Q&A With Jason Roberts
He started Art Conspiracy, he rebuilt the Texas Theatre, and he fronts the band Happy Bullets. Now he’s trying to bring streetcars back to Oak Cliff
Q: You’re a busy man. What was the first thing you got involved with?
A: After [my wife] Andrea and I moved to Oak Cliff, I thought, “Well, I’m going to make a dedicated effort to get a band together and perform shows.” So my first effort, locally, was just to get involved in music. We kind of went backward; we were 28 or so.
Q: So, next was the Art Conspiracy project?
A: Those things kind of dovetailed together. That was just from seeing the Texas Theatre, driving past all the time and thinking, “Wow, I would love to use that space for something cool.” I had come up with this idea to do art and music. I was modeling it after this guy in New York I had been reading about who would do these installations where he’d paint that day and then resell his work.
Q: Steve Keene?
A: That’s right. I was influenced by him. I thought, “Let’s do something like that, bring in 30 artists.” I called my friend Sarah Jane [Semrad]. She said, “Let’s not do 30; let’s do 100.” We had a tight deadline, because our friends had just moved from New Orleans to Oak Cliff because of Hurricane Katrina. We wanted to use the funds for that. It was a lot more successful than we ever anticipated. Fifteen minutes beforehand, we were thinking no one was going to come. And 700 people showed up.
Q: Which brings us to the Oak Cliff Transit Authority.
A: It was a harebrained idea. I went out riding bicycles with [my son] Asher one morning, and we saw the old streetcar tracks, and we noticed all these old buildings in our neighborhood, at the end of the old streetcar line. It was really a pie-in-the-sky thing. I grabbed a kid’s metal detector and went out to the street to see if there were tracks. [Laughs.] We met with Dave Spence, who’s a major developer in the area. We asked him about bringing the streetcar back, and he said, “It will never work.” So I thought, “Okay, maybe I’ll make that my little niche.” Like I said, I was emboldened—maybe falsely—by Art Conspiracy and the success of that. Like, “Wow, if I can do that, what else is possible?” I created this organization that was me and maybe a friend or two, took a picture, and called ourselves the Oak Cliff Transit Authority.
Q: It took off from there?
A: From that, the Dallas Morning News picked up the story, and I had a ton of people write in. It seems like it tapped into this undercurrent. Engineers came out of the woodwork: “How can we help?” It became legitimate, with a board and everything else. I’ve learned so much since then about why it’s viable and why it’s good. Hundreds of cities are returning to these, because of economic development, revitalizing streetscapes, lowering crime, and all the things you’d want to see happen. Initially, I didn’t have any education.
Q: Where does it stand now?
A: We started working toward a feasibility study. For these things to work, it’s always kind of a private-public partnership. INCAP—that’s Alan McDonald, Brady Wood, and those folks—they’d been acquiring land in Oak Cliff. Alan immediately got it. From there, we kept our eyes open for opportunities.
Q: Like the partnership you’ve forged with the city of Fort Worth. I’m sure that got the city’s attention.
A: We met with DART and with the city of Dallas to make sure we weren’t competing. They said we weren’t, so we quickly applied for the grants. Some of the City Council people were taken aback, because we were moving so quickly. Fortunately, they came around; at the beginning it was a little contentious. Now Dallas recognizes the project. They did before, but they just kind of patted us on the head.
Q: Would you ever run for office?
A: The reality is, 90 percent of a councilman’s work is ribbon cuttings and dogs barking and lawns not being mowed. You want to get to the cool projects. I think I can get more done being an advocate.