Joan Davidow is director emerita of the Dallas Contemporary.
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Intro: Part of barren Ross Avenue came alive last weekend when Dallas initiated its Complete Streets Project. The project involves citizens in shifting the city’s emphasis to building safer and more livable streets. And Dallas turned to a unique group of community activists for ideas. Joan Davidow was there and shares what she saw in this commentary.
Joan Davidow: Travel along Ross Avenue and you pass used car lots, mechanics shops, and abandoned property. But what if Ross Avenue were a lively gateway and pedestrian path to the Arts District? Noting that Dallas lacks the grand boulevards of the world’s most cultured cities, planners turned to a budding organization, Better Block, and its founder Jason Roberts.
This Renaissance man dreams big on a miniscule budget. He wants a neighborhood with friendly streets, bike paths, and tree shade, where his kids can walk to school, and his grandfather could’ve planted a garden, instead of living in a distant retirement community. The charismatic Roberts gathers a crew of committed volunteers to use sweat equity to create a buzz on the street.
Better Blocks’ guerrilla programming began last year, when Roberts, a self-taught wunderkind with a huge community vision, gathered his energetic buddies to transform a neglected block in Oak Cliff. With temporary permission from the city, they turned around a weed-ridden corner of vacant storefronts. Roberts’ worker-bees parked food wagons, set out trees in planters, added bike lanes, staged café seating, invited musicians, and organized art activities. This feisty group has since inspired 13 U-S cities, many inviting founder Roberts to speak at new urbanism conferences across North America.
Here in Dallas on Ross Avenue, Better Block’s established formula included food and seating, music and art, trees and alternative transportation. By thinning the street width with painted bike lanes on either side, they slow down the traffic, making the streets friendly for strolling, biking, gathering, and munching. This time they mimicked Barcelona’s Los Ramblas with a row of merchant tents down the middle of Ross selling everything from bubble tea to hand-printed aprons.
I’m an uptowner, so I totally got it! We could drink a smoothie powered by a pedaled bicycle, munch on fish tacos or Korean barbeque, ride a double-decker bus, or slip down the waterslide. And when it got too hot, we sat under a large tent created by University of Texas at Arlington architecture students. They designed the ingenious awning from old vinyl billboard signs and the modular benches and tables from discarded wood fencing. All this happened on a zero budget ~ begged, borrowed, or built with panache! In 93-degree weather, people gathered, stayed, participated, loved it, and wanted more.
Five hundred volunteers transformed Ross Avenue, tore it down, and then will study what works and what doesn’t for the serious urban planning Dallas will adopt.
1,000 visitors from eight to 80 strolled and biked along Ross Avenue last Sunday. This ignored thoroughfare could become the unrealized, people-watching spine of the Arts District, giving Dallasites a way to sandwich life around cultural events.