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Jason Roberts is a renegade builder
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Jason Roberts is a renegade builder
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“People paint over graffiti, you put all this effort into building a sand castle and it’s washed away. Why do you do that? Well, nothing’s permanent in life. There’s no such thing as safety.”
Conversations
1 July 2013

Jason Roberts is a renegade builder

Interview by Livia Albeck-Ripka
Photography by Jackson Eaton

Livia Albeck-Ripka on Jason Roberts

How can we create meaningful relationships? Where can we find the divine in our day-to-day existence, which is increasingly virtual and detached? As soon as Jason starts talking about his work, I realise this is a man who is dedicating his life to creating those magical spaces.

Jason started with his hometown in Dallas, one weekend breaking every council rule to create a place where people would want to spend time together. He brought in trees and temporary furniture, painted bike paths and encouraged his community to run pop-up businesses. “The physical issue of the landscape is a manifestation of the problem socially, where people are not connecting,” he tells me. This is why he cares.

As a child, Jason was diagnosed with ADHD. He dealt with it by “blackmailing” himself into action: making lists and putting them out there for everyone to see. He’s since been an IT consultant to IBM, a songwriter, father, bicycle advocate, authority on streetcars and the founder of Better Block–a grassroots movement encouraging communities to create spaces for meaningful interaction.

Last year, just weeks after his divorce, and days before he flew to Washington to accept an award for innovation from Barack Obama, Jason was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer. Only then did he realise the true impact of his work. His community rallied round, raising funds for his treatment, filling up his fridge and taking him to the doctor. Jason wondered, What happens if you break down and you’re alone?

We’ve abandoned our neighbourhoods and killed off our living spaces. It’s Jason’s mission to bring them back to life.

This story originally ran in issue #36 of Dumbo Feather

LIVIA ALBECK-RIPKA: You were in Coburg yesterday working on a Better Block project…

JASON ROBERTS: That’s right. Well actually, the community put that together.

How was it being there, seeing the community take ownership over your idea like that?

It went really well. Everybody came back saying there was a stronger sense of community, which is really the key to Better Block: getting everybody together, raising that social capital. Surveys came back, where we asked, “What was your favourite part of this?” They all said “A, the sense of community” and B, you had people talking about the fact that they used to have block parties and we don’t anymore. There’s this reconnect that occurs…

You know, I grew up in the suburbs. You could live next to somebody in the suburbs for 10, 15 years and really never know them. To spend a quarter of your life next to this person, and think, How do I not know them somewhat intimately? Know their family, know their issues…

Why do you think that is?

There’s a book called Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putman, which talks about two major reasons: air conditioning came out, and television. People used to sit outside on the porch when it was hot and talk to each other. Facebook, those things, are surface. You’re missing that meaningful social interaction that occurs, really, at the block level. People are just craving that. After this project people said, ‘Wow, there was a sense of community.’ And, ‘We lived here for years and never connected.’ The person who headed it up in Coburg said, “I just started by knocking on doors, and after the project, we were eating pizzas together.”

What is it about Better Block that gets people to realise, Hang on, I’ve never even met my neighbours…

When you don’t communicate, there’s a lot of distrust. Once you get people in the street, you realise we share the same vision for what can improve our communities.

This story originally ran in issue #36 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #36 of Dumbo Feather

It’s interesting, the first Better Block was a guerrilla project and we expected we’d go to jail because we broke every law we could that weekend.

We put the rules up in the windows, thinking, We’re going to be arrested, but that at least it will force a conversation. Instead, everybody came out, including city council members and leaders, saying, ‘We should change.’ That was a big realisation: We share this area and we have a shared vision of how to make it better. Why did we create all these barriers?

Better Block has gone international now. There’s one that just wrapped up in Tehran. The problems being faced in Coburg Australia are similar to the problems in Tehran Iran, they’re similar to the problems that exist in Brownsville Texas… We’re always asked, ‘How do we fix these things?’ People assume it’s a physical problem, but I think the physical issue of the landscape is a manifestation of the problem socially, where people are not connecting. If you had a well-connected community, the physical environment would reflect that. It would naturally be more inviting and beautiful; people would be more engaged.

