‘We don’t fit the demographic’: a community in Dallas grapples with gentrification

What is lost when family-owned businesses and the elders playing dominoes on the corner get pushed out by high rents and chain stores

Antonio Vargas was 21 when his entire block in Dallas was sold to a real estate developer. His childhood home was torn down to make space for a luxury apartment complex with units that cost between $1,450 and $1,900 a month – 300% more than the rents some former residents had been paying.

Vargas was invited to the complex’s grand opening in February to bartend for the event the realty group approached Vargas’s workplace to invite locals without realizing Vargas had once lived there – and so Vargas came with several of his friends, most of them Latino.

It didn’t go down well.

“Some of us overheard someone on the phone with the owners, saying the guests ‘didn’t fit their demographic’ – and then the event was shut down minutes later,” Vargas said.

The new residents of the same block where Vargas grew up saw people like him as outsiders. Suddenly his grandparents, who had migrated from Mexico in 1981, watched their life’s work doing construction go to waste, as the community was sliced up and sold to developers. “The apartment construction left a bad taste for everyone. Many of the older people in my family haven’t gone back to the area since the tear-down,” he says.

Vargas eventually accepted the changes. His parents sold their home to move to Duncanville, a city nearby.

Antonio Vargas with photograph of his childhood home. Vargas’s grandfather planted the trees behind him.
Antonio Vargas with photograph of his childhood home. Vargas’s grandfather planted the trees behind him. Photograph: Allison V Smith/The Guardian

When his grandparents arrived 40 years ago, the neighborhood culture was completely different. The big Latino community made it easy for Vargas’s grandmother to find work doing various jobs at local Latino-owned businesses. Today, the neighborhood is still predominantly Latino, but is experiencing a Black and brown decline. Between 2010 and 2014, the white population increased by 15% to make up 24% of residents, while the Black population decreased by 14% to just 3%. The Hispanic population still makes up 71% of the total inhabitants.


North Oak Cliff is now described in local magazines as “Dallas’s best-kept secret”, filled with independent boutiques, mom-and-pop restaurants and urban coffee houses. It has become a tourist stop for out-of-towners and a weekend release for locals. A large inventory of fixer-upper homes gives the neighborhood its up-and-coming vibe, if not the large apartment complexes and condominiums being built on every corner.

Shops on Jefferson Street, between Polk and Tyler.
Shops on Jefferson Street, between Polk and Tyler. Photograph: Allison V Smith/The Guardian

“The Bishop Arts district in 2001 was sleepy. There were a handful of spots, but it was not remotely the entertainment destination it is today,” says Rob Shearer, 47, a 20-year resident of Oak Cliff. “There was little visible sign of commercial gentrification outside of a small number of restaurants and shops in Bishop Arts.”

Then, a restaurant offering farm-to-table dishes at slightly higher-than-average prices brought Dallasites from all over to the neighborhood – and 13 years later it certainly appears it was a harbinger of the significant change to come.

Shearer is increasingly involved with efforts to protect neighbors from displacement. He bought his first home in the North Oak Cliff neighborhood of Winnetka Heights for $145,000 in 2003. Today, homes sell for three times that. Originally, Shearer was attracted to the neighborhood’s sense of community, which he claims was driven by the neighbors, not by retail and restaurants in and around the Bishop Arts district. As someone who has witnessed how gentrification has changed the neighborhood that’s been his home for two decades, he feels a duty to protect it.

“I see my role now as one of speaking out against the perceived inevitability of gentrification and displacement. So many that are either actively participating in gentrification, or passively benefiting from it, believe it will happen regardless of our actions,” Shearer says.

Shearer has publicly said that the city of Dallas has done very little to protect residents in Oak Cliff from soaring property values that force them to sell and ultimately push them out. While good arguments could be made that more jobs have been created in the neighborhood during the past decade of growth, he questions whether they pay well, given that only a quarter of adults between ages 25 and 34 in Dallas county earn a living wage.

While some of the longtime homeowners in his area were able to sell their homes for more than they bought them for, Shearer believes that is more of the exception than the rule. “Those are often the examples cited by supporters of the redevelopment and gentrification,” he says.


In 2007, Incap, a real estate development company, acquired and tore down 1,500 apartment units in Bishop Arts to make space for new development. But the company failed to sell the land to another developer, and the properties went into foreclosure nearly a year later. Affordable housing in North Oak Cliff was later replaced with single-family homes selling for between $350,000 and $500,000.

Today, mostly young, white professionals and new families are buying up the mid six-figure properties surrounding the shopping district, with the median home valuesincreasing by 49% in 2012.

While gentrification has resulted in a plethora of changes for the 75208 area, other parts of the neighborhood, which continue to house the Black and brown population, suffer from neglect.

For Oak Cliff development associate Cimajie Best, in west Dallas.
For Oak Cliff development associate Cimajie Best. Photograph: Allison V Smith/The Guardian

“We’ve been complaining about not having grocery stores. Yet North Oak Cliff has markets and grocery stores, and even plans for an HEB [supermarket] in the near future. We’ve been complaining about potholes the size of Saturn. We’ve been complaining about all these things for years and when they finally start to happen, there’s just this feeling that it’s not being done for us, and won’t reach our part of the neighborhood,” says Cimajie Best, a lifelong resident of South Oak Cliff.

