oak_cliff_better_blockWith a few trees, some sidewalk tables, and lots of community input, a Dallas street was transformed.Photo: Go Oak Cliff“I’m just kind of a guy who wants to fix things,” says Jason Roberts. Things like the streets of the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, Texas, a neighborhood where Roberts has lived for 10 years.

It’s a part of town that has seen some hard times over the last 30 years or so, and it shows. Oak Cliff isn’t the fancy side of Dallas, and the city hasn’t always paid a whole lot of attention to it.

But Roberts and some of his neighbors looked at the problems — the abandoned buildings, the streets bare of shade, the cars speeding past vacant storefronts, the empty sidewalks — and saw the potential for something better.

Instead of waiting for someone else to do something about it, members of their group, Go Oak Cliff, rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Their first Better Block project was a two-day experiment in guerrilla placemaking. With about $1,000 and a lot of elbow grease, they completely transformed a two-block stretch of the neighborhood. They created pop-up stores in the empty storefronts, sidewalk cafés on the cracked concrete, bike lanes in the car-clogged streets.

The project (which I wrote about for the first time at Streetsblog back in April) was such a success that Roberts and his co-creators were contacted by people from around the country who wanted to do something similar.

Not only that, the city of Dallas took notice. They’ve given Go Oak Cliff permission to shut down part of a local street and create a pedestrian plaza that will stay up for three months — and possibly become permanent.

Go Oak Cliff also held a second, even bigger, Better Block event earlier this month. Barren streets were lined with trees. Merchants brought their wares to sell on the sidewalk. Volunteers striped crosswalks on the asphalt.

Here’s what Roberts wrote about it on the group’s blog:

In the end, it’s all about the people and giving families young and old a safe, comfortable, and dignified area to live in. When we build for cars only, we make things fast, unsafe, and less humane…we adopted an 8 and 80 rule, where we should look at our community from the eyes of an 8 year old and the eyes of an 80 year old. If it feels safe for those two age ranges, it will be safe for everyone. Our city needs to refocus its priorities and think about what it is that people really want in a community. For the price of a single Calatrava bridge, we could have built a thousand Better Blocks…and made them permanent.

Now, inspired by the Oak Cliff example, a community group in Mount Rainier, Md., is aiming to launch its own Better Block event in the spring. The City Council is fully in support of the effort.

Roberts is excited about the municipal and institutional backing the Better Block movement is getting, but he admits that it feels a little bit strange to be going mainstream.

“We brought a punk-rock mindset to this,” he said. “The fact that we’ve been legitimized is almost the weirdest thing.”

Get Off Your Ass Alert: Want to build a better block in your community? Go Oak Cliff has some great advice to help you get started.

Bonus: Check out these videos of the first Oak Cliff Better Block event.