Creative types are finding a haven in Corsicana, but can its charm survive?

Part one of a series that originally ran in The Dallas Morning News on June 12, 2016.

An artist from southwestern England walks into an all-American diner in Corsicana.

He sits at a table near the back with his guide, a 28-year-old Dallas artist named Kyle Hobratschk. Eva makes prints with a vintage ink plotter and is in town to study American patterns.

The place is called Across the Street Diner, because the owner, Jimmy Hale, bought the building after opening a salon across the street. For years, it was the oldest continuously operating soda fountain west of the Mississippi, Hobratschk says.

“Soda fountain?” Eva asks.

This is his first visit to the U.S., and so far he’s only had a brief visit to Dallas and two weeks in Corsicana. He has lots to learn about Americana, and where better than a retro diner dripping with nostalgia and greasy patty melts?

Eva is one of about two dozen national and international artists who have passed through Corsicana in the last few months as part of 100W, Hobratschk’s new residency program. From Iceland and Scotland, Chicago and Baltimore, they’ve come to this conservative corner of old-time Texas to get away from the big city, slow down and create art.

What they find here, just 50 minutes from bustling Dallas, is a place with plenty of space and few interruptions. It started with a handful of Dallas artists and writers coming to visit but has turned into a full-blown happening here in Corsicana, and it’s got some people asking — and only partly in jest: Is this becoming the new Marfa?

“When we were trying to do something, everybody agreed it starts with artists,” said Hale, who helped build up downtown’s economic core. “That’s just part of the evolution of Corsicana.”

Corsicana was once a dusty downtown with empty storefronts, but is now coming to life again with new and revitalized work spaces. Leave the historic downtown district and there’s still widespread poverty. Newcomers are still learning to coexist with lifelong residents. Slowly but surely, though, Corsicana is becoming — to everyone’s surprise — cool.

Clearing the weeds

On the ground floor of one of Hale’s buildings downtown are two prints from historic Corsicana. One shows a rig spouting thick black oil in the middle of a cotton field. It shows where Corsicana has been.

Hale leans in close to point out the workers picking cotton in the hot Southern sun. He’s been there, too. He was born a sharecropper in northern Mississippi, and his job as a child was to carry buckets of water to the middle of the field for break time.

One day, when looking out over the cotton crop, he pointed out to another worker how picturesque it all was. The rolling fields, the black dirt punctuated with green crop and tufts of white. Those will all become beautiful shirts one day, he said.

His friend, however, pointed to a nearby field full of weeds they had to clear. What would be beautiful, he said, is if someone could discover a way to make shirts from those weeds instead, so they wouldn’t have to work.

“I never looked at anything the same after that,” Hale said. “That has changed how I see the world.”

Just a few years ago, downtown Corsicana was like that field of weeds. “You could fire a cannon down the street and not hit anybody,” Hale said.

The other print on the ground floor of Hale’s newly remodeled building is a panoramic shot of downtown Corsicana in 1923. Every parking spot is filled. The sidewalks are full of shoppers, the streets bustling with traffic. It shows what Corsicana could be again.

Hale and a few other investors have begun to buy up buildings and refurbish them into desirable work and retail space. There’s Hale’s multiple office buildings, salon and Across the Street Diner and Bistro. There’s Mita’s Coffee Lab, a cafe straight out of Brooklyn with reclaimed wood and filament-bulb lighting. And there’s the artists, congregating on the north end of downtown in a new smattering of studio spaces.

Sara Beth Wilson, tourism and Main Street director for the city, said she regularly gets calls about people wanting to buy real estate downtown, but lately she’s had to turn them away. Nothing is available.

“The [open] buildings down here are few and far between,” Wilson said. “In the past two years I’ve been here, it’s grown tremendously.”

Art in odd places

Outside just about every storefront downtown sits a yellow A-frame sign with a black chalkboard and white lettering: “SHOP CORSICANA.” Some advertise daily specials, others sit unused.

Hobratschk and one of his friends from Dallas made the signs for business owners when they first moved to Corsicana. The project allowed the artists to meet their new neighbors and get to know the downtown community, Hobratschk said.

“We’re not invasive,” he said. “Going to the grocery is easy, going to the post office is easy, so we can just concentrate on our work.”

Hobratschk’s main project in town — and his largest investment in the city’s future — is 100W, an artist- and writer-residency program that conveniently sits at 100 W. Third Ave. The program operates out of the old Independent Order of Odd Fellows building.

“I was super intimidated by it, I still am. This place is a monster,” Hobratschk said. “It already has and will continue to inform my work.”

The cavernous building is mostly quiet during the day. Artists and writers move in and out, usually spending only about six weeks in Corsicana, making Pinto Bean, Hobratschk’s feisty Chihuahua, the building’s longest resident.

Across the street is the studio of Nancy Rebal and her husband, David Searcy, an artist-and-writer pair from Dallas. Before Hobratschk opened the IOOF building to short-term artists, Rebal rented the third floor.

When she first visited the city years ago, Rebal hated it. Too Podunk, too rural, not enough was happening. But today, she says, she finds Corsicana a perfect getaway from the metropolitan tempo of Dallas.

Yet part of Corsicana’s appeal for most of the creative people moving there is its proximity to the big city. Only about 50 minutes down I-45, international artists are able to easily commute to downtown to show their work in Dallas galleries.

“This is one NPR program away from the city,” Rebal said. “I can stay four or five days before I have to go back.”

The changes in Corsicana come as a double-edged sword, however. Everyone here knows that they need attention and money to outgrow the traditional, tired facade of small-town Texas. But change the city too much and it will lose its charm.

