November 22, 1963

Reading about history is entirely different than living it while it happens around you. This is another day where anyone alive and old enough to remember, remembers where they were and the events of the day. But to be living in Dallas — Oak Cliff — the events seemed so surreal, unbelievable.

Living in Oak Cliff was quiet. The police actually patrolled the streets because that’s what the police did back then; there wasn’t much else to do. It just wasn’t usual to have a murder in the city each month, much less three in one weekend. Maybe it was because we were young, but we watched two real murders replayed on TV over and again, and told of the third. That was beyond anything most people had ever witnessed. That was the stuff of movies and fiction.

Harry and I were in school that day. I attended T. W. Browne and Harry was at Adamson. Once the school informed us of what had happened, the atmosphere was very quiet. Of course teachers and some students were upset, but there was no chaos. All normal activity ceased. At Browne, they piped the radio events over the P.A. system. Then we heard a police officer was shot and killed. Someone saw a suspicious acting man enter a theater and alerted the police. The police then descended on the Texas Theater — no stranger to most young people in Oak Cliff. Oswald had been walking loose on the streets we walked and he was now sitting in the theater we all knew. We were glued to the events unfolding over the P.A. We knew exactly where the police were as the events unfolded off the radio. At Adamson, sirens could be heard everywhere. Officer Tippitt had been shot about a block away on the next street. Adamson students were informed about the President being killed, but they weren’t getting the step by step events unfolding like we were hearing.

Oswald was captured inside the Texas Theater and taken to the city jail at Main and Harwood. LBJ was sworn in as President at Love Field and they left for Washington. Could it get any worse?

On Sunday morning, police were transporting Oswald to the county jail when Jack Ruby stepped out of the crowd and shot Oswald front and center. It all happened just as church was being dismissed. And that’s how we found out about another murder within our city in three days.

Officer J. D. Tippitt lived in my neighborhood. His son and my brother were friends. What a week.

Emotionally, the people were not near as friendly with strangers after that. As I mentioned before, Oak Cliff was like a small town in the shadows of Dallas. And like small towns, the crime eventually comes to them.

Politically, I think the crime increased the more Dallas neglected city services in the Oak Cliff area, and it was especially noticable in the older neighborhoods that were composed of elderly homeowners and renters. The more the city neglected its responsibilities and older homeowners moved out, the more the area decreased and crime increased.

New development seemed to stop prior to 1967. The last residential neighborhoods developed were near what is now known as Executive Airport near the Oak Cliff Country Club and some new homes around Kimball. There might have been a few new homes built in the next 30 years, but most new development was in the suburbs of Duncanville, DeSoto, and beyond. It’s only been in recent years that new homes toward Joe Pool Lake, S. Hampton, and around Mountain View College were built. This was probably due to the federal court order on forced busing.

Young families began to discover Kessler and the neighborhoods around it in the early 1970’s. Gas was escalating — I think it was around 50 cents a gallon. Most people still worked downtown, a vibrant area of retail, entertainment, and office back then, with public transportation. People were moving back into the inner city to save money. They also found they could find large houses in the area for less than was offered farther south in DeSoto and Duncanville. During the next 25 years, I believe the people in Winnetka Heights, alone, paid to build a Home Depot closer to the area. There was no Lowe’s back then.

The assination of JFK was bad enough. Having Lee Harvey Oswald associated with Oak Cliff — even though he only rented for a very short time — put a negative reputation of crime on the area.

It was strong leadership and perseverance that sometimes took small steps along with a few giant steps to make North Oak Cliff what you see today, a place of incredible opportunties and beauty when people have a vision.

Urban Pioneers Revolt

Even with very deep roots in Oak Cliff for both Harry and myself, we looked at newer houses from Garland to Duncanville to raise a family. Some houses were pretty and some just not us — cookie cutter houses. Such a major decision, you want the house and the area to be right. We were drawn back to the trees, hills, cliffs, and scenic value of Oak Cliff.

side step: I think back, and for all the times we drove down Edgefield to my grandmother’s house, turned on 10th and came down Winnetka to 8th St., I must have been wearing blinders to not notice the many houses that needed to be fixed. As kids, we would play on her huge wrap around porch with it’s porch swing and rocking furniture, and I never once saw the house next door that Harry and I would one day own; due to the tall evergreen hedge blocking the view. The most I ever remember about this house was the back corner seen from Grandma’s back door.

