Monday, November 1, 2010

The Deep Ellum Better Block

Over at Better Block, Jason has a post up about the "Better Food Block" where gourmet food trucks were lined up on Flora Street in the middle of the Arts District on Sunday. Judging by the photos, it looks like they had a good turnout. What I like about what they did, was creating a "street wall" on Flora, essentially creating some formality to very informal building arrangements, order out of chaos.

I didn't get a chance to make it over there, but I did check out the Deep Ellum Market and Better Block they set up on Saturday, without similar results.

Photos, graphics, and commentary below:

The Market was set up as per usual on Malcolm X with several vendors under a canopy as well as a stage for musicians. A second market was set up two blocks away in a small "missing tooth" of a building along Elm Street. The "Better Block" took place on half of the block at Crowdus and Elm.

My first comment would be that the two markets were two far apart to generate a real center of gravity, something other Better Blocks have been very successful at doing. On Tyler and Davis, energy was highly focused on specific blocks or intersections.

Second, is that the Elm street wasn't narrowed at all. Parallel parking was replaced with more walking space as the actual sidewalks had tables and chairs from the local restaurants. From sitting at one of these cafes, we witnessed that the majority of traffic still zipped through fairly rapidly, while a handful of cars slowed to a crawl to see what was up.

In fact, this guy chalking something in the middle of the street was the only traffic calming element. Luckily, every car saw him, because nothing else discouraged them from driving at typical 35+ mph.

The pedestrian zones were delineated by barriers which I would suggest actually had a net negative effect on the walkability, preventing the "cross-shopping" or "tethering of the two sides of a street together. They imposed barriers to desire lines, preventing people from going where they want to go. Once I saw two young men pull the gates apart to cross.

Empty storefronts remained empty. The Oak Cliff Better Blocks made a point of filling these temporarily for the day. Whether building owners would be amenable might be another story, but if you think about it, setting up some of the vendors in these storefronts would generate more activity, foot traffic, and window shopping which over the long-term can provide enough attention to lease the space full-time.

The functional nature of the streets were not changed in anyway, which was different than every other Better Block which sought to tame traffic while reclaiming travel lanes for pedestrian or cafe space.

Here is the view from Malcolm X and Elm to the typical Saturday market.

Then from the same vantage point looking down Elm. There is no visible evidence of anything else going on, underscoring the point that there were too many gaps between the various elements to generate enough synergy. While there were musicians at both, you couldn't hear one from the other. Sound and smells are important sensory elements of vibrant urban places, acting as sirens advertising something else worth seeing, hearing, tasting, etc.

Here is the second market.

This last image is probably the most telling to me. The common emotion of suburban style development is one of fear, of retrenchment, backing away from any form of engagement with anyone else, the bad scary 'other'. The emotion behind the Better Block is one of love, of re-engagement, of curiosity of what others are up to, and wanting to meet and be around other people.

But the emotion that has made the Better Block so successful is brazenness. Where bureaucracy, political timidity, or ineptitude all too often prevent places for people, the Better Block just did it, inspired by an outgrowth of frustration with all of the above.

The City often gripes about development projects not being urban enough, but they are products of the transportation system that the development interfaces with. High speed roads beget development that backs away, that attempts to buffer itself from metal moving at deadly speeds. Make more walkable streets, get more walkable developments. Deep Ellum still has a good bit of walkable urban fabric, but it will never be successful as long as it has unwalkable streets slicing through it.