By Harriet P. Gross
You’re almost too late to catch an important exhibit, “Uptown’s Pike Park: Little Jerusalem to Little Mexico, 100 Years of Settlement.” This joint venture of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League and our own Dallas Jewish Historical Society will wind up its stay at the Latino Cultural center Saturday.
Both Jews and Hispanics lived about a century ago in what’s now the pricey city area just north of downtown, when it was a haven for poor newcomers. The Jews came first; maybe their neighborhood would have been called “Little Israel” if there had been an Israel then. Its initial settlers were runaways from European pogroms and other hardships, hoping to make a new and better life for themselves. And so they did.
More affluent Jews — primarily those with backgrounds in Germany and Austria — built their more upscale housing on or near South Boulevard and Park Row. It’s worth another trip southward to see those large, well-preserved homes, now occupied mainly by African-American elites, just a few short blocks from Fair Park. But eventually, both richer and poorer Jews made their moves northward. That’s when Little Jerusalem became Little Mexico.
There isn’t much “stuff” to be seen in this exhibit. I liken it to Ginger Jacobs’ bus tours of Old Jewish Dallas, where you got to many spots that used to be important and was once there but isn’t any more. But you don’t have to rely solely on imagination to visualize “Frogtown” (pet name for the area in question because of its croaker-filled boggy creek) in this current exhibit; there are plenty of vintage sepia photographs with explanatory text, and videos of some folks who grew up there recalling those olden days.
There was a time of mixture as Mexicans began moving in, but it eventually became an all-Latino area. When the Dallas Morning News featured the exhibit, it quoted Joaquin Sanchez, now 69, telling of his parents buying a house from a Jewish family in 1943 for $1800 — “a lot of money then.” And it highlighted Charlie Villasana, 84 years old and still doing business as a wholesaler in what was once his family’s food store, a property that is now appraised at more than $641,000. His mother’s home, he said, sold in the 1990s for a million dollars.
That community was important to its residents back then, and for some, remains so even now. The late Anita Martinez was a local child who grew up to be the first Mexican-American elected to the Dallas City Council. On the Jewish side, the children and grandchildren of grocery store owner Herschel (later Harry) Andres continue to preserve and develop property in the area where he settled back in 1906.
Now here’s the kicker: Everyone at the opening reception was wearing a button proclaiming “Keep Pike Park Alive.” That’s the area where public housing dubbed “Little Mexico Village” still stands. And that park, object of the Latino community’s vigorous preservation initiative, is named for a Jew! He was Edgar Pike, a long-ago jeweler related by marriage to the Sanger Brothers retail family. Find more of this and other stories while you can at the Latino Cultural Center, 2600 Live Oak Street.
Also, a very important historic exhibit’s opening now awaits if you are traveling soon to central Europe: the Museum of the History of Polish Jews will unveil its long-anticipated core exhibition in Warsaw on three upcoming days: Oct. 26-28. That Sunday is being called “Jewish Community Day.” Donors will be recognized Monday and the official opening ceremony Tuesday will feature both Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski and Reuven Rivlin, president of Israel, plus a host of other Polish officials, representatives of many Jewish organizations, scholars and museum professionals from around the world. I hope this place, and its promise of educational importance, will long endure.