Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dallas ain't Madrid, but...

Inside El Tigre
When I got back to Dallas from Madrid in 2006, the first business I wanted to attempt was a Spanish style tapas bar.  I had in my mind El Tigre, a traditional type of tapas bar in Madrid where you order a caña (small beer) and you get a tapa (free food).  At any time during the day, you find theater people, musicians, gays, businessmen, punks, and pijos at the standing-room-only bar.  What I wanted to bring to Dallas was a small slice of Spanish culture at its best.

After almost a year back in town, however, I realized Dallas doesn't have a single location that would sustain a business like this.  After all, sprawled cities cannot support diverse communities.  El Tigre attracts such a peculiar crowd because its location is within short walking distance from various popular destinations in Madrid.
Madrid, Spain. El Tigre in the middle.

El Tigre is located within 800ft of four different Metro stations (red diamonds on map).  It's mere minutes from the Gayborhood, the Hipster District, the Theater District, a ton of shopping, and the center of the city.  People go to this tapas bar because it's easy to get to, it's laid back, and the food is cheap and delicious.

In Dallas, there are plenty of places  that are cheap, delicious, and laid back.  But this city's biggest disadvantage is that everything and everyone is so far away from each other.  Many people doubt that Big D could ever be a condensed, diverse, walkable city.  Here's the thing: Dallas used to be that way.

Dallas had become a significant, bustling city after the Civil War.  The brand new national railroad system made Dallas an important crossroads connecting north, south, east, and west.  The Jewel of the Flatlands soon became the most important hub in the Southwest for economic activity in cotton, oil, and investment banking.  That money created an urban landscape that today's blighted downtowns envy.

Downtown Dallas. Main and Akard. November 3, 1951.

Unfortunately, automobile focused development killed downtowns all over the country, as highways spliced through urban areas and incentivized citizens to move further and further away.  We now see the results in weakened cities, unsustainable sprawl, and a plethora of places not worth caring about.  On the other hand, in spite of irresponsible urban planning, Dallas still has sections and neighborhoods that retain the spirit of good urbanism.

Four years after coming back to my hometown, I started a business that would help activate one of the few Dallas neighborhoods that retained this urban spirit.  I wanted to create a place that took space away from inactive automobiles and allowed human activity to prevail.  Instead of a car soaking sunlight, an artist would use the space for self expression.

Deep Ellum is a place worth caring about.  Not only is its history important to the character of the neighborhood, but also its future is directly tied to the kind of city Dallas becomes.  As developments within the city grasp at straws to figure out how to create a place where people want to be, Deep Ellum already has the shape and infrastructure to show a sprawled town what a real city looks like.