The following article, “The Brooklyn of Texas, Experience another side of Dallas in Oak Cliff”, by MIchael Corcoran was published in Texas Highways Magazine, January 2017
It’s not a suburb, but a borough. Not an extension, but a separate township, at least spiritually. Although Dallas annexed Oak Cliff in 1903, the 87-square-mile area southwest of downtown has maintained its own identity. If Dallas is the packed dance floor under a disco ball, then Oak Cliff is the mysterious couple at the dark end of the bar playing footsie.
Oak Cliff is southwest of downtown Dallas. Visitor info is available from the Dallas CVB, the Bishop Arts District Merchant Association, and the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce.
Framed by beautiful rolling hills, Oak Cliff celebrates independence, diversity, and creativity. It’s Berkeley without the big college, Brooklyn sans subway. Just a 10-minute drive from downtown Dallas, Oak Cliff offers a convenient day trip for residents of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But Oak Cliff has also been drawing visitors from all over the state in recent years.
They drive for hours to see musicians Michael Nesmith or St. Vincent in the intimately restored, art deco Kessler Theater. Or, they visit to catch a comedy revue or offbeat film at the notorious Texas Theatre, now known more for its adventurous arts programming than as the site of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest. It used to be that folks only came to the edgy Cliff to visit the Dallas Zoo or to chase Oswald’s ghost, but now the curious are lured by chic eateries, interesting shopping, and craft coffee and cocktail hangouts.
Maybe visitors will want to follow in the footsteps of Beyoncé and Jay-Z to upscale coastal Mexican restaurant Mesa on West Jefferson Boulevard, where the music moguls ordered lobster enchiladas and chicken mole; try the upscale barbecue of Smoke, with dishes like beer-can chicken and coffee-cured brisket; or brunch on chicken and waffles with coffee or a mimosa at Oddfellows. It’s possible to spend a few days in Oak Cliff without ever going into Dallas proper, whose skyline provides a spectacular view to the north. To paraphrase a lyric from Jimmie Dale Gilmore, have you ever seen Dallas from the pool of the Belmont Hotel?
“You just get this good feeling when you’re crossing the Trinity River,” says David Grover, a longtime Los Angeles musician who opened Spinster, a “vinyl record lifestyle store,” on West Davis Street in 2014. “Oak Cliff is special. It’s a mom n’ pop vibe in a big city.”
Oak Cliff’s restaurant scene is especially fluent in entrepreneurship. “Oak Cliff is a place where you can test a business concept or buy your first home at very little risk,” adds Paul Wilkes, who owns the Glass Optical eyewear boutique, while his wife, Megan, co-owns Emporium Pies.
In just a five-block stretch of West Davis Street, the main drag, your dining options include Cuban sandwiches at C. Señor, Korean fried chicken at bbbop Seoul Kitchen, gourmet flatbreads and steaks at Bolsa, fancy home-cooking at Pink Magnolia, El Salvadoran cuisine at Gloria’s, or the best $1.35 tacos in the world at Taqueria El Si Hay. Go farther west on Davis, just past the Kessler, and you’ll find Nova, a neighborhood restaurant and bar set in an old Dairy Queen building that busts hunger with a chicken-fried pork loin ($18) covered in spicy sausage gravy and served with mashed potatoes.
“Where else but Oak Cliff can you find a fine dining restaurant next to a car wash?” Wilkes poses, referencing the dual character of the historic neighborhood. Rare is the trendy area that has so many working-class residents. The gentry have arrived and real estate costs have risen, but the cultural air remains scented with grilled peppers and onions, girded by the rumbling bass lines of hip hop and salsa.
Oak Cliff likes it funky and original. “If you’re not into the malls and the chain stores, Oak Cliff is for you,” says Grover, who hosts live music at Spinster two to three times per week. Instead of Barnes & Noble, there’s The Wild Detectives, a bookstore that serves food and drinks, shows art films, and hosts live music. And why go to Starbucks when you can get fresh-roasted coffee at Davis Street Espresso, which serves an amazing “house toast” with avocado, tomato, and ricotta?
Another Oak Cliff original is the Belmont Hotel, which was the first non-Californian motor court motel west of the Mississippi when it opened in 1946. Restored in 2005, the Belmont is more like Oak Cliff’s Chateau Marmont because like that Hollywood hotel, the Belmont is a place to start the night. Bar Belmont, off the lobby and outside, overlooks the sparkling promises of a city in wait.
“We’ve kept the motor court aesthetic, but we’ve modernized it for the new type of traveler,” says Jordan Ford, part of an investment group that bought the Belmont in 2015. “You walk out of your room to open space. It’s a campus with room to roam.”