It’s a bit “chicken and egg” though, isn’t it? The industrial areas, the roads without footpaths, the ugly shopping centres–is that our fault?

It’s funny you bring that up, because Better Block is very much a bottom-up process. Now that it’s become a little more accepted by cities, you’re involving a top-down mindset. Every city that brings us out says, ‘We know this needs to be something from the community, but we’re not opposed–what can we do?’ We say, ‘Well, why don’t you just act as the agent that removes the hurdles?’ Some chaos and spontaneity needs to occur on the ground and government wants to have organisation and order. But you need to open it up to the community; you need to set the stage. If they want to be involved, the government can say, ‘It’s cost prohibitive to do these permits, it takes too much time, so we’re going to allow this block to be innovative for a weekend and basically curb our normal rules of order.’ It takes a lot of trust on the part of the government to do that. It takes a lot of trust from the community too. You have to get the private property owners in the area to say, ‘You have freedom to play.’ They have fears of liability too…

So I don’t know if that answers your question… Why did we create this ugly stuff? I think a lot of it was driven by this idea of the “new”. Everybody lived in an inner-city area, then a new ring of roads was built, and then a new development outside of that. In that new development you had slightly bigger houses, slightly bigger yards, more amenities, newer schools and newer what have you… Then after a while that got dated and aged, so another ring was built around that, and another… By then, we’d created a donut. The hole on the inside decayed as everybody kept leaving for the newer thing. How far can we go? When you spread yourself and all your resources apart you naturally get disconnected.

Where does that belief come from? That bigger, newer–it equals better?

There’s this notion that cities were dirty, industrial, loud, noisy. That, ‘I want more of this pastoral, country kind of environment.’ So we created suburbs replicating a rural experience, but in the end, people wanted the amenities they found in the cities, so they dragged out the stores. These little coffee shops can exist in small blocks because there’s a lot of density, but they don’t survive when they’re brought out to a suburban area–they need more customers. Really, the thing that survives out there are the chains. That’s where you get that bland lack of character. There is a realisation though now that we’ve gone too far and we’re lacking authenticity. That’s what people crave.

That’s what you talk about realising when you are travelling in Europe. You see these beautiful water fountains, and parks, and grandparents spending time with their grandchildren in public spaces, and you wonder, What is the legacy of Dallas going to be?

Exactly.

Why have we killed off our living spaces?

I don’t know if it’s the same in Australia, but in the States we had a lot of racism. We promoted segregation and oppressed a whole community, especially in the South. In the 50s and 60s, Anglos moved away from the city centre in a “white flight”, because that’s where minorities lived. Now, that doesn’t describe what’s happening in Australia. Again, the tendency to create these spaces further out was because of the desire for the new–it really was this idea of “bigger is better”. Dallas had this motto, “think big”. It was proud of this idea. Like, ‘Everything’s big in Texas.’ We said, ‘Well, maybe it should really be “think small”‘ because nobody says, ‘Let’s go to this giant Italian restaurant.’ Nobody says, ‘Let’s go to this massive coffee shop.’ It’s, ‘This little out of the way café…’

Yeah, let’s go to the massive Starbucks on the highway! [Laughs].

Yeah! Nobody really thinks that way.

What makes a place great is not four or five big things, but a hundred little things.

The places we love around the world are only about a block in size, but they’re filled with a hundred great little things: the little café, deli, market, shoe shop, falafel stand, what have you… and usually, in proximity to a great public space where you can linger and see your community. These are our public spaces, these are sacred to us, and we have abandoned them. We live in an interesting time, because some of the older generation still believes this idea that “bigger is better”, but the younger generation is moving back to these inner city enclaves.

Do you think the disconnect also comes from our attitudes to privacy?

I think you’re right. People are becoming a lot more public with social media. At least in the US, privacy is a very, very big deal. Now, if you’re a very private person, people ask, ‘Why? What are you hiding?’ I don’t like the idea of a Big Brother society, but I also have nothing to hide. I’m of the Gen X generation, I’m 39; I’ve got a foot in my parent’s world and a foot in the millennial world. Part of me was raised to believe these things; another part of me is questioning them. I grew up in a suburb called Garland, Texas. I don’t know if you ever had a TV show here called King of the Hill… it’s a cartoon.

