Some 40 vintage brick buildings stand on the four square blocks that comprise the district, immediately southeast of the intersection of Bishop Avenue and Davis Street. “The area originated as a commercial center serving a trolley stop in the early 1900s, after the town of Oak Cliff was annexed by the city of Dallas and the trolley line was extended across the Trinity River,” explains David Spence, whose company, Good Space, Inc., restores and rents historic properties in the district and adjacent neighborhoods. When Dallas streetcars quit running in the mid-’50s, most buildings surrounding the trolley stops were leveled to make way for car-friendly strip malls. However, those near the stop at Bishop and Davis streets escaped demolition, and the area remains the city’s largest intact trolley-era shopping district.
The then-new Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike (now I-30) also helped the district avoid the wrecking ball of “progress” by siphoning east-west traffic from Davis Street, which had served as the bustling Oak Cliff leg of the old Route 80. The markets and shops near the trolley stop soon gave way to warehouse and light-industrial tenants. In the 1970s, artists were drawn to the high-ceilinged old buildings, with their abundant natural light and cheap rents, and an artists’ colony formed in the forgotten neighborhood. A decade later, Dallas developer Jim Lake Sr. bought many of the historic properties and coined the name Bishop Arts District.
The vintage structures underwent restorations and reincarnations as the district’s property values rose along with its profile. Some of the artists moved on to more affordable turf, but in their wake appeared an entertaining array of eclectic shops, zesty eateries, and design firms. Galleries and live performances shored up any sags in the credibility of the district’s moniker.
Hugo Garcia opened his Decorazon Gallery in 2004. “I chose the Bishop Arts District because the area has so much potential,” explains Hugo. “It has been something of a well-kept secret, but now more people are finding out about this unique place and appreciating its heritage.” Decorazon showcases the works of artists ranging from emerging to established, local to international. Mulcahy Modern also exhibits contemporary art in the district.
District-goers can catch the spoken-word performances of the Oak Cliff Circle of Poets at Sueños Sabrosos Ice Cream Parlor, or the occasional acoustic concert at the Nodding Dog Coffee Shop. Live music also takes the stage at the new Cosmo Rouge bistro-lounge. Book-lovers can have their treasured volumes rebound at The Book Doctor. A series of murals in the area recalls the district’s trolley days and other aspects of its heritage.
As the names of the shops indicate, the Bishop Arts District is a chain- and franchise-free zone. Businesses here are one-of-a-kind. Take Dave’s Place, for instance. Asked to describe his antiques-and-stuff shop, proprietor Dave Lariviere says, “It’s insane!” Dave buys inventory from estates, closeouts, and bankrupt companies and then re-sells most of it wholesale. Left-overs wind up in his store. “If you’ve got somebody on your list who’s hard to shop for, I’ve got something for ’em, whether it’s a 50-cent doll or a $5,000 Imari [Japanese porcelain] bowl,” says Dave. “And I’ve always got these giant hot-dog-shaped hot-dog machines [steamers] in stock.”
Zola’s Everyday Vintage, run by cousins Annette Norman and Diedra Sutton, is named for the pair’s grandmother. “She was our fashion icon and inspiration,” says Annette. “We select clothing for the shop from the 1930s to the 1970s that is very wearable and in good condition. We have lots of after-five dresses, but we carry everything from vintage lingerie to coats. The store for us is like a big, grown-up Barbie’s Dream House.”
Annette points to the “close-knit community” of entrepreneurs and the “soulful” old buildings as the reason for the Bishop Arts District’s growing popularity. Also, she says, each shop has something different. The same goes for the district’s dozen-or-so restaurants. Vitto Italian specializes in fresh-cooked pasta and pizza. Chan Thai dishes up fiery fare from Thailand. Hunky’s is known for its gourmet hamburgers, while the high-toned Hattie’s offers nouvelle American cuisine. Tillman’s Corner packs ’em in for baby-back ribs with Tillman’s barbecue sauce and grilled trout with orange-ginger sauce.
Chef Lilia Mata brings the tastes of her hometown of Veracruz, Mexico, to Veracruz Café. “We describe our menu as Meso-American, Mayan, Huasteco, and Aztec cuisine,” says co-owner Nathan Castaneda. “It’s a blend of indigenous dishes with the spices and meats that Cortés and the Spaniards brought when they landed at Veracruz.” Specialties include pescado xanath (tilapia stuffed with shrimp and crab) and comfort foods such as borracho del pueblo (“town drunk,” grilled steak marinated with tequila and lime juice). The Veracruz mole (a thick brown sauce made with chiles and chocolate), I can personally testify, tastes like a favored flavor of the gods. “Our mole recipe,” Nathan explains, “comes from the small town of Xico in the state of Veracruz, which is the capital of champion mole.”
The district’s best feature, the nostalgia that local historian Robert Crockett says “lies heavy along the streets and sidewalks,” is free for the partaking. Robert, who grew up here, says, “Although the merchants have changed, the buildings have been preserved so as to delight the memories of those who lived, worked, and traded here long ago.” On weekend evenings, many of the shops stay open late to accommodate after-dinner strollers. An on-site police substation puts visitors at ease. So come on down, and “do the district.” But you might want to hurry—with frolicking crowds having this much fun, the parking meters can’t be far behind!
THE BISHOP ARTS DISTRICT consists of 4 square blocks of historic buildings 2 miles southwest of downtown, in the North Oak Cliff section of Dallas. For a complete listing of art galleries, restaurants, and other businesses, go to www.bishopartsdistrict.com. Bishop Arts District booster David Spence of Good Space, Inc. (408 W. 8th St., Ste. 102; 214/942-0690; www.goodspace.com) will give directions and answer general questions about hours and events.
Contact information (the area code is 214):
El Jordan Café, 416 N. Bishop Ave.; 941-4451. Sueños Sabrosos Ice Cream Parlor, 408 N. Bishop Ave., Ste. 105; 941-1177. Nodding Dog Coffee Shop, 500 N. Bishop Ave.; 941-1166; www.noddingdogcoffee.com. Cosmo Rouge, 407 N. Bishop Ave.; 942-0202; www.cosmorouge.com. Vitto Italian, 316 W. 7th St.; 946-1212. Chan Thai, 312 W. 7th St.; 948-9956. Hunky’s, 321 N. Bishop Ave.; 941-3322. Hattie’s, 418 N. Bishop Ave.; 942-7400. Tillman’s Corner, 324 W. 7th St.; 942-0988. Veracruz Café, 408 N. Bishop Ave., Ste. 107; 948-4746.
Decorazon Gallery, 417 N. Bishop Ave.; 718-1052; www.decorazongallery.com. Mulcahy Modern, 408 W. 8th St., Ste. 101; 214/948-9595. The Book Doctor, 320 W. 7th St.; 946-1760; www.thebookdr.com. Dave’s Place, 408 N. Bishop Ave., Ste.102; 948-0779. Zola’s Everyday Vintage, 414 N. Bishop Ave.; 943-6643; www.zolasvintage.com. Oak Cliff Mercantile, 330A W. Davis; 214/948-8080; www.oakcliffmercantile.com.