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New EarBurner: Elizabeth Wattley Wants to Bring the Forest Theater Back to Life

Meet the CEO of Forest Forward, the nonprofit that’s trying to bring back what was once the cultural soul of South Dallas.
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Elizabeth Wattley wants to raise $75,215,000.

The number reflects the ZIP code in which the Forest Theater resides, which Wattley hopes to transform into a community hub. She’s the CEO of Forest Forward, the nonprofit that owns the 74-year-old theater, and has big ideas for the building that once hosted B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, and Prince.

The plans include a 1,000-seat performance hall, a 13,000 square foot arts education hub in partnership with the neighboring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Arts Academy, a café, podcasting studio, and a rooftop lounge. This was, for many years, the cultural heart of South Dallas, and Wattley is hoping her group can deliver on its legacy.

She’s no stranger to big, risky concepts. She was a big reason why Paul Quinn College pulled up its football field and started growing produce, which is also why she has okra growing in her backyard. She talks about the history of the Forest in South Dallas, how it started as a segregated theater in a neighborhood that hadn’t yet been split in two by US-175. After the highway came and segregationist policies and violence triggered White flight, the theater changed its rules.

“Once they opened the theater to the Black community, that’s when the theater started thriving,” she said.

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Elizabeth Wattley

But 75215 has challenges that she believes the nonprofit can be a part of solving. According to research done by Parkland Hospital, this South Dallas ZIP code has the lowest life expectancy in the city of Dallas. Property values are rising, threatening to push out longtime residents who can no longer afford their taxes. (Only two other ZIP codes in Texas saw larger property value jumps from 2016 to 2023.) It’s why Forest Forward is exploring an affordable housing component.

But South Dallas, as she says, is a “strong, prideful, historic, rich neighborhood.” And Forest Forward is halfway to its fundraising goal.

“Give us a chance. Let us activate some things and see what happens,” she said.

Listen to the episode below.

Author

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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