Residents in an Oak Cliff neighborhood have teamed up with an artist to come up with a novel way to draw attention to vacant and abandoned homes threatening the Historic 10th Street District. Together, they built an ark.
Recently, they filled it with history and memories worth preserving. It’s one part of “Activating Vacancy,” a plan from Building Community Workshop. Of course, the giant vessel will be around for at least 40 days and 40 nights.
KERA’s Anne Bothwell talked to Fort Worth artist Christopher Blay about building the ark … on Noah Street.
You can listen to the conversation here:
The ark stands on the parking lot of Greater El Bethel Baptist Church, one of the oldest African-American churches in Dallas. It’s built around a 20-foot shipping container. The container is covered with doors, windows and screens that were collected from abandoned homes around the neighborhood and from a nearby salvage yard.
One of the more recent additions came from a home across the alley that burned just before the ark was constructed. Doors from the church were donated by the congregation, and mark the four corners of the ark “to give a symbolic nod to the church,” Blay says.
The neighborhood chipped in
The original Noah’s Ark is said to have contained a pair of all the animals.
“I’m sticking with the 2-by-2 motif,” Blay says. “I gave the residents that participated these 2-foot square panels where I encouraged them to create their family narratives. A lot of them put photographs and letters and family histories. It became this really rich collection of information which is what I was hoping for.”
Recently, the residents had a parade, which started at a nearby daycare center. They carried their panels to the ark.
Tables were set up outside the ark for a neighborhood barbecue. A band played on a stage constructed by BC Workshop.
Inside, residents reminisced over each panel, comparing notes, laughing, stirring memories. One man posed next to a picture of his younger self that his family took from his license for the merchant marines, blew up and displayed.
James Thomas stood in front of his baby picture, watching others read his essays about the food he ate as a child, the fun he and friends had in the area.
Bringing the neighborhood together
Blay was delighted with how the day turned out.
“That was the thing,” Blay says. “I didn’t know how that would be manifested, but my hope was that having residents create their family histories and share them with others inside the ark would create this sense of connection and community that’s always been there … but it’s been disconnected because there isn’t a central place that the residents can come to either on a regular basis or as a direct purpose of connecting with each other.”
Blay’s project is part of a larger initiative sponsored by Building Community Workshop, or BC Workshop, called “Activating Vacancy.”
He and other artists who will also build projects had meetings with residents and walked the neighborhood together to come up with their ideas and find sites for them. The thing that stuck in Blay’s mind was Noah Street, which is right next to the historic church. That inspired him to build the ark on Noah Street.
Blay has built a spaceship (with Fort Worth art collective The Homecoming Comittee) and a time machine (a large installation at McKinney Avenue Contemporary). But the ark was a new thing.
“It required a lot of expertise,” he says. Residents Benny Walker and Isaac Cortez were especially “fortuitous connections,” Blay says. Cortez let Blay use his woodshop to gather materials, and “he gave his strong expertise to make sure my plans actually worked,” Blay says.
Walker and Cortez were two of a core group of residents and BC Workshop staff that called themselves the Magnificent Seven. But church members and other neighbors helped, too.
Ark sparks conversations
When the ark started going up, neighbors were curious.
“‘What the heck are you building? What is this thing? What’s it supposed to do?’ I don’t think I had a direct answer for that,” Blay says. “I think part of the actual object is the sense of the unfinished. There are a lot of spaces and imperfections in the ark. And that reflects where the ark is. And I think the conversations I’ve had have been things about maybe improving the look of it. And in a in a subtle way it starts the conversation about improving not only the object but the neighborhood as well and the connections with each other.”
Now, Blay says, the neighbors have a sense of ownership about the ark. “And that sort of ownership and pride and sense of place is something that I think is important in every community,” he said.
The ark will, of course, stay put for 40 days and 40 nights.
“I tried to use as many ark metaphors as I could,” Blay says. “It’s so rich. It’s this idea that this vessel is a part of the neighborhood’s past and it’s bringing the neighborhood from where it currently is to where it’s going. And in the interim there’s a repository of information and value that everyone that participates is a part of. That’s one strong metaphor that shouldn’t be lost in the conversation. And the other thing is that unlike the original Noah, who didn’t get much help from his neighbors, this ark got a lot of help from its neighbors.”
The ark’s future
Other than that, Blay isn’t sure what’s next for the ark.
“Someone mentioned the idea of possibly proposing that the ark be put in more of an art context, maybe in front of a museum or a gallery. My reaction to that was that not only is it a site-specific installation for that space, I think it’s important that there is a connection between people who go to art galleries and people who live in neighborhoods like the Historic 10th Street District.
“So if everyone else wants to come see the ark they should come to the neighborhood. And if they don’t feel comfortable in the neighborhood they should help the residents make that neighborhood a place where everyone could feel comfortable.”