Bud Kennedy

Once all ‘bad bars and derelicts,’ Magnolia Avenue makes ‘Great Places in America’

‘Why Pie?’ serves up a heaping slice of Fort Worth flavor

The short film, which was honored at this year's Lone Star Film Festival, features the Paris Coffee Shop and its legendary pies.
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The short film, which was honored at this year's Lone Star Film Festival, features the Paris Coffee Shop and its legendary pies.

Forty years after the last movie theater closed and the Star-Telegram described the city’s south side as a “decayed … skid row,” West Magnolia Avenue is an American prize-winner.

The 16-block-long backbone of Fort Worth’s medical district was added Tuesday to the list of “Great Streets in America,” part of an updated list of “Great Places in America” as named by the Washington, D.C.-based American Planning Association.

With a jump-start of federal money, developers teamed with Fairmount neighborhood residents to revitalize a street of decaying shops and dive bars into an arts-and-cafes district where patrons can walk or bicycle to see blown-glass creations or dine on craft barbecue.

“Nobody used to want to come over here — it was all bad bars and derelicts,” said Mike Smith, 75, the unofficial “mayor of Magnolia” as owner of the 92-year-old Paris Coffee Shop plate-lunch cafe, an anchor at Magnolia Avenue and Hemphill Street.

In the 1970s, when the Tivoli Theater next door was demolished, Magnolia still had tough bars like the Banjo Lounge or the Zodiac Club and an adult bookstore, Jerry’s Art Flick.

“Once we got all that out,” Smith said, “people realized this was a nice area close to town.”

Travis Heim, 29, pitmaster and co-founder of state-ranked Heim Barbecue, said Magnolia is a success because “it’s a weird mix.”

“You get this cool mix of young and old people — you see police, sitting next to grungy guys who look like they just woke up, next to nurses, next to people of all different races — that’s what’s cool.”

Investor David Motheral, 67, remembers the time in 1980 when he wanted to buy and remodel a building on Magnolia.

The bank turned him down.

“A few days later they called back,” he said.

The late Mayor Bob Bolen took an interest because two of the district’s anchor hospitals were planning to close and move.

“He said he’d get a $6 million grant to fix up the streetscape,” Motheral said.

“If it weren’t for Bob Bolen, that whole area would be a wasteland.”

That was about when the Star-Telegram published a six-part series on the south side titled “Search for Identity.” The Sunday headline called the neighborhood: “Down but not out.”

A business association grew into today’s Near Southside Inc.

On Tuesday, Magnolia completed its comeback.

It was added to the “Great Streets” list along with streets in Fairbanks, Alaska; Ypsilanti, Michigan; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia.

Two other Dallas-Fort Worth sites have been named “Great Places” in past years: Fair Park in Dallas and old downtown Plano.

In the announcement, American Planning Association President Cynthia Bowen said: “Because of Fort Worth’s community-wide engagement, West Magnolia Avenue is a national example of how a community can work together to create access and opportunity for all.”

Melt Ice Creams founder Kari Crowe Seher said it more simply.

“What makes Magnolia a great place is how hyperlocal it is,” she said.

“There’s no big-box chains. It’s all local community — people doing local events together like Arts Goggle, Friday on the Green, Open Streets.”

It took great plans to make Magnolia a “Great Place.”

Bud Kennedy 817-390-7538 @BudKennedy

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