This is the story of the creation of a streetcar from desire. In the Texas city of Dallas, Jason Roberts was looking at ways to reinvigorate his ailing neighbourhood of Oak Cliff. It was, says Roberts, considered a bad part of town.
Oak Cliff used to have a streetcar service, once running over 32 kilometres of track. In 1956, the trolley bells fell silent, and the tracks were covered with asphalt. That, it seemed, was literally the end of the line.
But Roberts, an IT guy by day, saw the potential of what a streetcar service could mean for Oak Cliff. He created a website for the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, with a mission to fire a debate on the return of the streetcar.
Initially, the authority had a membership of one: Roberts. But that’s all it took. The local paper did a story, generously if inaccurately referring to Roberts and his supporters. The power of one soon became many, as people – including a civil engineer and a streetcar specialist – came forward.
A non-profit organisation was formed, followed by a pitch for a grant for federal government funding. The odds of success were slim. Yet the government was looking for projects that reconnected workforce housing to business areas.
It liked the Oak Cliff streetcar idea to the tune of $US23 million ($24.3 million). Work has started, and streetcars will be back on the rails in Oak Cliff next year, for the first time in almost 60 years.
Roberts wanted to start a conversation: ”Why did we take this out? If it was so important to our development, is there a way for us to bring it back?” The answer was a resounding yes.
The streetcar dream is just part of the story for the 39-year-old Roberts. He has long moved on from his IT career and, with co-founder Andrew Howard, leads the Better Block movement, now spreading across the world, including to the streets of Melbourne and Sydney.
The Better Block movement is part of a whole new approach to transforming unloved areas that have been neglected by the official channels of government and hamstrung by ordinances and planning processes. In essence, it is a grassroots movement, where locals step up and seek to improve the area where they live.
A driving principle is about ordinary people showing the potential of what could be through temporary projects. Last weekend, two streets in Melbourne and Geelong were transformed by locals as Better Block ”pop-up” demonstrations.
In Coburg, an unloved section of High Street was closed off and became a place of trees, astroturf nature strips and street chess. In Geelong, Little Malop Street was filled with vegie boxes, community-built furniture and art installations. A Better Block is planned for Sydney’s Clovelly in October. It’s about showing what could be, and hopefully, bringing about permanent improvements to an area.
The Better Block idea started getting attention in Australia earlier this year, when Andrew Howard was brought out by the Sustainable Living Festival. He drew enthusiastic crowds on a speaking tour of Melbourne, country Victoria and Sydney. ”We knew there was this great concept emerging in America, and it hadn’t really surfaced in Australia,” says Liz Franzmann, who managed the tour.
Franzmann, who works as a community organiser, has been volunteering with the Better Block movement, and was one of a group of friends behind the Coburg Better Block last weekend. ”Better Block for me is essentially using that notion of a street party, but with a change agenda,” she says.
Roberts was the star attraction at both events last weekend, and was enthused by what he saw. A common theme in both projects – and indeed the wider Better Block movement – is getting people connected. ”You can’t get physical change until you have the community really buzzing, talking again,” he says.
The movement is generating interest in Australia among planners who can see the potential. After speaking in Melbourne this week at a conference on liveable cities, several approached Roberts to learn more about the movement. Roberts also spoke to an inner-city arts group about creating their own Better Block project.
It all began for Roberts back in 2005 in the ”blighted” streets of Oak Cliff. His first project was the dilapidated Texas Theatre, a grand picture palace opened in 1931. The theatre, of course, was best known as the place where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested after the 1963 shooting of president John F. Kennedy. Police descended after a report that a man had entered the theatre without a ticket.
The history of the Texas Theatre was chequered from that notorious moment. Locals, explains Roberts, tried to run away from that legacy. A non-profit group was trying to raise funds to restore the building, but they needed millions.
