• Krista Nightengale

A Look Back at the MLK Food Park



It was just a few hours before the opening of the MLK Food Park, and we had no fewer than two dozen items still left on our checklist. We didn’t have quite as many volunteers as we had expected, and stress was running high. One of the items on the checklist was problem-shooting a couple structures that weren’t behaving, another was addressing the high winds that were forecasted to sweep through the area later that evening, and yet another was hanging kites as a backdrop to the stage.

A volunteer walked up, introduced herself as Melody, and said, "Put me to work." I asked if she would like to help me hang those kites.

As we began working, I could tell the task was going to take way more time than we had allotted. My mind was racing with what to do next, how could I get a few more people out, and of course, squashing the “what ifs” that inevitably pop up just a few hours before a huge event.

Melody was not aware of any of this. She kept working and talking, and eventually began to slowly pull me out of my head and into the moment. She and her husband live and work in South Dallas, the neighborhood where the park was popping up, a neighborhood that the rest of the city has a tendency to talk about in negatives instead of positives, a neighborhood that has faced decades of neglect, redlining, and disinvestment.

I stopped going through my checklist and turned all my attention to Melody (and the kites).

She talked about how beautiful the colors of the park were. She talked about the seating, the shade, and the donated plants. And, of course, she talked about the kites.

She asked how I was doing.

She asked how our team was doing.

And she made me stop to fully take in the moment.

It’s very easy in our work to miss the moments. But, lucky for us, there are always neighbors present who not only bring us into them, but help create them.

We experienced these moments over and over and over again at the MLK Food Park, a pop-up park created from a vacant lot in South Dallas. If you were one of the 5,500 people who attended the park during its nine days of operation, you know exactly what we’re talking about. While we helped orchestrate a couple of these moments by securing permits, creating a design, and connecting partners, it was the community that brought it all to life.

If you weren’t able to visit, then watch the video above by The Leap Agency that captured the story so well, and take a look at some of the details on the project below.


HOW IT CAME ABOUT

The MLK Food Park was truly a labor of love for so many. It began in 2019 when The Real Estate Council gave us a grant that was to be focused on a complete streets approach to MLK Boulevard. We held a kickoff in March of 2020, and then, COVID hit. So the project paused.

As 2020 progressed, we watched small business owners, especially those in the food industry, struggle. And we watched as so many of those same small business owners were impacted by the loss of revenue from the cancellation of the State Fair. We began to look for ways to assist, and that’s when an idea we’d discussed for a while came back up: why not create a food park highlighting various types of mobile food vending? It wasn’t a new concept. But while it has worked for years in cities like Portland, Austin, Toronto, and Copenhagen, it hadn’t been done by many here in Dallas. Why not? We soon discovered one answer to that question was policy.

Thus, this project became two-fold: 1. Prove the concept; 2. Work to update policy.


PROVING THE CONCEPT

When we started this project, we were told that no one would go to South Dallas for a food park. We heard it from the very beginning, during planning, and throughout the installation.

But we knew that was not true. And so did the neighbors of South Dallas.

The first step to proving the concept (and inviting people to the space) was in the design itself.

Transforming a completely empty lot is tricky. With no edges to work off of, we had to create some. By designing a pergola system shaped like a "V," we could funnel people between the vendors and give them a sightline to the stage. The key to the pergolas was creating individual vendor spots. To do this, we used both colorful shade sails and custom-designed facades, which mimicked the great space at Gabriel's Wharf in London. The community asked for a kids' area (volunteers put together swings), healthy eating (so we added a community garden), and seating (which we accomplished with both off-the-shelf cafe sets and our Wikiblock tables).

And to top it all off: we added a bunch of umbrellas and a "kite alley," which doubled as shade.

We wanted to keep the park as open as possible to the community, so it was important to have entrances at various points, and avoid any feelings of walls. This approach worked pretty well, but made counting visitors a bit tricky.

And this count was important, because as we've already mentioned, we were told people wouldn't come.

But they did.

