Friday, September 30, 2022 Sep 30, 2022
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How Big Data Turned an Empty South Dallas Lot Into a Vibrant Plaza

An empty parking lot on Malcolm X Boulevard has been transformed into a plaza for the community. It’s another way community organizations are addressing violent crime without traditional police interventions.
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Krista Nightengale

Just two weeks ago, the parking lot at 4505 S. Malcolm X Boulevard was nothing more than that: an empty lot with cracked concrete and fading paint. Drive by it today and you’ll see life and color, splashes of yellow and red and green, a basketball court, a climate-controlled shipping container, room for vendors and nonprofits to set up, places to sit and places to play.

“It’s an area where there is a lack of financial resources and a lack of investment,” says Owen Wilson-Chavez, the senior director for analytics at the nonprofit Child Poverty Action Lab, known as CPAL, which organized the plaza project. “What would bring a sense of safety to the community and lead to a reduction in incidents of violence in the area?”

In 2019, this was the epicenter of violent crime in the Dallas Police Department’s southeast patrol division. “Malcolm X and Marburg,” says Ricky Wilkerson, a lifelong South Dallas resident who provides mutual aid services through an organization called Robbinhood Inc. He was part of the community group that helped inform programming at the plaza. “We knew that was our high crime rate area.”

CPAL put numbers to that by executing something called “risk terrain modeling.” It’s basically a targeted data analysis that splits the city into thousands of grids, some of which are the size of a couple of football fields. The Dallas Police Department’s new Office of Integrated Public Safety Solutions then uses that data to identify where to invest in lighting, blight remediation, partnerships with businesses, and other services that don’t fit neatly into what has been considered traditional police response.

This data proved Wilkerson’s hunch correct. The cell at the intersection of Malcolm X and Marburg was the highest risk cell for 2019 in the entire Southeast Patrol Division, which CPAL broke up into almost 36,000 individual grids. A violent gun crime was 564 times more likely to happen here than anywhere else in the southeast, which includes most of the city south of Interstate 30 and east of Interstate 45.  

There have been plenty of academic studies showing that tiny geographies often account for a majority of a city’s violent crime. Risk terrain modeling compares these areas and identifies traits that are common near violence. Like vacant lots and blighted buildings. Add lighting, invest in improved pedestrian infrastructure, figure out the services that are lacking—CPAL believes all these things can help reduce crime, pointing to similar programs in cities such as Philadelphia that have shown success.

This stretch of Malcolm X is marked by vacant lots, empty storefronts, convenience stores, bad sidewalks, and speeding drivers. But change is happening here. A nearby nursery recently expanded. The United Peoples Coalition helps with mutual aid, organizing food drives and diaper donations and jacket giveaways and whatever else is needed. Until last year, the organization used a building across the street from the new plaza, a partnership with Wilkerson’s healthy juice bar, Sunny South Nutrition. (Wilkerson says the organization couldn’t afford a rent increase; the community outreach group Not My Son has since moved in and does similar work.)   

Mayor Eric Johnson prioritized zooming into these sorts of micro-geographies through his violent crime task force, which led to the creation of the Office of Integrated Public Safety Solutions. This plaza on Malcolm X is the next step. In many ways, the project is a continuation of the work that mutual aid groups and volunteers have done here piecemeal for many years. For the next three months, they’ll all have a place from which to operate.   

“How do we counter some of the risk by bringing positive activity or positive intention to places, or just the possibility for something positive to occur?” Wilson-Chavez says. “There wasn’t as much happening in this area because the city wasn’t focusing on it.”

CPAL partnered with the community to pull this off. The lot is owned by the Oak Hill Mission Baptist Church across the street. The United Peoples Coalition is helping with programming, planning pop-up mutual aid campaigns on Tuesdays. That air-conditioned shipping container will transform into a summer camp for kids in the neighborhood. There will be Friday movie nights and Saturday basketball tournaments. The Oak Cliff nonprofit Better Block led the design, using input from the neighborhood to inform its features. The effort will last three months and conclude with a back-to-school festival, an annual event that Wilkerson and the United Peoples Coalition organizes.  

“There is a sentiment that this is an area where people pass through,” says Rachel Tache, a trauma prevention and public safety fellow at CPAL. She was responsible for the public engagement work. “Folks in the area go from home to work and back, but they’re not spending much time engaging otherwise. That spreads these feelings of isolation that we hope to address with the plaza.”

This is Better Block’s fourth transformation of an empty lot. The first two were in Vickery Meadow and at the intersection of Forest Lane and Audelia Road, both partnerships with the U.S. Department of Justice. Kristin Leiber, a senior project manager at Better Block, described those efforts as “your very basic Jane Jacobs approach,” referring to the late urbanist and author’s argument that having more people in public together helps reduce crime. “There are more eyes on the street,” Leiber says.  

The third was the MLK food park, which morphed a lot into a hangout with food trucks and trailers and other vendors. About 6,000 people attended over eight days, and its success spurred the city to pass new regulations that make it easier for mobile food vendors to operate.

The goals of the plaza on Malcolm X are also inspired by the work of Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey, who is known for exploring the connection between violence and place. He finds that community groups—and activity—have an outsized impact on reducing violent crime. In a city with 100,000 residents, every 10 organizations that form to “improve community life and reduce crime” results in a 9 percent reduction in the murder rate, a 6 percent reduction in the violent crime rate, a 4 percent reduction in property crime rate.

United Peoples Coalition and Robbinhood are both examples of this. Wilkerson says “harm reduction” was a major goal for both groups. Outside of Sunny South Nutrition, Wilkerson had a pantry for dry goods and fresh vegetables. There were two refrigerators to keep perishables cold.

“People didn’t have to steal out of yards. People didn’t have to steal out of stores. They could come get it from us,” Wilkerson says. “People said, ‘Y’all can’t do that. Someone is gonna steal the refrigerators.’ But the fridges were never stolen from us.

“We do this from the bottom of our hearts. This started from our own pockets, making something out of nothing to just to make our community safer, to make it more peaceful.”

Sharkey writes that “a growing body of evidence also demonstrates the promise of micro-level place-based interventions … in significantly decreasing violence within these neighborhoods.”

By 2021, this area had dropped from the highest risk cell in the patrol division to the 463rd. That was likely a culmination of things. Groups like Wilkerson’s were active in the neighborhood, and the Office of Integrated Public Safety Solutions began investing in new LED lights and other public improvements.  

Not My Son, which moved into the building across from the plaza and is also helping with programming, was formed during the uprising against police brutality following George Floyd’s murder. It has since expanded into a social services organization, helping house people during the freeze and holding food drives—another organization that fits into Sharkey’s work.

All of that is in the background. The plaza is meant to give folks some place to go that’s safe to gather and spend time. Wilkerson and other volunteers are there from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, offering mutual aid services. For him, it’s a simple goal.

“Most importantly, I’d like to see the kids have a great time,” he says. “They don’t have to worry when they’re riding their bike or walking up and down the street. They don’t have to shoot a basketball into a milk basket versus being able to go to the court and shoot a basketball. It’s nothing but positive feedback that we’ve been having since Friday.”

The Malcolm X plaza will be active until August 21. Head here to learn how to volunteer.

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Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…

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