Jefferson Blvd: The immigrants who built the block

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Friends and customers chat inside Mayra Orozco’s quinceañera shop on Jefferson. Orozco is one of many Mexican immigrants who have found the American dream of business ownership on the boulevard. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Friends and customers chat inside Mayra Orozco’s quinceañera shop on Jefferson. Orozco is one of many Mexican immigrants who have found the American dream of business ownership on the boulevard. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Immigrants made Jefferson Boulevard what it is today

The wide sidewalks of Jefferson Boulevard filled with shoppers, most of them white and middle class, everyday for decades.

It was the commercial center of Oak Cliff with department stores, banks, jewelers and specialty shops, but commerce began to fade after the 1960s.

“In the 1970s and ’80s, Oak Cliff was a dying community,” says Domingo Garcia, an Oak Cliff lawyer, activist and former politician. “You had white flight, businesses closing down.”

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Around the same time, development began pushing out residents of Little Mexico, the former Dallas neighborhood that occupied areas now identified as Uptown, the Dallas Arts District and the West End. Families from Little Mexico started moving to West Dallas and Oak Cliff.

Here they found affordable housing and cut-rate prices on commercial real estate, ripe for enterprise.

Latinos kept Jefferson Boulevard, as well as other areas of Oak Cliff, afloat through the leaner decades, Garcia says.

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Businesses that moved from the Little Mexico area to Jefferson include Lizcano Bridal Shop, one of the first quinceañera boutiques in Dallas. The boulevard’s once-empty storefront soon bloomed with tulle and lace, eventually becoming a regional destination for the wedding and quinceañera industry.

Mesa is an immigrant-owned business on Jefferson that answers the American middle class craving for upscale dining. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Mesa is an immigrant-owned business on Jefferson that answers the American middle class craving for upscale dining. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Businesses that stayed on Jefferson through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, including Charco Broiler Steak House and Top Ten Records, made it because of their loyal Mexican customers.

“We wouldn’t be here without that support,” says Nick Cordova, whose family has owned Charco Broiler since 1964.

A few immigrants, from Mexico and El Salvador, launched restaurant empires in the neighborhood. Laura and Oscar Sanchez opened La Calle Doce in 1981 and then its sibling, El Ranchito on Jefferson, a few years later. Meanwhile Gloria and Jose Fuentes had opened the immediately successful Gloria’s on West Davis at Llewellyn.

“I’d bet you 75 percent of the businesses on Jefferson are owned by immigrants,” Garcia says. “Whether it’s a tire shop or a barber shop, you’re going to see many immigrant-owned businesses all over Oak Cliff.”

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The Reyes family, which owns Mesa restaurant, arrived in Dallas from Mexico in the late ’90s. Olga and Raul Reyes were hairstylists who opened a beauty shop in the 100 block of West Jefferson, across the street from where Mesa is now, around 1997. Olga was a great cook; they were both extremely hard workers, so they decided to open a restaurant together.

They opened La Palapa Veracruzana at 118 W. Jefferson around 2008. The restaurant, which offered the authentic seafood dishes from their hometown, was steered toward the Latino community and did well.

But then Dallas repealed laws that kept Oak Cliff dry and the Reyeses noticed the success of high-end dining spots such as Bolsa and Boulevardier. They knew they could offer a posh dining experience as well.

Just as Anglo business owners began catering to Latino customers on Jefferson in the ’80s, the Reyeses decided to try and cater to a resurging market of Anglo customers when they closed La Palapa and reopened as Mesa in 2011.

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“We considered it a mistake in the beginning because the area wasn’t really calling for a restaurant like that in this part of Oak Cliff,” says Raul Reyes Jr.

Mesa went through some lean times in the beginning, but business has picked up over the past few years, Reyes says.

Crime in the 100 block has decreased, he says. The Dallas Police Department patrols more frequently and responds more quickly to calls.

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Revitalization of the nearby Texas Theatre buoyed Mesa from the beginning. And since Jim Lake Cos. bought Jefferson Tower, bringing fresh businesses and residents to the boulevard, Mesa’s business remains steady.

“In the long run it turned into a great thing to do, so now with the changes in the neighborhood, it’s going to fit perfectly,” Reyes says.

This month, the Reyes family, which owns its building on Jefferson, opens a second Mesa in Grapevine.

The demographics and real estate values on Jefferson Boulevard are changing and some businesses will thrive because of that. There will be less crime and fewer absentee landlords. But inevitably, it will cause some loss as well.

“All the changes that are coming, it’s definitely going to change Jefferson,” Reyes says. “And a lot of the businesses who can’t afford to pay the rent are going to have to go elsewhere.”

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