GOOD Idea for Cities: Re-Energizing a Neighborhood's Pride

An update from Dallas: The Elmwood Neighborhood Revitalization team works with a local community to create a renewed sense of vibrancy in its streets.

Just outside of Dallas, Texas lies Elmwood, a large community with a small-town vibe. Established in 1924, Elmwood now faces problems familiar to many cities of its size. Through growing pains and economic recessions, the city's small commercial district had dwindled, resulting in vacant storefronts that attract vandalism. The result is a civic image that doesn't represent the active and vibrant surrounding neighborhood.

With a push from GOOD Ideas for Cities Dallas, the Elmwood Neighborhood Revitalization team focused on bringing local businesses back to Elmwood by transforming the area to a street art destination where pop-up shops and street fairs could take place. The team focused on cleaning up the business district, enforcing basic code violations—such as contacting absentee business owners with unkempt properties—and beautifying neglected pockets of the city, like a mural they painted on a building (above). To immediately reenergize the area, the team organized the Elmwood Street Fair in October, featuring local art, music and food.

Local restaurants sold food at the street fair, showing the diversity of the surrounding neighborhood

Daniel Oney, who represents the Office of Economic Development for the city of Dallas, feels Elmwood is in a unique position. "Elmwood is near neighborhoods that are already being revitalized, so a little push might be the tipping point the commercial area needs to take off," says Oney. Now that traffic and high gas prices have lead area residents to seek public transportation, the two DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) stations in Elmwood have become a boon for the city.

Mark Lea, assistant vice president of Spire Realty Group, was one of the members of the Elmwood Neighborhood Revitalization team. Though all of the team members lived in other areas of Dallas, Lea, whose grandparents lived in Elmwood, had a foot in the door. His family ties immediately made him less of an outsider. Lea's presence has been so welcomed, local residents want him to stay. "They are strongly urging me to move the neighborhood, to the point where they send me home listings and offer to help me move," says Lea.

As a passionate volunteer, Lea realizes the importance of bringing a new set of ideas to any scenario. Yet as an outsider, he researched and worked hard to understand the specific problems Elmwood faces. "New blood and fresh perspectives bring about a renewed interest, but only when you're respectful of existing views," says Lea. "Community and a sense of ownership are huge for getting people invested and motivated to be a part of the process."

A pop-up dog park allowed local pet owners to meet each other

Not everyone was on board initially. "I was a little skeptical at first," said local resident Brian Walker. "I thought, 'Who is this guy that doesn't live here that keeps showing up to our meetings?' As I got to know Mark over time it was clear that he possessed a legitimate—and unique—non-resident interest in Elmwood." Another local resident, Karla Garcia, agrees. "Speaking to someone like Mark, exchanging ideas, and getting everyone involved really sparked the neighborhood to become more active in improving the area," says Garcia.

After months of focusing on beautifying the city, Lea was struck with a moment of clarity. "I realized that all the changes we are focusing on implementing are somewhat cosmetic. Complete economic revitalization, I believe, begins with the schools," says Lea. Much of Elmwood's growth relies on the health of the Dallas Independent School District, which has had its ups and downs. Seeing this as the biggest challenge the project faces, Lea signed up for Leadership D.I.S.D., a year-long crash course that educates those admitted on the structure and struggles of the school district, eventually preparing them to take over a leadership role. "Within this program, I will be pushing for a project that incorporate community involvement with project-based learning within Elmwood's schools," Lea adds.

Members of the Elmwood Neighborhood Revitalization team

With several opinions at play, residents realize there are many more obstacles in the way of the city's growth. "Since Elmwood is so big—about a thousand homes I believe—and demographically diverse, I think getting everyone to embrace the cultural diversity is one of the challenges we face," says Garcia. For Lea, it's just the beginning of a great communal journey. "The improvements are the direct result of dozens of people sacrificing their time," Lea explains. "For most, it has been a breeze. Some feathers were ruffled early on because not enough attention was paid to the existing chain of command." Now that he's completely steeped in the Elmwood community, Lea plans to push the city forward without stepping on anyone's toes.

Photos by Patrick McDonnell

GOOD Ideas for Cities pairs creative problem-solvers with real urban challenges proposed by civic leaders. To learn more visit Watch more videos of recent GOOD Ideas for Cities events, and if you'd like to talk about bringing the program to your city or school, email alissa[at]goodinc[dot]com or follow us at @IdeasforCities

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