Revisiting Dallas History: Deep Ellum Before the Highways

Elm Street Then/Now. Original historic image from the collections of the Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division, Dallas Public Library.

Today’s weekend tourist or late-night reveler might see Deep Ellum, our office’s neighborhood just east of Downtown Dallas, as an isolated pocket of cool historic buildings with some of the best restaurants, bars, and live music in the city. They may not realize that it wasn’t always an island of walkability surrounded by highways.

The above two photos show a “then and now” comparison of Elm Street facing the Deep Ellum neighborhood. Before the highways crisscrossing downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods were constructed in the 1960s and 70s, Deep Ellum was hardly a separate neighborhood from Downtown at all. For more about the Palace Theater as shown in the 1922 photograph, please see Paula Bosse’s post in her Flashback : Dallas blog on movie theaters serving Dallas’ black population around this time period.

As part of our office’s Second Nature Initiative, we’re refocusing on our neighborhood of Deep Ellum to discover potential future opportunities to preserve the neighborhood’s unique character and provide a toolbox of potential opportunities for future development in the area. As part of that study, I was challenged with investigating the historical context of the area, tasked with responding to questions on the neighborhood’s original street layout, the role that Deep Ellum (or Deep Elm as it was originally called) played in the overall context of the city, and looking at dramatic changes to the built fabric of the place that have occurred throughout its history.

Given all the talk in the past year about grounding Interstate Highway 345 and the in-progress transportation study by TxDOT called CityMAP, I was curious first to see what Deep Ellum’s street grid looked like before the highways were constructed. Using one of my favorite resources, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, I was able to piece together a map of our study area from around 1950. Showing each structure, street, rail line, and business type, Sanborn maps are extremely detailed records of the history of places from specific years from the 1870s to the 1950s. Simplifying the street grid and historic rail lines into diagrams allowed for an easy comparison of the overall structure of the neighborhood before and after the highways:

Existing Street Grid

1950 Street and Rail Grid

These diagrams aren’t groundbreaking pieces of investigative research; they tell us what is already clear if you simply look: that Deep Ellum wasn’t always so isolated, and the areas around the highways weren’t empty fields waiting for a massive piece of infrastructure to be placed upon them. As cities grow and develop, the needs and desires of the citizens and leaders change. At some point, the will to keep a diverse entertainment and business district intact were outweighed by the desire to connect various parts of the city (and to drive horizontal growth) with greater speed. If we could turn back the clock, and have a walkable 24-hour neighborhood stretching seamlessly from Downtown to Deep Ellum, would we leap at the chance?