The artist-in-residence at the Belmont is tough-and-tender songsmith Alejandro Escovedo, who curates a series of music performances in the lobby and is developing a podcast from the Belmont consisting of interviews with songwriters. “I loved my time in Austin, but there’s no place like Oak Cliff,” says Escovedo, who lives in the Belmont when he’s not on the road. “People come here to get things done. It’s not all talk.”
The 2012 opening of the soaring Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, whose span resembles the world’s largest butterfly net, helped spur the Oak Cliff renaissance, providing a new gateway to the area. Running parallel is the Ronald Kirk Bridge (formerly the Continental Bridge), which was built for cars but recently converted into a pedestrian walkway. Hike-and-bike trails continue along the banks of the Trinity.
If Oak Cliff had a chip on its shoulder for not being on the ritzier side of the Trinity, it’s been whittled by artisans and now sits in a storefront window of a trendy shop on Bishop Avenue. Oak Cliff’s revitalization in the early 2000s originated in the Bishop Arts District, a four-square-block area that’s now home to more than 50 small businesses. The district fills on the weekends with North Dallasites, who come for brunch at classic French bistro Boulevardier or, if they’ve made reservations a month earlier, at the tiny Lucia, regarded by foodies as the best Italian restaurant in North Texas. Eno’s Pizza Tavern and Hunky’s Hamburgers are more casual faves.
A friend from Dallas derides Oak Cliff as “the new Disneyland for hipsters,” but Jeff Liles, the longtime Dallas music scenester who has booked the Kessler since its 2010 rebirth, says the Cliff is “hipster proof.” Yes, there are tourists, many of whom have beards and every Bon Iver record, but Liles argues that the neighborhood maintains “a large ethnic influence that inspires its creative class.” Grover notes the high stroller count and says, “Our hipsters have kids. It’s an older crowd.” You turn in your hipster card the first time you buy diapers at midnight.
Oak Cliff has only recently become hip, but it’s always been cool. These are the old stomping grounds of Bonnie and Clyde, and the home of both the nation’s first drive-in restaurant (Pig Stand in 1921) and convenience store (Tote’m, later renamed 7-11, in 1927). Before he became the first person to play blues on an electric guitar, T-Bone Walker recorded as Oak Cliff T-Bone in 1929, when he was still shining shoes at Stevens Park Golf Course. Two of his disciples, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, also grew up in the Cliff, though a couple of decades later. Adamson High, where country legend Ray Price began singing, later spawned “outlaw country” forbearers B.W. Stevenson, Michael Martin Murphey, and Ray Wylie Hubbard. New Bohemians singer Edie Brickell named her 1990 song “Oak Cliff Bra,” after her hometown.
Oak Cliff is still a bit like a Tex-Mex Chinatown; nothing would really shock you here. Not even seeing the future Mrs. Paul Simon sitting on the front porch in her bra, watching the world go by. You can be yourself in the Cliff. Maybe that’s what her song is about.
End of “The Brooklyn of Texas, Experience another side of Dallas in Oak Cliff”, Written by MIchael Corcoran, Texas Highways Magazine, January 2017
More about Oak Cliff:
“Oak Cliff” derives its name from the massive oaks that crown the soft green cliffs.” So states an early advertisement describing the community just south of the Trinity River from Dallas, Texas. Throughout the years, this community across the river has maintained remnants of its original small town atmosphere. Oak Cliff is a rapidly modernizing, urban community that offers culture, diversity and excitement!
Restaurants in Oak Cliff are some of the freshest in Dallas — particularly in the Bishop Arts District (see below). More than a dozen new restaurants have opened in the past few years — home cooking, bistros, coffeehouses, Tex-Mex, Italian, Steaks and other delights are available for your every culinary pleasure.
Just a few minutes from our buildings, the Bishop Arts District is home to over 50 local merchants: restaurants, boutiques, and services. You’ll find friendly merchants, a “town square” feel and a unique discovery.
Neighbors and visitors enjoy an eclectic mix of restaurants including Chan Thai (Thai), El Jordan (Mexican), Eno’s Pizza Tavern (Italian), Dude, Sweet (Chocolate), Hatties (American Bistro), Hunky’s (Hamburgers), Lockhart Smokehouse (Central Texas-style Barbeque), Off Site Kitchen (Best Burgers in Dallas!), Spiral Diner & Bakery (Vegan), Tillman’s Roadhouse (American), Vera Cruz (Meso-American, Mayan, Aztec) and Zen Sushi (Sushi).
The Kessler Theater
Known simply as “The Kessler” to insiders who frequent the recently remodeled theater, this Oak Cliff establishment has remained a fixture on the corner of Davis Street and Clinton Avenue since 1942. Over the years, it’s been a movie theater and a revival tabernacle, but sat dormant from 1978 until 2009. With Oak Cliff’s recent cultural resurgence, The Kessler has been renovated and reopened. Now, it functions as a dance studio, concert venue, an art gallery with a frequently changing gallery space and a bar that offers a much wider variety of drinks than your typical music venue. Locally brewed beers and well-priced spirits stream from the art deco designed bar, which has a 1930s New York feel–but according to the owner, The Kessler’s vibe is “exclusively Oak Cliff.”
