Saving and showcasing Deep Ellum's history — before it all becomes high-rises
Deep Ellum's 150th anniversary this year has been marked with galas and street fairs. Now it's the new Deep Ellum Community Center's turn. It opens this week — with a working, 1930s-style, recording studio, plus an outdoor installation under I-345.
But perhaps the most important efforts going on are behind the scenes. These are efforts to recover and preserve the downtown area's history before our city's typical urban development wipes it out.
Deep Ellum began in the 1870s, springing up where it did because Texas' two major railroads intersected there — making Dallas a major import-export hub. That's why, even today, the older, red-brick buildings in Deep Ellum reveal the area for what it was: a warehouse district.
According to historian-filmmaker Alan Govenar, Deep Ellum quickly became the place where outlying landowners came into town to pick up day laborers on street corners. They generally were Black farm hands heading into all the cotton fields around North Texas. There's a reason the Cotton Bowl was built in Dallas: It was one of the area's leading industries.
"Deep Ellum was a crossroads," Govenar said, a crossroads where people of different cultures met — in a harshly segregated Southern city. The fact that Deep Ellum was located alongside the tracks and between the city's downtown business district and a Black Freedman's town helped give the area an urban mix of "Jewish pawnbrokers, Italian grocers, Czech bakers and Black musicians interacting in relative freedom."
At the time, it was like nowhere else in North Texas.
It was this mix — and the after-dark interactions that continued in bars, theaters, nightclubs and brothels — it was this mix, Govenar said, that "spawned the growth of blues, jazz and Western swing."
Downstairs at the new community center on Elm Street — directly across from the luxury high-rise, the Hamilton at the Epic — workers were bringing in tools and supplies. Upstairs, Cathryn Colcer was gathering parts of Deep Ellum's 150-year history. She was interviewing Desmond Lehmann: "I heard you say you grew up in Deep Ellum," she said, "your family was from Deep Ellum. And that's what I want to know today is — what's your story?"
Colcer is the part-time archivist for the Deep Ellum History Project. In July, the Deep Ellum Foundation succeeded in getting the area registered as a National Historic Landmark. The foundation launched the Deep Ellum History Project to continue that effort — to save some of that history before it's gone.
"Yeah. You know, my grandmother had this restaurant," Lehmann said. "It was the soul food restaurant in Deep Ellum."
Lehmann is best known as Dezi 5, the Dallas performing and recording artist. He grew up busing tables at the legendary Vern's Place on Elm Street. It became a favorite afternoon or morning-after hangout of musicians, famous for its short ribs.
"Somehow," Lehmann said with a laugh, "I ended up with my dad's mom. I don't know how I ended up with her but I'm so glad that I did."
That's because his grandmother was SuVern Freeman Simmons. She ran Vern's Place on Elm Street for more than 40 years, ultimately closing it in 2009. But by then, Lehmann had started performing in nearby nightclubs.
So Dezi 5 is a walking, singing, living piece of Deep Ellum history — and he's agreed to loan photos and news clippings to the archive. It's Colcer's job to find such people — or their surviving relatives, co-workers and friends — and to find what they're willing to donate or lend to the archive for future historical research.
Colcer said, "We've taken in jewelry, shirts, photographs, binders, architectural drawings, posters, flyers, matchbook covers, little sales samples."
And there aren't many limits on what can join the archive.
"The Dallas Public Library only has size parameters," Colcer said. "For instance, if you have a giant marquee sign, they can't exactly keep it in stacks. But we can record it and document it. So that would be something that maybe we could give it a new home or a new location."
But there are some things that may already be gone for good: "All those theaters that they tore down in Theater Row?" — she asked, referring to an area of Black stage venues in Deep Ellum. "They're lost forever. So I'm really just spying for any kind of remnant for the Harlem Theater."
In the '20s, Deep Ellum quickly gained a national reputation as a racially-mixed area of music and nightlife, a scene that was producing national recording stars — much like Beale Street in Memphis or New Orleans' Ninth Ward. In 1925, singer-songwriter Willard Robison released the sheet music for his song, "Deep Elm ("You Tell 'Em I'm Blue"). Two years later, his single became the first time Deep Ellum was extolled in a published recording.
Far better known than Robison's relatively traditional ditty is "Deep Elem Blues" — that's because it's been covered by the Grateful Dead among many others ("If you go down to Deep Elem, put your money in your shoes / The women in Deep Elem, they give you the Deep Elem blues"). That song may well have existed in some form before Robison's sheet music. It's actually a variation on the older "Black Bottom Blues," about a famous Detroit neighborhood. But "Deep Elem Blues" didn't get recorded until the mid-'30s. (The different spellings of Elm/Elem/Ellum reflected the ways Dallasites pronounced "Deep Elm" — meaning 'down there, deep among the elm trees.')