Hmm… [laughs].

Beavis and Butthead?

Yeah!

Seen that? Okay. So, Beavis and Butthead was made by Mike Judge from Garland, who did another TV series called King of the Hill, which was about a fictional city called Arlen Texas, which was my city. It was this very blue collar, almost redneckish society; this working class enclave of Dallas.

And Oak Cliff is near there?

Oak Cliff is probably 35 minutes from Garland… the bad part of town.

Nobody went to Oak Cliff.

So why move there?

In our mid 20s, my wife at the time and I were looking at homes in an older part of town that was more well to do, but it was out of our price range. We really wanted to live there because we loved the smallness of it; no commercial spaces, public spaces and parks. But we couldn’t afford it. She said, “You know, if you like these homes and this environment, we should look at Oak Cliff.” I said, “Oak Cliff? Are you kidding me? I’m never moving there.” On the north side of town, anybody who said “Oak Cliff” was usually using it as a pejorative. But we drove through, and I was like, “This is a beautiful area. This is nothing like I thought.” They say that 90 per cent of an issue is perception. And that was truly the issue. Early on, I was told by a developer, “Whatever you do, just don’t put Oak Cliff in the name.” I ended up creating the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, Bike Friendly Oak Cliff, Go Oak Cliff… I thought, I’m not going with the idea that Oak Cliff is bad, I’m going to start telling people, ‘Actually, it’s good to try and change the area.’ Beyond that, I’ll just try to do a lot of fun, quirky, interesting things. I did these crazy bike rides that brought all kinds of people into the area. Like, “Follow the trail of Lee Harvey Oswald”, “Follow the trail of Bonnie and Clyde…”

Better Block was just one project I did with some friends. I actually had four or five projects going on that weekend: a mural project, an outdoor market, an art crawl… Better Block got picked up because somebody filmed it and it went viral. Within a year or two, people really were identifying this area as an arts space, DIY, bohemian in nature… It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, people started moving here. Some really great businesses started popping up and getting investors who had seen our town in the paper. It’s funny, these were just projects that me and four or five friends started.

It’s amazing that instead of waiting weeks or months for the council to approve these projects, you just said, ‘Well, how about we do it this weekend?’ And you started a movement. Where do you get that sense of urgency?

Well, I’ve got massive ADHD… In middle school the psychiatrist told my parents, “If he does what he loves, he’ll do amazing. But ADHD kids, their brains are going all over the place.” I like to do a lot of things at once, to have 10 or 15 projects going. My Mum asked, “How will he get things done?” The psychiatrist said, “Make a list, chuck it out in short order, make sure he puts it out there so people can see that he has to complete it.”

I call it “blackmailing yourself”: creating short timelines and publishing it even though you don’t have it all done; putting yourself on the hook.

It’s amazing, because I’ll go to cities, and people are so excited, like, ‘You’re getting so much done, we want to do this too!’ And I’m laughing in my head, because I’m thinking, Well, I’m basically giving you guys the medicine for ADHD! If you don’t give yourself a deadline, you’ll talk yourself out of it. You’ll think of worst-case scenarios.

And you blackmailed yourself into the Transit Authority?

Yeah! I talked to these property owners and developers about fixing the area and said, “Let’s bring the streetcar back.” One guy said, “It’ll never work, it’s been brought up before, takes too much time, not even worth the effort.” I went home that night and created the Oak Cliff Transit Authority website. The other example is: I ran for US congress last year. I kept saying, ‘Somebody needs to go to Washington and be our representative.’ Nobody was running and finally I went, ‘Okay, I’ll run.’ I did this big campaign and a lot of people asked, ‘What are you doing? We don’t run!’ So that’s how the streetcar was born. You know, I was working an inane eight to five job. I had nothing exciting going on at the time…

That was when you were in IT?

Yeah, IT. So I was an IT consultant during the day, and I had a little rock band at night.