Older people in the neighborhood were scared back then — intimidated by the crime of the late 60’s and 70’s (drugs were taking hold) — they may have seen something, but they wouldn’t get involved fearing retaliation. Many of their friends had been moved out and replaced with renters. When my grandmother found out this house was for sale and knew we were looking, well, it was just a match the minute we saw it. We were lucky. (Grandma was getting someone she knew as a neighbor and eventually two great-grandsons to watch grow, as well.) The owners of our house had always lived in the house until age forced them into a home, so, even though it needed to be updated it was livable. So many families that purchased homes in Winnetka Heights weren’t near as fortunate.

We were known as “Urban Pioneers.” Most of us lived with dust which seemed like forever, as most husbands had another job during the day and tried to fix the houses by night. On top of that, many men and women of the 70’s were also going to school at night, working on a degree. Taking on a fixer-upper was known as sweat equity. The houses may have seemed ridiculously low in cost to many by today’s standards, these houses soon became our “Money Pit.” (Great movie.)

Seems like it was August of 1975 — just six months after we moved here — that the City put a Planned Development (PD) Zoning Overlay on Winnetka Heights. Ruth Chenoweth and Mary Griffith had done so much work for City Planners trying to save what hadn’t already been destroyed. A moratorium was in place for any new construction, and type of construction as well. They, I assume it was Mary and Ruth, formed a neighborhood meeting so neighbors could get to know one another. New ones were invited, and each month — each year — it just grew until it was huge. The majority were new homeowners. We’d meet in an area of the Church of Christ on Edgefield each month, so it seemed. Eventually, there were officers, and most of the other residents found their niche doing something to help improve the community as a whole. As prices of homes increased in WH and were becoming short supply, the movement took hold in other nearby neighborhoods.

I don’t know when the Tour of Homes began in Winnetka Heights, but each year it drew more and more people from outside Oak Cliff into our neighborhood. Swiss Ave. already had a tour, and maybe curiosity brought them here. I’m sure some were fearful just putting a foot into Oak Cliff, but fear was removed as more and more people decided to buy into the idea as property values increased. House values seemed to double in no time, and so did taxes. Increased taxes, yet lack of city services and amenities. Our taxes were helping to build up North Dallas and beyond.

Dr. Tandy was our councilman at the time. He tried his best at monthly meetings to get code problems addressed along with other concerns. He would have a representative from every city department at those meetings, so it seemed. When it came to a vote at the horseshoe for this part of the city, Dr. Tandy was always outnumbered. But the natives were restless and tired. Promises, promises, promises …. too little, too late, and never enough to make a difference.

I really don’t know what provoked the showdown, but Dr. Tandy was our fearless leader at that time. An anesthetist by trade, he hardly put Dallas to sleep or allowed Oak Cliff to be out of the loop. The giant was awake on the table. The movement grew, and grew some more until some meetings drew an easy 2,000 Oak Cliff residents from all over the area. They were of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. If Dallas wasn’t going to meet our needs and put our tax dollars back in the community, then we could do it for ourselves. We were Oak Cliff, far and wide and always known as Oak Cliff. Dallas officials knew Oak Cliff as this small area of North Oak Cliff that was the original township T. L. Marsalis had developed. Oak Cliff people knew Oak Cliff that stretched beyond the Trinity to the city limits bounded mainly by Singleton Blvd on the north and near I-45 going south with a population of near 300,000 residents and 33 square miles. Take away Oak Cliff’s land and people, and Dallas was no longer a major city. The secession people were even going to take back the original boundaries of the Trinity River before it was rerouted after the flood of 1908 — ever heard of La Reunion? Reunion, the Hyatt Regency, and even parts of the I-35 Corridor would soon be Oak Cliff! Don’t you know those millionaires were on the phone? City Hall did some calculatin’ and found there was money in them there hills! I would have loved to see Oak Cliff a city unto itself, again. We couldn’t have done any worse, and probably much better. In my opinion, it was Dallas that had neglected Oak Cliff and realtors that sure weren’t steering prospects our way. “Oak Cliff” was just a bad mental picture for most people, in general, around the metroplex. Dallas was collecting millions of federal dollars for low income areas of Oak Cliff and spending the money elsewhere or doing nothing. Dallas was forced to return the money to Washington — our tax dollars.

