The tide is turning for a forgotten Oak Cliff neighborhood

Photo by Danny Fulgencio
Photo by Danny Fulgencio

When Anita Mills bought her house in the Dallas Land & Loan neighborhood for $54,000 in 1981, they called her an “urban pioneer.”

She remembers there was a laundromat at the corner of Tyler and Davis where a couple of stabbings happened. The coroner had to come with body bags to the corner of Davis and Van Buren, formerly a biker bar, after one particularly rough night.

“People thought we were crazy,” Mills says. “But it was the most house for the least money, and a lot of great people were moving here.”

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Now the old Dallas Land & Loan neighborhood is being rebranded as the Bishop Arts Neighborhood Association, and a few investors are banking on it to become the next desirable Oak Cliff neighborhood.

When I tell Anita Mills that someone is putting a house on the market in the 600 block of Eighth for almost $500,000, she goes silent. Then she starts giggling. “OK!” she says. “I’ve been waiting 30 years for that.”

The oldest houses in Dallas Land & Loan are in the American Queen Anne style and date to 1901. The neighborhood was named after the company that original Oak Cliff developers Thomas Marsalis and John Armstrong created in the 1890s to buy up land here and create subdivisions. The Bishop Arts District, now a conservation district, was carved out of the Dallas Land & Loan neighborhood.

As older residents began moving out of the neighborhood in the ’80s, investors bought up some of their homes for rental properties.

When the two sisters who lived at 836 W. Eighth moved to assisted living in the late ’80s, Mills bought their house, just across the street from hers, and renovated it.

She wound up losing money on the deal but says she has no regrets.

“I didn’t want someone to slap a coat of paint on it and be a slumlord,” she says.

Absentee landlords are still a problem for the 6-month-old Bishop Arts Neighborhood Association, generally bounded by Davis, Jefferson, Llewellyn and Tyler.

“As soon as I moved here, I was like, ‘This is the stepchild of Oak Cliff,’ ” says neighborhood association president Daniel Quintana. “It’s just kind of been forgotten, almost. People weren’t coming in and investing, and there were so many absentee landlords.”

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He and his partner had wanted to buy in Winnetka Heights or Kings Highway when they moved to Dallas from San Antonio about a year and a half ago, but they found something more affordable on Eighth at Van Buren.

He helped start the neighborhood association out of frustration after calling 911 and Dallas Animal Services several times in the first month he lived there.

“It was like, ‘I can’t believe people put up with this stuff,’ ” he says. “Stray animals, litter, speeding cars, loud music, random vagrants, shopping carts … it goes on and on.”

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The neighborhood association started a “yard of the month program” to promote beautification. They have monthly workdays to clean up litter and tidy up properties that have suffered neglect, including at least one of those apartment buildings with absentee landlords. And they volunteer to help older neighbors who aren’t strong enough to do their own yard work.

They have a crime watch, a Facebook page and a phone tree, and they do call 911.

“We don’t necessarily feel like we’re in a high-crime area … it just seems like there’s never been an organized group to come together and say, We’re not going to put up with this stuff,” Quintana says.

Major investment 

When I tell Anita Mills that someone is putting a house on the market in the 600 block of Eighth for almost $500,000, she goes silent. Then she starts giggling.

“OK!” she says. “I’ve been waiting 30 years for that.”

Mark Voisard compares the neighborhood to the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, where he renovated houses in the late ’70s.

He and business partner Stephen Glover have purchased three houses to renovate in the old Dallas Land & Loan neighborhood, and they’re not cutting corners.

Their house on Eighth has the original bois d’arc foundation. They salvaged an original oak cabinet in the dining room, and they pulled up and re-laid the original wood floors. But just about everything else has been redone. 

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The new home has thick walls, crown molding, a high-end kitchen, top-of-the-line heating and cooling, efficient windows and appliances, a new two-car garage and a 12-foot fence.

They built a staircase and converted the half-story into space for two bedrooms and a full bath.

It’s a gorgeous redo, and they want about $479,000 for it.

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That’s top of the market for Winnetka Heights, and this is not Winnetka Heights.

But Voisard and Glover believe in their new Montrose — in that central Houston neighborhood, the low end of the market now calls for about $750,000.

The partners are looking for more homes to buy in the new Bishop Arts Neighborhood Association.

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“The market is ready for this level,” Glover says.

Being so close to the Bishop Arts District means northern Dallasites and suburbanites are likely to drive through on their way to Bolsa or Tillman’s, Quintana says. He just wants it to live up to its potential.

“Every other neighborhood north of Jefferson has just seen a complete transformation, so we want to be a part of that as well,” he says.

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