Reimagining the Civic Commons

Oak Cliff Inspiration

03.27.17
Civic Commons Learning Journey: Dallas; photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

By Bridget Marquis

Earlier this month the Civic Commons Learning Network held its first learning journey to Dallas. With Jason Roberts and Krista Nightengale of Better Block Foundation as our co-hosts, we explored the neighborhood of Oak Cliff, its changing narrative and the tactics and strategies being employed to foster neighborhood pride and encourage civic actions.

After a day touring the Bishop Arts District, billed as “Dallas’ most independent neighborhood,” The Wild Detectives, an independent bookstore/literary hub/coffee bar/venue located in a bungalow on a residential street just a block away, and the infamous Texas Theatre, where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested in 1963, we had a chance to sit down and talk with neighborhood leaders about programming and activation.

Jason Roberts, Better Block Foundation; photo credit: Bridget Marquis

While many of the spaces we visited in Oak Cliff are not publicly owned and operated, they function as civic spaces based on their commitment to the neighborhood and offer a number of takeaways for the Civic Commons:

Act as a connector space.

By providing a vehicle for others to connect, you can foster a community of potential programmers. Whether these communities are driven by a shared passion, such as the literary scene that now calls The Wild Detectives home, or a commitment to the neighborhood, as Better Block has catalyzed, acting as a platform for others can reveal programming that a programmer on staff could likely never dream up. And note that community isn’t a monolith – there are many overlapping communities in all cities. Can you position your space to be in the middle of that venn diagram?

Jason Roberts, Better Block Foundation; Mary Katherine McElroy, Texas Theatre; Andrew de la Casa-Huertas, The Wild Detectives; photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

Recognize free isn’t really free.

Consider free programming as a value, though a business model must be developed to support that value. The Wild Detectives sells coffee, beer and food to offset the costs associated with offering free programming. You can even consider revenue sharing on sales to support those providing their content for free.

Invite others in.

Find people you admire in the neighborhood and help them show off what they do. Oftentimes people are just waiting for that invitation. But the responsibility is on you to do the asking.

photo credit: Can Turkyilmaz

Partnerships yield programming.

For Oak Cliff organizations, partnerships are the greatest source of programming. Partners bring their own networks, generating greater awareness and exposure for the venue and neighborhood. Existing, even staid, organizations have found value in reintroducing themselves through these small civic-minded spaces. One good example from Oak Cliff is the political satire group Bar Politics and Dallas Independent School Board mashup which disarmed board members and citizens alike allowing for a more productive conversation.

The Wild Detectives; photo credit: Bridget Marquis

Feature flexibility.

Don’t be limited by the obvious use of space. An intersection can be a pétanque court, an old gas station can be a co-working space. Create chances for others to test an idea they have always wanted to do. Take advantage of temporary as an entry point for permanent.

Create right-sized spaces.

Consider the intimacy of space and turnout expectations. If you start with a small space, even a small turnout will feel successful. You can almost always grow to a larger space over time as demand requires.

Bridget Marquis is director of the Civic Commons Learning Network with U3 Advisors.

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