Often people believe that they have to have one direction. But you’re in a band, you’re an authority on transport, a dad, community builder, IT consultant… Have I forgotten anything? [Laughs].

I think that’s it!

You’re clearly testament against that idea. Is it just the ADHD?

I think we all get the “seven year itch” where you feel like you want to do something different; you’ve mined something to its fullest potential. In IT, I thought, Where does this lead to? I never really wanted to be at the top of the chain. I wanted to get involved in urban planning, but I didn’t want to go back to school and all that. So, I just started fixing things in my own community. The irony is now I get asked to speak to masters students on urban planning–it’s funny to be considered a spokesperson. When I go to architecture firms, a lot of the students are excited because they’re like, ‘Finally here’s a project that can be done in days; we’re used to working on things that take years.’ You see these kids that were once fired up reaching a certain age where they are bitter and disgruntled; they’re stuck in the bureaucracy, they’ve lost the fire. I remember thinking, I don’t want to lose that fire. I notice when you change careers or ideas a lot, you can stay energised; everything’s new to you.

But do you have to move on? Will you move on from Better Block?

Yeah, I think I’ll get bored. I’m really fascinated now by the social aspects of the project. At the beginning it was, I want to fix buildings, I want to get people to cycle, revive the streetcar.

Well, what is it I’m really trying to achieve? I’m trying to create more meaningful social interactions. I’m trying to create the place I want to grow old in.

What was the turning point for you, when you realised that that’s what this is really all about?

Well, I had cancer for a year. And I beat it. But I was down, not knowing if I was going to make it… You know, I did all this work that helped foster a sense of community and then when I needed them they started filling up my refrigerator, taking care of me, taking me to the doctor. I remember thinking, Wow! I’ve helped build something… Had I not done that work, I wouldn’t have had the community. Then I realised, Wow, we all need this. What about these people living in the suburbs that don’t have this? What happens if you break down at some point and you don’t know anybody, you’re not connected?

There are those stories of people who die and aren’t found because they don’t have anybody. It’s unbelievably sad.

I heard about this guy on the radio who decided he wanted to spend the night at everybody’s house in his street, just like he had as a kid. So, he did this experiment. Some people wouldn’t let him, others did. He got to know people at a very intimate level and realised that one lady was sick and four, five doors down, there was a guy who wanted to take care of somebody. People in the same street hadn’t realised they could completely help each other out. He facilitated that, got them connected.

It was striking for me to realise, we’re all social beings in the end. We’ve created a somewhat anti-social environment, and we know that the great things occur when we connect again. I think everybody wants to figure out, How do I break through the surface? We start conversations with, ‘How are you?’ ‘What do you do for a living?’ and things like that. But it’s only after you’ve had a beer or two, and you’ve been talking for an hour and a half that it gets into this really deep insightful stuff.

You’ve said that the strangest thing about having cancer was that everything else in your life was going spectacularly right at the time. In fact, you asked your doctors to hold off treatment so that you could go and accept an award from Obama! That must have been surreal.

It was a very strange. My wife and I had separated at that time. But we’re still the best of friends, so that wasn’t a horrible thing. Still, it was hard. And then cancer. But at the same time, it’s like, ‘You’ve won an award from the White House!’ And, ‘You’re going to be at the Venice Biennalle!’ I thought to myself, What’s happening to me right now!? Is this where it ends? I started thinking that maybe the reason I did everything so fast was because something in me knew that there wasn’t much time left.

I remember my grandfather crying, “I didn’t do enough. I didn’t do all of the things I wanted to do.”

He’d had a stroke, his body was breaking down and he could barely talk, but that’s the one phrase I heard him repeating to my Dad, “I didn’t do all the things I wanted to do.” I was probably 20 or so at the time. I remember thinking, God, I don’t want to be that way. I want to make sure I do everything I want to do. So that was an impetus for me. Don’t be the ideas person, because everyone’s an ideas person, get things done. Get things on the ground. Don’t get locked in. He was one of those people locked into a career his whole life, in a factory, for 40 years…

Somebody asked me at one point, “What’s it like having cancer? How’s it different?” For me, it was no different; it’s just that when I hugged people I meant it. So, how do we break past that surface? Our time is so short. I would much rather get to the heart of things quickly.