Over the nine days of the park’s operation, we had more than 5,500 visitors. The headlines during that time were focused on positivity and hope rather than crime and despair. We had more than 60 vendors, artists, and performers take part in the project with more than half of them being from South Dallas. These partners put up with a lot: we had a few days of rain, which led to a very muddy site and power was a bit iffy. Regardless, the vendors showed up, every single time (you can see a few of them in the video below). When asked why they participated, they all said because it’s time for something like this in their neighborhood.

“The MLK Food Park has been monumental and transformative for my company,” said Kapreta Johnson, owner of Brown Suga Vegan. “Before this, we were kind of struggling to get our name out there. But the community has been so receptive. … People vote with their feet. Wherever they go, that shows you what they’re interested in, and the community has shown us that this was needed.”

Another vendor, Linda Bey of Sacred Instruments Jewelry, echoed the same thoughts. “The last 30 days have been abundantly wonderful and awesome to have something like this from the community, and get feedback from the locals, and have them enjoy what South Dallas has in store,” she said. “It has been something that has been definitely needed. It’s built unity in the community, and also helping out the local businesses to thrive during this time.”


UPDATE POLICY

Policy updates are something we’re continuing to work on. The first ordinance that needs to be addressed is mobile food vending. In place for a decade, many of the requirements are outdated. But we’ve also learned a lot about mobile food vending over the past decade, and with all the new ways to be mobile, there are some new elements needed. We have a small task force that’s been researching policies in cities around the country, and in the next month, we’ll be putting forth our recommendations. (If you have any thoughts on this you’d like to share, email us.)


NEXT STEPS

As the park came down and we began analyzing all that we’d learned, the biggest point was that we know that the temporary park did not change the systemic oppressions and resulting issues the neighborhood has faced over the years. There is a relatively well-known drug business in the area, and we were told that before the park, there were up to 20 sales an hour at that spot. When the park was in place, that slowed to a trickle. When the park was taken down, business picked back up.

During the build, a couple of our tools were stolen (of course, after that happened, some neighbors in the lot next to where we were working came over and told us they had our back). There were a few gun shots, prompting one non-local vendor to leave. And there was a homicide a block away one morning before the park opened. When we talked to the vendors about it, most of them said they live in the area, this was not uncommon, but they wanted to continue on with the park.

We understand that the park was not the solution to everything. But we do believe that it was a spark—a spark for a bigger conversation, a spark of recognition that concepts can and absolutely will work in South Dallas, a spark for the vendors to take their businesses to the next level, a spark for organized neighbors to take the next step.

Desiree Powell, who coordinated vendors, is working on some smaller pop-ups through the summer, and we have shared the contact info for the vendors for other opportunities around the city.

This was by no means the end of the work, but just the beginning. And that leads us to our thank yous.



THANK YOUS

It is impossible to list every single person who made this project happen, but we want to acknowledge the core team who helped bring it all to life.

A big thank you to TREC for bringing us in and trusting us through the process. This project was just a small piece in the investment the team has made over the years, and we look forward to seeing how the organization continues to work with the community and community partners, including Cornerstone Baptist Church, St. Philip's School and Community Center, and Forest Forward to bring more of the plans to life.

This project would have been impossible without Desiree Powell from blckspces. We met her last year, and instantly knew this was a person we wanted to not only work with but learn from. She not only headed up the coordination of the vendors, but spent hours answering questions, moving trash cans, and discussing how to build equitable spaces. You’ll be seeing a lot more from her.

For this one, we’re going to give you a peek behind the curtain while bragging on one of our teammates. As with every single other organization in the world, COVID greatly impacted our business. We’ve had a skeleton team working miracles, and Kristin Leiber, our senior project manager, poured her heart and soul into the MLK Food Park. Nothing fazed her, no obstacle was too large, and no detail was missed. We’re grateful to be able to create a team with people like her on it.

We’d also like to thank the Friends of Fair Park for donating to cover the cost of the permitting fees for our food vendors, and to put seed funding toward continuing the work. And a huge thank you to all of you who donated to the park. All told, there was more than $100,000 worth of time, talent, and treasure donated.

And to the South Dallas community: thank you. You let us into your community; you shared your thoughts before, during, and after; you trusted us with your vision; and then you took the park beyond anything we imagined. We are so grateful for your partnership, allyship, and friendship. Thank you.