The idea behind this month’s Advocate cover story is “people you see in our neighborhood,” and who is more recognizable than Jason Roberts? The 37-year-old Kings Highway resident is a co-founder of Art Conspiracy, Bike Friendly Oak Cliff, the Oak Cliff Transit Authority and, perhaps most famously, the Better Block project. He also brought us Bastille on Bishop, the Dallas Tweed Ride and iBike Rosemont, which encourages elementary school students to ride bikes to school. He is a partner in the super-hip Oddfellows restaurant. He is a go-to source for media outlets working stories about cycling, urban planning and anything having to do with our neighborhood. In Oak Cliff, he is utterly ubiquitous.
Jason, you’re probably the most recognizable person in the neighborhood.
It’s funny you say that because the only reason I’m considered a bike source for the city is because I take all these passionate stands. And I don’t think I’m necessarily the best representative of all things bicycle. But what I do think I can represent is better form, better use, walkability and all that kind of stuff. I want holistic communities where you have your small grocery, your butcher, your local businesses, and you can ride your bike or walk to them or take a streetcar. I’ve almost become a reluctant activist because I just want a better place to live. But when you’re seen as a leader in certain causes, you start to feel some pressure on the back end from people saying, “Why isn’t this happening?”
How did you become this leader of causes?
I see all these cool things happening in other places, and I think, “Why can’t we have these things here?” You can’t wait for other people to do it. If I want bike lanes, I can’t wait for other people to do that. I have to learn as much as I can about it and take that on myself.
What were you doing 10 years ago?
I was in a band. I had just moved to Oak Cliff.
Where did you move from?
Garland. That’s where I grew up. When I married Andrea, we wanted to live in an older neighborhood, so at first we looked for a house in the M Streets, but that was just so expensive. And then Andrea said, “You know, I think Oak Cliff could be the place to look.” If you’re from the northern suburbs, nobody went to Oak Cliff. I don’t think we realize how bad the perception was of the area. When you told people you were moving to Oak Cliff, they were like … “Why would you ever go there?”
Well, what did you like about it?
It has a sense of community. It’s not like the suburbs. You know your neighbors. We realized what a great community we were in. But then we realized that a lot of our needs were missing here. If you wanted a certain food item or a certain restaurant or activities for your kids, you had to leave the community, and we didn’t necessarily want to leave our community.
How did you get started with community work in Oak Cliff?
Art Conspiracy was the first thing. It was at the Texas Theatre in 2005. My band had been playing around the country, and we had seen a lot of cool places. Hurricane Katrina had just happened, and we had friends who lived in New Orleans, so we thought maybe we could use this event to raise money for them. I asked Sarah Jane (Semrad) if she could get 20 artists to participate, and she said, “Let’s make it 100.” It was kind of an excuse to use the theater, too. We really wanted to get people inside the Texas Theatre. And before we opened the doors, we thought, “Maybe this is a terrible idea.” We were asking people to come out to this old boarded-up theater, in Oak Cliff, in December. We put it all on our credit cards, and we were afraid it would be this abject failure. But then 700 people came out. That proved that with a little elbow grease and a little moxie, you can turn something around and at least change perception. I’ve applied that to everything from bikes to streetcars to blocks to schools, and I’ve realized that half the battle is perception.
Changing perceptions is the basic idea behind the Better Block project.
We were really just trying to get the conversation going about public spaces and these outdated city ordinances that were affecting businesses on Tyler and Davis. Zoning had taken away all these uses. You should be able to have café seating, and you should be able to put flowers on the sidewalk, but none of these things were allowed. Unless you do something dramatic, people won’t get involved. The first Better Block was a way to show people what we were talking about. Can we not make it into this block that we’ve all dreamed of having? So we decked it out, and we broke every ordinance we could think of. We put in bike lanes. We didn’t close the street because we wanted to show what it would be like realistically in the long-term.
That event got a lot of attention in the media, including a mention in the Washington Post, and it’s been copied all over the country.
What was kind of amazing about that project is that so many people came out, and city staff was almost relieved because they want these things, too, but they just need a champion. And all the old ordinances were immediately questioned.
I have some silly questions for you. Here’s the first one: Where do you buy your hats?
All over. Anywhere I can find them. Epiphany, Target, House of Macgregor. When you’re a bald guy, you need all the help you can get.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I’m a huge Woody Allen fan. I love old music from the ’20s and ’30s. I love vaudeville. And I’m a Francophile. Andrea and I were married in Paris. We were poor, but we figured out a way to get over there. That’s why I did Bastille Day, because it wasn’t feasible to take a family vacation to France, so I wanted to find a way to bring Paris here. That was just something I did for Andrea, and it’s amazing how popular it’s been. It just shows you that there’s pent up demand for that kind of thing.
Superman or Batman?
Superman. Flying would be a lot of fun, although I guess that would take away from my bicycling.
You were a co-founder of BFOC. Have you ever thought about unicycle friendly oak cliff?
That’s funny you mention it because Jeremy [Ordaz of Oak Cliff Bicycle Co.] just bought a unicycle that he has in the shop there. We’ve joked about moped oak cliff.