Of Beer and Neighbors: Welcoming Four Corners Brewing to the Cedars

On Friday, I had the most meaningful beer I’ve ever had.

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Most of you know what’s happening in the Cedars. Back in 2014, a lot of major buildings on Ervay (one of DHV’s borders) changed hands–with significant redevelopment plans. Promises were made with projected opening dates of 2016. All of those buildings remain quiet for a variety of complicated reasons.

Months after that initial flurry, Four Corners Brewing announced they were moving from their original location in Trinity Groves (West Dallas) to the Cedars. This was a different kind of development plan–an established business expanding–and though the last announced, they’re the first to open.

I don’t remember exactly when I first met Greg, one of the co-owners, but I remember how I approached that first meeting. Meeting new potential partners can be a little like dating–the main purpose is to get to know each other. You don’t want to reveal everything on that first date. What if your special brand of crazy shows too early? My goals for that first meeting were pretty simple–I really just wanted them to know who we are, that we like beer, and determine their timeline. Of course, I had lots and lots of other ideas. After all, I love craft beer almost as much as I love museums. But it seemed a little too forward to put all that out there on the first meeting.

But then Greg and I got to talking. I learned that he had volunteered at DHV as a kid back in the 1980s. I learned that he was already thinking about ways we could partner. So, I pretty much shared all of my ideas at the first meeting. And I don’t think I scared him too much, since we’ve kept talking.

Of course, with any construction project, there are delays. Their original opening date was supposed to be in March. But when the tap room opened for the first time on Friday, I was there. And I had a beer. And it was delicious.

But it’s not just about the beer. The completion of this project is such a clear articulation of the vision so many of us have for the future of the Cedars. They took an overlooked, historic building (it was originally the stables for the Ambassador Hotel across the street), beautifully updated it, and created a new community gathering space.

Last night, we hosted a DHV members happy hour. Many familiar faces were there, but by far, the most important person there was Ruth Ann. She’s one of our founders and has been involved with us for over 50 years. Ruth Ann graciously declined a beer, but she just had to see what our new neighbors had done with the building. She ended up chatting at length with Greg, both about the business and the neighborhood.

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Greg, one of the co-owners, chatting with Ruth Ann. Past chair Don is also listening in.

As we were chatting, she said to me “I’m so amazed at what you’re doing. You’re just one of the most clever people I’ve ever met.” And I turned to her and said “I don’t know, Ruth Ann. You’re pretty smart too. You saw what the museum and this neighborhood could be all those years ago, when there was absolutely nothing.” I guess our mutual admiration society continues.

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Trying to ride the wave of all this neighborhood redevelopment is exhausting. Sometimes it is frustrating. It certainly requires a lot of patience! But the last few days have reminded me why we keep going. If the presence of Ruth Ann at a brewery on a Tuesday night doesn’t speak volumes to the faith and loyalty our supporters have in both the museum and the neighborhood, then I don’t know what will.

And it continues. Tonight, I had drinks with another neighborhood partner, also giving new life to a fabulous historical building. It will be an unprecedented partnership, one I can’t talk about quite yet. But it’s yet another reminder of how naturally collaboration comes to our organization. The difference now is geography. Finally having neighbors–and our mutual desire to work together–will transform the museum in ways that were beyond my wildest dreams when I took the Executive Director title 3.5 years ago. I think we can all drink to that.

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Step by Step: Neighborhood Redevelopment

In the last few months, my work has taken a surprising turn. I’m having meetings about things that I don’t think most history museum directors ever dream about. People are approaching us with some pretty incredible ideas–ideas that have made my jaw drop and my mind whirl. After about the third time, I started thinking about what caused all of this. And though I could be wrong, the motivations seem to boil down to three main things: our location, our reputation, and the fact that I spend an awful lot of time out in the community talking to people.

And then I flashed back to a board meeting a few years ago. We were looking at the budget, and it wasn’t pretty. We were running a deficit again. Heck, we’re still running a deficit. Out of frustration, a board member said “How will we ever stop this slide?”

“Well, we’re hiring development consultants so we can all learn how to better fund raise. And we can’t discount the impact that the coming development will have. A rising tide lifts all boats.”

“So, you’re saying you’re pinning the entire future of this organization on neighborhood redevelopment?”

“No. But I’m saying this pending development makes me a lot more optimistic about our future, though we’re going to have to work hard to fully take advantage of it.”

Some board members nodded. Some avoided looking me in the eye. Some gave me the side eye.

And though it’s too early to say “I told you so,” I do believe these conversations are a sign of what’s to come–and a sign that a vital neighborhood will make a real difference for our museum. Of course, it’s all taken far longer than I anticipated. Of all the buildings on Ervay that changed hands in 2014, only one is under construction. Back then, we were told that things would be done and open in 2016. Now I just laugh at developer timelines. But yesterday, I had a big meeting with one of our neighbors and that project is finally starting to move forward (and it will be amazing!)

And last weekend, we celebrated another big project and big win for the neighborhood–the grand opening of the Lorenzo Hotel. This building, super visible from DHV, has been empty for years. It was an eyesore, overrun by homeless.  Initially, the redevelopment proposal was for affordable housing, and the neighborhood fought that. Today, we have a gorgeous, funky boutique hotel with a pretty fabulous bar.

There was no question about whether or not I would go to the party–I wanted to celebrate that one of the big ideas for the Cedars was complete. And when it was mentioned that a few folks were renting hotel rooms that night, I decided to splurge and get one too.

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It was a party unlike anything I’ve ever been too. Of course, there was lots of food and drink. But there were also aerialists spinning by the pool, mermaids swimming in the pool, body paint artists and fairies roaming around.

And most shocking, there was a line around the block of people trying to get in. At that party, a lot of people learned that there is life south of I-30.

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Me, with neighborhood artist Jim and friend Stephanie. We didn’t have to wait in a line to get in!

We’ve got a long way to go, both as a neighborhood and as an organization. Balancing the budget continues to be a real challenge. Quality of life issues are enormous. But I can’t help but think big and continue to be incredibly optimistic. In a few weeks, we’ll present to the Master Plan Committee and staff some initial ideas for DHV’s future, and we’ll be doing it at the Lorenzo Hotel. It just feels exactly right to think about the future in a place that is a few steps ahead of us.

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The view from my hotel room. That green stuff just to the left of the big white building is DHV. And you can barely see the Dallas flag!

P. S. I wish I could be less vague about some of these big ideas and partnerships. I want to shout it from the rooftops! (and if I see you in person, I’ll probably share). But nothing is official yet. Trust me–I’ll share when I can.

Other duties as assigned

Last week, I had a lengthy interview with a local reporter about the homeless encampment just on the other side of DHV’s fence.  Since July 2014, we’ve had a steady stream of individuals that have chosen to live next to the I-30 access road, behind our Farmstead.

About halfway through that interview, I said to the reporter, “When I became a history museum director, I never dreamed that I would also become an expert on local homeless issues.”  But this isn’t going to be a post about the complexities surrounding homeless issues in Dallas–after all, I’m hoping that this is an issue unique to us and our urban environment.  However, the odds are good that at some point in your career, you’ll also be facing a difficult, complex issue, whether internal or external.  Though this issue is far from resolved, I thought it might be helpful to share a few lessons I’ve learned over the past 18 months.

Get to know your local political representatives TODAY.  My first meeting with Adam Medrano, councilman for District 2, was in March 2014.  It was just a getting-to-know-you general tour.  In the following months, we invited him to our fundraiser, I got to know his assistant, and ran into him occasionally at the neighborhood restaurant.  So, when I wrote my first email asking if there was any way he could help with the homeless encampment that had popped up on our perimeter, he already knew who I was and what the museum meant to the neighborhood.  Our first communication wasn’t about an issue, which made it a lot easier once there was an issue.

Do your research.  In this case, I began reading a lot more articles about homeless issues in Dallas.  We have a much larger tent city under a nearby overpass, so I follow any developments with that, knowing that our smaller camp will also be impacted.  And as painful as it may be, read the comments on social media.  It helped me learn what trigger words to avoid in any communications I made about the issue.  It’s also a prime way to identify potential advocates–or people to be very careful around.

