There is potential in a vacant lot. Sometimes it can be hard to see. But try a little and you can envision what will appear Friday at a previously empty space in South Dallas, at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Holmes Street. There will be greenspace and a garden. Public art and shaded seating. A play area for kids. Live music. Shipping containers and pop-up structures. Food trucks and carts and other vendors from the area.
There will be a place for families, neighbors, community organizers, and small business owners from South Dallas and southern Dallas to come together—and to consider what else is possible.
This corner of South Dallas has a rich cultural history revolving around the presence of the nearby Forest Theater. The landmark was a lively movie house before it became a venue that hosted performances by the likes of Prince and Wilson Pickett. It later served as an arts center run by Erykah Badu. But the Forest Theater has sat vacant for years (although efforts to restore it are ongoing), and the neighborhood also has a long history of poverty and disinvestment driven by racist public policies, evident in everything from redlining to community-splitting highway construction.
Organizers of the MLK Food Park, which kicks off Friday and runs every weekend through May 2, hope the pop-up can inspire sustainable change in South Dallas. It’s the result of a partnership between the Better Block Foundation and The Real Estate Council, which has over the last several years committed more than $2.5 million toward its Dallas Catalyst Project aimed at revitalizing what it’s calling the Forest District. When Better Block, a sort of “tactical urbanism” nonprofit that specializes in transformations of public space, first began considering concepts in the Forest District, it had planned something that would focus on creating temporary bike lanes and more approachable sidewalks.
“Then the pandemic happened and we put it all on ice, and took a look at what was going on in the neighborhood,” says Kristin Leiber, senior project manager for Better Block. They noticed the vacant lots.
“We realized in the neighborhood there’s no safe, green, attractive space for the community at large to gather,” says Leiber, who heard from residents wanting to see art, music, and landscaping incorporated into just such a space. “We recognized the value of a place that’s good for kids, good for families, good for opportunity.”
South Dallas has been hit hard by COVID-19, highlighting the inequalities in healthcare, income, and housing that have made the pandemic especially challenging for many of the city’s Black residents. Workers with lower-wage jobs who can’t dial in remotely have been disproportionately affected, forced to choose between risking their health or risking their paycheck. And with the State Fair of Texas canceled, some neighborhood food vendors lost the five weeks of the calendar that made their livelihood.
“What are they doing with their time?” Leiber and her team asked themselves. “Where are they finding alternatives to cook and sell food?” Faced with few other options, many of them were forced to operate their businesses from home.
The barriers to starting and operating a mobile food business in Dallas are unnecessarily high. Food trucks—rather than carts or trailers—are easier to get approved, but too expensive to be realistic for many vendors from low-income communities. Some foods and preparation methods are allowed where others aren’t. You can’t, for example, cook raw chicken on-site at temporary events—unless it’s deep-fried. There are different and often vague rules for carts and trailers, which exist in a sort of no man’s land between what’s allowed for food trucks and what’s allowed for vendors at temporary events. The process to get approved by the city is labyrinthine and, again, expensive. Don’t even ask about serving out of repurposed shipping containers.
“Vendors [in South Dallas] have been discouraged by what they’ve heard—those horror stories from the city of Dallas,” says Desiree Powell, the vendor lead for the MLK Food Park. The paperwork alone can be a nightmare. “People see the packet and they get intimidated.” Powell, who has previously collaborated with Better Block on a project in Vickery Meadow, owns the urban planning and design consultancy BLCK SPCES, which helps business owners navigate an overly complicated permitting process and works to create spaces that put people first.
The vendors appearing at the food park come largely from South Dallas and southern Dallas. Most are Black-owned businesses, and many illustrate the possibilities available to mobile food vendors: vegan soul food and healthy juices can work just as well as tacos and barbecue.
The food park is temporary, but organizers hope it will inspire lasting change in a community where many residents experience food insecurity, and where restaurants and grocery stores can be scarce. Perhaps it could spur policy and zoning changes at the city level, making it easier to open and operate a mobile food business somewhere other than, say, Klyde Warren Park. It should at the very least serve as an incubator for aspiring vendors in the area. “This can show people they can have a business and they don’t have to go to downtown or Deep Ellum,” Powell says.
Cities like Austin and Portland, where more accessible policies and generous definitions of “mobile vending unit” have nurtured booming food truck and cart scenes, could serve as possible models for Dallas, says Leiber. But whatever comes from the MLK Food Park should and will be homegrown. “I think there’s a perception that this is a North Dallas issue—people think of food trucks,” she says. “The real opportunity here lies in what this can do for areas like South Dallas.”
The food park will get packed up in May. But food vendors who were previously operating out of their homes will have received the permits and equipment they needed to keep their businesses viable after it’s gone. Neighborhood residents will have come together to talk and plan for the future. That’s what Better Block does, Leiber says: help people realize they have the power to make changes where they live. Community wealth can be built through “beautiful, functional, space,” she says.
All that from what was until recently a vacant lot.
The MLK Food Park kicks off April 9 at 6 p.m. at 1611 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It will be open through May 2 on Fridays from 6 to 8 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Go here for more information.