The 28-year-old is a part-time development associate at For Oak Cliff, a community organization fighting oppression in the neighborhood.

The area, which is largely Black and Latino, produces more prisoners than any other zip code in the state of Texas, and has a median income of $28,000 and extremely low high school graduate rates . Nearby in North Oak Cliff, the median income is roughly $63,000 and multiple private and magnet schools nearby with soaring scores. Despite that, the city allocates its resources equally – rather than based on need. “When it comes time to do the budget and allocate funds, the 14 districts that comprise Dallas are often given the exact same resources. But expected to produce the same results when they aren’t starting off in the same place,” Best says.

“When people reference Oak Cliff, you really have to figure out what part they’re talking about, because while it’s all one neighborhood, it looks very different depending on what part you’re in,” Best says, noting that being from Oak Cliff used to be frowned upon.

According to Best, the neighborhood was originally referred to simply as “Oak Cliff” – North and South Oak Cliff are a new thing. “When many of the neighborhoods are renamed and none of the community members are aware, consulted or bought into the idea, it indicates gentrification will follow.”

Best’s neighborhood is still in the early stages of change, but it’s evident that gentrification is coming. While no businesses have closed or been replaced, she’s noticed smaller changes, like the groups of old men who would play cards and dominoes under the tree at the corner store nearest her grandmother’s house are gone.

“They’ve been pushed out due to the area being ‘cleaned up’.” she says. “Small things like that, which give a community character, are being traded in for the new and shiny.”

Best’s great-grandmother Lena Mae Evans, a longtime resident and homeowner in Oak Cliff – was one of the first Black residents to move in during white flight in the 1970s, after a lawsuit forced the school district to integrate. Now, a new deck park that is being built across I-35, has turned the area into an opportunity zone, and Evans has recently received numerous letters from investors interested in buying her home.

Although the market value of Evans’s house has jumped by more than $39,000 in a single year, she has no plans to sell. “This has been our community, our neighborhood for over 50 years,” Best says, noting that her great-grandmother bought the house with money she saved from cleaning the floors of white families in North Dallas, and that her great-grandparents were married in the living room.


Not everyone believes gentrification is a bad thing. Often gentrifiers bring more resources, shops and support from city officials to the neighborhood, people argue. But the residents of Oak Cliff say benefits such as better grocery stores and newly paved sidewalks are not equally shared.

“Not long ago, our councilperson offered a gourmet grocery store a million-dollar mix of city grants and low-interest loans to move into North Oak Cliff. The store had already signed a lease and was preparing to open, yet the councilperson said this was an effort to grow the workforce and address the food desert,” Shearer says, noting there are more than five grocery stores in a two-square-mile area in North Oak Cliff. In 2018, more than half of the 88 food deserts in Dallas county were identified in the city’s southern neighborhoods. When asked why these efforts have been delayed in South Oak Cliff, the council declined to comment.

“For those who can maintain, it’s great, right? Their property value goes up, and if they want to flip their house and make loads of money, then they can. But if is the big word, because if you can’t, then you’re displaced,” Best says.

Alex Baez agrees that gentrification doesn’t always save businesses, especially those that are small or owned by people of color. The 23-year-old has lived in Oak Cliff his entire life and helps manage his parents’ Thai and Vietnamese restaurants – Chan Thai and Pho88, which have been Bishop Arts staples for more than 20 years. Growing up, Baez’s family restaurant was just one of a few in the area, but nearly a decade ago, he noticed new restaurants starting to pop up and original apartment buildings being torn down. One of the properties was the complex Baez grew up in, but his family had moved near Kiest Park in South Oak Cliff after buying a home there.

“[Gentrification] is great for some small businesses, because it diversifies their clientele, but that’s as long as the shopping center sees those businesses as profitable,” Baez says.

Luckily, their family business survived the changes, but only until this fall. “My parents were not given an extension on their lease at the restaurant, so we are moving,” Baez says.

Alex Baez outside his parents’ restaurant Chan Thai.
Alex Baez outside his parents’ restaurant Chan Thai. Photograph: Allison V Smith/The Guardian

Baez’s family was told by the property owner that their restaurant didn’t fit with the future plans of the district and that they were going to replace it with urban development, even though the restaurant was a favorite of the locals and a leading business during the pandemic.

“I think they want something that’s a little bit more upscale. We could be that if we wanted to, but we don’t think that’s the way to represent an Oak Cliff business. Especially not one that’s been there longer than almost any other business there.”

Working for a family business, Baez can see some advantages to gentrification, but recognizes that it displaces a lot of his friends and family in the area. “You get new clients, clients that have become regulars, and the business has been steadily improving. But that doesn’t matter if after it all, we aren’t in the plans of the landlord’s future.”

Recently, a family-owned paleta shop that Best often visited as a child was priced out and forced to relocate to Arlington, just to be replaced by a chain popsicle shop.

“I think that’s just one of the telltale signs, right? When you see the same product being rendered by a chain,” Best says. “It just takes away from the character of the community, and that’s the saddest part about it to me.”


Brianna Holt

The GuardianTramp

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