Strong retail, quality dining and a vibrant nightlife keep the pink dollars flowing on Cedar Springs
When Out Traveler named Oak Lawn the “best gayborhood in the U.S.,” it said “Oak Lawn is a shining star in a city soaked with money and privilege.” The magazine also noted that Oak Lawn is “packed with nightlife and eateries,” and praised its proximity to downtown and the Design District.
But just what is it that really makes a gayborhood successful and keeps it vibrant?
According to Dallas Tavern Guild Executive Director Michael Doughman, it takes a good mix of retail and restaurants with a concentration of bars in the area. Hospitality, stability, engagement with the surrounding neighborhood, a great hotel and new development that’s integrated into the gayborhood all play into making Oak Lawn an enduring draw for the LGBT community, he said.
Doughman said other gayborhoods he’s visited don’t have the mix of stores, restaurants and bars that Oak Lawn has. He said the publisher of Sparticus, the international gay guide, told him that in many cities, he replaces a majority of the listings each year. In Dallas, there are usually just a few updates.
That stability extends to bars, restaurants and shops.
Over the years, Throckmorton Mining Company expanded and then moved, but its roots date to 1978. The Round-Up Saloon and JR.’s Bar & Grill first opened in the early 1980s and Sue Ellen’s has been around — in two locations on The Strip — since the late 1980s.
But that doesn’t mean the bar scene is old and stale. Station 4 is the fourth iteration of that club in its more than three decade history, and Liquid Zoo, Cedar Springs Tap House and Marty’s all opened within the last year.
Doughman credits the Dallas Tavern Guild, an organization of LGBT bar owners, for adding to that stability. Large events like last fall’s Gay Softball World Series street party would not have been possible to coordinate between bars had the tavern guild not existed. He said that by working together, the various bars have each carved out a niche and added to each other’s success.
No other city is organized this way, Doughman said.
Restaurants and retail on Cedar Springs share that same blend of old and new.
Restaurants have a history of success on the strip. The original Black Eyed Pea doubled in size in its current Cedar Springs location before spawning a national chain. When Hunky’s established its Oak Cliff location, it signaled the beginning of a new gayborhood on the other side of the Trinity River, where about half of the stores and restaurants in Bishop Arts are gay-owned.
Turning to retail on The Strip, TapeLenders, which opened in 1981, is currently the oldest shop. Today, video rental is only a small part the store’s business, but the store began in a small space where OutLines now stands, renting Beta tapes, before VHS took off. The name is iconic in the neighborhood, even though the merchandise has changed with the times and TapeLenders thrives without a tape in the store.
OutLines and Skivvies are the established clothing stores on the strip. Hoping to buy into that healthy retail environment, Out of the Closet, Flower Reign and Gifted have all opened over the last year.
Dave Richardson, owner of Skivvies and Gifted, said they opened the gift shop after Nuvo moved off the street and that type of store was missing. He said more women started coming into the store from Sue Ellen’s across the street and many wandered into Skivvies as well, buying t-shirts and shorts in numbers they never had before.
Richardson also said it’s important for retailers to keep up with current trends. As the state waits for a final ruling on marriage equality, he’s stocked up items couples will want for their weddings, such as rings, engagement and wedding cards and same-sex cake toppers.
Out of the Closet is operated by AIDS Healthcare Foundation and Texas Regional Director Bret Camp said the store is doing exceptionally well. AHF operates other stores under the same name in other cities where they’re not in the middle of a gayborhood, he said.
“The centralization of the community made it a perfect fit,” Camp said.
In addition to being a resale store, Out of the Closet offers HIV testing. Camp said they’re not competing with Resource Center’s Nelson-Tebedo Clinic right down the street. Some people are more comfortable getting tested in a more clinical setting. Others prefer the retail setting. He said his shop is testing a good mix of gay and straight people, and he thinks overall testing is up in the neighborhood as a result of his store.
Doughman said in addition to all the money raised at all the bars for LGBT and AIDS causes, another element that keeps the gayborhood strong is its community involvement.
Sam Houston Elementary School is located a block behind the bars. Sam Houston is traditionally one of the poorest schools in Dallas Independent School District, so a group of employees at JR.’s decided to brighten Christmas for the students years ago. Each student wrote down a Christmas wish and bar patrons bought the presents that were delivered to the students at the school by Santa. That was the beginning of a tradition that still continues.
That involvement grew into a bigger commitment to the school, with an August school supply drive and a winter coat drive for students that had none when the temperatures plummet.
Other groups have also made commitments to the non-LGBT community in Oak Lawn. Rainbow LULAC organized a school supply drive at the bar Havana for other Oak Lawn-area schools, and Cathedral of Hope planted trees and added an air conditioning system to its across-the-street neighbor, Maple Lawn Elementary.
Doughman said two anchors also add to the gayborhood — ilume at one end of The Strip and the Melrose Hotel at the other.
The Melrose just began digging its pool and, once the building is completed in a year, plans to open it to the community for events. During the week, the hotel is booked with business travelers, but because of its strategic location, the Melrose remains at high occupancy through the weekend. Parade, Halloween and other special event weekends are booked years in advance.
Doughman said he couldn’t think of another gayborhood with a hotel as nice as the Melrose as part of the mix.
On the other end of The Strip, Ilume has welcomed groups to meet in its Great Room since it opened several years ago, and the North Texas GLBT Chamber of Commerce and Purple Party are officed there.
Richardson said ilume has brought high-end housing with lots of amenities back to The Strip.
Doughman had a bit of advice, or maybe a request, to help keep the gayborhood strong. He said when a board has a meeting or group needs a place to meet, think of meeting in a gayborhood restaurant to help keep the neighborhood vibrant.
The city has so much confidence in the future of The Strip, it’s dedicated more than $1million in bond money for a beautification project. Plans are being drawn and work should begin by the end of the year.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 20, 2015.