We knew that run down housing was a breeding ground for crime. We made our point, and many a vacant, run-down, apartment building was torn down. The redlining with the banks and other financial institutions was removed, and distribution of city funds and services were done differently at City Hall. My grandmother didn’t think she would ever see the change we all desired for so long. Although she lived long enough for the Historic Designation placed on Winnetka Heights, and knew and watched many of the houses being restored, Grandma died before she could see the development and change that has taken place in Oak Cliff the last 20 years. I’m so glad my mother was able to witness the changes. I’m more than happy I will finally witness the dreams and promises of what could be for this area and that my grandchildren will have it much better if they decide to stay in Oak Cliff. Most of all, due to all the hard work of countless men and women — many who still live in the area — they have lived to see Oak Cliff become a desirable place to live and want to be. It was a lot of hard work, much of it done without the city’s help or money.

To ensure no one city council rep ever had that much power again, it seems Dallas was under another federal court order — always something — to dismantle the 10-4-1 representation on the city council in place of 14-1. Officials gerrymandered and chopped up Oak Cliff to achieve their goal. It hasn’t always been the greatest, but it’s had it’s benefits when it comes to representation for southern Dallas.

(P.S. Change only comes through education. If a business is hesitant to move here, it’s education that changes many minds. It’s $$$$ and buying power. When TV stations continually put down Oak Cliff and show the very bad or they dwell on the crime in Oak Cliff as if Ft. Worth doesn’t have such problems , it’s education that changes minds. Their concept of Oak Cliff doesn’t include what we see and it’s up to us to help them get educated, or refuse to watch their program or spend our money. The Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce was always a great source of info and brochures to present a different image of Oak Cliff than what most people gathered just from watching the news.)

Oak Cliff Artisans

For me, I think Oak Cliff has always had people with artistic hands and minds. My mother is an artist, but then there are others with creative minds that have individually and collectively formed their ideas to improve the area.

I think Oak Cliff (I call southwestern Dallas, Oak Cliff) has the natural beauty lacking in so many other parts of Dallas and Dallas County. It just breeds inspiration into an artist.

Before the current Tour of Homes set up, many times the Tour began with a parade and always included a street fair. At least 20 years ago, there was a big celebration held at Kidd Springs Park. There may have been some artists outside Oak Cliff invited, but I’m pretty sure most were natives to the area. They had everything from pottery to hand made crocheted items, to paintings and many other things. Sometimes serious, sometimes whimsical. Someone in the league got greedy, charged whopping rent for the two day event and it went away.

I haven’t been in years, but if you’re interested in local art, call Mountain View College to see if they still have a show on a Saturday in November or early December. It’s been a while, but it had to be a lot of different types of art because it went from one end to the other of that campus on two floors. It’s all handmade.

There have always been artist of a sort in this neighborhood. At the turn of the century, people used their talents to make a living. Many were craftsmen by trade, that’s why so many of these houses have workshops on the back of the property — it wasn’t always a rental unit.

The man that built our home — the original homeowner — was a cabinet maker. There have been many craftsmen/women of this sort in our neighborhood. After living with one or the other you learn a few things. Anyway, Charles Lee in the neighborhood is a tile layer, and Richard Fitzgerald stays pretty busy redoing houses in the area. He also volunteers a lot of his talent. Both are very good. Donna Eller once lived in the area. She is well known for taking a hobby of leaded glass and building a business by first teaching others. She was one of the original shopowners in the Bishop Arts area and ended up having several books published. Jason and Carrie design landscaping. I understand there are many writers living in the neighborhood, too. There are various, creative ways to express talent; sometimes its bigger than you can hold.

Politics of Oak Cliff 1960-2000

Most of what I write is first hand, although I have consulted a few who are older and have lived in Oak Cliff back to the 1920’s. We not only cover a lot of years, we cover a lot of territory from Ft. Worth Ave to the Trinity River bank to beyond Lancaster Road to Wheatland Road, to past Loop 12 and back to Davis. No one recalls any signs of discrimination in all those years against blacks and/or gays.

Oak Cliff really was a great “small town” atmosphere in the shadows of Dallas. People were very friendly and welcoming to all. Be a good neighbor and you were treated as a good neighbor.

I first recognized a difference between Dallas and Oak Cliff when I was a kid about 10 years old and it didn’t get any better for almost 40 years. My grandparents noticed it since the early 1900’s. Dallas had landscaped medians, we were supposed to be happy with a crepe myrtle. Dallas had well kept neighborhoods, blight became a part of Oak Cliff for too long. You didn’t notice streets in North Dallas without sidewalks and curbs, yet, it was a part of life in many parts of Oak Cliff during the 60’s and 70’s, and maybe into the 80’s.

