By Jason Roberts
Sitting on a patio in my neighborhood and drinking a cup of coffee under a shade tree while residents stroll by feels so natural, but this would have been a strange sight 10 years ago. My neighborhood of Oak Cliff, just Southwest of downtown Dallas, has been stigmatized as the bad part of town for half a century. It used to be that when people would merely whisper, “Oak Cliff,” images of gang violence, blight, and dilapidation would come to mind. And this history is deep. Oak Cliff was where Lee Harvey Oswald was from—and where he was eventually captured. It was also the stomping grounds of Bonnie and Clyde.
Take back the name.
When I first moved to the area in 2000, I was told by community leaders that the trick was to not put Oak Cliff in the name of anything I did. Give it another name, and only let people in on the secret once they were comfortable. When they realized where they were, they’d stop and say, “Wait a second, this can’t be that place!”
In 2006, I worked with a handful of residents to try and take back the name. Instead of running from the stigma, we began to ask ourselves, “How do we face it head on?” Within five years, we had created three substantial organizations: the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, focused on reviving the historic streetcar line; Bike Friendly Oak Cliff, focused on building a bike culture; and Go Oak Cliff, a nonprofit that held regular neighborhood events and provided news on our homegrown businesses, standout residents, and activities. Within short order, the narrative was changed. The city newspaper, accustomed to only highlighting crime in our community, started rebroadcasting our stories. The reporters even began calling us to ask, “What’s going on? Why are there so many exciting things happening there now?”
Create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Make no mistake: all of this was very intentional. We learned that if we banded the doers together and came up with a series of interesting and quirky events, we could be a place filled with (good) stories. And that became an exciting charge for our grass-roots groups. For bike events, we brought out mariachi bands and gave out free breakfast tacos along the routes people took to get to work. We held giant festivals where we filled the streets with sand and horse-trough water fountains for kids to play in. We gathered our local artists and painted giant murals along corridors filled with blight. We weren’t the bike part of town, but we kept telling people we were. And, in short order, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. We weren’t the café seating part of town, or the DIY repair part of town, or the pop-up business part of town, but we started to become those things because we said we were. And that energized the neighbors, and it gave us a new story to broadcast.
We realized that the stigma we fought so hard against actually gave us something that many Dallas neighborhoods missed: a soul.
Manage the equation of co-responsibility.
At some point, we began to understand the importance of not competing with each other, but competing with the world. When that happened, we started to take the best ideas we’d seen from San Francisco, Copenhagen, and Tokyo, and re-synthesized them into something very local, but also something visually moving. This inspired the community in a way that raised the floor for everyone. Could we come together with our artists, musicians, and activists to create opportunities for them to co-create in order to make our own movement? Absolutely.
But how were we to do these big things without money? Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, had a quote that we began to live by, “If you want innovation, take a zero away from your budget … To get things done, learn to manage the equation of co-responsibility.” When everyone has a small piece of the puzzle, they create this beautiful quilt that’s made up of the character and culture of everyone in a community. Not only does it make things that have soul, but it’s actually the way we’re supposed to come together as a neighborhood.
As the leader of these “happenings,” I realized it was important to make sure they were fun, care-free, and felt a bit guerilla. That last piece is what makes the participants feel like they’re part of something bigger, something that’s upending established ideas and paving the way for new, innovative, and exciting change.
The value of “it’s temporary.”
I also realized that the best way to ease people’s worries and to test ideas was to simply state, “It’s temporary.” The fear I’d hear in regular community meetings was that if we change the streets, or change the buildings, or change the lots, it will create horrible traffic, ruin business as we know it, or create more blight. But by saying, “You might be right. It might be awful, but it’s only going to last a few days,” we were able to allay fears of worst-case scenarios that kept us paralyzed to change.
As a community, we still face our challenges, but many counter-intuitive ideas helped spur our revitalization. One of the largest was realizing a stigma is not something to run from; it’s something to build upon.
Jason Roberts is founding director of the Better Block Foundation and a proud Oak Cliff resident.