Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Paved A Way: Deep Ellum

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In past installments of this book report, we've seen how Central Expressway cut through the African-American community of North Dallas, or Freedman's Town, in the 1940s. But before it was Central Expressway, a 1912 Dallas master plan called for a Central Boulevard. And before that, it was the Central Track, or the Houston and Texas Central Railway, which was laid on the eastern edge of downtown Dallas and up through North Dallas and beyond. Dallas's huge cotton market needed workers, lots of manual labor, which attracted a large African-American community along the tracks, creating what came to be called Deep Ellum. But what infrastructure creates, it also destroys.

I'm reading "Paved A Way: Infrastructure, Policy and Racism in an American City" by Collin Yarbrough. The city is Dallas, Texas. I'm blogging as I go, using whatever parts of the book catch my attention. Today, we look at how infrastructure development both built and then destroyed Deep Ellum.


Yarbrough says Dallas was "late to the official segregation game" and didn't adopt a segregation ordinance until 1916. Deep Ellum flourished before that.
Deep Ellum was one of the few places in Dallas where it was acceptable for people of different skin colors to be in community together, and thus was also one of the few places Dallas’s Black community could shop. In fact, Deep Ellum was such a hot Black commercial district that some called it the Black Downtown, Black Fifth Avenue, and even Harlem in Miniature.
Paved A Way

What happened to the prosperity and vibrancy of Deep Ellum? In part, the growth of downtown Dallas was to blame.

Ward’s 1925 News article contained a subheading titled "Deep Ellum Doomed." The section implied the encroaching Dallas skyline was tightening its grip on this part of town and the skyline would soon be the downfall of Deep Ellum. Nearly one hundred years later, the Dallas skyline came close but never quite made it to Deep Ellum.
Paved A Way

What stopped Dallas's expansion? It was that ring of railroads and later highways that has always limited the size of downtown Dallas.

The H&TC railroad ties along Central Track were pulled up in preparation for the development of Central Expressway. Like North Dallas, this once porous north-south border between Deep Ellum and downtown Dallas transformed into a more significant and visible barrier literally and figuratively sealing off Deep Ellum from downtown Dallas.
Paved A Way
Deep Ellum suffered a one-two punch. The heart of Deep Ellum was bulldozed in order to clear land for the new highway. And the new highway cut off the flow of traffic between downtown and what remained of Deep Ellum east of the highway. Businesses shuttered, people moved.

In this part of the story, Yarbrough makes a passing reference to something significant to Richardson's own history, or at least to Richardson ISD's history.

Black businesses like the Gypsy Tea Room were pulled up and removed like the ties of the railroad track, creating a void the new six-lane highway filled. Displaced citizens either followed others to South Dallas or pushed further north to the newly built Black neighborhood, Hamilton Park, which was designed to be far away from the city.
Paved A Way

But infrastructure development wasn't quite done with Deep Ellum yet.

One final blow came for Deep Ellum in the ’60s, as Central Expressway was redesigned to be an elevated structure through Deep Ellum. This section of Central Expressway eventually became part of the Interstate Highway System and renamed I-345.
Paved A Way

And that brings us to today's headlines. For the last few years, there has been an active movement to tear down I-345, to replace it with a boulevard, to stitch together downtown Dallas and Deep Ellum. Advocates have high hopes. The May, 2021, Dallas City Council election resulted, for the first time, in a majority of council members who have expressed sympathy for that goal. Time will tell. History never stops.


Prior excerpts of "Paved A Way":
Paved A Way: "Dallas Doesn't Give a Damn About its History"
Paved A Way: Extermination as Government Policy
Paved A Way: The Battle of Village Creek
Paved A Way: Redlining
Paved A Way: Boulevards and Parks
Paved A Way: Freedman's Cemetery

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