Is Dallas’ queer population heading south? A tale of two Oaks: Lawn and Cliff
They were the worst of neighborhoods.
Then, they were the best of neighborhoods.
GLBT citizens are often credited, even if only within our own circles, for improving areas viewed as undesirable by much of the general public. Over time, the homes get fixed up, landscaping is improved and entire blocks become transformed from blights into showplaces. Then suddenly the appeal becomes mainstream and we gradually head to other up-and-coming parts of the city to work our magic again.
This transition is happening again in the tale of two Oaks: Lawn vs. Cliff.
For about 35 years, Oak Lawn has reigned supreme as the center of Dallas gay culture. As a result, the residential neighborhoods have blossomed with pinkness. The area is still the hub for the majority of the city’s gay bars, restaurants and shopping, but with the overwhelming development of high-rises and condos replacing most of the area’s older apartment buildings and single-family dwellings, the demographic of new homeowners and renters is starting to shift.
Brian Dorroh owns a condo and has lived in Oak Lawn for 14 years. He moved to the area from Denton to be closer to the Art Institute of Dallas where he was enrolled. He’d only been out a short period of time, so he wanted to live near other gay people for a change.
"I love the sense of community here. I love our little clubs and book stores," Dorroh says. "It feels very self-contained and I like that. I also like the new revitalization of the neighborhood."
Over the years, he’s witnessed many changes in the community and sees more on the horizon.
"The downside is, now that we’ve gentrified the neighborhood, I feel like we’re being driven out by high prices and yuppie families." It’s only a matter of time, he worries, before the city "rezones the area to shut down the clubs and rob the area of its gay charm."
"I have lived in Oak Lawn for nearly 20 years and never thought I’d live anywhere else," adds resident Coy Covington. "When first moving to the area, it almost seemed like a Utopian haven for like-minded gay men and women who had never before been part of a true community. Many of us felt we could truly be ourselves in this little corner of the universe. It doesn’t feel much like a little corner anymore. This once secluded environment feels less unique and decidedly more mainstream."
Dorroh concurs to an extent.
"As a gay man, it’s kind of sad to see the area become less gay. I guess that’s the price you pay for acceptance," he says. "But as a homeowner, I have to appreciate the way my property value has risen. Plus the influx of new restaurants, shops and housing are nice."
"I’m not willing to throw in the towel and have no plans to move yet," cautions Covington, adding, "but it’s time for the ‘mos to take back the gayborhood."
It’s not just the gay residents’ perception. For Anni Burns, a straight woman, Oak Lawn is a great place to call home, even if it’s different than what she at first imagined it would be like.
"I expected it to be ‘more gay’ when I moved here," she says, adding that she still thinks it’s gayer than many parts of town. "So many of my gay friends are moving to Oak Cliff."
Indeed, Oak Cliff (The O.C., as many residents like to call it) seems to be the front-runner in the race for the next great gayborhood. It’s hard to ignore the area’s growth and revitalization over the past few years.
Jef Tingley, who runs his marketing and public relations business out of his home, lives with his partner in a house built in 1926, brimming with the type of character and charm lacking in most new construction. He also appreciates the small-town feel that is reminiscent of a 1950s sitcom neighborhood, like the set on a studio backlot in Hollywood. It’s as if the Beaver could walk through the door at any minute looking for milk and cookies.
A friend who lives nearby has an ongoing argument with Tingley and his partner, Jerrett Morris, over who has the better block.
"We’re threatening to have an old-school West Side Story-esque rumble," Tingley laughs. "I know people in other areas of town who couldn’t tell you one neighbor’s name. I know all of mine and hang out with them."
Still, The "really great neighbors" are extremely important to Tingley, "and not just on our block, but throughout the Cliff."
While some amenities, like an exceptional grocery store, have yet to invade the Cliff, the Bishop Arts District is proof that with perseverance, a few pioneering entrepreneurs can change the face of an entire part of town by attracting people from the neighborhood and all over Dallas to its hip restaurants and shops.
Well ahead of the migration curve is Realtor Kathy Hewitt, who has owned three homes in North Oak Cliff over the past 15 years. Similarly, community activist Joseph Hernandez has lived in Oak Cliff for a decade with his partner of 15 years, Jeremy Ratliff. Together, they immediately recognized the potential.
"Diversity, character, charm and future possibilities for growth and opportunity" are the top reasons Hernandez lists for moving to the area, but also for "some of the most spectacular terrain in Dallas. Neighborhoods surrounded by greenbelts, wooded areas and creeks are what makes our part of the city unique."
The jury is still out on which neighborhood will ultimately win the right to stake its claims as Dallas’ gayest, but Ratliff sums it up in no uncertain terms.
"You will have to drag my dead corpse from this neighborhood before you move me to North Dallas," he says.
But who knows, that could all change. Just give it a few more years.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice Defining Homes print edition March 7, 2008