Smooth Shaves, Rough Times

A Riverside barbershop, like its neighborhood, hangs on and hopes.
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Posted February 20, 2013 by JEFF PRINCE in News
Wise (left): “I don’t want to move.” Jeff PrinceWise (left): “I don’t want to move.” Jeff Prince

Race Street Barber Shop is in a time warp. Three barber chairs circa 1938 provide comfortable seats for shaggy visitors needing a clip. The long, narrow room is designed to give those waiting their turn good spots to sit, read newspapers, and chew the fat. The old standby topics — politics, weather, and crime — are regularly hashed out beneath the pressed-tin ceiling. Owner Linda Wise still uses hot lather and a straight razor.

The only thing missing is Floyd from Mayberry.

“This is a barbershop, not a salon — I’m not looking for frost in my hair,” said Michael, a regular customer waiting for a haircut on a recent afternoon. He cracked up the handful of men waiting for a trim.

Wise’s was among the first new businesses to open on the East Side’s Race Street after redevelopment began in the mid-2000s. Back then two Fort Worth developers envisioned an Eastside version of Magnolia Avenue or the West 7th Street entertainment district. They began what promised to be a transformation of the street from dicey and run-down to Miami-influenced cool.

Wise was at the head of the pack. After years of cutting hair at West 7th Street Barber Shop, she became a first-time business owner on Race Street. Many of her customers followed her to the new location and fell in love with her cozy shop and the reinvigorated streetscape.

“I introduced them to this spot,” Wise said proudly.

Fort Worth Weekly gave her barbershop “Best Of” awards in 2010 and 2011.

But being a pioneer has its hurdles, and Wise has been jumping over a lot of them lately.

The last few decades haven’t been kind to the area, with drug dealers, dingy apartments, and dive bars taking over for a generation or two. But the area was long considered a hidden gem, with interesting architecture, old-growth trees, a scenic bluff, and close proximity to downtown.

A redevelopment plan for the Race Street area that looked rosy during the economic boom of the mid-2000s wilted as a recession took hold in 2007. Fuzzy’s Taco Shop settled in and provided a welcome spot for locals to meet for a meal. But nearby homeowners complained to city officials about loud noises coming from live music venues and a motorcycle shop. Others groused about the architecture’s Miami-influenced ethnic style with pastel colors and ornate tile and ironwork.

Hurdles remain. Some of the original developers have sold out or gone bust. And city officials aren’t yet turning loose of nearly $740,000 set aside to pay for streetscape improvements. But a new wave of developers and business owners is attacking those problems, and they remain confident that Race Street is on track to become an arts district reminiscent of Magnolia’s funky but family-friendly vibe.

The economy is still wheezing, of course. Banks aren’t handing out loans as they once did. Foreclosed properties are hard to fill, and empty buildings can cause problems in a business district.

Like the fires.

The buildings on both sides of Wise’s barbershop have caught fire in the past few months, probably due to electrical problems. Now both are boarded up, soot-blackened, and looking sorry. The faint odor of smoke still permeates her shop.

“I told the bank [that owns the burned properties], but they haven’t done much,” she said.

She had to vacate her building for several weeks to repair water and smoke damages. “We had to start all over from ground zero on getting my city permits,” she said.

Thieves even stole her vintage barber pole.

Still, she perseveres.

“I’d like to stay here,” she said. “It’s cozy and convenient.”

A few days ago, a bank official said he would send a contractor out to clean up one of the burned buildings, she said.

“That’s a little good news,” she said. “I don’t want to move.”

Her loyalty to Race Street bodes well for the area’s prospects. The redevelopment project’s earliest anchors — Fuzzy’s and Dino’s Bar & Grill — have also hung tough. Mamma Mia Italian Grill & Pizza became a popular tenant in the historic building at the Six Points intersection, where Riverside Drive and Belknap and Race streets meet. Vacant storefronts are slowly being leased again. The recession has softened. Customers are spending more freely these days.

“We’re 100 percent occupied, and we have a waiting list,” said Jennifer Burks, property manager at the recently built Race Street Lofts.

Wise cut hair for years at the West 7th  Street Barber Shop, earning a loyal cadre of clients. When she heard about plans to redevelop Race Street, she jumped in with both feet. Race Street runs from Oakhurst Scenic Drive east to Six Points.

Wise decided to open an old-time barbershop, a gathering place where men could go to cuss the weather, trade jokes, and get a haircut. A place where a man can get a hot- lather shave with a straight razor. A place where local musicians play country songs on guitar and washtub bass during Friday afternoon hootenannies.

“The neighborhood needed that,” she said. “There wasn’t much in the way of a neighborhood barbershop; it was mostly salons.”

She’d never owned and operated her own business but always figured she had the ambition and energy (and client list) to make it work. She’s lived for years in the Riverside neighborhood and knows plenty of people.

“In the beginning I thought everybody would just flock over here because there wasn’t a nice barbershop in this area,” she said.

They didn’t. Not at first.

Wise was a customer service representative at Intel for years before she became a barber, and that early training came in handy. Her customers appreciate her joyful greetings, easy conversation, and willingness to please — all for a $16 haircut.

Michael brought along his dog, Sadie, who sat in his lap while he waited his turn. Bill Scott took a seat in Wise’s chair and looked out the window onto Race Street. Vacant buildings seem as plentiful as occupied ones.

“I just don’t understand why it hasn’t exploded over here,” Scott said. “There are so many neat little buildings. It’s affordable and convenient as heck.”

Scott opened a construction business in 2008 not far from Wise’s shop, thinking Race Street was going to be the shizz.

“It seemed like it was poised to take off,” he said.

Scott sympathizes with Wise for her hardships, particularly the fires and thefts. And he admires her for sticking to it.

“It’s a sign of strength,” he said.

“And loyal customers,” Wise added.


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