Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Better Blocks in OKC

From my TravelOKCity Column

Living in the city, I have always been drawn to creative dynamic districts. Instead of going to the hippest nightspot, I prefer places alive not with blaring Lady GaGa but with folksy local tunes. I love places of diversity where owners of pop-up businesses can share artisan coffee with conglomerates and talk about homegrown art. A thriving place that offers a wide variety of options for the craving palate and the hungry soul seeking self-expression and stimulation. A green society that creatively benefits from the environment without taking advantage of it.

Better Block OKC is in the process of building these communities, street by street, block by block.  A city movement, Better Block OKC is a community revitalization project initiated by Urban Land Oklahoma Institute (ULI), an organization that advocates the responsible use of land and supports in creating and sustaining thriving communities. In alignment with ULI’s commitment, Better Block OKC aims to change the way we live in an urban landscape by temporarily demonstrating how to improve an area with pedestrian and public infrastructure combined with art, culture, pop-up businesses, and street life. I’ve heard a few call it the dream of the Millennials, a place similar to the plazas and markets in Europe where people can lounge, commune, and be inspired. 

Indeed, wouldn’t it be wonderful to step out of your home into a block party or a town fiesta? Or to have a buzzing market with fresh produce and affordable crafts just a walking distance away? I’d like to have a used bookstore and a café just next-door where I can take a break from my writing without breaking the bank.

Last month, I stepped into this aspired world at NW7th and Hudson where Better Block OKC launched its first project, transforming an area that would have been otherwise just another region in the city into a hub of activity.

Trucks lined the streets selling all sorts of food fare from waffles to eggrolls.  Establishments took their café tables and chairs out to join the party. Makeshift stalls sold fresh fruits and vegetables. Shops like OUI showcased handmade and one of a kind jewelry, paper garlands, weavings, and ceramics from independent artists and designers from LA, NY, and OKC.

A pop-up flower shop bloomed with rainforest-certified, free-trade roses from Ecuador. Farm-direct flowers like ranunculus, jumbo hydrangeas, Starfighters, and white Oriental lilies filled the air with the smell of spring and the promise of a blossoming summer.Art installations also decorated the sidewalk, adding to the festivities.  Recycled bottles were used as planters and hung in strings forming a “green” curtain against a brick wall.
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While lining up for Belgian waffles, I witnessed street art in the works. Two young men busied themselves with spray paint, one balancing on a small ladder, the other on a bicycle. Their masterpiece expressed the sentiment of the entire state: a bright yellow thunder rumbling over the opposing team.   

The whole process was art itself, including the spectators taking it all in with their eyes and their camera phones. They gathered around in an almost perfect half circle as the artists moved, in sync to the music, sometimes in unison, sometimes in response to each other’s movement as if they were in a standoff. Their agile bodies swayed this way and that, stretching their arms as far as they could reach to bring forth color.

Better Block OKC was also Better Bark OKC. The 2 day event encouraged furry friends to come by as long as they were on leashes.

 Everything inspired creativity and community to urge the people to get more involved.  An interactive chalk wall encouraged revelers to share their thoughts about community building or simply have fun by making up their own once-upon-a-time –stories by filling in the blanks.

Little notebooks were handed out for visionaries to write their ideas and suggestions for the city.   “Think big and broad. Now and later. Detailed and big picture. But most of all, remember that your ideas matter,” encourages the first page.  “Be a player in your neighborhood; champion its needs, and help us build a better OKC.” Pages are like worksheets or activity sheets where people can draw, doodle, or simply dream.

I don’t know when the next Better Block party is, but soon as I hear about it, I’ll let you know and we’ll have a party.




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