By Jim Schutze
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"Oh yeah, I forgot this was illegal," Mariana says with a smile and an eye-roll, a plate of locally harvested carrot and squash salad on the table in front of her. The carrots came from goat herder Howard's garden at his home off Fort Worth Avenue. The squash are from the WDCC itself. Mariana can tell the origin story of everything but the organic pasta in the spread she's set out—figs from a tree down the street, honey from her bee colony. Still, she's seriously breaking the rules. The petite renegade with bright brown eyes and a pixie haircut just plain forgets that she is such a troublemaker.
"When you feel good about doing something, and when it makes everyone around you feel good, why wouldn't you [forget]?" she wonders. "You're not hurting anyone. You're only making it better."
Making it better. That's the Oak Cliff "biko" ethos. The term was coined by the Observer's own city columnist Jim Schutze earlier this year and has been accepted by the group of twenty- and thirtysomething self-described activists who've decided to bring a kind of Euro-urban way of life to the area.
They ask for forgiveness, not permission, when turning steamy-hot urban blocks from asphalt roadways into mini-parks for undertakings like the Better Block Project, a quality of life experiment in walkability where, last spring, activists painted a bike lane on the street and took over parking spots with outdoor café seating in the triangular intersection at Tyler and 7th streets near the Bishop Arts District. Rock bands played on the sidewalk, and local artists taught kids arts and crafts all day long. The project was spearheaded by Jason Roberts, who's lived in Oak Cliff for a decade and has become one of the neighborhood's preeminent bikos. Roberts founded the Bike Friendly Oak Cliff cycling group and his Oak Cliff Transportation Authority coalition brought a $23 million federal grant to the area for the implementation of street cars.
Bikos think hyperlocally about small changes that could have a big effect on improving their quality of life—and quick. When Roberts and his friends decided they'd like some bike lanes in Oak Cliff and looked into going through City Hall, they saw it might take years. He wondered, "Why don't we just do it ourselves?"
Bikos see walkways where others see parkways. They believe, radically in this town, that roads and intersections ought to be as much for people and public transport as they are for cars. They have this thing about demanding to know where their food comes from—and they'd like the answer to be a bit more specific than "Whole Foods."
The bikos didn't wait for someone else to make their hopes a reality by lobbying City Hall and begging for scraps of space from high-dollar developers. They just up and did these things themselves. Community garden bike tours and one-off street fairs have coalesced to change Oak Cliff, no specific-use permits or public-improvement districts required. More than ever, people are walking around, waving to their neighbors or stopping by friends' places on bikes to drop off homemade pots of honey and fresh fruit.
Suddenly, Oak Cliff's got a one-up on the rest of the city. Neighborhood improvements in Deep Ellum and Lower Greenville creep along, mired in meetings and zoning and official associations. But not, it seems, in Oak Cliff. Somehow, the place just works.
"People use the same tools and expect different outcomes," says Howard, speculating about why Oak Cliff seems to have come out so far ahead in the livable space game. "Back room" deals, as he calls them, aren't the way to improve quality of life, at least not the way the bikos have done it.
Of course, Oak Cliff still relies on the official way of doing things, plenty. There's no shortage of people in suits driving around the area carrying blueprints and city blessings. The City of Dallas-approved Bishop/Davis Land Use And Zoning Study, which will bring mixed-use development, higher-rise buildings and limited parking to Bishop Arts and the surrounding area, is evidence of that—and evidence that not every biko has the same vision for the area. Jason Roberts says he found himself arguing with long-time friends over the study. He found it extremely painful.
"Some people are afraid of density," says Roberts, though he isn't. He sees the Bishop/Davis plan as the best way to deal with a future population increase in the area. "We've got to find a place to put people," he says. "Otherwise we're going to create sprawl, and that's even worse." The Bishop/Davis plan allows for tall buildings, but not wide ones. That's one of the reasons Roberts supports it. "The wide buildings, that's where you get the Rent-A-Center and The Gap." The plan includes incentives for developers who don't bulldoze existing buildings and places bans on drive-thrus and tattoo parlors.
Yet the specter of gentrification looms, and while bikos are certainly concerned about it, they also feel as though their hands are tied.
Amy Cowan, who works a day job as a fundraiser and events planner for the Democratic Party, has worked closely with Jason Roberts on the Better Block Project and other street parties. She and her husband have lived in Oak Cliff for three years and are raising their two children there. Cowan says she wants her kids to grow up among the social and economic diversity of Oak Cliff.
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