The best of times, the worst of times

Posted on 21 Oct 2007 at 3:06pm
By Phil Johnson Special Contributor

Historian looks back at changes in the “‘gayborhood’ through the years, urges youth to respect, but not linger in the past



Phil Johnson Special Contributor

“Nothing lasts forever, always is a lie.”

The Crossroads, once bold and brassy, appears to be dying. As Richard Longstaff and others have noted, the daytime foot traffic isn’t what it once was, and gay business is in decline.

The Dallas Voice’s otherwise excellent article (“Crossroads Market at a dead end?” Dec. 16) failed to mention the two main causes.

One reason is that young gays and lesbians can no longer afford to live in the area. The old, friendly, inexpensive apartments are rapidly being demolished, replaced by sterile, high-end, high-rise town houses.

Furthermore, we once insisted, “We want acceptance, not assimilation.” But with acceptance, the need for a “gay community” is no longer as urgent. More and more of our people are being welcomed into inner-city neighborhoods like Oak Cliff and suburbs such as Plano.

Therefore, it’s important to remind gays and lesbians new to the scene that the Crossroad hasn’t always been the magnetic center, the vibrant place where gay folks met old friends and made new ones.

Before the Gay Movement that started in the 1960s, there was Maggie’s Corner, Gay Thursdays on Theatre Row, Ferris Plaza during World War II, Queen’s Point at Lake Dallas and, as the Village People enjoy telling us, the “YMCA!” where you could always meet a friend.

But those were clandestine, “against the law” meeting places. In contrast, the Crossroads in its heyday was open, free, wildly colorful and known all over the nation.

Let’s look back:

During the Great Depression the Crossroads Market was a service station that straddled the corner of Throckmorton and Cedar Springs. Does anyone remember “service” stations? Where you bought a couple of dollars worth of gas (16 cents a gallon I seem to recall), and the eager attendant would also check your tires, water and oil, and clean your headlights and windshield. When you drove off he’d wave and bid you a cheerful, “Come back now.”

A dinky (a small streetcar) rattled down Throckmorton, turned on Cedar Springs and again at the Melrose Hotel on its way to bustling downtown Dallas. (Downtown Dallas no longer bustles; it’s too tired.) In the good ol’ summertime, trolley windows were raised. There was no air conditioning. “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley. Ding, ding, ding went the bell” with such a joyful clatter, what matter the heat?

During World War II, Elm (pronounced El-lum) along Theatre Row was a sea of young and horny soldiers, sailors and Marines on three-day passes. Now, movies and USO dances were nice and all that. But that wasn’t what the young men, soon to go into combat, fervently wanted.

I could retell the adventures of service men in Reverchon Park after dark stories told by Lady Teasdale, Peaches Parker, Princes Pittipat, Pussy Pace, Tiger Lil (the first one), Sister Gene, The Duchess, Peehole Jackson, Becky Buzzard the list is long. (Oh yes. Their “larks in the park” are gay history, too.)

But would the Voice dare print them? It’s not a one-hand publication.

When the Metropolitan Opera came to Dallas every spring, the Melrose Hotel windows were thrown open and you’d often hear ringing tenors and Wagnerian sopranos assaulting the scales. Passersby (opera queens) would occasionally pause to hear bits of “Faust” or “Carmen.” Appreciative applause was greeted with friendly waves from the windows. (Well, you know how “show people” are, always “on.”)

Similarly, during the 1950s, stars of the Dallas Summer Musicals and dancers from the touring Ballet Theatre headed for the B&B caf? after performances. The B&B stayed open late, and the food was reasonably priced and unusually good. Gay fans crowded in to rub elbows and gush over the celebrities.

The Esquire was one of Dallas’ better neighborhood movie palaces that showed selected films for the artsy types, gay or straight.

The Oak Lawn area was a haven for the hippies of the late ’60s and early ’70s. In the summer time, if you asked a hippie where he lived, he’d likely say Lee Park. Even at two o’clock in the morning you’d sometimes see them out on the lawn throwing Frisbees or sitting in circles passing the cheap jug of wine and the ever-present roach. Any young run-away was welcomed in the circle but warned, “Never trust anyone over 30.”

In cold weather or when it rained, the cheap apartments of the neighborhood were plentiful and handy. A “digger” would rent one, and just anyone with a bedroll was welcome to flop much to the chagrin of the landlord who thought he was renting to a lone occupant, not eight people high on grass.

To rid Lee Park of these gentle folks, the Dallas City Council (establishment) forbad them to swim (sometimes nude) in Turtle Creek and passed a 10 p.m. curfew ordinance.

Despite that, for several Christmases, Good Dave and his friends offered the community a huge feast in the park, free of course. Those in need or anyone who had no family to share the holiday with was welcomed. But again, the city harassed Good Dave and eventually drove him away. (And thank you, Dallas City Council, you assholes!)

As outcasts, most hippies were supportive of gays, also outcasts.

As the hippie generation grew older (pass 30) and began assimilating, young gays starting moving into the inexpensive apartments. Prostitutes who had worked Cedar Springs for a decade were startled when they approached a man for a “quick date, honey” and were told, “No deary, I like men.” The prostitutes moved to Harry Hines Boulevard.