Communicate constantly.  Over the last year, I’ve had a lot of meetings about this issue with a lot of different people–city attorneys, elected officials, police, and people working directly with the homeless.  I make sure that staff and board know about each of these meetings and what I’ve learned.  When a reporter showed up to talk about the encampment with no warning (and I was offsite), I let my board chair and our PR people know immediately.  And when the story aired, I made sure to send the link to the board, along with an assessment of any potential repercussions.  (For those that don’t follow journalism about homelessness in America, it can be very easy to be made out as if you hate the homeless simply by not wanting them to camp near your property.  This was what I worried about–how might DHV’s reputation be impacted by this story?  The good news is that everything was mostly fine.)

Have friends to whom you can safely vent.  In some ways, homelessness is the third rail of politics.  I have to be very, careful of what I say, but the whole situation is deeply frustrating.  No one should be living next to a highway, whether they’re next to my museum or not.  And all of this has been going on for a very long time.  It’s good to have a few people that I can share my frustration with–so it doesn’t accidentally leak out in public.

Start working today on better understanding and increasing the soft power you hold in your community.  Several weeks ago, I picked up a newish book from the American Alliance of Museums, Cities, Museums and Soft Power.  The majority of the case studies feature internationally known art museums, so the connection to our issues and opportunities was slim at best.  However, there were several times I found myself nodding.  Without knowing the term, I’ve been steadily increasing our soft power in the community for the past two years.  So, what is soft power?

According to the authors, Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenburg, “soft power is the ability to influence behavior using persuasion, attraction or agenda setting.  Where the resources of ‘hard power’ are tangible–force and finance–soft power resources are intangibles, such as ideas, knowledge, values and culture.” (p. 9)  So, what does this mean when facing a neighborhood homeless crisis?  DHV matters in a very different way than the new developers or the homeowners.  I saw this immediately in response to an incident last July: a cooking fire turned into a small grass fire uncomfortably close to one of our historic structures.  Within a few days, I was able to line up a series of meetings that neighbors had been trying to get for weeks.  And, of course, I made sure to have a neighbor with me at those meetings.  Soft power also means that we’re not the only ones asking the city for help on our behalf.  Two different neighborhood associations have asked for assistance on our behalf, as well as scores of friends via social media, calls to the police and more.  Our neighbors want to protect DHV as much as they want to protect their neighborhood.  If your complex issue is at all external, your institution’s soft power will be invaluable as you work through things.

This issue is far from solved, both in the city at large and in our own neighborhood.  In fact, in recent weeks, both our encampment and the larger Tent City have gotten larger.  But we have a pretty amazing team, forcing the uncomfortable conversations and working towards a solution that will serve both the homeless and the neighborhood.  And as the neighborhood’s fortunes rise, DHV will also rise.

 

 

 

Mapping the future

Highway design usually isn’t a thing that museum directors have to think about, but when your northern border is an interstate, it comes up.  In my very first post here, I talked a bit about my surprising meeting with TXDoT officials as part of the CityMAP project.  Since that meeting back in July, there have been several articles about the project, as well as a few public listening sessions.

There are so many remarkable things about this project.  It apparently began with Commissioner Vandergriff in Austin noticing that Dallas has been having a lot of disagreements about highway projects (namely, whether the Trinity Toll Road should be built and whether I-345 should be torn down.  For the record, I’m against the toll road and undecided on I-345).  So, he realized that maybe there should be a series of conversations about what the community’s priorities are, so that when highway funding became available, he would know how to direct those funds.

Let’s pause for a moment with our collective gasp.  A Texas politician is looking for wide, broad based community input?  According to their one sheet guide “the goal of this effort is to develop a set of transportation, urban design, and adjacent development scenarios with associated investment considerations for the major urban interstate corridors identified.”

As I was waiting for the last of these listening sessions to begin about 10 days ago, I couldn’t help but think how shocking this whole process would be to those who planned I-30 over 50 years ago.  Though I haven’t done the historical research, I’m pretty sure they didn’t do a single community listening session.  Today, people are clamoring for more parks, green space and walkability.  Fifty-plus years ago, they thought nothing of taking half of the land of the city’s first park.  They thought very little of destroying homes and neighborhoods.  For 5o years, the Cedars has been fighting to overcome the damage that highway caused.  Only recently has real development begun, at least in our corner of the Cedars.  And now, there are a chorus of voices asking for solutions to bridge I-30 and reconnect the Cedars, Dallas’ first residential neighborhood, with downtown.

