Deep Ellum is an entertainment and arts district on Elm Street east of downtown Dallas. The area was settled as a "freedmen's town" by former slaves after the Civil War; its location on Elm Street, just east of the Houston and Texas Central tracks near the depot, was too far from downtown Dallas to be desirable. The area was called Deep Elm or, as early residents pronounced it, "Deep Ellum." Because of the proximity of the railroad it was also called Central Track.
Several industries were located in Deep Ellum at one time. Robert S. Munger invented a new cotton gin in Mexia in 1883 that revolutionized the ginning industry. He built his first factory to manufacture the new gin in Deep Ellum in 1884. His Munger Improved Cotton Machine Company merged with several smaller companies in 1899 to form the Continental Gin Company. In 1913 Henry Ford opened several regional assembly plants to supplement the manufacture of Model Ts at his Detroit plant. One was built in Deep Ellum and served as the Southwestern Ford Assembly Plant.
The Grand Temple of the Black Knights of Pythias was designed in 1916 by William Sidney Pittman and constructed in Deep Ellum. In addition to serving as the state headquarters for the Knights, the building held offices of Black doctors, dentists, and lawyers. It was therefore the first commercial building built for and by Blacks in Dallas. An auditorium-ballroom on the top floor was used for dances, assemblies, and parties. At one time the Dallas Express, a weekly Black newspaper, was published in the Temple, and the state and local headquarters of the YMCA were there.
By the 1920s the Deep Ellum area had become a retail and entertainment center for Dallas residents, primarily African Americans. Anything could be bought in the stores along Elm: new and used merchandise including furniture, clothing, shoes, and jewelry. Deep Ellum was famous for its "Pawnshop Row," where more than ten pawnshops operated until the 1950s. Entertainment was an important part of the business of Deep Ellum, which became a mecca for jazz and blues artists. In 1920 twelve nightclubs, cafes, and domino parlors were open in Deep Ellum, and by 1950 the number had grown to twenty. Many famous jazz and blues musicians played in the neighborhood at some time, including Blind Lemon Jefferson and Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins. Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter began performing in 1920 in Deep Ellum before he began his career in Greenwich Village, New York. Crap games in the back rooms of the domino parlors necessitated keeping an eye out for the police. Deep Ellum had a red-light district, and murders were not uncommon near the nightclubs and domino parlors.
Deep Ellum declined throughout the 1940s and 1950s. The Houston and Texas Central tracks and depot were removed. The growth of Dallas suburbs encouraged businesses in the area to move to shopping malls. As cars became more prevalent the pedestrian traffic decreased, and when the streetcar line was abandoned in 1956 it decreased still further. In 1954 the Uptown Improvement League was formed to improve business in Deep Ellum, including provision of off-street parking, but the area continued to decline. In 1969 the new elevation of Central Expressway bisected Deep Ellum and eliminated the 2400 block of Elm, the center of the community. By the 1970s and early 1980s few businesses remained.
In January 1983 the Near East Side Area Planning Study, or, as it was commonly called, the Deep Ellum Plan, was unveiled. This plan to redevelop the area called for Deep Ellum to be "downzoned" so as to keep the atmosphere on a small, artsy level. The height of buildings was to be limited, the streets would not be widened, and population would be kept down. While this was happening, artists were moving into the area, and art galleries and nightclubs were renovating the vacant buildings. In the 1980s the area also gained a reputation as the home of the Dallas punk scene. By 1991 Deep Ellum had become popular as a nightspot for young urban dwellers and had more than fifty bars and nightclubs. In addition, a plethora of avant-garde shops sold a variety of merchandise, including clothing, antiques, crafts, and art works. Warehouse space was converted into lofts and other apartments.
In the 2000s businesses, however, struggled with high rents and zoning restrictions. The closing of some live music venues and perception of prevalent crime led some to believe that the neighborhood was in decline. The City of Dallas began to advocate the construction of residential multi-family housing in the attempt at revitalization. By the 2010s a number of music venues had opened or reopened along with some restaurants. The Deep Ellum Community Association spearheaded many projects, including marketing and social media campaigns, urban gardening, historic preservation, merchandise sales, and community advocacy, while the Deep Ellum Foundation worked to “raise and distribute public funds within the community.” The Deep Ellum Arts Festival has been held to promote the “metroplex’s most progressive and eclectic neighborhood.” The three-day street festival features original art and free music and has grown into a large event featuring more than 100 music groups and songwriters and 200 juried visual artists. The twenty-second annual Deep Ellum Arts Festival was scheduled for April 2016.
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Deep Ellum Arts Festival (http://www.deepellumartsfestival.com/), accessed November 1, 2015. Deep Ellum Texas (http://deepellumtexas.com/), accessed November 1, 2015. Denise M. Ford, Deep Ellum (MS, Dallas/Texas Collection, Dallas Public Library, 1985). Alan Govenar, "Them Deep Ellum Blues," Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas 2 (Spring 1990). Alan Govenar and Jay Brakefield, Deep Ellum and Central Track: Where the Black and White Worlds of Dallas Converged (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1998). Virginia and Lee McAlester, Discover Dallas-Fort Worth (New York: Knopf, 1988). William L. McDonald, Dallas Rediscovered: A Photographic Chronicle of Urban Expansion, 1870–1925 (Dallas: Dallas County Historical Society, 1978).
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Lisa C. Maxwell,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 12, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
December 1, 1994
Most Recent Revision Date:
September 9, 2020
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: