Settlements to Districts - Tracing the Identities of Downtown Dallas Neighborhoods

Figure 1: Downtown Dallas Neighborhoods Evolution Tree

Over the last decade Downtown Dallas has diversified its offerings from a single use office district to include cultural, residential, entertainment opportunities 24/7 and form a “complete urban environment.”[i] In 2015, stakeholder group Downtown Dallas, Inc. began updating its original 2011 strategic plan, Downtown Dallas 360, to reflect downtown’s recent, rapid changes. This is not the first time that downtown has seen such an obvious shift in identity - the area we define as Downtown Dallas today has a rich history of neighborhoods with unique identities and wide range of uses. As Downtown continues to evolve and strengthen its neighborhoods, it is critical to understand the lineage of socio-cultural character, design, and urban fabric that has given the neighborhoods their unique identity. This post traces the narratives for four distinct evolutionary paths of Downtown Dallas neighborhood identities through history: A district that draws from its old buildings, West End follows an evolutionary path based on its physical identity; defined by their social and economic activities Farmers Market and Design District are known for their enterprise identity; the Cedars has followed a nominal identity as it has changed programs and boundary but retain its historic name; The Arts and Civic Districts imported programs from other parts of the city to create their imported identities. Together, these individual district identities create the overall identity of Downtown Dallas. Tracing the transformation of Downtown districts from Dallas’ early settlements to its older neighborhoods to today provide an important insight into the ways neighborhood identities form and how current efforts to shape Downtown Dallas might play out in the future.

Figure 2: Map showing Evolution of early settlements into first neighborhoods to current Downtown Dallas 

Figure 2: Map showing Evolution of early settlements into first neighborhoods to current Downtown Dallas 

The notion of what constitutes “Downtown” has been changing since Dallas was founded.[ii] Dallas town became the center of all activity when it was made the county seat and the courthouse was set up in the 1850s during early settlements.[iii] In the early 1900s, as the area around Main Street, between the courthouse and the Old Union Depot was growing into the Central Business District (CBD) of Dallas, immigrant settlements in and around Dallas town were growing into neighborhoods. Jobs and opportunities in Dallas CBD contributed to the growth of settlements into immigrant neighborhoods. In the 1950s, the highway loop was constructed around Downtown, beginning the rearrangement of neighborhoods around the highways. “The character of Dallas Downtown is changing – it is becoming less of a shopping area and more of a financial and commercial center – the master plan committee can see only greatly increased traffic there.”[iv] Downtown Dallas, and its neighborhoods, was advertised as a financial and commercial center, its boundaries defined by a highway loop that also distinguished it from neighborhoods outside the loop.[v]  Since 2010, Downtown has increasingly not been defined by the loop, with neighborhoods outside the loop like Uptown, Cedars and Deep Ellum also sometimes considered as part of Downtown. Downtown Dallas Inc. believes this by defining the area beyond the highway loop as “Greater Downtown Dallas.”[vi] Changing from being defined as a “financial & commercial Center” to a “complete urban environment”, commercial buildings have been converted to residential use, retail is coming back in neighborhoods like Farmer’s Market, and increasing efforts to provide affordable housing solutions are being proposed in and around downtown.[vii] While changing Downtown Dallas boundaries has greatly influenced neighborhoods evolution, the earliest method of identity formation was through settlement patterns of immigrants. We trace back some of Downtown Dallas districts to their earliest form and see how identities emerged and what evolutionary paths they took.

Many of Dallas’ current neighborhoods have unique identities that can be traced back to early settlement patterns of the 19th century.[viii] The Mexican immigrants settled north west of Pacific Avenue called Little Mexico. Little Mexico residents also called it “El Barrio”, which means “the neighborhood”. Patrician pioneers from the old South like Col. James and Elizabeth Thomas settled to the north of town where their son later advertised the Thomas-Colby District as having “high ground that is healthful, cooler and less muddy.”[ix] Newly emancipated African Americans like Allen R. Griggs, Sam Eakins and Lewis Moore, settled in both north and southeast beyond Dallas town,[x] establishing what would become Freedman’s Town and Deep Ellum. Starting from one acre of a slave cemetery, the population of Freedman’s Town grew into a mixed-use, middle-class African-American neighborhood. Jewish immigrants settled in the south, populating the Cedars neighborhood. At the time, the remote Cedars was advertised as a distant village “covered by magnificent forest of Oak and Red Cedar trees, rapidly giving way to houses, gardens and orchards”[xi] that Dallasites saw as wilderness. Becoming a destination for the European community, several Belgian, French and Swiss immigrants, followed by Germans, Italians, Austro-Hungarians and Greeks, settled in the town of East Dallas. Worker settlements like Stringtown and Frogtown sprung up near railroads and manufacturing centers.

While downtown’s original neighborhoods began the same way- transformed from rough immigrant settlements- today’s current neighborhoods have followed a variety of evolutionary paths. Here, we give examples of four types of identity formation: Physical Identity, Enterprise Identity, Nominal Identity and Imported Identity.

  • Physical Identity: West End Historic District

Figure 3: Map showing current West End Historic District and past neighborhoods

The West End Historic District draws heavily on its physicality, its historical building stock, for its identity, at the expense of its social history. The West End Historic District is known today as the site of John Neely Bryan’s homestead and for its early 20th century manufacturing warehouses that have been adapted into shops, museums, and increasingly, offices and apartments. While its physical form does recall its manufacturing history, its economic, social, and cultural history, such as its overlap with Little Mexico and Frogtown, are obscured.[xii] In the early 1900s, as Dallas transformed from an agrarian town to a bustling industrial city with cotton gins and flour mills, illicit businesses also emerged. The red light districts of Frogtown, located where The West End Historic District is, and nearby Boggy Bayou were given legal status for commercial sexual activities.[xiii] The area’s economy of small manufacturing and warehousing, such as the Old Brown Cracker and Candy Company, and its history as a red-light district, are absent in the neighborhood today, having given way to tourism. Instead, the area derives identity from its physicality: the building stock and rail lines that made its past possible. West End is a direct example of the way historic identity in newly defined neighborhoods is in most cases driven by physical preservation of old buildings.  


  • Enterprise Identity: Farmers Market & Design District

Figure 4: Map showing Farmers' MArket District with Pearl Street and Past Neighborhoods 

An industry, enterprise, or set of activities can be the keystone of a neighborhood identity. Unlike the West End, which chose its historic warehouse architecture to define its new identity, the Farmers Market District chose to shape its image around the market activities on Pearl Street.[xiv] The Farmers Market District was officially recognized in the early 1980s but its identity as a market traces back to the beginning of Dallas. In the early 1900s markets on Pearl Street were a central location for cotton trading from Union Depot, Deep Ellum and the Cedars. It was also the location of completely forgotten Film and Theater Row neighborhood in mid 1900s where “dozens of theater-related businesses concentrated in several blocks clustered around South Harwood Street.”[xv] Soon the area grew into a true market, where vegetables, chickens and turkeys, nuts, fruits, eggs and other products grown and produced all around Texas could be bought or sold. Goods grown in farms from neighboring villages like Garland and Mesquite were brought in on horse drawn wagons to the city through downtown Dallas via the market. Today the Farmers Market is its own District independent of the Cedars and Deep Ellum and has a farmers market that provides fresh produce, to local restaurants and residents. Though some old structures remain, the neighborhood is largely being rebuilt with new townhomes and apartments based on and integrated into the market identity.

Figure 5: Map showing formation of Design District and Riverfront District after Trinity River was shifted

Originally called the Trinity Industrial District, the Design District has a history as an enterprise district, although just which enterprise has changed over time. Businessmen who helped devise the Trinity River levees formed the Industrial Properties Association[xvi] to develop the land reclaimed from the floodplain, which they happened to own, singularly for industrial and warehouse purposes. Today’s Design District began in the 1940s as the Trinity Industrial District, where development of single-story warehouses proliferated before experiencing its first redefinition into the Design District, where high-end trade only showrooms and artists and creative builders commingled. In the early 2000s, the district was re-envisioned as a mixed residential and commercial neighborhood and advertised based on the arts and design reputation it had built as its enterprise identity.


  • Nominal Identity – The Cedars

Figure 6: Map showing shifting boundaries of The Cedars and creation of new Districts in Downtown Dallas

Downtown Dallas neighborhoods have also evolved where they retained their names but transformed their identity and boundaries. The Cedars and Deep Ellum were named as early as 1870s and continue to keep their names. The Cedars went through a number of transformations - beginning as a purely residential neighborhood, shifting to mixed industrial and residential, to only industrial, to now a mixed-use neighborhood. Remnants of each of these eras in the Cedars evolution can still be found, though none cohere into a physical identity. The Cedars first got its name when the Dallas City Directory of 1873[xvii] (McDonald 1978) advertised the distant village south of Dallas as “The Cedars”, due to the tall Cedar trees in the neighborhood. The earliest residences in Cedars extended into areas now part of the Civic Center, South Side and the Farmer's Market District. The Old City Park, which now forms the northern boundary of Cedars and is under the I-30 HOV built in 1954, was at one time the center of the neighborhood. The railroad rage in the early 1900s brought in commercial and manufacturing industries - like Hughes Brothers Cider and Candy Factory, and cotton compressing and mill based industries - to the Cedars, modifying the landuse of the Cedars from residential to include a mix of commercial and industries. As downtown expanded and the connection to suburbs in the North gained importance, the highway loop was constructed around Downtown. Most Cedars residents moved to the suburbs, changing the building typology of the Cedars’ to mostly industrial. The Cedars, however, still has strong name recognition, and today the name is associated with its continuing evolution, including housing, creative office spaces and arts studios.


  • Imported Identity – Civic Center and Dallas Arts District

Districts like Civic Center and Dallas Arts District have evolved through importing civic programs to create their identity- their identities haven’t so much evolved as been bestowed. Both were created in early 1980s as strategies to revitalize and rezone Downtown Dallas. Existing, functioning facilities like Dallas Public Library and City Hall were moved from other parts of downtown and redesigned in the Civic Center District to reinforce the identity of Civic Center. This shift meant a large amount of public funds being utilized in the creation of the identity “A so-called Civic Center covering an area of thirty acres means taking funds which should be used for needed public improvements… a resulting denial of civic betterment and improvement throughout the whole city.”[xviii]

The Dallas Arts District was created where neighborhoods like Little Mexico and Freedman’s Town were located before the highways were constructed. The Black Dance Theater, Cumberland Hill school and Booker school were originally located in the older neighborhoods. Well functioning art based facilities like the performance Center and Opera House located all around the city were (and still are being) brought in to the district to create the Arts identity of the District. “...City-wide arts institutions should in time relocate to a central location downtown… this will be an opportunity to make a distinctive addition to the image of Dallas…”[xix] Importing of buildings and programs has not only impacted the identity of the districts that they have been moved into, but also required reorganization and redefinition of the vacated spaces they earlier occupied. Places like Fair Park as still trying to revitalize those vacated art spaces.

Figure 7: Maps showing Civic Center District and Dallas Arts District formed by importing program from other parts of the city. 


These narratives of identity evolution reveal that a wide range of uses have existed in and around Downtown Dallas. They demonstrate that some characteristics of neighborhoods get prioritized over others as identities are formed. Discussing and sharing these narratives is important as they tell us why some characteristics are prioritized over others. These examples of prioritization show us how neighborhoods are defined through the people and activities inhabiting them or when they are branded to portray an image. Narratives show us that identity can help support and reinforce current functions of neighborhoods, it can convey ideology of the neighborhood attracting people and businesses with similar desires or marginalize activities that do not fit that identity image. Identities can sometimes distinguish neighborhoods from one another or preserve aspects of a certain time.  

