D Magazine (Dec 2011): Letter From Downtown Arlington
Downtown Arlington Isn’t Cool—Yet. But With new restaurants joining old dive bars, it’s trying.
By David Hopkins
Arlington has long been a speed bump, a city-between-cities, something to keep Dallas and Fort Worth a safe distance from each other. You use Arlington for its amusement parks and sporting events, maybe stopping to dine at a chain restaurant. So you probably don’t know that if you venture beyond what clings to the interstate highways, you will find that the downtown has been working hard to get your approval. New restaurants, new entertainment venues, a new vibe—it’s quite nice.
Arlington’s fate is to live in the shadow of its larger neighbors to the east and the west, the silent “A” in DFW. It’s a city still figuring out how to be a city. In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau reported a population of 7,692. As of the most recent census, Arlington is the 50th largest city in the United States, with 365,438 people.
Yet even the residents still mistakenly think of this city as a suburb. Remember during Super Bowl 2011 when Mayor Cluck had to remind the rest of the country that the big game was not taking place in Dallas? If Arlington is a major city, where is its skyline? And no, the dome of Cowboys Stadium doesn’t count as a skyline. Where is its downtown? While in a constant state of “boom” for 60 years, the downtown was neglected, still possessing the look of a small-town Main Street. It would be quaint, if it weren’t so pathetic.
In 2006, the city of Arlington, in cooperation with the University of Texas at Arlington, charged the Downtown Arlington Management Corporation to assist in the development of this area. All the jargon from the management corporation’s website (“nonprofit community development organization”; “forge alliances between property owners, business interests, residents, and the city of Arlington”; “improve and enhance the economic vitality and overall environment”) can be reduced to three words: make downtown cool. Ken Devero, the management corporation’s president and CEO, puts it this way: “We really need a focal point. Every city needs a heart. That’s why we’re working so hard to bring it back.”
The efforts have paid off. In the past two years, several restaurants opened in downtown Arlington: Maverick, Old School Pizza and Subs, Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, Flying Fish, the Grease Monkey, Mellow Mushroom, Babe’s Chicken Dinner House, and Twisted Root. Each of these establishments is a little unconventional, just slightly below the label of novelty restaurant. The best restaurants in downtown are more subtle. For instance, Potager is a real treasure. The small restaurant can barely serve 20 customers. There is no set menu and no set price. You pay what you want. The food is organic, locally grown, and often straight from the farm to the restaurant. In the category of less healthy options, J. Gilligan’s boasts its world-famous Irish nachos. According to the Travel Channel, J. Gilligan’s goes through 3,600 potatoes and 80 pounds of cheddar a week serving its signature entrée. Farther down the street, J.R. Bentley’s is a cozy pub with amazing hamburgers.
Central Arlington is a gold mine for hole-in-the-wall dive bars, especially along Division Street. In fact, every bar on Division is a dive. Take your pick. For name’s sake alone, I’m a fan of Why Not Club, which promises the “Coldest Drink in Town” on a red neon sign. Caves Lounge is for the hipsters but shares a parking lot with Sunshine Bar, which I prefer. At Sunshine Bar, there is no one to impress and no need. It is antihipster, and it has free foosball.
Dive bars are fun, but free foosball alone cannot make for an entertainment district. And, so, downtown has the Arlington Music Hall, and
the Arlington Music Hall has Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue. Johnnie High’s Revue is a country music variety show that runs every Saturday. Arlington should be proud of this live music venue, which has featured two famous women with the same name, albeit spelled differently, LeAnn Rimes and Lee Ann Womack (not to mention Kelly Clarkson). The building underwent a recent major renovation and is classier than ever.
If downtown Arlington succeeds, it will be due in part to the 33,000 college students next door. In this regard, downtown Arlington may be most analogous to downtown Austin, since both downtowns nuzzle up to a university. Every weekend in Austin, Sixth Street becomes a flood of burnt orange, as the college students roam the bars and clubs—all within a reasonable stumbling distance to their dorms. UTA wants to offer its students something similarly extracurricular in downtown Arlington. The College Park District, currently under construction, will be a 20-acre-plus public mixed-use entertainment and shopping area.
Near College Park District, Levitt Pavilion is the de facto center of downtown. Levitt Pavilion presents 50 free outdoor concerts every year. The bands are all family friendly and nothing too earth shattering, the kind of bands you usually see at the State Fair on a weekday. So instead of Bob Dylan, audiences can expect B.J. Thomas. All the same, a picnic blanket and some free live music can make for a better evening than feeding the jukebox at Why Not Club.
Beyond all the projects and openings that have converged upon downtown in the past year, aesthetic details—such as new sidewalks and landscaping—have improved the previously dreary Center Street and UTA Boulevard. One of the more eye-catching aesthetic details: a bizarre lion-headed fountain that keeps appearing on street corners and downtown signage. It is a nod to the mineral well that used to be at the intersection of Main and Center during the dirt-road days of Arlington. According to the historical marker in front of the central library, the water possessed magical healing properties. Why is it no longer around? To quote Joni Mitchell, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Literally. Arlington paved over a well with magic healing water in the name of better roads and ample parking. This moment in local history might epitomize Arlington’s woes. Pragmatism trumps the uncanny.
Ken Devero remains hopeful, saying, “We’ve got the land and opportunities for further development.” He adds that the greatest need is to get people to live and shop in this area. Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? “We’d like to see additional mixed-income housing, and we’d like to see additional retail.”
Housing is the missing piece of downtown revitalization. People will go to the bars and drink. They will eat and shop. But will they live there? Can Potager and Irish nachos and the sweet, melancholic music of B.J. Thomas convince people to take up permanent residence? I think so. Not because Arlington is cool. Arlington is incredibly earnest about wanting your love. And if I learned anything from junior high dances, it’s that earnestness is definitely not cool. Being detached, aloof, not giving a damn about anyone’s opinion—that’s cool. Dallas is cool. Fort Worth is cool. But detachment isn’t as trendy as it used to be. Downtown Arlington is quirky and endearing, and really wants your attention.
Arlington knows it can’t compete with Dallas or Fort Worth. But Arlington, the city that never wanted to be a city, the one with amusement parks and magic healing water, home to the Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, and more chain restaurants than I could count, somehow has appeal. And why not? At least, that’s the plan.