I think that ability to break through the surface, as you put it, to connect meaningfully, is a big part of what makes a great leader. Do you see yourself as a leader?

Oh no. I never saw myself as a leader. To this day it’s surreal for me to be thrust into this… The press was turning me into this folk hero. I kept telling people, ‘I’m not the leader of a movement. You don’t want me; you want the guy who went to Harvard. I’m not your champion. I’m not that organised, I sleep in, and I like a beer with my friends! But, if you’re passionate about something, you’re going to become a leader. What is it that makes you upset about the world or your community? Oftentimes fixing that problem is your passion. If you’re frustrated that “we don’t have a good food system for the poor” or “there are too many guns” or whatever… that’s your thing! I think we’re all here to fix problems.

It all feels very, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. But so many people feel disillusioned and paralysed by all the “nos” in this world. What helps you cut through the negativity?

Maybe it’s a personality type. People look at me as being pretty harmless. I get frustrated when people put on a militant façade, pointing out a problem without offering a solution. I don’t want to fight. We have an issue here, I would much rather spend my energy illustrating ‘this is the way it should be.’ And, I’m doing it temporarily so they can’t come after me. No elected official or staff member wants to be on the wrong side of a populist movement.

We talk about this idea of “civil disobedience for good”. Inspiration for the movement came not just from Jane Jacobs’ urban planning, but from Shepard Fairey, Banksy, the artist movement. People paint over graffiti, you put all this effort into building a sand castle and it’s washed away. Why do you do that? Well, nothing’s permanent in life. There’s no such thing as safety. I could get cancer tomorrow. That’s what I found out! Life at the end of the day is all about the experiences and stories that you’re able to tell your grandkids when you’re 90– you might as well collect as many of those as possible [laughs] while you can. And if one of those stories is, ‘I quit my job, went broke and was hungry on the streets of New York…’ that’s an amazing story! My grandkids would much rather hear that than, ‘Yeah, I had this office job for 40 years and wore a tie.’ When people who are stuck in this 30-year career talk about “the good old days”, it’s always about the time they struggled. It’s like you pine for these times when things were really hard. It was the journey.

Let’s talk about the temporary nature of what you do. Your critics say, ‘Well, it’s all very nice to create a pop-up space for the weekend, but at the end of the day, the trees are put back on the truck and go to their intended destination, the shops close…’

The power of Better Block is what happens after everything’s gone. There was one particular business that was so successful during one project that it’s now there for good. There are 50 kids there every night, learning art. The ordinances are being changed as we speak. The temporary nature of it really helps because I think that people have a fear of permanency, especially when you’re dealing with public dollars. But the biggest thing, again, that comes out of the project is just this connectedness and community that wasn’t there before.

How do you measure social capital? It’s intangible, but it’s so important.

It’s temporary, but it really facilitates meaningful interaction. It’s amazing to watch seniors come out–they’re stuck in their homes and feel like they’re unwanted, but they have all this wisdom. When my grandfather passed away he had all this knowledge of farming. He dies, and we haven’t transferred that. Nearly a hundred years worth of information on how to properly grow a watermelon… I could have created a community garden where he could have educated my kids. I remember watching my ex-wife’s grandfather sit around watching baseball games on TV all day. He had so much to give. And it’s not his fault. We’re…

not engaging.

Yeah, we’re not engaging.

You make it all sound very easy–is it?

No. It’s not. But everybody owns a small piece of the project. There’s a great saying by a governor from Brazil named Jaime Lerner: “If you want innovation, take a zero away from your budget. If you want ultimate innovation and sustainability, take two zeroes away from your budget.” So how do you get things done when you’ve taken two zeroes away? Well, you start managing the equation of co-responsibility. You bring as many people or resources, organisations, businesses, whatever into the mix and have them all help. Yeah, it’s not easy, but it’s probably no harder than throwing an elaborate party! [Laughs].

When you ran for congress, you said winning wasn’t the point. You wanted to elevate the conversation. Do you think you’ve achieved that?