Using its identity, we see that West End attracts businesses which want to utilize the open floor plans of the old warehouses whereas Design District brands itself as a live-work-play environment for industries and residences; and using concepts around food, farmers market has attracted residences and businesses looking for local food. While the Cedars has formed an identity completely independent of what its name means, the name still continues to form a part of the new image. With older neighborhoods like Little Mexico and Freedman Town that existed before Arts District, sometimes identity evolution ignores existing or historical stories that have continued to impact the neighborhoods character, creating a gap between the practiced verses portrayed identity thus limiting growth of neighborhoods. Physical, enterprise, nominal and imported are identities formation that evolved through this research for Downtown Dallas neighborhoods. Continuing to discuss narratives of identity evolution might show us similar examples in other parts of Dallas and neighborhoods of other cities as well. As evolutionary paths of identity are not only formed by Downtown Dallas but can be seen in other neighborhoods and other cities, such discussions can help neighborhood members understand how identities impact them.

While identities are malleable, we see that they can impact the direction of development in neighborhoods. They can either reinforce or be completely independent of the day-to-day functioning of existing neighborhoods. While we project forward and Downtown Dallas diversifies to become “a complete urban environment”,[xx] we as a Downtown community should understand the evolutionary paths of our neighborhood identities to see if they are reflective of the neighborhood and people that they represent or a projected image of branding. Knowing identity narratives will empower us to make our neighborhoods evolve stronger representational identities that emerge through their own stories and adds value to them.

What is the identity of your neighborhood and how was that identity created? How does your neighborhood identity reflect what your neighborhood represents?   


[i] MIG. "Downtown Dallas 360: A pathway to the future." Downtown Dallas Inc. April 13, 2011. (accessed February 25, 2015).

[ii] Grey Outlines in each column of Figure#1 show the evolving Downtown Dallas boundaries through each era.

[iii] Map 1 and 2 in Figure#2 shows the location of Dallas town between early settlements.

[iv] Quinn, Allen. "'Big Three' Dominating City's Woes." Dallas Morning News, june 26, 1957: 1.

[v] Column III in Image#1 and Map III in Figure#2 show extents of Downtown Dallas as Financial & Commercial Center within the Loop.

[vi] MIG. "Downtown Dallas 360: A pathway to the future." Downtown Dallas Inc. April 13, 2011. (accessed February 25, 2015).

[vii] James, Lary. Opinion: Dallas News. January 21, 2014. (accessed February 23, 2016).

[viii] Column I of Figure#1 and Map I of Figure#2 show examples of early settlements in and around Dallas town.

[ix] Hearst, Judy Smith. "State-Thomas: The Roots of Uptown 1868." In McKinney Avenue Trolleys, by Phillip E. Cobb, Judy Smith Hearst Jim Cumbie. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2011.

[x] Dallas town extents can be viewed in second map of Figure#2. East Dallas, Freedman’s Town and parts of Cedars fall outside town limits

[xi] McDonald, William Lindsey. Dallas Rediscovered : A Photographic Chronicle of Urban Expansion 1870-1925. Dallas: Tha Dallas Historical Society, 1978.

[xii] Figure#3 shows current West End District with older neighborhoods.

[xiii] Crowell, Gwinnetta Malone. "”Legalizing” Prostitution in Dallas from 1910-1913" Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas, 1998: 16-31.

[xiv] Figure#4 shows the location of current Farmers District with older neighborhoods like Film Row and Cedars and Pearl Street.

[xv] Rucker, Harry. "Film Row - From Vaudeville to the VCR" Edited by Michael Hazel. Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas (Dallas Heritage Village, Dallas Historical Society, The Sixth Floor museum of Dealy Plaza) 10, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 21-27.

[xvi] Figure#5 shows shift of Trinity River to form Design District and Riverfront District.

[xvii] McDonald, William Lindsey. Dallas Rediscovered : A Photographic Chronicle of Urban Expansion 1870-1925. Dallas: Tha Dallas Historical Society, 1978.

[xviii] South Side Association of Dallas . "Civic Center Myth a Costly Affair." Dallas Morning News, November 04, 1960.

[xix] Carr Lynch Associates. A Comprehensive Arts Facilities Plan for Dallas. City of Dallas, Dallas: City of Dallas, 1977, 2.

[xx] MIG. "Downtown Dallas 360: A pathway to the future." Downtown Dallas Inc. April 13, 2011. (accessed February 25, 2015).