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Commentary: If the Ridglea Theater goes, here's where to point the finger

Is the Ridglea worth saving?
Posted 11:59am on Wednesday, Jun. 30, 2010

The Ridglea Theater is living on borrowed time, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

The latest sad twist in the saga of the Ridglea -- a one-time movie theater turned music venue that now looks as if it will be turned into a bank -- is the culmination of far too much public apathy that's gone on for far too long. More people are talking about the 60-year-old building now than in the entire three years I've lived in Fort Worth, but it has taken the threat of demolition to spur these conversations.

Nothing short of a miracle will stop interested buyer Bank of America from proceeding with its plans to purchase the space, gut it and open a new branch in an area already saturated with financial institutions. Although the current tenants, Ridglea Theater booking agents Wesley Hathaway and Richard Van Zandt, have a year left on their lease, they're certain the end is near.

How could we have allowed this to happen? And where is the widespread outrage? Even now, after a "Save the Ridglea" Facebook page amassed more than 5,000 members in less than a week and District 3 City Councilman "Zim" Zimmerman's office has reportedly been inundated with calls and e-mails, I tend to think that people don't entirely realize what's at stake. When the Ridglea falls, Fort Worth will lose a piece of its soul. The city will have one less example of vintage architecture, and the local music scene will suffer, with no more midsize venues in sight. Only smaller music clubs like Lola's Saloon Sixth, Scat Jazz Lounge, the Aardvark and the Moon, will remain, leaving that many fewer opportunities for bands in Fort Worth.

Even if you don't frequent the indie music scene and can't tell the difference between Calhoun and Chatterton, its health and stability is as important to a richer cultural existence as a new show at the Kimbell or a play at Casa Mañana. Indeed, local bands like Telegraph Canyon don't make the leap from claustrophobic club stages to the grand expanse of Bass Hall without somewhere to nurture their talent. A place like the Ridglea provides a steppingstone between basement jams and the big time.

It's heartbreaking, even infuriating, that it takes an impending demolition to make most people understand the venue's significance. Last October, I first reported on the possibility that the R.K. Maulsby Family Trust's slide into potential foreclosure could spell disaster. Teeth were gnashed and concerns were shared, but soon enough, everyone, save for the regulars, went back to ignoring the stately old theater on Camp Bowie Boulevard.

It's not just indifferent locals who deserve lumps, either. The city of Fort Worth has also been culpable in the theater's slow, steady demise. Kevin Buchanan, a Fort Worth resident who runs the Fort Worthology blog and who previously served on a Historic and Cultural Landmark subcommittee for the city, dug into city records last week after the news broke. His search revealed that the City Council had attempted to designate the Ridglea Theater as a historic and cultural landmark a few times -- as far back as 2007, in the Ridglea Village master plan -- only to have it repeatedly tabled by, among others, Councilman Zimmerman.

Had the designation been applied, it could've provided Fort Worth with a space like those found in Dallas. The Granada Theater, the Inwood Theatre or even the newly rejuvenated Kessler Theater were all spared from a fate similar to the one the Ridglea faces.

Again, indifference allowed the Ridglea Theater to slip through the cracks. Last week, Zimmerman spoke of striking a balance "between preserving the character of this community while at the same time encouraging positive redevelopment." But if the city really cared about preserving the community's character, why wouldn't it revisit the idea of making the Ridglea a historic landmark and work with Bank of America to locate elsewhere in the Ridglea Village? For that matter, how come we've heard nothing from the rest of the members of the City Council or the mayor on the subject?

Of course, the answers to these questions aren't hard to figure out. Surely, a shiny new bank building will attract other interested parties and voilà, a fresh spurt of development begins.

But it's an empty endeavor, a false sense of progress. Context is everything, especially in a city with as rich a musical history as Fort Worth. How can we know where we're going if we keep destroying where we've been?

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