Roberts loved history and old buildings. ”I wanted, for selfish reasons, just to see it, get inside and experience the space,” he says. ”But I also wanted others to, too. I wanted something to happen and I knew that I wasn’t a developer with millions of dollars to fix the problem. But what could I do? Well, I could bring people to the equation.
”And that’s where in the end, when cities or developers or anybody is trying to do something, all they are trying to do is to get people to come in. I just leapt past all of the financial concerns and all those other issues. I’ll just create an avenue for people to be involved.”
That avenue was the Art Conspiracy (referencing the ”Who shot JFK?” conspiracies), where 100 artists were brought in and given canvases. The next day, their works were sold at auction for charity.
His aim was to get energy and life into the space, to ”let people see what could be”.
”I think by just doing that act, somebody will shake out from all of this that can help us. That’s really what it was – it was people seeing the potential.”
The idea worked, and almost a decade on, the Texas Theatre is now loved again, a bustling place that shows independent films.
While he was researching the streetcar project, he noticed that cities with streetcars also had a transport system that included many modes, including robust bicycle programs.
Roberts loved the cycling culture – even though he didn’t own a bike.
He organised a bike ride. The theme was less about high-speed recreational cycling, and more about local cycling, riding to your local grocery store. He was expecting 20 people that Sunday morning. As he nervously rode off, he had 150 riders behind him. The man who wasn’t really a cyclist was suddenly their leader.
Roberts says it taught him the need for people to stand up. Those 150 were ”waiting for something like this to occur, and they were waiting for someone to champion these things: we need more of these social bike rides, and we need more of this infrastructure.
”It made me realise that, wow, just by taking a stand, people fell in line behind me and said, ‘All right. We’ve got a leader. Let’s go.’
”You will be surprised at how many times, especially when you’re dealing with these projects like the Better Block, when you bring the community together, and you talk about what’s missing in an area or could be better, we all share a lot of the same ideas.”
Then came the first block project in Oak Cliff, which has become something of a template for the Better Block movement. A vacant, underutilised and unloved block was chosen. Typically, says Roberts, the places around the world he loves are only a block in size.
”It’s kind of like your laneways here,” he says. ”You’ll find this little laneway, and you’re like, this is the perfect little laneway. I don’t need anything more. I’ve got a little cafe, I’ve got a little market. Actually the scale, it doesn’t have to be large. In fact, the smallness always makes it more intimate.”
Roberts and his friends looked at what they needed to create a centre for the community. That included bringing in trees, street side cafes and music. The two-day ”pop-up” block was an outstanding success. The block is now enjoying increased occupancies and new shopfronts. ”Things started happening … it really snowballed.”
Initially, the approach was a form of urban guerilla tactics – go around the planning process and just do it. ”My thing was, how do I bypass that, just to give people the experience of the block I have in my brain, which is that place where people sit down outside, drink a cup of coffee, listen to music, maybe outside,” says Roberts.
These days, cities and planners are hiring Roberts and partner Andrew Howard to work on projects with the community. The old approach involved consulting the public through abstract conversations at town halls, and Photoshop renderings of what is planned.
”Our idea was to take that same energy and time you’re putting into that, and just transfer it onto an area that has a problem,” says Roberts.
Town hall meetings, he says, encourage the emergence of naysayers, who use the platform to say no to anything. ”Often times, it sucks the air out of a room. People are just, well, I guess that’s how the whole community feels because people are saying this.”
What started as an unsanctioned exercise is now getting official backing. Roberts says the role of officials is to ”clear the stage”, cut through the bureaucracy and allow communities to innovate on a temporary basis.
This is what happened in Coburg and Geelong last weekend. Coburg High Street resident Jules Martin, a landscape architect, was one of the instigators. He and his partner moved from a beautiful, nature-stripped Northcote street 3½ years ago to a Coburg street where asphalt covered the strips, and trees struggled to grow through postage-stamp cut-outs.
”I’ve been calling it the poor cousin or the ugly duckling of the neighbourhood,” says Martin. But not last Sunday, when it was a street transformed and brimming with potential. About 300 people came to High Street, some from across town who came to see a Better Block in action.