During the meet and greet, I ran into one of the architects that had been at my meeting.  He said two things to me that I found pretty amazing.  First, he said “You know, I keep talking about our meeting.”  Though I can’t know for sure, I’m wondering if that day back in July was truly the first time they had looked at the historic aerials and realized the damage I-30 caused to traffic flow in and around downtown.  That comment sure supports that suspicion (and also causes me to do a bit of a fist bump for history!).  And then he said: “One of my personal goals for this project is to make sure DHV is easy to find for anyone.”  I, of course, thanked him profusely.  And later, I thanked him again for being an advocate for the Village.

I did my duty and followed the rotation to each station, all highlighting a different area around downtown.  And then I got to our map.  I was with a friend who happens to live in the Cedars, so together we jumped right in.  “This, deck it.  Link DHV and Farmer’s Market.”   And we just went from there.  I think the moderators were a little surprised at our passion!

During the summary portion, the Cedars moderators stated at the very beginning “Every group mentioned the need to link DHV and Farmer’s Market.”  (well, actually they called us Dallas Heritage Park, but I suppose I can get over that.  Maybe.)  And then, the very next day, Willis Winters, the director of Parks, was interviewed on NPR.  He stated that he had 3 priorities for deck parks–and DHV and Farmer’s Market was #2.  So, it was a pretty good 24 hour period.

Why does all this make me so happy, especially when the optimistic side of me knows it will probably be 15 years before any of this happens?  Well, for years, this has been an idea DHV has been advocating, but we always felt kinda lonely.  We’re not alone anymore–there are lots of people that also believe that healing the rift caused by the construction of I-30 is something that can and should be done.

We have a proposed strategic plan under review by the board right now, and one of the main focuses is community involvement.  One of the supporting parts of this is the need to be active and engaged in conversations about the future of our city.  During one of the conversations with the board, a trustee asked “But where’s the money in this?”  I had a pretty good answer for her, with actual dollars, but the real reason why it’s in the strategic plan right now is this: The conversations happening in this city right now will shape the city for the next 50 years.  Dallas is at a turning point.  And if we don’t want to be left behind, we have to be at the table.  The visitors will come, and the money will come.  But right now, we have to attend a lot of meetings, participate in a lot of conversations, and plant a lot of seeds.  And in the meantime, I’m learning an awful lot about urban design and highway planning.

A different kind of community anchor

A couple of years ago, I was sitting in a professional development workshop, taking a quiz about how connected we were with the community.  The quiz deeply frustrated me—Dallas Heritage Village is located in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country.  Major institutions in the city routinely have close to a million annual visitors.  Our annual budget isn’t even a million dollars.  The second most visited history institution in Texas (behind the Alamo) is a few minutes’ drive away.  And this quiz was asking me if the mayor had ever visited my museum?  And how often other city officials attended events? I asked the facilitator: “If you’re a small organization in a big city, how can you begin to make those kinds of connections?”  They stared at me blankly.  Part of me wondered if perhaps there were some other ways to measure community engagement.

Museum people spend a lot of time talking about becoming engaged with their community, and I think most of us acknowledge that this is a key to future sustainability.  For many museums, this may mean program partnerships, collaborations, and efforts to get your audience demographics closer to your community’s demographics.  This is incredibly important work, but for me, the definition of a community anchor has become infinitely more complex—and infinitely messier.

Dallas Heritage Village is located on the edge of Downtown Dallas, separated by a major interstate.  We are also in the middle of a redeveloping neighborhood known as the Cedars. This redevelopment has been a long time coming, but it’s also been incredibly rapid.  Eighteen months ago, DHV was a virtual island; today, we’re working with 6 new partners within walking distance.  When all of this began, I knew that we had to make sure we were a part of the conversations.  New eyes were turning to the Cedars, and I wanted to make sure that everyone knew who we are, what we do, and that we had been here all along.

City Park, 1880--future site of Dallas Heritage Village
City Park, 1880–future site of Dallas Heritage Village

And I suppose this is where my thoughts about museums and community really began to change.  Internal strategic planning was put on hold, because external factors were changing too rapidly.  And I started to have meetings with people that history museum directors usually don’t interact with.

