope for the neighborhood's future. The Blind Lemon, a favorite spot during my senior year of college (1993-94) is still going, stubbornly refusing to close up shop. Club Dada still features live music three or four nights per week. A handful of smaller bars and restaurants are still around, as is the venerable Sons of Hermann Hall. And DART is extending one of its light rail lines into Deep Ellum from the downtown area. Maybe someday those sleek yellow and white trains will carry a new generation of club-goers to some of the city's most popular night spots.

Those repeated boom-and-bust cycles of economic activity have helped make Deep Ellum an especially rich target for photography. Plenty of remnants of the neighborhood's industrial and pre-industrial past still exist; along with the occasional rusty smokestack, you'll find brick store fronts whose decades-old fading letters still advertise "Machine Shop", "Paint Co.", "Suits", or "Guns". The more recent exodus of bars, shops, and galleries has left a new generation of ghost signs -- that is, the ones that the landlords didn't paint over or take down when the tenants left. Last Thursday, my friend Brian joined me for a brief walking tour of the area, documenting ghost signs, fading ads, and other topics of interest.
The Arrangement Southwest Furniture

Boyd Hotel

Bell Paint Co.

Jones-Blair Paint

Hope you enjoyed this first set of photos; stay tuned for more...
np: Hank Williams - "Long gone lonesome blues"

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