One of the most encouraging subplots of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been a story of adaptation.
Groups, organizations, and neighbors have pooled resources, schemed plans, and unrolled do-it-yourself solutions to meet some of the most pressing needs of the medical crisis. These include alcohol distillers who are producing hand sanitizers, jeans manufacturers who are producing protective gear, and restaurants who are reinventing their business models to stay open and keep their workers employed.
Better Block, the urbanist activist/design consulting organization founded by Jason Roberts, responded quickly. First, they repurposed some makeshift market stalls to transform Oddfellows in Oak Cliff into a pop-up outdoor marketplace, selling the restaurant’s freezer and pantry stock to neighbors in need of kitchen staples. Then Better Block turned their production facility into an open-source protective mask factory, and they have been shipping the face shields to medical providers around the country.
A couple of weeks ago another idea emerged from the Better Block brain trust: shutting down city streets to create new pedestrian plazas to help relieve congested parks and allow for more social distancing-compliant outdoor fun.
It sounded like a good idea before it all fell apart amid a bitter neighborhood squabble online.
Public Space in a Pandemic
Better Block’s logic was simple. Places like the Katy Trail and White Rock Lake had become overcrowded with people looking to get their daily fresh air amid the long-term shelter-in-place order. The pandemic had produced a surge in demand for public space, while revealing Dallas’ appalling lack of it. Could Dallas, at least temporarily, fix the problem by creating new public spaces?
Better Block got its start back in 2009 precisely by reclaiming parts of streets that had been designed for cars and reimagining those same spaces as places designed for people. The pandemic had created an opportunity to use this same approach to create safe public space for sheltered neighbors.
City officials were contacted, plans were quickly drawn up. The pilot program would choose streets in Uptown and Oak Cliff that could be temporarily closed and turned into long pedestrian plazas. Because the shelter-in-place order has reduced traffic on city streets, city staff was open to the idea. One of the streets the team sought to close was Seventh Street, a neighborhood block that already has minimal traffic. I remember talking to Roberts a decade ago about the potential for transforming underutilized sections of Oak Cliff’s street grid into pedestrian zones and bike routes. Seventh was high on that speculative list. Now COVID was creating an opportunity to turn that old dream into a reality.
Then the word leaked on Facebook.
What happened next happened quickly. On Friday, April 3, I spoke with North Oak Cliff Council member Chad West about the proposal. He seemed jazzed about the plan. A draft budget had been drawn up and submitted to the city. Maps depicted closing Seventh from Tyler Street to Bishop Avenue—connecting the two main hubs of commercial life in North Oak Cliff. But by Monday, West told me the plans were shelved. Over the weekend, a bitter neighborhood dispute broke out across multiple Facebook pages and groups populated with prominent neighborhood figures, and disagreement about the project was deemed too divisive to see it move forward.
I spent some time scrolling through the back-and-forth. It is easy to get bogged down in the interpersonal histories and gripes which seemed to have fed into the tenor of the bitter arguments over the plan. But at their core was a familiar impasse. The fight over closing Seventh dragged up many of the same tensions and hard feelings that have defined the last few years of Oak Cliff’s urban revitalization project, offering a lens through which we can better understand the benefits and costs of improving neighborhoods in a city characterized by what might be called widespread geographic urban inequality.
Social Media Distancing
On the one hand, advocates of the plan saw the street closure as a straightforward solution to a pressing need. Parks are crowded, but Dallas’ urban space is ample. If the city could carve off some of the space it cedes to vehicular traffic and give it back to pedestrians, residents would have more places to get outside during the lockdown. Supporters saw the Seventh St. shutdown as a way to give Oak Cliff residents an alternative to heading to places like White Rock Lake. They could enjoy a pedestrian plaza, maybe greet neighbors from a safe six-foot distance, and maintain a sense of community and connectedness during a difficult period of isolation.
Opponents feared that the closure wouldn’t create a neighborhood jogging trail but would instead transform their street into a recreational destination for stir crazy people from across the city. After all, who were the people getting crowded out of the Katy Trail and White Rock Lake? They were not Oak Cliff residents, who have already been enjoying their relatively empty streets, staging impromptu corner happy hours with neighbors, and going on afternoon runs throughout the neighborhood’s collection of parks, trails, and tree-lined streets.
