First Look

MLK Food Park Shines Light on South Dallas Community

The MLK Food Park hosts primarily Black-owned small businesses and will be open now through May 2.
The MLK Food Park hosts primarily Black-owned small businesses and will be open now through May 2. Steven Monacelli
More than 1,500 people were drawn to the opening weekend of a new pop-up food park in South Dallas that launched this past Friday. The aptly named MLK Food Park sits at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Holmes Street, just a few blocks away from the recently renovated Forest Theatre.

The MLK Food Park is open each weekend, Friday to Sunday, until May 2. More than two dozen primarily Black-owned small businesses based south of Interstate 30 will be showcased throughout the duration of the pop-up.

“About 95% of the businesses are Black-owned, and 5% are Hispanic-owned,” says Kristin Leiber, senior project manager at the Better Block Foundation.

The Better Block Foundation is a Dallas-based nonprofit that aims to activate underused urban spaces through a practice known as placemaking.

Placemaking is a philosophy and approach for improving city spaces that emerged in the 1960s when writers like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte began promoting techniques for designing urban spaces that emphasize the needs of local community members at the pedestrian scale.

Such approaches are sorely needed in a city like Dallas where the car still reigns king.

The idea for a food park on MLK Boulevard came from members of the community around it.

After receiving a grant from The Real Estate Council’s (TREC) Community Investors for a project in the area, Better Block began conducting surveys in the community. The surveys showed high demand for sit-down restaurants and green spaces.

These demands are not new. Similar ideas emerged in a 2009 report on Martin Luther King Boulevard developed by the Dallas Citydesign Studio: namely, sidewalk cafes and pocket parks.

MLK Food Park addresses these needs through garden beds and outdoor seating where community members can enjoy food from local vendors. Albeit temporary, it’s a step forward in an area that has long suffered from disinvestment and underinvestment.

click to enlarge The MLK Food Park was a collaboration between Better Block, dozens of community organizations and stakeholders. - STEVEN MONACELLI
The MLK Food Park was a collaboration between Better Block, dozens of community organizations and stakeholders.
Steven Monacelli
“This community has been promised things and had broken promises over and over again,” Lieber says. “Communities like this are often over surveyed and underserved. We don’t survey unless we are going to do something with it.”

After weeks of surveys in late 2020 and a design process in early 2021, Better Block followed through on the promise in a way that didn’t require massive capital investments.

The park was realized with the help of dozens of other community organizations and volunteers. “This was entirely volunteer-built,” Leiber says. “It took about two weeks and we had about 100 volunteers, give or take.”

It’s a demonstration of how a community can reimagine underutilized spaces into thriving places. And it’s a quintessential example of what placemaking can look like, particularly when it is creative and scrappy.

Though the surveying and planning on the project took months, the space itself was transformed in the span of a couple of weeks through clever design practices.

Prefabricated structures like metal shipping containers were paired with digitally designed plywood structures that were custom fabricated to be quickly and easily assembled.

“Most of the items are posted on our website for free,” Lieber says. “They just need access to a CNC router or a makerspace in their community. Then they can download them and assemble them. They’re friction fit, which means there’s no glue or nails. Anyone can hammer them together.”

The dozens of vendors and performers were initially recruited, but after the success of the first weekend, they’re now reaching out to Better Block to find out how they can get involved.

And for good reason.

“All of the food vendors sold out of at least one item, and some sold out of everything they brought,” Lieber says.

Although all the vendor and performance spaces have been filled, there is hope the temporary park, or something like it, will become a more permanent fixture in the community.

“It's the number one most asked question we get,” Lieber says.

MLK Food Park, 1611 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Dallas (South Dallas). Open 6-8 p.m., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends May 2.
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Steven Monacelli has been contributing to the Dallas Observer since 2020. He regularly covers local social movements and occasionally writes about food.
Contact: Steven Monacelli