By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
But it's one thing to trade watermelons for peaches and have friendly beers over the fence. It's another to preach about experiential urbanism to Oak Cliff's largely working class indigenous population—especially when, along with organic gardens, bikos have ideas about mixed-use development and bars that serve $8 pints.
The Oak Cliff activists I spoke with express a keen concern for preserving Oak Cliff's character and diversity. They've seen the negative effects of gentrification elsewhere, and they're not fans.
While she was living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Oak Cliff artist and educator Kayli House called hers "a very uncomfortable living situation." Crown Heights is a traditionally Hasidic and black neighborhood with poor and working-class residents, but its proximity to uber-gentrified Park Slope and Prospect Heights has meant skyrocketing rental rates.
"I was part of the gentrification of a neighborhood that didn't want it to happen," House says. She and her husband moved out to Staten Island to get away from the negative impact they felt they were having. Then, two years ago, they moved to Flower Mound to stay with her family for the birth of her daughter, and House heard about the changes in South Dallas. She thought about Crown Heights. She says she won't stand for the same thing happening in Oak Cliff, where she and Shannon Driscoll are opening a community-centered arts and crafts education studio called Oil and Cotton.
"I don't want to live somewhere where we're kicking someone out." The challenge, she says, is to incorporate your own vision into the existing infrastructure without "changing the landscape of someone's established home."
Anyway, says House, she'll probably be part of the group that'll be forced out of an expensive gentrified place, if that time ever comes. But for now, House is concerned with the moving in she has to do, rather than the potential move-out.
Oil and Cotton will take up residence in the old Patina Blue antique shop space at Tyler and 7th streets. With every class, whether it's a chemical-use archiving seminar for artists or a bunch of neighborhood kids coming in to build macaroni sculptures, the studio will impart an important biko belief—that what you make, do and believe should be focused inward as well as outward, toward the community at large.
"We wanted to do something where we could really reach out to the community," says Shannon, who wants to see the long-time residents of the neighborhood crafting and creating in her new space.
The idea is kind of a "mini-Bauhaus" space that came out of a pop-up art studio that House and Driscoll ran during last spring's Better Block Project. The women could hardly get people out of their studio at the end of the day. Folks in the neighborhood came to Driscoll afterward telling her, "Please do this." But she didn't have the money, and neither did House. When they complained about the lack of funds to their friends, they were told, "Just do it." The biko way.
Once word spread, donations of art supplies and volunteer time started pouring in. A local architect offered pro-bono work on designing the interior of the space, which they got for a steal from the local artist who owns it. Driscoll says they learned that Oak Cliff activism doesn't necessarily take a load of start-up cash. In fact, says House, "It doesn't take anything but your own built-in ingenuity to make something amazing."
The women have already been in touch with local piñata makers to give demonstrations at their studio, and they'll be bringing in a basket maker from Waxahachie. "All kinds of makers," House says. Because making is what Oak Cliff does.
Those inclined to lament about bikos bulldozing Hispanic cultural authenticity with fixed-gear bikes and whitey folk music would do well to hear Claudio Sanchez's story. He's lived with his mom and sister in a one-story house near the corner of Tyler and 8th streets for seven years. Sanchez runs his own car detailing business out of his home and a trailer he pulls around town. Two years ago, Sanchez says, he told his mom they should move out. Crime was just too bad. They needed to get out.
"Our house got shot up one night," Sanchez recalls. All the time, he'd see "thug" kids "walking down here on the sidewalk, acting stupid." Break-ins were common, and cars would cruise up and down the street. More than that, he just didn't feel like the street was friendly.
Big and burly, Sanchez felt like he had to put his "thug" face on, always keeping an eye out. "People think I'm real scary, you know, because of the way I look," he jokes. "I'm really not." He'd spent time staying in North Dallas with a friend, and up there, he says, he didn't worry about trying to intimidate other guys on the street. But back home in Oak Cliff, he needed to look like a thug to feel safe.
Then, things began to change. Sanchez started seeing people on bikes, and hanging out, not just cruising, on sidewalks down the block.