“We’re here just to be here and make things, not to offend anybody or confront anybody,” Rebal said. “That’s something I don’t want to have happen to Corsicana is to have Dallas imposed on it.”

Constant change

Corsicana owes its name to José Antonio Navarro, Tejano leader of the Texas Revolution. He was behind Navarro County, which was created by the newly admitted state’s Legislature in 1846. Its county seat was established two years later, with a name that Navarro suggested to honor his father’s homeland of Corsica.

Wolf Brand Chili started here in the 1890s, when Lyman T. Davis sold bowls for 5 cents apiece out of the back of a wagon on the corner where Across the Street Diner sits. A German immigrant began making fruitcakes around the same time and founded Collin Street Bakery — today nationally famous, and the subject of a 2015 Texas Monthly story following an embezzlement scandal at the bakery.

In 1894, a company drilling artesian wells accidentally struck oil. It was the first large-scale oil deposit discovered west of the Mississippi. By 1898, when Hobratschk’s IOOF building was built, the Corsicana oil field had 287 wells producing 544,620 barrels annually.

The boom brought overwhelming prosperity to the town. Electric streetlights and streetcars were installed. The Texas Electric Railroad added hourly service to Dallas in 1913. Huge homes were built. Saloons and other businesses prospered.

But the old guard still tried to hold on to the sleepy-town image as best as possible. In 1919, Magnolia Petroleum Co. wanted to build two 29-story towers in downtown Corsicana with a skybridge connection. City leaders said no. Downtown Dallas would later say yes.

Oil did protect Corsicana from the worst effects of the Great Depression, but the city began to dry up in the 1960s. Bethlehem Steel left town when the city denied the company tax breaks, and the middle class left with it. Population has steadily grown, but the downtown core wasted away for decades.

Downtown Corsicana consists of a main business district along Beaton Street, where 100W and the other new businesses have begun to pop up on brick-lined streets. Around every corner is an antique shop and a church.

The city is by no means idyllic. Last year, Corsicana was the scene of large protests against mass deportation arrests, and the town remains radically segregated by race and income. Drive into town from the east and you’ll see run-down trailers and black residents. Drive west of downtown and you’ll see two- and three-story plantation-style homes with Mercedes in the driveway in the mostly white neighborhood.

Even the newcomers have to face unpleasant inequity. Hobratschk said that once, while jogging in the black neighborhood near downtown, people shouted at him to “remember what side of the tracks you’re on.”

The IOOF building that is now used to house artists was briefly a Ku Klux Klan meeting space, Hobratschk said, and the group’s banners were still in the building when he bought it in 2012.

“You don’t go where things are fine, you go where you can make things better,” Rebal said. “I really think there’s redemption.”

 ‘Father Corsicana’

One of the first nights Edmund Eva, the Englishman, stayed in Corsicana, Hobratschk took the 100W artists to the home of one of their biggest supporters, Joe Brooks. The menu: chicken with green beans, potato salad and homemade peach cobbler.

“Peach cobbler?” Eva asked. “I’ve only heard of it on television.”

Hobratschk calls Brooks “Father Corsicana.” In the 1970s, he was involved with the first efforts to boost arts in the city. He founded the Navarro Council for the Arts and helped raise money to refurbish The Palace, a 1921 vaudeville theater that brings in B-list country and Opry acts today.

Brooks just celebrated his 81st birthday, and the retired school principal now splits his time between Corsicana and Santa Fe. He regularly hosts dinners for the 100W guests and others in town, where he’s able to foster connections between locals and the visiting artists.

He takes an active role in supporting the newcomers at 100W, even as the arts council hasn’t embraced Hobratschk and company in the same way. The arts council is more focused on arts education in Navarro County schools than producing or displaying art these days, Brooks said.

“It makes no sense,” he said. “I’m an old educator, so I get doing it for the kids, but there are adults with artistic talent that need to be nurtured.”

In his study at home, Brooks keeps a caricature someone made of him back when he was helping start the arts council. The character is pulling a wagon full of statues and art and historic buildings that Brooks tried to save. He directed plays, made costumes, designed set pieces, raised money, planned parks, organized, inspired and kept pushing Corsicana forward.

“It was really an outreach in those early days. I think it’s sad we don’t do that now,” Brooks said. “The marriage is available; people just have to look beyond the immediate.”

That’s not to say the new artists have ignored local art, however. One of the 100W artists worked with a local theater group to paint backdrops for their performances. David Searcy and Nancy Rebal have worked with a local undiscovered artist, Wayne Hall, to show his work and profile him in The Paris Review.

“A seed that’s planted but not nurtured is not going to blossom,” Brooks said. “That’s the kind of commitment you want. You’re not doing it for the money. You’re doing it for growth, not personal reward.”

Yes, things are changing in Corsicana. Hollywood movie crews are coming in to capture its bucolic charm. For every dusty antique store that still sits on Beaton Street, there’s a storefront under construction for a new business or studio moving in. Brooks calls it a “renaissance.”

That makes people like Jimmy Hale excited, but nervous. Standing on a corner downtown, just a block from his diner and bistro, he looks around. Out-of-towners are walking the street, browsing from shop to shop. A steady stream of vehicles passes down Beaton; all kinds of people are coming and going.

It’s starting to look like that 1923 panorama again.

“My biggest fear is we’re going to have so many people in five to 10 years that it won’t be a sleepy old town anymore,” he said, his voice starting to shake. “It’s like I’m killing the thing I love.”

Hale turns suddenly and crosses the street, making sure to look both ways for the oncoming traffic moving down Beaton.