The top-down element was also there, with Melbourne Water demonstrating and giving away downpipe diverters and the local council invited.
The ultimate aim is bringing about some permanent change. Having shown what’s possible, Martin and his fellow Better Blockers will meet again with council staff. ”It’s not going to happen unless you actually get out there and make it happen,” says Martin, ”and show that we are engaged and interested, and would like to see change.”
From there’s our catastrophe.
just because people don’t like a form of art you perceive as worthy doesn’t mean that you should degrade another form of art. That doesn’t make other people see the value in traditional tagging/graffiti, it doesn’t draw attention to art as a creative force, all it does is handwave people’s efforts.
Graffiti is art. Mural painting is art. So is yarnbombing, seedbombing, etc. It’s something that draws attention to the landscape and the ability of beauty to exist anywhere; sometimes it’s a statement about nature’s existence in urban spaces, or political situations, gentrification or development, and sometimes it’s just an expression of self – let’s not pretend every tagger or yarnbomber is doing anything more than ekeing out a spot for themselves. Who are you to quantify what art is based on the income level of who creates it? Moreover, who are you to DECIDE who creates it?
Yarn is not the sole domain of twee white kids. ANYONE CAN KNIT. Anyone can grab a ball of pretty cheap yarn from Walmart. …Does it make ANYONE feel better for you to say yarnbombing is worthless because white kids do it? Does it make anyone respect graffiti the way it should be respected? Because I don’t think it does. Art is art, and we should appreciate ALL of it, even if lawmakers don’t.
I have such a super major problem with this. Because, I fully agree, there’s a HUGE and EXTREMELY PROBLEMATIC difference between how things like graffiti are treated by lawmakers and police and how yarn graffiti and seed bombing are. But I think being like, “Oh, white hipster middle class people blah blah blah,” misses the point entirely and means you don’t have enough familiarity with the subject to actually be ranting about it.
First, knit graffiti, pasting, and seed bombing are meant to make public art and reclamation of space CHEAPER and MORE ACCESSIBLE for anyone. It may or may not have been embraced by POC and their communities, but it was never INTENDED to be exclusionary.
….Seed bombing, especially, is not gentrification. A person, any person, seeing an unused and empty space and trying to beautify it and bring nature back into the neighborhood, is not racially or financially motivated. I could see the argument w/ knit graffiti, possibly, because who has the time for huge ass projects like that if they’re working to make ends meet. But throwing packed seeds and soil into an abandoned lot isn’t gentrification. It isn’t making it easier for rich white kids to move it. It’s just trying to make the space nicer for the residents, end of story.
okay, I’ve addressed this before in more conciliatory terms, but it appears I’m gonna have to say it again because a whole string of you are making various defensive YES THANK YOU responses to these two posts (which I’ve edited for space). this will probably be the last thing I have to say on the topic. please read my earlier response before you respond to this.
1. it is flat-out untrue that everyone is at equal risk of arrest and incarceration for doing illegal things, and if you think it’s even relevant to bring up that white middle-class-and-up people are theoretically subject to the same laws as everyone else you are so far out of touch that I don’t know what to say.
2. if you think that “there is no formal barrier to PoC and working-class people picking up yarn” means that there is no association of a particular aesthetic with particular groups of people then again, I don’t even know what to say to you. This is not about the theoretical individual identities of street artists, who are in any case usually anonymous or pseudonymous. this thing of “yeah street graf is black but the kind of graf I like is not racially categorisable” is super disingenuous.