The Attic Window, a cubbyhole of a place where Station 4 is today, was supposed to be a used bookstore financed by the First Presbyterian Church to bring religion to the “street people” who disdained massive cathedrals with mighty pipe organs (“establishment shit”). Actually, the Attic Window was a free coffee and conversation hangout for anyone in need of companionship. Paperbacks were sold for a quarter or given free to those lacking funds (“But please return them when you’ve finished”).

The Trio was a nice down-home eatery noted for its mismatched tables and chairs. It was a second home for teenagers who couldn’t get into the bars and who welcomed the attention paid them by older men. It was easy to meet a teen guy just offer to buy him a hamburger and a tall glass of tea. Not surprisingly, management welcomed the teen trade.

The Candy Store, where the Throckmorton Mining Company is today, was not a store nor did it sell candy. It was the neighborhood’s first gay bar.

When gay bars started popping up along the strip, the gay community identity started accelerating. So, let’s hand it to the bars. It was the bars more than the gay church, gay businesses or the gay organizations that were the real movers, the real pioneers that created the gayborhood.

There was a time when gay bars were scattered across Dallas and fiercely competitive. In time, bar owners began realizing that “clustering” was good business. A gay crowd would patronize one bar, then walk to another nearby just to see who all’s there.

The new Tom Thumb quickly became known as Mary Fingers, and our people would often travel across town to leisurely shop there because, as they said, “That’s where you meet people you haven’t seen in years.”

The Oak Lawn library (there’s been two at the current location) has always been accommodating to the gay community, keeping a large selection of gay/lesbian books and, along with Kroger’s, allowing us to park there on festive occasions.

The Rev. Jim Harris moved his MCC congregation from the “Castle in Ruins” on Ross Avenue to Reagan and Brown, where the Dallas Resource Center is today. He thundered, “The gay church needs to be in the gay neighborhood.” In its present location, the Cathedral of Hope is an impressive anchor to the community.

There have been several fine gourmet-type restaurants along the strip that flopped. Couldn’t those businessmen see that what the community wanted was a really good hamburger and a sidewalk caf?? Hunkys was a smashing success the moment it opened.

Crossroads Market and Bookstore was originally Butler’s Pantry. Although kitchen gadgetry wasn’t what most gay folks really needed, the shop was so nicely decorated and homey, folks gathered there pretending to shop but really just to hang.

For instance, it was the informal gathering place for the musicians of the mighty Oak Lawn Band just before they stepped off to lead the first Gay Pride Parade down Cedar Springs in 1980. Imagine that our very own band! Gay hearts swelled to the strains of Stars and Stripes Forever. The Union Jack, always supportive, provided the band’s first uniforms.

The future of the Crossroads looked dark indeed when AIDS hit the news in 1981. At first, not knowing how the deadly disease was transmitted, many folks avoided the strip. But not those who hated us. They descended like locusts to gleefully pronounce, “The gay plague is God’s retribution. Repent before it’s too late.” When confronted with the facts “AIDS began in Africa where it’s transmitted almost exclusively by heterosexual contact” they refused to listen.

One TV evangelist even predicted that by 1985 every gay man and lesbian in America would be infected with the AIDS virus and by 1990 there would be no more sodomites “Glory be to God Almighty!”

As AIDS casualties continued to mount, public officials were slow to advance research money for a cure until Margaret Heckler, Health and Human Services Secretary, declared: “We must find a cure for this disease before it spreads into the heterosexual community.”

But it was we, the gays, who responded to the AIDS threat by advocating safe sex and screening. Thus the Nelson/Tebedo clinic, the Food Pantry and free hot lunches at the AIDS Resource Center.

Despite AIDS and doomsday predictions, the street continued to thrive.

The fun-filled Halloween tradition was never planned; it was spontaneous. Bar patrons started dressing up as only gays can and went from bar to bar to see and be seen. In 1980, we were confined to the sidewalks. Quickly out-growing that, we were allowed one side of the street. “We have to keep one lane open for fire trucks,” we were told.

But each year, the crowd grew larger until we spilled out over the whole street for three blocks. Eventually the dour, holier-than-thou fundies gave up trying to convince us to change our evil ways and become like them.

Straight folks, lacking an understanding of camp, started horning in on our celebration, sometimes bringing tiny children who might see things that perhaps they shouldn’t see. “But hey, this is our street party. If you find some costumes offensive, don’t come. Otherwise you’re welcome.”

Will future gays and lesbians hear our stories and wish, “Oh, It must have been fun! Whatever happened to the Crossroads?”

And we old ones will reach out for a young hand and say, “Because we love you, listen: Respect, but don’t linger in the past. There were times when we were harassed by the police and robbed, beaten and murdered by criminals. So always remember, as Charles Dickens would remind us: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

Phil Johnson is the unofficial historian for North Texas’ LGBT community. The Phil Johnson Gay and Lesbian Historic Archives and Research Library were started when Johnson donated his extensive collection of books, articles, photos and artifacts regarding LGBT history in Dallas and around the world.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 23, 2007

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