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History Hits the Road

A merry troupe of historians set out one Friday to explore the history of the Cedars. This trip was part of an oral history project Dallas Heritage Village is conducting to accompany our new exhibit on the history of the neighborhood and the park. That will open in spring of 2013, and we have been busy collecting information and images. There is no better source for such information than Bennett Miller, a local developer and historian who has researched, owned and rehabilitated numerous buildings in the neighborhood.

Our happy history hunters are pictured here, left to right:

Steven Sielaff, of Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History. He is a graduate student in Baylor’s Museum Studies program and expert on how to interview people about history and get all the good information. On this trip, he was in charge of audio recording and keeping track of our location at each point using the maps on his smartphone.

Bennett Miller, our first interview subject and font of information. He authored a paper, “A Slow Walk Through Cedars History.” We hoped that by driving around the Cedars with him and encouraging him to talk about the places we saw, we could capture even more of his knowledge.

Evelyn Montgomery, me, whose main function on this trip was to drive the truck and make sure no one ran into us when we stopped to look at history.

Max Painter, my son and our volunteer videographer, who captured our journey in moving pictures.

We traveled around the museum and along the borders of the Cedars, particularly the Santa Fe tracks to the west and Grand Avenue to the south. The northern boundary disappeared long ago, under the highway which now cuts the neighborhood off from downtown.

We learned too much to mention here, but a couple of big ideas really stood out. The Cedars was once a thriving and important neighborhood, but so much of it is gone. You can find many concrete staircases the once lead to beautiful homes, and now serve as entry only to empty lots. Point to an abandoned lot in this neighborhood, and Bennett can tell you what type of home or thriving business used to be there. But as depressing as it is to think of what is missing, there is enough left to read the lives people used to live here, if you look hard and have an expert guide. This local history is not yet lost, and we can hang onto it.

That was what I hoped to learn from this tour, but I was pleasantly surprised by another lesson. More people live in this neighborhood today than I ever realized. While most of the houses are gone, good examples still remain. Some look pretty shabby, but some show the obvious efforts of their residents to keep them up and make them pleasant homes. More neighborhood residents live in loft apartments in salvaged historic structures. Southside on Lamar is the first to come to mind, with many more great properties around it. But people are dwelling in buildings throughout the neighborhood. The American Beauty Mill on Ervay Street now holds 80 lofts with garage parking, thanks to Bennett, who originally developed it.

Since I care a lot about historic structures and neighborhoods, the term “developer” sometimes sounds like a synonym for “Grinch.” You live and learn. Bennett Miller is not only a passionate historian, but a businessman who knows how to save buildings by aligning them with the needs of the market. He has been honored by the Cedars Neighborhood Association for his years of community building here, and I am thrilled to help save his knowledge for posterity.

We will be doing another interview with Bennett, and then with other people whose memories can inform us about the neighborhood and Old City Park. If anyone has memories they would like to share, of working in the many industries in the neighborhood, attending City Park School, living in a house that is still standing or long gone, participating in the neighborhood art revival or anything else, contact me at emontgomery@dallasheritagevillage.org

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