When You Think "Deep Ellum," Naturally You're Gonna Look to Canada. D'uh.
Longtime Deep Ellum artist Frank Campagna was recently notified he was not selected as a semi-finalist for DART’s new Green Line station in Deep Ellum, set to replace the Good Latimer Expressway tunnel that’s covered in spray-painted artwork. He wasn’t happy -- especially when he found that one of the finalists up for the gig isn't even from this country. Yup. Put it this way: The dude probably knows all the words to "O Canada."
Campagna, who cloaked the walls of the now-defunct Gypsy Tea Room with murals and owns Kettle Art gallery, is busy with a number of projects. But, as longtime readers of Unfair Park know, he has a special connection to the tunnel: He coordinated some 200 artists as they covered its walls with art that captured the vibrant spirit of Deep Ellum’s creative community. And local leaders, among them the Deep Ellum Association’s Gianna Madrini, point out that Campagna was instrumental in making sure that instead of simply destroying the tunnel, DART agreed to “mitigate” it by using $1.5 million for the gateway project.
In e-mails and remarks to Unfair Park, Campagna says he doesn’t want news of his rejection to sound like “sour grapes,” publicizing his bitterness like some egomaniacal artist who can’t take rejection. Instead, his concern is for Deep Ellum, the neighborhood he’s called home for more than two decades.
Like most people who moved there back in the day, he was drawn to Deep Ellum for its gritty and pulsing music scene, and like most longtime Ellumites intent on preserving the area’s organic charm, he’s convinced that a pack of developers and city planners are intent on burying every last bit of local flavor under a non-descript, Uptown-esque strip mall.
So, when he received the rejections to participate in DART’s gateway project, he naturally wondered who had been selected. Were they from Deep Ellum? Were they even from Dallas?
“Since DART hoped for both someone qualified and local, I look forward to meeting their final choice,” Campagna wrote in an e-mail to Unfair Park. Days later, he got an e-mail from one of the semi-finalists. From Canada. The guy’s name is Dwight Atkinson, and he’s a public artist from Vancouver.
“I am considering how to maintain community values in my design and wonder about the possibility of incorporating mural work along the Good Latimer corridor at the three competition sites,” Atkinson wrote in an e-mail he sent to Campagna. "We would continue the approach used in the tunnel -- whatever it was…Who should I talk to about this?”
It turns out Atkinson is the only finalist from out of state, so asking for local guidance was a good move. The other four artists are from Texas: Three hail from Dallas, and one actually lives in Deep Ellum, DART spokesman Morgan Lyons and chief architect David Ehrlicher told us. They emphasized their efforts to include locals in the plans, pointing out that they’ve held quarterly public meetings.
“Our track record speaks for itself,” Ehrlicher tells Unfair Park. “For each light rail station, including the Deep Ellum Gateway, we’ve invited members of the community to sit on site-specific committees to define what’s important to the community and make sure it’s their own.”
Madrini, president of the Deep Ellum Association, doesn’t buy it.
DART reaches out to the Deep Ellum Foundation, she says, which is comprised of landowners such as Westdale Asset Management and real estate broker Barry Annino, but not “actual folks who live and work in Deep Ellum.” DART counters that their public meetings are open to anyone, regardless of membership in the Association or the Foundation. Perhaps, but a recent reply e-mail from Ehrlicher to Madrini informed the association president that DART’s next “community update” would be given on May 22...to the Deep Ellum Foundation.
It may be too early to condemn DART for handing the redevelopment of Deep Ellum over to big-money players salivating to remake the neighborhood in their Dallas Forward! vision of upscale boutiques and shiny bistros. But why wait until it’s too late? There’s nothing wrong with moving forward, but why not take the best of the past and present along for the ride?
Campagna’s rejected proposal suggested a past, present, future design that would “embrace the history of the area, including the Freedman’s town aspect, Blues musicians, cotton industry, the railway and pawn shops,” with a future defined by more modern materials such as steel and glass. Let’s hope whoever is chosen opts to preserve some of the neighborhood’s character.
“The biggest problem I’ve always had with Dallas is that it’s so busy trying to be an international city that it’s constantly bringing in outsiders as opposed to hiring from within,” Campagna says. “It needs to embrace what it is, not try to be something else.” --Megan Feldman