Building a Better Block In Oak Cliff - After
Photo courtesy Better Block

Building a Better Block in Oak Cliff


A version of this story ran in the December 2012 issue.

In early 2010, Jason Roberts and his friend Amy Wallace Cowan were speculating about their Dallas neighborhood. What if, instead of empty, run-down buildings, the streets were lined with cafés and flower shops? What if people of all ages rode bikes here? What if Oak Cliff looked more like, you know, Paris?

Jason Roberts
Jason Roberts.  Danny Turner

Tired of hearing that Oak Cliff was the bad part of town—a giant swath of South Dallas where people and businesses don’t want to go—they decided to offer a counternarrative. With a corps of volunteers and less than $1,000, they gave a city block a makeover.

They commandeered two of the street’s lanes, painting a bike lane in one, and adding flower boxes and sidewalk café seating in the other. A set-design company loaned furniture, and a hardware store loaned potted shrubs to buffer the new “patio” from car traffic. Friends opened pop-up shops—temporary retail stores—and a café in vacant storefronts. A couple of buddies strung a giant strand of Craigslist-sourced Christmas lights across the street.

It was legal, sort of. Roberts had met with his city councilmember, who gave the project a nod, and Cowan secured a permit to close part of the street. But the guerrilla-style undertaking was partly a response to Roberts’ discovery that many pedestrian-friendly touches—awnings, flower boxes, sidewalk fruit stands—were actually banned or made cost-prohibitive by city ordinance. Fine, he thought. He and some friends printed out the codes they were breaking and posted them next to the offending structures.

They called the project Better Block and timed it to coincide with a nearby art crawl. Over an April weekend, hundreds of Dallas residents steeped in car culture walked or biked to the rejuvenated block to drink coffee at sidewalk cafés with their neighbors.

“We’ve changed the psychology of the street,” Roberts gushed in a video recorded during the project. “We’ve changed the economics of the area. These businesses can be successful now.”

Then Monday came, and things went back to normal.

Building a Better Block In Oak Cliff - Before
Before image of West Davis Street, Dallas.  Google Maps

Southwest of downtown,in the miles-wide triangle between interstates 30 and 35, Oak Cliff cultivates a personality at odds with mainstream Dallas. The streetcar line connecting it to downtown made it popular in the early 1900s, but the post-World War II exodus to the suburbs left it in decline. Its revival began in the latter part of the century, as part of a nationwide trend toward renewed interest in cities rather than suburbs. In 2000 the city sank around $2.5 million into sidewalk, drainage and lighting improvements in a two-block area that came to be known as Bishop Arts, and now 60 independent businesses attract shoppers and diners to a pedestrian-friendly experience unavailable elsewhere in Dallas.

Roberts and his then-wife moved to north Oak Cliff around the time of the Bishop Arts improvements, attracted by the area’s old homes, diversity and affordability. But most of Oak Cliff’s main thoroughfares bore little resemblance to walkable, vibrant Bishop Arts, itself only a tiny slice of Oak Cliff. Roberts, an IT consultant and father of two, wanted to invigorate his adopted community, and he started organizing events: An art night in an empty historic theater. A Bastille Day party. A bike-to-school program for neighborhood elementary students. Each was well received by neighbors who saw Oak Cliff as an underdog that was gradually coming back.

Better Block painting
Roberts and other volunteers stage Better Block projects in Oak Cliff.  Photo courtesy Better Block

The April 2010 Better Block was meant to suggest what Oak Cliff could be like every day, not just during special events. Such demonstrations are called “tactical urbanism” by activists and urban planners who want to test ideas before making permanent investments. It’s one thing to crunch numbers and come up with a traffic plan; it’s another to spend a week trying it in real time, with real people.

While the Better Block had implications for urban planning, Roberts says his work has more in common with street art. “It’s more like Shepard Fairey and Banksy, because it’s like, ‘How can we do things quick, cheap and temporary just to show people how things can be done, spark an idea?’”

Better Block trailer
Roberts and other volunteers stage Better Block projects in Oak Cliff.  Photo courtesy Better Block

But what to do with that idea? What happens after the paint on the street fades? How does a neighborhood advocate for a dream it’s only just discovered?

“The temporary is easy. The permanent is hard,” says Brent Brown, director of Dallas’ CityDesign Studio, which gets neighborhoods involved with the city in urban design and planning. “For a few hours people can engage in the experience and then say, ‘why don’t we have these things?’ The mock-up helps you get beyond the burden of skepticism. But when you try to move it to permanent, it’s more complicated.”

Roberts and business partner Andrew Howard now run a consulting firm called Team Better Block that helps other cities stage demonstrations. They’ve worked on projects in other Dallas neighborhoods and in cities including San Antonio, Brownsville and Wichita, Kansas, some of which have decided to make the temporary changes permanent.

Roberts’ breathless enthusiasm is well documented in videos on the Better Block website. In person or online, it’s hard not to be inspired by his insistence that you can change your community if you just show up.

“There’s been a shift in mindset all over the country in ownership of problems,” he tells me. “Instead of thinking government should fix our problems, thinking ‘we are the government.’ You become a political force at that point.”

Roberts calls Better Block a “two-part equation” because it affects both the public and the private aspects of a street. He says the team has seen more and faster progress on the private side. “If you go back to most Better Block projects within a year or two,” he says, “something in the private space has occurred that wasn’t there before. Often people who started businesses came here because they saw the potential.”

At least one new business has emerged from Oak Cliff’s first Better Block. In April 2010, Kayli House Cusick and Shannon Driscoll ran a temporary children’s art studio in an empty storefront. More than 400 people visited during the two-day demonstration, and neighbors urged the women to open a permanent business.