3. my main point: NONE OF YOU have addressed the issue of the potential negative effect this kind of public art has on the communities it is found in. It is aggressively gentrifying. that’s why I hate it, not because I think it’s dorky or because white and/or middle-class people do it. and yeah, “just making the neighbourhood nicer for the residents” can be/precipitate gentrification — who decides what “nicer” is? who controls the project that’s making things “nicer”? it’s actually not much good making the neighbourhood “nicer” if it’s the kind of “nicer” that’s so appealing to a higher-income group that they move in and push all the original residents out. there are other factors at play here, of course, but this is totally a thing. wholesome-sounding shit like community gardens and local craft markets has historically been a factor in gentrification. if this sounds defeatist and circular, well, it kind of is, because gentrification is hard to fight. but I think the main point we can take from it is that if you want to make a neighbourhood better, you need to figure out what the most marginalised original residents want, not impose your own aesthetic and agenda.
3. I fucking love art. I also hate art but you know, I believe in its power to affect the world around it. Especially public art, because that is what it is for, more directly than perhaps any other form of art. If I didn’t think that then sure, I’d roll my eyes and think “that looks dorky” and try to keep to it to myself and get on with my life. But as it is, I take art seriously, including its potential negative effects. That’s what respect for art looks like when you are a grown-up.
leaving sheung wan very soon. the only reason is my landload want to sell the flat. how common for hong kong people living here and there. the only push factor is land price. my story is just typical. sheung wan have been gentrificed speedy with the extention lines of MTR and promoting creative industries by government . gallaries, art space, servies apartments, decent and western restrauants are getting more and more since 2008. the original community is going to disappear soon. my humble wish is to frozen my feelings, memories and moments in the rest of my days in sheung wan which i have been living for 4 years. today is 12 feb 2010.
快要離開上環。沒有特別的原因，跟其他沒樓沒錢的港人一樣，隨地價的急升，租客只能離開，東飄西盪。我從住了五年的中不環搬過來，經過了差不到四 年，很快又要搬走，都是典型的香港故事。上環士紳化的過程，愈來愈明顯，藝術空間、藝廊、服務式住宅及西式餐館愈來愈多。這除了多謝港鐡上環支線正式動工 外，也因為所謂創意產業、文化旅遊、文化導賞的興起。我無力抵抗經濟的力量，只希望用自己的方法，留下對上環的主觀感覺、生活味道。很個人，也很社會的。
Remember how the creative class of writers, artists, urban cheesemongers, professional tricyclists, novelty button manufacturers, food truckers, and artisan mustache-growers was supposed to supplant crumbling blue collar industries in economically stagnant cities? Remember? Well, according to Richard Florida, the editor-at-large for The Atlantic Cities, the creative class was totally going to work all those miracles, propping up cities like Detroit and Cleveland with pale, keyboard-cramped hands. It’s just that, um, well, that’s not at all what has happened.
Joel Kotkin, one of Florida’s sternest critics, sounded off (a little too gleefully) on the creative class’s many economic failures today in the Daily Beast. It’s been a trendy line of thinking over the last couple of years among urbanists, journalists, and academics, explains Kotkin, that an influx of “hip” young residents into urban areas would benefit those areas. The new arrivals would help build wonderful little independent bookstores, coffee shops, and tapas restaurants. Everyone would prosper as a result of such glittering monuments to urban hipsterdom — property values would go up, downtrodden blue collar workers would be enlightened, and there would be locally sourced produce for everyone.
The only hitch in all this optimism, as Kotkin notes here and others like Tulane sociologist Richard Campanella have have noted elsewhere, is that all these wonderful new creative class businesses benefit only one group of people: members of the creative class. In his thesis about the rise of urban creatives, Florida pointed to cities like San Francisco and Seattle as bastions of highly-educated, creative residents. With just a few more bike lanes and liberal arts majors, El Paso, for instance, could become a bustling hub of creative activity and not merely a glorified urban hipster playground.
