History of Oak Cliff, Texas

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Short introduction

Oak Cliff is a district in Dallas, Texas. It had been once a separate township in Dallas County, bordered by Colorado Boulevard, Cliff Street and Thirteenth Street. The name Oak Cliff originated from its proliferation of oak trees and the bluff overlooking the Trinity River. Oak Cliff is just nearby downtown Dallas.

Early history: Oak Cliff as the area for the elite

The earliest recorded history of Oak Cliff dates back to 1845, when first settlers William H. Hord and his family arrived on the west bank of the Trinity River. On December 15, 1886 developers John S. Armstrong and Thomas L. Marsalis bought a farm in that same location of the Trinity River. The farm had been subdivided after, and a new town had been planned. Armstrong and Marsalis were also the ones who named the area as Oak Cliff.

Armstrong and Marsalis began to develop the land as an elite residential area, which became successful. But following a rift between the partners, they split the land, with Marsalis securing total control of Oak Cliff and Armstrong creating his own elite area which came to be known today as Highland Park. Marsalis continued to develop the area by establishing the Oak Cliff Elevated Railway which linked to his new land development. Business had been thriving and residential areas had also been in expansion. The current Dallas Zoo in Marsalis Park was originally developed by Marsalis to promote Oak Cliff as a haven for the moneyed tourists and vacationers.

The new face of Oak Cliff: its annexation into Dallas

However, because of the economic depression in 1893, several establishments closed and demand for the vacation resorts dwindled. The town’s stagnating economic activity forced Marsalis to declare bankruptcy.

Oak Cliff was incorporated in 1890, and by that same year the population stood at 2,470. It opened its first post office also in that same year which operated until 1896. Because of the economic depression, Oak Cliff, by then, was no longer the elite neighborhood it once had been; some of the hotels were now converted into new establishments and institutions, such as the Park Hotel which was turned into Oak Cliff College for Young Ladies. The lands were then subdivided and sold to the middle and working classes who settled permanently in the area. In 1902 an interurban electric streetcar connected Dallas and Fort Worth by way of Oak Cliff, and had been in operation until in the late 1930s.

In 1903 Oak Cliff was annexed into Dallas, after numerous unsuccessful attempts since 1900. The annexation was finally recognized mainly due to the community’s continually languishing economy that forced the citizens to acquiesce to Dallas. The annexation effectively ended Oak Cliff’s township status.

Connection to the Kennedy assasination

Oak Cliff has some infamous historical connection. On November 22, 1963, after President John F. Kennedy had been fatally shot, his alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald ran by crossing the Trinity River into Oak Cliff. There, Oswald entered the Texas Theater without paying for a ticket, apparently to avoid police. The cinema’s assistant manager informed the police that a man entered the theater without paying for the ticket. The theater has been mentioned in several history books and seen in the movies that deal with the Kennedy assassination (including the Oliver Stone-directed film JFK). Today the Texas Theater is still in its usual daily operation, hosting a mix of films and special live events.

Oak Cliff today

Today Oak Cliff has retained much of its identity as a separate community within Dallas. The district’s population stands at 290,365. Aside from schools, colleges and universities, Oak Cliff is also home to Bishop Arts District, a small district which boasts a variety of shops, eclectic restaurants and recreational/entertainment areas such as the Kessler Theater, and of course the Texas Theater.

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