Oak Cliff residents have already been enjoying the relief of living in a neighborhood during a city-wide lock-down that boasts relatively healthy city streets. Shutting down Seventh would only draw people from outside Oak Cliff into the neighborhood, making it more congested—and potentially more dangerous—to people already living in the neighborhood.
Some supporters of the street closure derided these fears of infected Dallasites crossing the river to stroll on Seventh, but are they valid? From a public health perspective, opponents of the street closure have a point. The science around how much space is necessary to adequately social distance is evolving, but even at six feet, it can be more difficult to maintain a safe distance that we might think.
Daniel Rotsztain, an artist, writer, and cartographer based in Toronto, demonstrated this by making a “social distancing machine” — a kind of comic performance art piece — that shows how social distancing transforms the ways in which we experience and move through space. The machine basically consists of a round tube with a radius of six-feet, which Rotsztain strapped to his body before attempting to navigate Toronto’s streets without bumping into anyone. It didn’t go well.
Rotsztain shows, albeit in a goofy way, that there is an reasonable argument that closing Seventh, while intended to make walking on the street safer, may draw crowds and create additional risk. Depending on your pandemic risk tolerance, you might dismiss these fears. For me, I would love to see Seventh turned into a pedestrian plaza full-time, but I know if my 72-year-old parents lived on the street, I wouldn’t want to turn their block into a temporary Katy Trail during a pandemic.
But then, disagreements around what constitutes proper social distancing are not at the root of what this dispute was really about.
A City Starved for Urban Streets
What killed the Seventh Street deal was not public health, but rather public distrust. The pandemic-induced street closure kerfuffle offers a new lens through which to see an enduring tension over Oak Cliff’s recent success, friction that is familiar to many neighborhoods in Dallas that have undergone processes of urban revitalization in recent years.
Successful urban neighborhoods are in very short supply in Dallas, and this creates a strange dynamic when a community manages to succeed in improving their neighborhood. While urban revitalization generates benefits for neighbors—increased investment, housing, jobs, certain services—it also introduces new economic and social pressures.
The limited supply of walkable neighborhoods ensures that making urban improvements in a neighborhood only serves to push up real estate values and trigger displacement. Outside investors enter the scene and double-down on what they see as the most successful economic trends of the revitalization, nurturing a commercial monoculture. Streets that were improved with the intent of helping to create a more vibrant neighborhood become a destination for people who live in other neighborhoods. Neighborhood pioneers who wanted to create a urban community end up creating an urban entertainment district.
This dynamic isn’t the fault of the people who drive change. We should all want to improve the neighborhoods we live in. But when a city lacks viable, vibrant urban neighborhoods, pent-up demand for urban life quickly overruns any newly improved neighborhood. The COVID-related flap in Oak Cliff reveals another quiet victim of these transformative forces: community trust.
In Oak Cliff, neighbors turned on each other over the proposal to shut down Seventh because neighborhood improvements are now seen by many as neighborhood threats. The added benefit of a new neighborhood pedestrian plaza was rejected by those who feared it would simply become another regional attraction. And when a project intended to strengthen community can also be seen as a project that erodes community, it becomes nearly impossible for neighbors to see eye-to-eye.
All arguments appear as paradoxical. Why wouldn’t you support something that helps you? Why would you advocate for something that hurts you? The medicine is the poison. It is the catch-22 of urban success in a city starved for it — a kind of neighborhood cannibalism. We can’t have nice things, it will ruin us all. Seventh remains open to cars.
It shouldn’t be that way, of course, but the problem isn’t anything Oak Cliff residents can solve. The problem will only be solved when more neighborhoods in Dallas follow Oak Cliff’s path—when more neighborhoods are revitalized and transformed into multi-modal, multi-use, fully functioning urban communities. It will only be solved when urban amenities are no longer a luxury good, but simply a dynamic of living in a city.