While wandering up and down the Deep Ellum Arts Festival on Sunday, I couldn’t help but be constantly reminded of the stasis that the once-bustling, always-historic entertainment district is in.
First, the crowd: It was sizeable but not huge (I easily found parallel metered parking a block away on Elm Street), and eclectic but not all that diverse. Saturday’s temperate weather reportedly attracted more out that day, but not many more. It felt like the folks that came are the ones who know that Deep Ellum isn’t the seedy, neglected crime pit many assume it is.
Second, the action: typically hyper-casual but languid, with little buzz and even less being bought. With rare exception (The Backsliders = yummy boogie-rock goodness), the performers were forgettable, and no notable-name act anchored the lineup as in most past years. The usual self-serve sidewalk creativity ops (colored chalk, anyone?) and artsy laissez faire sideshows were evident, but participants almost seemed to participate out of obligation rather than fun (“Awww, man: no one’s doodling on that open-to-anyone canvas over there. Guess I need to do my part and pick up an oil stick … “).
The festival’s feel very much mirrored the neighborhood, which is as it should be – but when the neighborhood’s proverbially wringing its hands with a combination of anxiety about what it will become and frustration about what it once was, an event such as this isn’t doing what it needs to: celebrate its muse and sell the colorful, mural-encrusted environs to outsiders.
Make no mistake: Deep Ellum will re-emerge, and probably soon. DART’s Green Line through it and Baylor University Medical Center to Fair Park should be operational by the time the State Fair of Texas opens in the fall; that will begin the influx of new business in earnest. Deep Ellum Foundation president Barry Annino has said as much, as has Cindy Chaffin, marketing director of national coffee-shop chain It’s a Grind‘s first Dallas location, which is already open off the yet-to-open tracks.
Incidentally, Chaffin was also the brains behind TexasGigs, a web-based information clearinghouse on Texas rock bands that’s now owned by Pegasus News. That’s important to note because it’s Deep Ellum enthusiasts such as Ms. Chaffin that should be heavily involved in reforming the district, lest it lose its charm and bent.
As more than one neighborhood icon has expressed (to me, at least), the recession (ahem) of high-tone tenants in Victory Park could serve as a lesson for Deep Ellum real-estate developers: attract what the area will support, not what it could support.
Consider this: four years ago, House of Blues Dallas reportedly considered a Deep Ellum location for its Dallas branch (the old Theatre Gallery site, which was also Galaxy Club’s final resting place, among others) before settling on the White Swan Building at the seam between Victory Park and the West End. Now, everyday traffic to Victory is lightening like a 401(k) account, and competition is coming: a re-born Hard Rock Cafe.
These places seem to still be banking on Victory becoming Dallas’ all-for-one, go-to entertainment district. Many Dallasites know better, particularly now that the economy’s as static as Deep Ellum – and now, for that matter, the Victory development – is.
To me, the key is for Deep Ellum to bank its resurrection on what it is and was, not what it could be. And it only needs to look at what the Deep Ellum Arts Festival is and was to determine the most prudent path.