First, it was the real estate developers.  They saw our land (27 acres in all) and said “Oh, look! A park!” And I said “Not exactly.  A nationally accredited history museum in a parklike setting.”  Then they said “Oh look! Parking!”  And after multiple meetings drawing up a parking lease, we had to say “No, we can’t lease park land to a private developer.”  Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would create a folder called “Parking Issues,” but that folder is resting happily in my files because the issue will likely come up again.

In January, there was a meeting called by city staff to discuss the formation of a task force for our neighborhood.  But somehow, despite the fact that we are the largest landowner in the neighborhood and the fact that we are on city land, with city owned buildings and city funding, my invitation never arrived.  A close relationship with our councilman and a neighborhood activist got me a seat at that very large, round table.  Looking around, I was astonished to realize I was the only female at the table.  And I was even more astonished when a developer (whom I had not yet met) said “No matter what our plans end up being, Dallas Heritage Village will always be the showpiece of the neighborhood.”  And thus, my annoyance about not being invited in the beginning was tempered by the fact that I didn’t have to explain how valuable we are to the development plans.

Then it was the traffic and transportation people.  In the winter, I got an invitation to a meeting to discuss updating a strategic plan regarding transportation issues for downtown.  My first thought: this must be a mistake.  My second thought: Even if it is, I’m going to show up.  So, I did my homework, pulled up the existing transportation plan, and discovered that there was a proposed streetcar line through the middle of our property.  On a street that had been grass for several years at the time this plan was released.  And with that, I had no problem fitting that meeting into my schedule.

A few weeks ago, I got a call from the Texas Department of Transportation.  They are currently doing a massive study and plan for all of the highways around downtown Dallas.  I arrived to a meeting at a downtown high rise to be greeted by traffic engineers, urban planners and architects.  Though I had been sent an official set of questions, we never got to them.  They said “How does Interstate 30 affect you?” and I was off and running.  I’m not sure they were expecting me to be able to talk about those bigger issues, but in the last several months, urban planning has become a lot more interesting to me.  This meeting was supposed to be an hour; it lasted almost two hours, the day before a holiday weekend.  But the most surprising aspect of this meeting is the way they kept asking “What did I-30 do to the neighborhood?” The last 30 minutes of the meeting were spent looking at aerial pictures of downtown pre-I-30 and talking about the damage that interstate did.  (In my head, I was cheering “History at work!”) At one point, I made a comment to the traffic engineer “I hate to place all the blame on your predecessors,” and he said “Oh no.  I don’t see any reason why they did what they did.  This makes no sense.”  In some way, that comforted me.

Aerial shot 1975
City Park, post construction of I-30. 1975.

But it’s not all urban planning and real estate developers and traffic engineers.  Last week, I had two meetings about the growing issue of homeless encampments along our perimeter.  Our north border is the interstate, and there is a median between us and the access road.  Just over a year ago, TxDoT rescinded the Criminal Trespass Affidavit it had with the Dallas Police Department.  Now, the only way DPD can clear those camps is if they witness an active criminal act.  Because it’s not our property, our hands are tied, but it’s deeply affecting us.  Homelessness is an incredibly complex issue, and there aren’t a lot of answers for the service resistant.  And yet, our historic buildings, our staff, and our visitors are at incredible risk.  So, in one day, I had meetings with a VP of public safety for downtown, city attorneys, the office of our state representative, and the head of crisis intervention with the DPD.  There aren’t a lot of answers, but at least I now have the assurance that we’re all working together for the same goal—finding the best solution for these individuals and the neighborhood.

As a former educator, my heart will always lean towards the warm and fuzzy stories of community engagement.  But from a practical standpoint, community engagement means so much more.  It means getting involved in local politics—not just making sure the local politicians are invited to your events, but making sure you’re being included in the important conversations shaping your city. Sometimes it means showing up at meetings that may only have a peripheral connection to your organization.  Most importantly, it means educating yourself on the issues, whether it’s urban planning, homelessness, or traffic flow.  My job has changed in profound ways as a result of these efforts, and it’s also changing my museum.  We’re becoming more externally focused, more flexible, and more creative.  We’re becoming a community anchor, not just for the Cedars, but for all of Dallas.

This blog will help me chronicle that story and hopefully provide some guidance for those that may be facing similar issues.  Won’t you join me?