Area once featured movie theater, old-fashioned cafes
It almost seems like somebody came in overnight and redid the whole neighborhood while we weren’t looking. But the truth is that it’s been going on for a long time.
There’s hardly a day goes by when I’m driving down Lemmon Avenue or Cedar Springs Road that I don’t note how different the neighborhood is from when I first landed here in 1970.
I was fresh out of college and embarking on my life as an adult when I came to Oak Lawn to live with my Aunt Peggy (a particularly colorful woman, but I’m saving that for my book) who had a little two-bedroom house on Douglas Avenue.
That house is long gone now, like most of the rest of Oak Lawn. But I remember it and the good times we had there well.
The gay and lesbian community was just becoming visible in Dallas in the wake of the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969. The Tom Thumb store on Cedar Springs Road had already been tagged “Mary Thumb,” and it was a favorite of the gay men who lived in the multitude of Oak Lawn’s apartment complexes.
There was a nightclub in an old white mansion on Rawlins Avenue called the Bayou Club. A frontrunner of the Bayou Landing and the Old Plantation, it was owned and operated by Frank Caven, who would later go on to amass his nightclub empire. There was another bar called T.J.’s on McKinney Avenue, owned by a lesbian named Margaret. There were a number of other unremarkable bars scattered around on Maple Avenue and other streets.
Back then, the strip was not an assortment of bars and LGBT stores, but instead a hangover of the establishments that had served the neighborhood for decades. The site of J.R.’s used to be a dry cleaners.
At the other end of the block, a caf? called Adair’s was a favorite of neighborhood people. It served hamburgers and beers. Mrs. Adair sat in a chair in front of a plate glass window every night, frequently snoozing.
On Oak Lawn Avenue, we had the old Esquire Theater where I enjoyed many an afternoon and evening going to see movies. I could get my favorite sandwich at Phil’s Delicatessen or have breakfast at Lucas’ B&B Caf? down the street.
On Sunday afternoon, the great lawn of Lee Park was filled with people sitting on blankets drinking beer and wine and talking. There was music and hippies, Frisbee throwing and dogs chasing balls. It was totally bohemian Dallas’ version of Haight Asbury. It was a wonderful time.
There was something about Oak Lawn that drew interesting people to it.
I can’t remember at what point it all started changing. I recall some people being up in arms about a row of houses on Cedar Springs Road across from the Tom Thumb store being torn down. I was sitting on a bar stool in the old Knox Street Pub on the outskirts of Highland Park listening to another customer talk about some people who wanted to establish an Oak Lawn preservation group. I remember pub owner Sam Wilson, who was a bit older than me, saying, “There’s nothing left to save.”
The point is, that was more than 30 years ago, and Oak Lawn was already considered by many to be drastically different from how it was originally developed. I understand there were many old homes leveled to make way for the apartment complexes that are now being leveled to build townhouses.
Massive change did come to Oak Lawn. That’s what I see in the Centrum building, the Walgreen’s where a row of quaint one-story shops used to sit, the high-rise condominium buildings on Lemmon Avenue and Turtle Creek Boulevard, the Kroger’s store and just about everywhere else I look.
Even Caven Enterprise’s block-long construction of two-story bars is part of that.
But through all of that change Oak Lawn has remained special a place that attracts the unique. I can only hope as it weathers the latest round of change that characteristic will remain the same.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 9, 2007