Building Community From Scratch
Words by Jonathan Shipley
“Every once in a while you think, ‘What if I actually have created what I set out to create, and it’s received as such?’ ” These words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, author of “Hamilton: The Revolution,” may have been surging through Jason Roberts’ mind one day.
A regular guy from Garland, Texas, and self-proclaimed horrible college student, Roberts played in indie bands for local clubs, worked at the IBM call center, then got into the burgeoning field of website design in the days of the early Internet.
Miranda’s words may have whispered to him as he visited New Orleans and became intrigued with its gas lamps and courtyards, its eateries and jazz spots—the bizarre and wondrous amalgam of light and dark that is New Orleans. With his growing interest in architecture and urban planning, he wondered if he could replicate a New Orleans block in Oak Cliff, a dingy neighborhood of Dallas.
Run-down and offering little, “dingy” was putting it lightly. Its Texas Theatre, famed for being the place where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, lay derelict, closed to paying customers but open to vagrants, vandals, stray animals, the weather. This block, Roberts thought, could be something. He just knew it. It could become a better block.
In the space of about 24 hours, he and some friends and colleagues made it one. They created bike lanes; set up outdoor seating areas; brought in trees; hung decorative lights; and converted empty storefronts into pop-up stores, coffee bars, and art gallery spaces. They created all this change with very little in their pockets... Let’s see if people will come, the little band of urban renewers thought.
People did come. Hundreds of them. Roberts created a better block, and the city took notice. Roberts asked himself, ‘Can this experience be replicated?’
The Better Block Foundation is a nonprofit that educates, equips, and empowers communities and their leaders to reshape and reactivate built environments to promote the growth of healthy and vibrant communities. “Do you have an idea? Just do it. Do something,” Roberts says enthusiastically. “I didn’t know what I was doing until I did it. It’s not because I’m smarter than anyone else. I just tried.”
He tries again and again, and it works again and again, in cities all around the country: Barberton, Ohio; Frenchtown, Florida; White Flight, Michigan; , Charlotte, North Carolina.
Through 90 to 120 days of surveys, collaboration, and design, Better Block guides communities in revitalizing entire blocks that were previously underutilized or ignored. The organization doesn’t tell a community what it should have on their block; it asks what the community wants, brings clarity to the plan, and makes it happen.
Better Block also offers an open-source model, providing people the opportunity to form their own placemaking coalitions and take back their public spaces. A community, for instance, can now order off the Better Block website a “Better Block in a Box.” The kit is complete with chairs, café sets, astro turf, game boards, cornhole sets, streetlights, tables, and more. These materials all come in a shipping container that, when emptied, can be utilized for a meeting space such as a bar or a gallery. Does a neighborhood want to build a bike lane? A garden plaza? A boccie court? Better Block has “recipes” for such things. Also, with its Wikiblock, communities can download design files for free to make their own benches, chairs, and even large chess sets.
“I enjoy the process,” Roberts says. “Bringing people together. Helping communities be what they hoped they could be.” Making sure communities own the entire process, and giving them tools to make their changes permanent if desired, Better Block is a resource for anyone who looks across the street at an empty lot and wonders if it could be a community garden, a dog park, or who knows what.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, Better Block has had to pivot. Bringing people together when it’s unsafe to do so has proven challenging. It’s had to think outside the box—just as it always suggests communities do. “We’ve been doing a lot of digital fabrication now,” Roberts says. “We are making more things now for all these projects.” And when they’re not making boccie courts or café tables, they’re helping those on the frontlines of the pandemic. “We’ve been making face shields for local hospitals,” Roberts says. “We can make 11,000 a month.”
Helping communities, whether it’s a game of cornhole or making a face mask for an essential worker, Jason Roberts has answered Miranda’s question.
Block by block.