So much faith was placed in the hands of the creative class that the Florida’s Creative Class Group cultivated a client list of cities ready and willing to spend the money necessary to make themselves over in the image of cities like Portland and Austin. Here’s what happened with that:
Alec MacGillis, writing at The American Prospect in 2009, noted that after collecting large fees from down-at-the-heels burgs like Cleveland, Toledo, Hartford, Rochester, and Elmira, New York over the years, Florida himself asserted that we can’t “stop the decline of some places” and urged the country to focus instead on his high-ranked “creative” enclaves. “So, got that, Rust Belt denizens?” MacGillis noted wryly in a follow-up story last year at the New Republic. Pack your bags for Boulder and Raleigh-Durham and Fairfax County. Oh, and thanks again for the check.”
And what does a newly hipsterfied city end up looking like? Well…
For Rust Belt cities, notes Cleveland’s Richey Piiparinen, following the “creative class” meme has not only meant wasted money, but wasted effort and misdirection. Burning money trying to become “cooler” ends up looking something like the metropolitan equivalent to a midlife crisis.
At times Kotkin can be pretty dismissive of the sort of generically and passively progressive creatures that comprise the creative class — young, usually single, and hungering for a cool district to settle down while they work through the 20-something angst. Their service-based hipster enclaves underperform economically, and have little, says urban thinker Aaron Renn, “in the way of coattails.” In other words, the creative class produces so little, that no crumbs fall from their table — there’s barely enough for them. Moreover, though such creatives certainly espouse diversity and political correctness, they also, as Campanella noted in his excellent demographic study of New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood, function as the first wave of gentrification. Campanella describes a four-phase process of gentrification, beginning with a pioneering group of (in New Olreans) so-called “gutter-punks” and continuing all the way to the arrival of high-income professionals:
The frontiers of gentrification are “pioneered” by certain social cohorts who settle sequentially, usually over a period of five to twenty years. The four-phase cycle often begins with-forgive my tongue-in-cheek use of vernacular stereotypes: (1) “gutter punks” (their term), young transients with troubled backgrounds who bitterly reject societal norms and settle, squatter-like, in the roughest neighborhoods bordering bohemian or tourist districts, where they busk or beg in tattered attire.
On their unshod heels come (2) hipsters, who, also fixated upon dissing the mainstream but better educated and obsessively self-aware, see these punk-infused neighborhoods as bastions of coolness.
Their presence generates a certain funky vibe that appeals to the third phase of the gentrification sequence: (3) “bourgeois bohemians,” to use David Brooks’ term. Free-spirited but well-educated and willing to strike a bargain with middle-class normalcy, this group is skillfully employed, buys old houses and lovingly restores them, engages tirelessly in civic affairs, and can reliably be found at the Saturday morning farmers’ market. Usually childless, they often convert doubles to singles, which removes rentable housing stock from the neighborhood even as property values rise and lower-class renters find themselves priced out their own neighborhoods. (Gentrification in New Orleans tends to be more house-based than in northeastern cities, where renovated industrial or commercial buildings dominate the transformation).
After the area attains full-blown “revived” status, the final cohort arrives: (4) bona fide gentry, including lawyers, doctors, moneyed retirees, and alpha-professionals from places like Manhattan or San Francisco. Real estate agents and developers are involved at every phase transition, sometimes leading, sometimes following, always profiting.
This is the reality of the what a rise in a creative class does to a city, a reality that proves inconvenient for many hipsters and millennials whose value system is at odds with the idea of gentrification and, what incensed New Orleans writer Jules Bentley, criticizing the city’s burgeoning food truck culture, described earlier this month in terms of hipster colonization. His rant is worth reading in its entirety even if you don’t know much about current New Orleans demographics because of little gems like these:
Blitzkrieg cultural imperialism allows previously under-Instagrammed areas of our city to fulfill their potential as playgrounds for the rich without the headaches of investment or community engagement. Never mind having a Starbucks on every corner-when your favorite high-concept boutique eateries can chase you around on wheels, you can go absolutely anywhere and still get the same $12 bacon and wheatgrass smoothie.
There’s a lot of anger in that paragraph, but there’s also strong ray of righteous truth — the privileged 20-somethings of this country are imposing an ironic brand of cultural homogeneity on the “authentic” urban neighborhoods they flock to.