Absolutely. There were 11 running in that campaign and three of them were putting in more than half a million dollars. Financially, I’m overwhelmed and it’s obvious there’s no way I’m going to win. So I really have this platform to say whatever I want. It’s so liberating to have a room full of officials and media ask you, ‘What would you do if you were in charge?’ [laughs]. To be able to say, ‘You see that $150 million bridge? I can build one hundred small commercial enclaves within communities for that money.’ I think at that point everyone was like, ‘Turn off the mic! Next question!’ I’m friends with the guy who ended up getting elected, and when I go to Washington DC we connect. So it really was the best scenario. Now I have “access” to a leader, who’s sitting in the capital.

Didn’t you have dinner with Michelle Obama?

Yeah, I started a campaign to get kids to cycle. I had a friend at the local newspaper that became Michelle Obama’s photographer. He told me she was doing a campaign to fight childhood obesity. He asked, “Would you be willing to have dinner with Michelle Obama?” [Laughs] I said, “Let me check my calendar!”

The First Lady wants to hear your thoughts; you’re being flown around the world to share your ideas. What’s your vision?

Gosh. My vision is for there to be more meaningful spaces for communities. What I found really makes these things happen is some zealous person says, ‘There’s a problem.’ It just happened to be me.

Are they the zealot, or just the ordinary guy? You don’t see yourself as a zealot, do you?

Yeah. I wasn’t a zealot. When I gave my TEDx speech, I remember thinking, What am I going to speak on? I wrote my presentation the night before and decided to say, ‘I’m a normal person just like you. And this is just as surreal for me.’ I saw cool things happening in other places and I said, ‘Well, let’s do it too.’ I guess I thought, Nobody’s standing up, so I’ll be that guy.

So how do you go from being the ordinary to being the extraordinary?

Well I don’t find myself being extraordinary, so…!

Maybe you don’t feel it, but you are doing extraordinary things!

You know, in my early twenties, I had only a few friends. Really, what changed me was moving to Oak Cliff. I started connecting with people. I think you just need to have that ordinary person who has a good network of folks, who brings everybody together in a room and says, ‘Let’s do something. We’ve got brainpower here.’ I used to see people doing cool things and think, Man, I wish we had one of those people on my community. Who’s going to step up and be that person? I thought, I’m just going to do this stuff until that person shows up. And then, you start getting known as that person. And you’re like, Well I wasn’t expecting to be that person, I was expecting to be the placeholder! Blackmail yourself and show up. Come up with an idea, publish it, just do a small piece to get part of the puzzle created. That’s how you start. Every long journey starts with one step. You’ve got to take that first step. Then after a while, you’ve taken a lot of steps, and you look back and think, Wow, I’ve gone a thousand miles. We were writing up what we did at the end of the year, and I realised, “Holy shit, we did a lot of stuff!” I get overwhelmed doing all these thing so I stop. But then I start getting this twitch: I’ve got to take on another project… That was one of the hardest parts of having cancer. I was flat. All my friends said, ‘You keep doing all this stuff, even when you’re on your back with chemotherapy!’ But I felt like I was standing still.

You know, a couple of years ago, I decided to go to the doctor and get some medicine for ADHD. I wanted to see if it could help me get focused. The week I started taking it I got a lot of anxiety, like, ‘Holy crap, I’m doing way too much stuff. I can’t do all this!’ Then I realised that this is how a “normal” person would feel! So, I quickly stopped taking those drugs.

[Laughs] it’s almost like instead of having a condition, you’re a superhero.

[Laughs] yeah, a superhero… You know, there’s a lot of chaos in the projects. There’s a lot of chaos in everything. If you honour the chaos and know that you’re doing good, things will work out.

Livia Albeck-Ripka

Livia Albeck-Ripka is an Australian journalist in NYC. She has had bylines at The Atlantic, Quartz, VICE, Haaretz, Tablet & others. Livia is a former fellow at Fabrica & previous Deputy Editor at Dumbo Feather, covering culture, identity, politics & environment.

Photography by Jackson Eaton

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