I grew up in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas during the 1950s.
Oak Lawn is one of Dallas’ oldest neighborhoods. Founded in 1850 as a separate town named Cedar Springs, it vied with Dallas to become the county seat. In 1903, developers and a railway company created Oak Lawn Park—renamed Lee Park in 1936—and built a streetcar line connecting it with Dallas. The park attracted visitors with its open-air dance pavilion, picnic grounds, and lake.
In 1910, Mexicans fleeing the Mexican Revolution moved into a neighborhood at the southern end of Oak Lawn that became Little Mexico. My parents took me there for Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the 1950s. Little Mexico has all but disappeared due to construction of the Dallas North Tollway and commercial development.
My parents met in Dallas during the Depression. My father was a struggling lawyer living at the downtown YMCA, and my mother was the daughter of a music merchant living in Highland Park.
My parents married in 1937. After the war, they bought a house in Oak Lawn overlooking Lee Park. I was born in 1948 and grew up in that house.
The map above shows my childhood world in the 1950s. It ran south from my grandparents’ house in Highland Park to my grandfather’s music store downtown.
I rode my bicycle to school on weekdays or took the city bus when it rained. On Saturdays, a friend and I would ride the bus downtown to see movies and visit my grandfather at his store.
Oak Lawn of the 1950s exemplified today’s New Urbanism, meaning “walkable blocks and streets; housing and shopping in close proximity; accessible public spaces; and a diversity of people, housing, and jobs” (Congress of New Urbanism). Add easy bicycling and reliable public transportation to that mix, and you have the Oak Lawn I experienced.
My classmates lived within walking distance of Stephen J. Hay Elementary School and within bicycling distance of my house (map above).
My father walked to his law office a block and a half from our house. My doctor’s office, a contemporary art museum, tennis courts, and live theater were also within walking distance of home (map below).
Housing in the neighborhood included single-family homes, apartments, subdivided mansions, garage apartments, two hotels, and a boarding house.
My parents and I shopped on Oak Lawn Ave. We bought groceries at Safeway, fresh-baked bread at Superior Bakery, Eskimo Pies at Cabell’s, gasoline at the Texaco station, and liquor at Marty’s.
I got haircuts, bought army men, read comic books, saw movies, checked out library books, and redeemed Green Stamps on Oak Lawn Ave.
Lee Park provided indoor and outdoor public spaces for the neighborhood.
The indoor space was Arlington Hall, which could be rented for wedding receptions and other occasions.
The park’s outdoor space was devoted to recreation. In the summer, the Dallas Park Dept. would install a portable shed full of arts and crafts materials and sports equipment. Two teenage counselors—one boy and one girl—led activities that included swimming lessons twice a day.
I experienced a diversity of people within 500 feet of our house. Mexican-Americans held wedding receptions in Arlington Hall; society women lunched at the Dallas Woman’s Club; the club’s African-American kitchen staff took deliveries in the alley beside our house; and gay men circled the park at night in cars.
By the early 1960s, the Lee Park area was in decline as an attractive place to live. Developers were tearing down old houses and replacing them with office buildings; hoodlums were beating up gay men in the park at night; and Boeing 707 jetliners were descending over our house every 20 minutes to land at Love Field. The jets’ noise drowned out all conversation. My parents began to think of selling the house and moving.
In 1962, I finished seventh grade at Stephen J. Hay and enrolled at St. Mark’s School of Texas in Preston Hollow.
The change of school influenced my parents’ decision to move. In 1963, we sold our house in Oak Lawn and moved to a ranch-style house across Preston Rd. from St. Mark’s.
Next: “The New Neighborhood”