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Food pantry, block cleanups, study spot for students: An East Side bar proud to be community center too

Kent Oliver standing in front of the painted sign on the side of his bar which says, "Just BE NICE Dammit!." Oliver is wearing a blue t-shirt, pink shorts, flip flops and a thin necklace.
Josh Peck
Texas Public Radio
Kent Oliver standing in front of his motto, "Just BE NICE Dammit!" painted on the side of his bar.

Black and white photographs. Fiesta medals. An old pink jukebox. Eclectic artwork. They decorate the Dakota East Side Ice House, a restaurant and bar on the corner of Dakota St. and South Hackberry St., east of the Alamodome, where a convenience store once stood.

But its owner has made the bar more than just a place to get a drink and listen to live music — he’s made it part of the neighborhood.

Kent Oliver, the owner, says nearly all of the photographs on the walls are from the 1920s through the 1960s and come from within 10 blocks of the bar.

“I just think it’s important to remind people [of] what came before so that we can kind of go forward together,” he said.

Another reason for the old-timey feel of the bar is that Oliver wants people to forget that it hasn’t always been there, even though it only opened in 2018.

Oliver isn’t a native of the East Side neighborhood where his bar sits, but he’s lived there for 15 years after a 10 year stint both south of and in downtown.

“I’ve been here for 25 years, so this is home,” Oliver said. “For sure.”

A statuette wearing an orange shirt and brown pants holding a trumpet sits on a shelf on the wall of the Dakota East Side Ice House. Next to it are paintings and old fliers.
Josh Peck
Texas Public Radio
A statuette on the wall of the Dakota East Side Ice House.

Oliver said giving back to the community has always been a core mission of his bar, especially since the neighborhood has a history of neglect.

“There’s just a big disparity in how things are taken care of over here,” Oliver said. “And there has been for generations. There’s some attention focused over here now, of course, we have $600,000 houses now, so it’s a whole other ballgame. But just the lack of basic infrastructure — like curbs and sidewalks and streetlights and basic stuff — it’s pretty appalling.”

He said he helped clear out 30 wheelbarrows full of dirt off of nearby sidewalks and organized neighborhood block cleanups, which he hopes to start back up soon.

“We did that for two years,” Oliver said. “We do one block every month, slowly working our way down Hackberry Street. And it was a good response.”

More attention is being paid to the East Side since recent development has sent housing prices skyrocketing, Oliver explained. Homes now sell for upwards of $400,000 and $500,000 in a neighborhood where they used to regularly sell for under $100,000.

Oliver said the rising home prices have changed the makeup of the community, even in just the five years his bar has been open.

“People who are purchasing these larger houses are more affluent,” Oliver said. “Kind of have a different experience than the people who grew up here.”

The changes make him want to focus on doing even more for the community.

“Things are just changing really rapidly, and it’s just about trying to hold onto our character and, you know, our community that we have here intact already and not just lose it all along the way,” Oliver said. “I just feel like whatever I can do to help do my little part in that, I want to do.”

Oliver opens up his restaurant to nonprofits and other community events during the week, like a partnership with the Carver Community Arts Center.

During the height of the pandemic, he opened up the bar’s large outdoor space to the local elementary school, Frederick Douglass Elementary, which is a few blocks down South Hackberry St.

“During COVID again, they would do some outdoor classes out here [and] use our Wi-Fi,” Oliver said. “So they would come over and do programs for them for when they couldn’t go to school, and they didn’t have internet or anything at home.”

In a statement, Stephanie Ratliff, Douglass Elementary’s principal, said in a statement to TPR that Oliver has done much more than offer his patio space for students who needed Wi-Fi.

“We’ve also partnered for events like Farmers Market, and our annual Trunk and Treat neighborhood event,” Ratliff said. “He even hosts us for our Welcome Back lunch for staff. He’s been a STRONG community partner!”

Oliver made his bar a place for people to get their basic kitchen items at a time when many feared going to such a populated place as a grocery store.

“We started doing fruit boxes and a little store here, and like staples that people could get through the grocery store that I could get through the restaurant supply — beans and rice, eggs, milk and all those basic things [like] toilet paper,” Oliver said.

This last spring, Oliver and his team finally started something he’d been wanting to do for years: a free food pantry outside the bar.

“It’s been really great,” Oliver said. “People just come and drop off stuff all the time and take stuff all the time. You know, it’ll be full one day and the next day it’s gone. And the next day it’ll be half full. It kind of goes up and down without any involvement from us.”

Even still, Oliver explained he usually stocks it up each week to make sure there’s plenty to go around. He said the pantry gets used almost daily.

“In the summer, we saw a lot of kids ‘cause they were out for summer, so we tried to put more kid-friendly stuff in there,” Oliver said.

Despite the rising average income of the neighborhood, Oliver said there are many people who still need this kind of resource.

“Even though this neighborhood has changed so much, we still have a lot of people that need a lot of help,” Oliver said. “They’re a good part of our neighborhood; whether they have a home or don’t have a home, they’re still part of the neighborhood, so I just feel like we need to take care of them.”

While he feels uneasy about some of the reasons his neighborhood is getting more attention from the city, he appreciates Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, District 2’s current, progressive representative on city council who was elected in 2021.

“We have a great city councilman now, which has really been good for us, just because I feel like he represents the community really well, and I think that makes a big difference in the perception” of the East Side, Oliver said.

Like many businesses, making it through the pandemic has been difficult for Oliver. Without the support of the community and a federal loan, he wasn't sure he would have made it.

“Luckily we were open long enough that we qualified for assistance from the government, and that’s what got us through the whole thing — that and the support of patrons in the neighborhood,” Oliver said.

He was able to fulfill his dream of opening not just a bar, but a community space. He was grateful his neighbors embraced it with open arms.

“I think, you know, you’re doing something with pure heart, I think people know that you’re not just there trying to make a buck off people, you genuinely want to do some good in the neighborhood,” Oliver said. “And I’ve just kind of operated with that going forward and just hoping that people would understand that — and they have, and that’s been awesome.”

Painted in big red and blue letters on the side of the bar are the four words Oliver says are the motto for his bar, a motto he hoped can help bring together longtime residents and more recent neighbors: “Just BE NICE dammit.”

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