By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Here's what Oak Cliff has that Brooklyn and Austin and Dallas-north-of-the-Trinity don't: Oak Cliff cool isn't ready-made. Nourished in an already diverse urban womb, nestled atop a pre-World War II street grid made for both living and working, Oak Cliff cool isn't a top-down affair. Gaze out west from your favorite downtown high rise, and you're looking at a neighborhood that is not merely changing, but one that is being molded, consciously, by those who have chosen to invest their time, their money and their physical bodies into its creation. Simply put: You can't buy biko.
"There's so much latent potential in Oak Cliff," Scott Griggs told me. The biko way—"the guerilla and the rogue stuff"—creates gradual changes that help resist gentrification and improves overall quality of life by putting people in touch with their neighborhoods on the ground level.
There are the Oak Cliff biko staples—gardens, farm animals, art, to name a few. But the thing about Oak Cliff is that there's room for so much more. After decades of near abandonment by the other, alien Dallas—the Dallas north of the Trinity—Oak Cliff isn't about to get too picky about the crazy things folks are thinking about doing there (crazy, like demanding bike lanes and walkable neighborhoods).
Two ideas exist simultaneously in Oak Cliff, and they seem to rule the everyday: immediacy and slow living. They're not mutually exclusive. There is the sense that one has a moral obligation not to wait to implement one's best ideas. Want a bike lane? Don't ask for permission. Buy a bucket of paint and get out there on the street, now. Immediacy. And then there's the idea that maybe you shouldn't get your drawers in a wad when things don't work out just so. Maybe you should just sit back and grow a tomato or two and brew some sun tea and have a dip in the dumpster pool. Slow living.
"I'm championing that idea of living casually," says Jason Roberts, who wants more "slow foods, slow bicycling, just taking it easy as a community."
Of course, it's nice to have the time and resources to live slow and sit around thinking about rock and roll and planting trees. Bikos are mostly white folks, and they're not living paycheck-to-paycheck working minimum wage. They've got graduate degrees. They are lawyers, doctors, artists, urban planners and educators. Is the West Dallas Country Club little more than a modern-day version of Marie Antoinette's Petit Hameau? Are bikos just a bunch of gentrifying jerks?
The Belmont Hotel, clinging to the edge of one of Oak Cliff's tallest promontories, has been the go-to gathering place for biko-types for years. Celebrating an idealized bygone era highlighted by its Art Moderne design, the Belmont's got this vintage cool thing going on that hip kids—bikos and otherwise—are digging these days. Boasting a pool with possibly the best view of downtown in the city, it's a natural meeting place for people with big ideas. People like the CityDesign Studio urban planners, who've been charged with drawing up plans for the future of West Dallas and North Oak Cliff. They have extensive connections to the existing bureaucracy, funded by the Trinity Trust Foundation, a coalition between the City of Dallas and some of its best-known, and often richest, families and developers.
Vancouver-based urban design czar Larry Beasley has been invited to lead the CityDesign project, and he spoke to a group of—let's be real here—mostly white folks reclining on the grass at the Belmont pool a few weeks ago. Bantered about was the buzz phrase "experiential urbanism," people experiencing their city on a small, everyday level during walked shopping trips or interactions in parks with neighbors. There were also the grand proclamations about progress.
"We are the most educated, liberated, richest people in the history of the world," Beasley told the crowd. We, today, have as much wealth as "a 15th century prince." He spoke of the beauty of European cities. And while he was talking, a car could be heard driving down the hill along Sylvan Avenue, blasting Tejano music. The white folks listened on to Beasley, hardly noticing.
Back at the farm, Andrew Howard shoos Clyde out of the blackberry bush one more time. "We wondered how the neighbors would take to a bunch of gringos coming over," he acknowledged. He likes what the CityDesign folks are doing—in fact, a lot of bikos are behind it, because it incorporates existing structures and neighborhoods into a future plan for the area around Fort Worth Avenue. As pseudo-outsiders who have no intention of remaining outsiders for long, bikos are a kind of bridge between City Hall and long-time neighborhood residents.
Jason Roberts, who "just started showing up" to Oak Cliff neighborhood meetings, fell into being biko because there was some funding available for bike programs and no one else took it. Now, he's a fixture at any civic gathering where people are talking about bike lanes. "I've got this moment where people are paying attention to some of these ideas." Now, he has long talks with city council member Delia Jasso about what's best for Oak Cliff—and how to keep the big box stores and Uptown look out of the neighborhood.