North Texas Daily

Residents look back on the decade anniversary of the Fry Street fire

Residents look back on the decade anniversary of the Fry Street fire

June 25
00:10 2017

For over two decades, The Tomato Pizza Restaurant stood on the northeast corner of Hickory and Fry Streets in Denton. The little shop was the epicenter of the Fry Street neighborhood, surrounded by the bars, coffee houses and music venues that made up the area on the northern edge of the UNT campus. It was a favorite hangout for students and locals alike and over the years had become a vibrant hub for the neighborhood’s unique blend of counter-culture.

In 2006, most of the buildings east of Fry Street were sold off to real-estate developers who intended to replace them with a new shopping center. Area residents universally rejected this plan. A community group, calling themselves “Save Fry Street,” was formed to petition the city government to stop the demolition. Petitions were passed around and signed while town hall meetings and protests in support of The Tomato became a regular occurrence. By the summer of 2007, however, all attempts to stop the sale had failed, and the city set the final date of the demolition for the morning of June 28.

Late in the evening on June 27, someone lit the building on fire.

This June marks the 10th anniversary of the Fry Street Fire, a blaze that consumed the buildings that once housed the original Tomato Pizza shop. An entire city block was burned to the ground by an unknown arsonist after a year-long effort to save it from the developers. Torched perhaps by someone unwilling to let their beloved neighborhood die an undignified death in the name of economic progress.

The fire was the final desperate act in the fight to keep the aging ideals of old Fry Street alive. Ironically, it was this act of desperation that ultimately helped usher Fry Street into the new era.

As the community looks back on the decade since the fire, there are some who have grown to accept the changes even as they remain nostalgic for the unique spirit of old Fry Street.

“It was a special place,” said Tyson Wright, a longtime Fry Street resident and UNT alumna. “The Tomato was a melting pot of the local campus dynamics. Almost every group seemed to wander in and out of there. You could find people from any campus culture group in there, and it was kind of wonderful.”

The Tomato occupied the northeast corner of Hickory and Fry Street in Denton until it closed in 2006. In the summer of 2007, an arsonist set fire to the entire block. The corner is the current site of a Chipotle and part of the U-Centre at Fry Street complex. David Urbanik

Chuck Voellinger, Denton Public Library Special Collections curator and a member of the original “Save Fry Street” organization, remembers when he first heard about the plans to tear down The Tomato.

“We heard that the developers were just going to come in and tear it down, and that made everyone’s ears perk up,” Voellinger says. “It had been a center for the college for 30 plus years. A lot of musicians and artists grew up and came out of there. The whole town was kind of freaked out. That’s when it became a movement.”

Voellinger’s group spread the word on the street and online, and they were eventually able to secure over 3,300 signatures on a petition opposing the demolition, including a celebrity endorsement from former UNT student Norah Jones.

But the decision had already been made.

“I don’t think they anticipated the community to be up in arms over it,” Voellinger says. “There was a radical group of people in the community who tended to be a little bit younger who really were so angry. Not all of those people were advocating arson, but I understand it because I felt that we were just so passionate about it at the time. We lived and breathed it.”

On the night before the demolition, after the final protest had ended, someone decided to take matters into their own hands.

“I got a call saying ‘The Tomato is on fire!'” Voellinger said. “So we all went down there and there were hundreds of people standing out on that corner watching it burn.”

No one was hurt, and a young student protester who had previously chained himself to the building was brought in for questioning by the police. The student was eventually released without being charged, leaving the crime unsolved to this day.

“I’m not surprised in a way that it happened,” Voellinger says. “It was simmering for so long, and certain things had happened. Some vandalism had happened before that, so when the fire happened, I just figured that someone just couldn’t take it anymore.”

The blaze signaled an end to a unique period in Denton’s history, an era relegated to ash pile with The Tomato itself.

“I don’t know if it’ll ever be a counterculture neighborhood again,” Denton Historian and photographer Alec Williams said. “That’ll be up to the kids of the university to decide. I’m not happy it occurred, but on the other hand, that’s what happens with time and progress.”

The Fry Street area today may be a little safer, a little cleaner, and little less noisy, but Wright said those changes were probably inevitable.

“Those buildings had been here for my entire life, but certainly they had been a part of that landscape of campus identity for so long that so many people had memories that couldn’t be left behind in a few months,” Wright said. “It felt like a psychic outburst from the community who would rather see it explode it in a burst of glory than seeing it go through a slow agonizing death.”

Featured Image: The Tomato Pizza restaurant shown in a newspaper from 10 years ago. U-Centre apartment and Chipotle currently stand on the corner of Hickory and Fry Street. Courtesy | Fort Worth Star Telegram 

Click here for a Soundslide over Fry Street

About Author

David Urbanik

David Urbanik

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3 Comments

  1. runfellow
    runfellow June 26, 17:01

    “Area residents universally rejected this plan.”
    As they say on Wikipedia, [citation needed].

    “The Tomato was a melting pot of the local campus dynamics.”
    It was a pizza joint, man.

    “We lived and breathed it.”
    It. was. a. pizza. joint.

    Seriously, Fry Street was an interesting place with some interesting businesses. “Save Fry Street” was a small group of squeaky wheels with nothing better to do than whine about a company trying to revitalize the area. My thoughts on this ten years ago are pretty much still my thoughts today:
    https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark%3A/67531/metapth145494/m1/8/

    Reply to this comment
  2. Illhusl
    Illhusl June 27, 22:36

    Shout out to my fellow P1’s! Really miss this place. My name was carved on so many tables.

    Reply to this comment
  3. MG
    MG June 27, 23:43

    In defiance of how the original The Tomato Pizza was destroyed, it could and should rise from the ashes and return to Denton. It was a part of the identity of Denton, of made attending UNT such a unique experience. Destroying The Tomato changed a large part of what made attending UNT the unique experience it had been but The Tomato could and should return and not be destroyed in the name of “progress”.

    Reply to this comment

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