Alan Govenar has done probably more than anyone to recover and explain such history. He co-wrote an authoritative history of Deep Ellum, the third edition of which has just been released by Deep Vellum Publishing. And he has a brand-new biography of Dallas artist Blind Lemon Jefferson as well, See That My Grave is Kept Clean. Jefferson became the single most popular Black male recording artist in the 1920s — launching Texas blues in the process.
For the new Deep Ellum Community Center, Govenar is curating three exhibitions -- including recreating a period recording studio, complete with listening room.
"We'll have a restored 1930s recording lathe," Govenar said, "meaning it's direct to disc, direct to black lacquer. We also have a completely restored 1930s tube amplifier and a completely restored ribbon microphone from the late 1930s."
The studio is meant to be educational, to convey what the early recording experience must have been like for the Light Crust Doughboys or bluesman Robert Johnson. The studio will be a one-of-a-kind exhibit but also a fundraiser for the foundation. Because the main manufacturer of lacquer recordings burned down recently, the platters are scarce. So audiophiles will be able to pay for their rare, black lacquer recordings — cut right in Deep Ellum.
"Our label," Govenar said, "is called, appropriately, Deep Analog."
In the late 1980s and early '90s, Deep Ellum flourished once again as a cultural scene — partly because the city re-zoned much of it as multi-use. That meant people could live in the same building right above their auto repair shop-turned-music venue. Some had been doing that anyway, but it was officially illegal.
This was a turnaround from what the city had tried to do to Deep Ellum just a few years before: flatten it.
"I've seen the city drawings," Colcer said, "and they're now at the library. The proposal was to raze the entire neighborhood."
The idea was to create a promenade, a tree-lined avenue like the Champs Élysées in Paris. It would extend from downtown to the front gates of Fair Park. The plan got started — partly in preparation for the Texas Sesquicentennial in 1986 — and a glimpse of that dreamed-of Deep Ellum is still with us.
If you've ever driven through Exposition Plaza and wondered what this strange, empty semi-circle of monoliths and flagpoles is doing here, that's what it is: the future that Deep Ellum dodged. Rows of hotels and apartment towers were supposed to follow. But the drop in oil prices and the savings-and-loan scandal — much of it based in Texas — gave the state a late-'80s recession that soured such grand, real-estate hopes.
But that 'pause' — and the re-zoning into multi-use — gave Deep Ellum a chance to recover its nightlife mojo. One reason: Deep Ellum may have been the last area in Dallas where artists, theaters and punk musicians could afford the rents.
Evidence for this is the fact that — along with the Prophet Bar, Club Dada, Trees and Club Clearview — Deep Ellum in the '80s and '90s boasted a cluster of live, off-Broadway-style theaters — all within a few blocks, all in funky storefronts, basements and warehouses: Pegasus Theatre, Deep Ellum Theatre Garage, Undermain Theatre, Theatre Commerce, Exposition Street Theater.
Most of those theater companies are gone, but many of their buildings aren't.
"Those buildings are some of the coolest buildings in Dallas," said Scott Rohrman. Rohrman was explaining to Cathryn Colcer why, when his company 42 Real Estate, owned some 50 sites in Deep Ellum, he didn't simply replace the old storefronts.
"Dallas doesn't have many like them anymore," he said. "They're just old, one-story brick buildings. But when you start looking at them closely, the people who built them put their own touches on 'em. And so you're like, 'That's pretty cool.'"
In fact, Rohrman said, when he started buying property in Deep Ellum in 2012, he had to learn a lot about the area. As a real estate investor dressed in a polo shirt and khakis, he wasn't really "part of the culture down there."
"They're going to send me to the loony bin for saying this," he said, "but when I walked into a building in Deep Ellum, ninety-five percent of them, I could feel their story. I didn't know what the story was, but I could feel it," he said. "I was like, 'OK, I don't know what's going on here, but I'm kind of jazzed.'"
In addition to upgrading — and not razing — the old buildings, Rohrman significantly re-shaped Deep Ellum's public style.
He had a real-estate image problem he needed to solve.
"We were getting a lot of graffiti," Rohrman said. But "90% the time, if you paint a mural, the graffiti artists don't tag it. So if we put murals up, we can reduce the amount of graffiti."
He started the 42 Murals project. Artists could paint on Rohrman's walls — once they submitted a design proposal in advance and got approval. It turned ambitious graffiti taggers into muralists.
And it seriously upped the game for the city's wall art — and turned Deep Ellum into a walkable, visual attraction for visitors.
That includes the Deep Ellum Foundation's own Blues Alley, which covers several blocks along Clover Street with portraits of North Texas musicians (even Ray Charles makes an appearance — he lived in South Dallas for three years in the mid-'50s).
The idea for Blues Alley came from archivist Colcer herself and her visual artist-husband Dan. She explained that we have so few photos of many blues greats, it's frustrating researching their lives. Our ideas of Blind Lemon, for instance, come from only one known photograph.
So painting giant portraits of these artists on walls is one way to keep those memories alive. It's what she tells the muralists, Colcer said.
"History is a challenge. And we have a story to tell."
- Information about the Deep Ellum Foundation and its events this week can be found here.
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