Deep Ellum: A Walk of Art and Culture in Dallas

Colorful shades of old and new paint a vibrant picture of Dallas’ historic epicenter of art and culture.

If Deep Ellum were a house, it’d be the ­fixer-upper type: The kind that, you’d tell people, “has good bones”—but could be flipped, renovated and sold over the asking price with a little bit of TLC.

While the lyrics of the legendary American folk song “Deep Ellum Blues”—"when you go down to Deep Ellum/to have a little fun"— performed by local blues icon Bill Neely and the Grateful Dead, among others—depict a gritty scene comprised of vagabonds, gamblers, musicians and characters from the underbelly of the city’s population in general, long gone are Deep Ellum’s days in the shadows.

Once the anchor of underground culture in Dallas, outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde as well as blues musicians including Neely, Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson were ­ fixtures of the neighborhood in the early 1900s.

In the late 1930s and for years after, the area became an industrial warehouse district, housing the assembly of Ford Model T vehicles and WWII ammunition. The construction of the North Central Expressway railroad—also known as Highway US-75 today—was the nail in the coffin for the community, effectively cutting off access into downtown and rendering Deep Ellum a ghost town, a far cry from the hotbed of all the action it once was in its heyday. In the nineties, Deep Ellum still struggled to remain relevant, and was seen as an unsafe area to avoid.

For music fans, venues like Trees on Elm Street—yes, the one where Kurt Cobain got into a fight with a bouncer during a Nirvana show—and the Gypsy Tea Room perpetuated the tradition of arts and culture set forth by Neely, Johnson and Jefferson. Trees closed its doors. Gypsy Tea Room closed, too. It wasn’t until the last few years that the live music legacy was truly recovered, and then some. Trees reopened. The owners then opened a much larger music venue a few blocks away—in that former WWII ammunition warehouse—called the Bomb Factory, to join the onslaught of live music outposts now thriving in the area: Three Links, Club Dada, Adair’s Saloon, RBC, The Door, Twilite Lounge... and the list goes on.

Venues like The Free Man, Armoury D.E. and The Nines offer both a live stage and sustenance, with dining options ranging from brunch and happy hour to late night eats. Now with 42 restaurants (and counting), Deep Ellum is primed for a renaissance. Just over half of downtown Dallas residents say it’s their neighborhood of choice for “play” time and recreation, according to a recent survey published by Downtown Dallas, Inc. Attractions like breweries, public art and events like the Deep Ellum Arts Festival have spurred growth in the up-and-coming neighborhood.

Armoury Deep Ellum Dallas

“A year ago, Deep Ellum was a much different place,” said Zander Reid, local DJ and founder of Dallas-based nightlife community PRIME. PRIME books dozens of local and touring artists at multiple venues throughout the city each year. The Nines on Main Street is one of them, a dance club that’s evolved along with the neighborhood in which it resides. Now a destination for happy hour cocktails, chef-driven eats and a diverse calendar of events, from electronic music nights to drag shows and visual art performances. The Nines co-owner Allen Falkner, who's lived in Deep Ellum for more than two decades who also owns the tattoo removal shop across the street from The Nines, said there are tons of reasons to love the neighborhood, especially now. “It’s full of life,” said Falkner.

As a creative-minded business owner who sits on the board of the Deep Ellum Community Association, Falkner has seen the highs and the dismal lows of the neighborhood, and sees both sides of the spectrum: That of the artists’ community, which doesn’t want its authenticity to be stifled by, for lack of a better term, gentrification in the name of capitalism; and that of the business owner, who sees the first residential tower in the neighborhood as an opportunity to reach a whole new market—that of the twenty- and thirty-somethings, who are looking to imbibe both culture and craft cocktails while enjoying chef-prepared flatbreads and charcuterie.

“It’s a great area for commerce,” said Falkner. Galleries like Kirk Hopper Fine Art and Kettle Art, unique bars and clubs that are as local as it gets (“At [Black Swan Saloon], Gabe makes the best cocktails”), and a community that’s open to experimenting with public initiatives such as the 42 Murals art project. Additionally, it’s the accessibility that Faulkner said residents like himself, in addition to other visitors, find appealing. Falkner said it's also the "most walkable neighborhood in Dallas," despite being in a metropolitan area that’s never been the most bike- nor pedestrian-friendly.

You’ll find all walks of life and hear every music genre depending on which day of the week it is; and despite Austin, Texas’ nickname as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” Dallasites would argue that the talent is just as robust; additionally, the diversity of entertainment (from a consumer perspective) is even more so. “Here, you can walk past three different venues and hear three completely different styles of music,” said Shree Tripathi, an Austin, Texas native and recent Dallas resident. Tripathi is a local DJ—stage name "Shree"—who works with Reid to book artists and events at venues including The Nines. 

One thing Deep Ellum has never been known as (until now, of course) is a retail destination. Last fall, local boutique Jade & Clover—which features the first succulent bar and inventory from regional and local labels—joined retailers such as Life of Riley, Elluments and indie bookstore Deep Vellum that are putting the area on the map for shoppers looking for unique gifts or souvenirs.

Giselle Ruggeberg, who owns Jade & Clover, said a substantial amount of traffic from the store already comes from out-of-towners; Reid said there are multiple interesting factors that explain the “comeback hype” surrounding the neighborhood.

“[Deep Ellum] is a high-traffic, easily accessible location that tourists and creatives alike are exploring, and it already has this this legacy of creativity in it,” said Reid. “That indicates growth, and [it] gives people the opportunity to be exposed to something new that they might end up loving.”

Sure, you might not like everything; but from Texas rock ‘n’ roll to EDM, funk and heavy metal, there’s a genre of music to suit your personal tastes in Deep Ellum. “My advice is to walk down Elm Street or around the area and see what looks or sounds interesting,” said Reid. Nearly 100 restaurants opened in downtown Dallas last year, according to the Downtown Dallas survey, with many more slated to open this spring.

While favorites like All Good Cafe, Uncle Uber’s Sammich Shop, Angry Dog, Anvil Pub and 24-hour breakfast spots like Buzzbrews and Cafe Brazil have remained dining staples, new kids on the block such as Stirr, Stonedeck Pizza Pub and Brick & Bones are elevating the culinary scene, along with restaurants like Chef Matt McCallister’s Southern-influenced restaurant Filament and the forthcoming Harlowe MXM, a restaurant/rooftop bar concept from the masterminds behind Bread Winners (a brunch institution in Dallas) and Henry's Majestic. 

“I like the fact that we’re putting in more restaurants,” said Falkner. As for The Nines, it remains one of the only official “dance hall” venues in Deep Ellum. “We’re a bar that serves food, not a restaurant that serves as a club,” said Falkner. And amidst so many renovations and improvements to the neighborhood, the artistic, community vibe that Deep Ellum venues such as The Nines are known for is one constant that hopefully won’t change.

Slideshow: A 'Walk' of Art in Deep Ellum

(All photos: ©Thomas Garza)

Jaimie Siegle
About the author