Now, Oil and Cotton, a combination art studio and art supply store, occupies a building just around the corner from where the women ran their pop-up shop.

“The guy that owns this spot said he liked the vibe of having us here,” House Cusick says, pausing between ringing up a customer and checking on her 5-year-old daughter, who’s playing in the store. “And Jason and Amy were very adamant that we needed to do this. It was important to them that neighbors form the business rather than someone coming in from outside.”

Incoming business and lasting change requires the buy-in of property owners, though. This is sometimes harder to get, says David Spence of Oak Cliff real estate developer Good Space, which pioneered the renovation of blighted buildings in the neighborhood.

“The Better Block does have a real magic for all at once opening people’s eyes to what this or that corner could be,” Spence says. “It’s the property owners who have to be relied on to make it work. And that’s slower going.”

Better Block trees
Roberts and other volunteers stage Better Block projects in Oak Cliff.  Photo courtesy Better Block

The other half of the equation is public space on the street—the bike lanes, sidewalks, crosswalks and traffic patterns in the city’s purview. Roberts sees Better Block as a way to kickstart the often lengthy process of changing such infrastructure.

“Cities will spend a million dollars on town hall [meetings],” Roberts says, “then they produce a plan that will cost $500,000 to do, so we’ll need a bond—we’re like, stop planning! Just create something for under $50,000, or even under $1,000.”

Scott Griggs, a Dallas city councilmember from Oak Cliff, calls Better Block an excellent alternative to a charrette—a traditional style of meeting to take public input on urban-planning efforts. “We did so many charrettes on Oak Cliff over the years, we were all tired of putting green and red dots on charts,” he says. “Better Block is heavily programmed and experiential—and a charrette is the opposite, almost purely theoretical.”

To get a more realistic idea of a Better Block’s effects, Griggs says, it’s best to leave the proposed changes in place for 90 days. Longer periods offer a better measure of the public’s reaction once the novelty wears off. But it’s hard to get the permits and council approval for that long of a project, Griggs says.

Roberts agrees that quick, in-and-out Better Block projects aren’t an exact simulation of long-term reality. “We’re gaming the system a bit, because we’re bringing in food trucks and pop-up shops, and that changes the street traffic. If we go away and aren’t programming the street with activities and outdoor movies, the food-truck guy won’t do as much business.”

He says he and Howard are encouraging the cities where they stage their projects to make a two-year commitment to the affected districts. “If you come back monthly or quarterly to incubate this space, it will take on a life of its own. But first you’ll have to use a defibrillator to get the blood going back to the body.”

And neighborhood residents have to ask for defibrillators in the city budget. That’s not happening yet, says Councilmember Delia Jasso.
Jasso represents most of north Oak Cliff, including the area where the April 2010 project occurred. She helped clear the way for Roberts’ group to use the street—but she isn’t being lobbied by Oak Cliff residents for permanent changes.

“You can show people what it looks like, but then they have to get busy to raise money or advocate for us to put money in the budget for it. I support Better Block, but I think there should be more thought put into phase two, which is neighborhood engagement, and phase three, which is funding to make it permanent,” she says.

Phases two and three are a puzzle for state employee and Oak Cliff resident Jacob Kurz, who likes the Better Block vision but isn’t sure it fits reality.

“Oak Cliff has been gentrified a bit, but it’s primarily a blue-collar part of Dallas,” he says. “Rather than go to a café for food and a coffee shop for coffee and a fruit stand for fruit, I think people are going to the grocery store to get Folgers and groceries and then rushing back to their lives.

“It seems like it takes more than potted plants and closed-off streets to get these things moving,” Kurz says. “I think it’s a great idea, but it’s performance art, not a plan.”

Better Block seating
Roberts and other volunteers stage Better Block projects in Oak Cliff.  Photo courtesy Better Block

One successful plan has been executed in Fort Worth’s Near Southside. In contrast to the Oak Cliff site, merchants in the Near Southside have turned a weekend Better Block-style demonstration project into a permanent fixture.

In October 2010, organizers of an evening gallery crawl called ArtsGoggle decided to test out a new street design they were considering asking the city to implement. Inspired by the Oak Cliff project, volunteers re-striped the street to include bike lanes, a crosswalk and wider sidewalks that could accommodate café seating. The changes were so well received that Fort Worth South, Inc., the nonprofit development company for the district, approached the city with an offer to use its Tax Increment Finance funds to engage a traffic engineer and formally re-stripe the street. The project was completed less than a year later, and Fort Worth South is now raising money to fully reconstruct the street with wider sidewalks.

In Fort Worth’s case, private and public entities combined forces to change the Near Southside. In the past two years, Fort Worth South planning director Mike Brennan says, people have moved into new lofts in old warehouse buildings. New businesses have opened on South Main Street, and a crime-ridden nightclub has been shut down and reopened as a theater space.

Fort Worth South has so far raised $8.4 million for its effort to reconstruct the streets.

It would be easy for a small band of neighborhood volunteers to feel daunted by such a price tag. Roberts is undeterred, quoting Margaret Mead’s adage about a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens being the only force that’s ever changed the world. Looking ahead, he and Howard want to a create nonprofit “Better Block Districts” with an executive director who would oversee implementation of changes suggested by short-term demonstrations.

“My weakness is I do have a problem staying on the ground,” Roberts says. “I always want to go on to another project.

“The most fascinating thing for me, and the key to long-term change, has just been facilitating the conversation. The Better Block is magical for getting everyone in the community to talk about what a place could be.”