We just thought Dallas didn’t care about Oak Cliff until November 22, 1963. When the press found out Lee Harvey Oswald rented an apartment in Oak Cliff, it was downhill from there — like we had somehow molded this man’s life to become who he was. Forget the fact he just rented this place for a short time, and his family was in Ft. Worth. Didn’t matter.

You have to know the politics of the time, and to be honest, I wasn’t old enough to know the hate that surrounded JFK or why. A modern day assassination? I do remember there was an uproar and Washington was trying to kick Texas out of the union. Still too young to follow, but I can tell you Dallas took it out on Oak Cliff, and the area was neglected something awful, like we didn’t exist.

Someone wrote about the redlining — where banks wouldn’t loan money to rebuild homes within those boundaries. It was Councilman Charles Tandy (Dr.) who helped get the redlining removed when he was in office during 1990 so these once grand homes could be repaired and rebuilt.

JFK died and LBJ was in office. It was LBJ that signed a bill on civil rights. That’s when forced busing came into play. Dallas leaders — and there wasn’t an even playing field of representation of southern Dallas at the School Board or City Hall — did everything they could to prevent forced busing into North Dallas — or even Dallas. The minorities were mostly living in West Dallas and South Dallas with some in Oak Cliff; Oak Cliff, mostly white, was in the middle. To meet the objective of a court order, these leaders pushed forced busing on Oak Cliff. It only worked for a few years because people with children put a child’s education first — they only get one chance to get a solid foundation and a chance to succeed in school and on to college. They moved to where their children could go to neighborhood schools. By the way, I remember going through grade school to high school with people of Mexican ancestry, and I counted them as my friends as did others. They didn’t call themselves Mexican-Americans back then. Maybe we were stupid, but we just knew we were Americans.

For Sale signs were everywhere when educational standards started to dip and people didn’t want their kids shipped across town to meet a court order, but to our credit, as one friend pointed out, there were never any signs that mentioned negative notations against minorities. That was the 70’s. Come to think of it, blacks and browns moved to the burbs as well.

No one I asked recalls any such signs discriminating against gay people. Two of us remember two places on 10th St. that rented to MEN ONLY. I remember wanting to rent an apartment at the “new” apartments at 10th and Jefferson next to the dentist office in the late 60’s and was denied because I was single, the same thing happened to a friend.

As Ellen mentioned, people thoughout history have been discriminated against. The new immigrants of the 1900’s and 1920’s really had it hard. Today, its short; or overweight; or strait, white men; or age, or where you live; or well you get the picture …. they just don’t say why because it would most likely bring a lawsuit.

There were two things that helped to clean up Oak Cliff and bring equity from Dallas:

1) In 1980, I think, the Republican Convention came to Dallas and Dallas wanted to put their best foot forward. Oak Cliff was so trashy and littered. Bob McElerney was the Director of Code Enforcement and it was he who ordered sweeps and clean-ups in Oak Cliff to get it cleaned up, including the alleys. During the 1980’s, Code Enforcement did several sweeps in neighborhoods all over Oak Cliff where, literally, all available — they were all available — in the office went into that one neighborhood along with the police and they hit the drug houses and the gang problems writing up cases on house after house with violations. Bob McElerney later became the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce director.

2) In 1990, Oak Cliff found the proverbial 2×4 to get Dallas’ attention for equity. Either do something to improve this area or be de-annexed and go back to the City of Oak Cliff. There were boarded structures throughout Oak Cliff, because of the drugs and neglect from owners, tenants, and the City code violations. City equipment was orange back then, and you could see orange everywhere, especially in Winnetka Heights. From that point forward, distribution of tax dollars at City Hall changed.

The Zoo

After the flood in 1908, after the construction of the Oak Cliff Viaduct in 1912, the City of Dallas purchased the land known as Marsalis Park and moved the zoo animals from Dallas City Park — I assume it would be Old City Park near downtown — to their new location. If you are familiar at all with the terrain of the park, we have family photographs with primitive construction of how people climbed the higher areas; no less in long dresses. People didn’t go anywhere in casual wear — they only had two kinds; work and Sunday best.

So, to answer the question, yes there was a zoo, although not very big.

Back in 1914, the Park was known as Forest Park Zoo (Old City Park is near Forest and maybe that’s how it got the name) and was later changed to Marsalis Park Zoo before becoming the Dallas Zoo.