Trinity Groves is a 15 acre entertainment destination is located directly next to the Trinity River at the foot of the Margaret Hunt Hill Suspension Bridge.
Central to the Trinity Groves project is the Restaurant Concept Incubator program, which encourages chefs and restaurateurs to create and present unique restaurant concepts to a team of experienced restaurateurs who will then support them to bring their ideas to reality. We’ve already accepted several restaurant concepts which are currently opening for business in spaces that were formerly industrial warehouses. These warehouses have since been rehabilitated and adapted to house these opportunities.
The incubator program has been successful in attracting diversity to the area; we are currently incubating a variety of concepts including Spanish Tapas, Middle Eastern, Latin-Asian fusion, Central-American, Italian, and sushi. In addition to restaurants and retail, Trinity Groves features a microbrewery and a culinary events center. We also host many exciting events such as art and theater shows, live musical performances and chef cook-off competitions.
Oak Cliff History
OAK CLIFF, TEXAS. Oak Cliff was on the south bank of the Trinity River two miles south of downtown Dallas in central Dallas County. The original township was in the area bordered by Colorado Boulevard, Cliff Street, and Thirteenth Street. In 1845 a community named Hord’s Ridge was at the site. In 1880 the Dallas, Cleburne and Rio Grande Railway was completed through the area. The community grew slowly until 1887, when Thomas L. Marsalis and John S. Armstrong bought several hundred acres of land, including the community of Hord’s Ridge, on the south bank of the Trinity River. They named the area Oak Cliff. Armstrong and Marsalis began to develop the land into an elite residential area, which by the end of 1887 had proved to be a tremendous success with sales surpassing $60,000. However, after a disagreement between the partners Marsalis secured complete control over Oak Cliff’s development. He began a number of projects to enhance the development of Oak Cliff.
The first such project was a steam-powered railway to connect the community with downtown Dallas. The transportation system was modeled on one in the city of New York and was heralded as “the first elevated railway in the South.” In reality, the railroad operated at ground level almost its entire course down Jefferson Boulevard and towards Lake Cliff; it became only slightly elevated as it crossed the Trinity River. Marsalis began two other development projects with the intent to promote Oak Cliff as a vacation resort. One was Oak Cliff Park, now called Marsalis Park and Zoo, a 150-acre park that included a two-mile-long lake and a 2,000-seat pavilion in which dances and operas were held. Another was the Park Hotel, modeled after the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, which included several mineral baths fed by artesian wells.
In 1890 Oak Cliff incorporated with a population of 2,470 and secured a post office which operated until 1896. The community had four grocery stores, two meat markets, a hardware store, and a feed store. Businesses included the Texas Paper Mills Company (later Fleming and Sons), the Oak Cliff Planing Mill, the Oak Cliff Artesian Well Company, Patton’s Medicinal Laboratories, and the Oak Cliff Ice and Refrigeration Company. A number of new elite residential areas developed by the Dallas Land and Loan Company had pushed the community’s boundaries westward to Willomet Street. Oak Cliff’s first mayor was Hugh Ewing. In 1891 the community’s first newspaper, the Oak Cliff Sunday Weekly, was published by F. N. Oliver. Over the next three years Oak Cliff’s development continued, but during the depression of 1893 the need for vacation resorts such as Oak Cliff decreased, and the community’s growth stagnated, forcing Marsalis into bankruptcy. Consequently, the Park Hotel was converted into the Oak Cliff College for Young Ladies. Another educational institution, the Patton Seminary, was established two years later by Dr. Edward G. Patton. By 1900 Oak Cliff was no longer an elite residential and vacation community. Many of the lots once owned by the Dallas Land and Loan Company were subdivided by the Dallas and Oak Cliff Real Estate Company and sold to the middle and working classes, a trend which lasted well into the early 1900s. The census of 1900 reported Oak Cliff’s population as 3,640. Oak Cliff was annexed by Dallas in 1903, after numerous attempts beginning in 1900. The proposal had met with little success until the community’s depressed economy produced a vote for annexation by eighteen votes. In 1992 Oak Cliff still retained much of its identity as a separate community within the city of Dallas.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: William L. McDonald, Dallas Rediscovered: A Photographic Chronicle of Urban Expansion, 1870–1925 (Dallas: Dallas County Historical Society, 1978). Bill Minutaglio and Holly Williams, The Hidden City: Oak Cliff, Texas (Dallas: Old Oak Cliff Conservation League, 1990).