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How The Forest Theater Could Become The Front Door To South Dallas

by Sam Baker 8 Jan 2018 3:17 PM

The existing Forest Theater opened in 1949 at Harwood and what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard as a movie theater with the Ray Milland comedy, “It Happens Every Spring.” But after federal highway policies shifted the area’s demographics, the Forest closed in 1965.

Various attempts over the years at using the theater as a performing arts venue failed, but South Dallas has never given up on the Forest.

“I think the building itself and its history are pretty amazing,” said Elizabeth Wattley of CitySquare. She’s leading the project team to revive the Forest Theater. “It is a landmark of South Dallas Fair Park. And so its architecture and exterior alone make a presence. From that, people can feel the history and roots of the building.”

The Real Estate Council Foundation has awarded a grant of cash and in-kind services to CitySquare, the nearby Cornerstone Baptist Church and St. Philip’s School to revitalize the Forest, along with nearby retail space and exteriors to Cornerstone. Wattley says it’s a start toward building “economic development up east and west down the spine of MLK.”

Click above to listen to my interview with Wattley, which aired on KERA FM.

Here are some interview highlights:

On choosing the Forest Theater: That space and with new improvements that are coming from TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) and the city will certainly kind of position the Forest Theater to be the front door, if you will, to South Dallas. As you’re going north on 45 or the exit ramp coming south, you’ll have to pass by the Forest. They’re elevating the 175 highway, which will then give a parkway feel. And so we have the ability now to kind of be the front door of South Dallas if you will, and kind of serve as an anchor on the west side versus Fair Park and the South Dallas Cultural Center on the east side. So it’s great to start on both ends and hope we can build economic development going up east and west down the spine of MLK.

On the revitalization plans: Our donor was very passionate about providing arts services to undeserved areas. With that, was focusing on the community and the exteriors of that area and the neighborhoods, so we’re working together to build the area around the Forest Theater and up and down Martin Luther King Boulevard.

On the million dollar grant: It is seed money. But we do think there is a strong ability to grow that seed money. The grant was written to target community development and visible exterior improvements. When 45 was built to connect Dallas to Houston, the highway bifurcated the community. So the Forest Theater is on one side of the 45 bridge. Cornerstone Baptist is on the other side, along with new property acquired by St. Phillips. So how can we take that bridge that once divided us and make that an asset? One of the improvements we’re hoping for is to put a communal space under the bridge – an interactive, pretty, aesthetically pleasing space where you could take a selfie – and kind of build on that historical feel of South Dallas.

On the community board outside the Forest: The question was “I want this space to (blank) for the community.” One girl came up and said, “a place that I would like to come and learn how to bake.” That never occurred to me to create a space where someone could learn how to bake, but absolutely we can facilitate that. And so being able to hear that type of feedback from the community, we’re able to get insight as people just walk up and down the block. Emerging themes revolved around safety and being drug-free. People are yearning for a source of entertainment in South Dallas and that’s something we can lend to as well. My new thought is that we’ll change the prompts and keep it interactive and continue to receive community feedback outside of our meetings that we’re holding for the community.

On why revitalization may work this time: We’ve got a number of professionals committed. We’ve got the community involved and everyone wants to see a successful outcome this time. The community’s been to tons of meetings. They’ve completed the surveys. They’ve done their part, and expressed their wants and their needs, so now I’m hoping we’ll be able to do our part.

KERA took you inside the historic Forest Theater in its 2009 documentary “South Dallas Pop.”