Mud and overgrown grass blurred the line between a sidewalk and a vacant lot along Race Street after a recent storm. Glass shards, broken tiles, and nails littered the landscapes, embedded like fossils that told the story of businesses gone under.
Two dozen volunteers gathered on a miserably humid Saturday morning to clean up the mess, but none of them attacked the job with the gusto of Riverside resident Daniel Williams. No wonder: He’s a military man with that trademark focus. His shovel broke through the dirt and re-established the sidewalk’s edge.
Williams is no stranger to oppressive heat –– he recently completed a yearlong tour of duty in Africa with his Army Reserve unit. Still, five minutes into the job and he was already dripping with sweat.
“It’s no big deal, taking two hours of my day to do some work,” Williams. “It benefits the neighborhood.”
But to observers, it was a big deal. The community was sometimes resistant and even adversarial when McWilliams was leading the redevelopment efforts. Residents weren’t eager to work for free when the street renewal was viewed as a private investor’s development plan. Sentiments changed once the renewal came to be viewed as a grassroots effort involving schools, businesses, the city, and residents.
Volunteers came from the nearby Riverside, Sylvan Heights, and historic Oakhurst neighborhoods to spit-shine the struggling commercial district. Four-inch black stilettos and a pencil skirt didn’t stop Race Street Lofts agent Daphne Hall from stepping out of the office on her busiest day of the week to grab a broom.
“The least I can do is sweep in my heels and get out there to do my part,” Hall said. “There’s still a lot of good in this neighborhood, and the people I see coming in to lease, they want more out of life. This [project] will give them something positive to look forward to.”
The strong turnout was the latest in a recent string of activities designed to start Round Two of the Race Street renovation. The driving force comes in the form of an energetic ball of passion known as Debby Stein, a Fort Worth realtor who gravitates toward underdog causes. She and others are promoting the Build a Better Block method of relying on small businesses and vendors, a vibrant street life, and cultural activities to attract commerce and instill vibrancy in an area.
Better Block projects are different from planned city renovations. Permits are seldom required, and nobody is trying to follow a carefully drafted plan.
“I look at this as like living theater — you try, experiment, and if it doesn’t work, you learn why it doesn’t work,” Stein said. “On paper, it’s hard to do that.”
Carter-Riverside High School art teachers and students are lending their skills to the project and benefiting from it. The Work Room is the nucleus of the project — a studio where local artists who rent space pooled their money to also cover the rent on working space for the students. The artists see the effort as paying it forward — they remember what it’s like to struggle.
Mary Bosley, a Carter-Riverside teacher, is working with the teenagers to spray a splash of culture on the east side of the Work Room building. She got sponsors to donate a new brand of paint for the mural in exchange for free publicity. Bosley said the fledgling artists struggle with finding opportunities to exhibit their work because they have siblings to care for, part-time jobs that are vital for their families, or their only way to travel is the pata-mobile — that is, they walk.
“That’s the beauty of this project,” Bosley said. “They don’t have to worry about anything or drive, because it’s in their own neighborhood.”
The wall will be decked out with abstract graffiti by summer’s end. Sculptures next to the mural help produce a 3-D effect that spray-paint artist and Carter-Riverside graduate Hugo Garcia hopes will draw people to stop and check it out.
“I want people to pass by, stop, and wonder how we did it,” Garcia said. “I want them to think it’s something really great — not ugly like some people think graffiti is.”
Garcia volunteers with the Fort Worth Police Department and We Are Legal (“Tag Teams,” April 4, 2012) to paint over graffiti around the city. He hopes that the public understands that the mural they’re creating is not tagging — it’s art.
“Not everyone knows how to pick up a spray can and make something beautiful,” Garcia said. “It takes craftsmanship.”
The cleanup and mural are essential steps to build momentum for embRACE the STREET, a weekend event centered on Gallery Night in September, when galleries around the city stay open late and attract crowds to drink wine and peruse art.
Stein is working to convince several business owners on Race Street to let food booths and retail vendors set up on their property.
“I don’t get anybody that says no,” Stein said.
The Gallery Night arrangement will be temporary, but residents have another idea that they want to be permanent: a community garden. Behind The Work Room building, an unused parking lot will soon be planted with patches of vegetables and flowers.
Terri McIlraith, Carter-Riverside Neighborhood Association president, is leading the creation of the green oasis.
McIlraith said that no one will be making money from the garden. Those who choose to rent a patch of the garden may decide to sell what they’ve grown, but many vegetables will end up on the family dinner table.
“These buildings have so much potential, and the community members saw that,” McIlraith said. “Once the seed was planted, people ran with it.”
Stein continues to recruit volunteers to the Race Street bandwagon.
“The time is right for this DIY revitalization,” she said.
She gets no argument from Willis, the League of Neighborhoods president.
“Last week we went to Fuzzy’s for lunch, and it was so crowded we couldn’t find a place to sit,” she said.
“It’s a miracle to us that Fuzzy’s and Mamma Mia are here. Before they opened, there weren’t many places in Riverside where you could go and have a meal with your neighbors. To have that still be the case is a marvel to us. We’re still like kids in a candy store.”
You can reach Lisa Maria Garza at email@example.com.
Staff writer Jeff Prince contributed to this story.