‘What heaven looks like’: New MLK Food Park pop-up a joyful celebration of South Dallas

April 14, 2021

by Claire Ballor The Dallas Morning News



DayJus Hill and Tatiana Laury hold up their popsicles they got from the Frios Gourmet Pops truck at the launching of the MLK Food Park in Dallas on April 9, 2021. The MLK Food Park will be tested for a month in South DallasÕs Forest District, offering a variety of food, live music, community gardens, and play area for the kids. (Shelby Tauber/Special Contributor)(Shelby Tauber / Special Contributor)


A vacant dirt lot along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas’ Forest District has become an unlikely food destination, albeit a temporary one, in a neighborhood where basic food services have long been hard to come by.


The MLK Food Park — a monthlong initiative put together on behalf of The Real Estate Council, the Better Block Foundation and the Dallas Catalyst Project — is breathing life into the street corner with small food vendor stalls and live music every weekend until May 2.


At the pop-up’s launch last weekend, eager crowds of neighborhood residents and people who came from around the area strolled through the small food park indulging in Italian ice, baked goods, vegan treats and fried chicken sandwiches. Children ran around a pocket-size playground while musicians took their turn on a makeshift stage to play for the people gathered around picnic tables with plates of barbecue and Key lime pound cake.


Saturday’s turnout, a lively celebration of food and community, is something Diane Johnson has wanted to see in her neighborhood for years. Standing behind a shaded booth promoting her catering company, Midnight Kreations, Johnson chatted with customers in between selling slices of her homemade pound cake and lemonade and took in the scene before her — Forest District, a neighborhood that’s been overlooked for decades, full of laughter and food, good food.


“I wish we could have this happen every day,” Johnson said. “I wish we could bring more people from the north down here.”


But that’s hard to do when the only regular food offerings in the area are fast-food chains and whatever one can find on convenience store shelves, she said. It’s hard to do when food business owners like herself must drive to the northern parts of the city just to find the basic ingredients and produce they need to run their businesses.


Audrey Spead, an elementary school custodian who has lived in the neighborhood her whole life, came by the pop-up because what she heard about the event online made it sound like her neighborhood would have its very own Klyde Warren Park moment, and she wondered if it was too good to be true. What she saw when she arrived elated her.


“I’m overjoyed. I’m seeing engagement. It lets me know that change is here, it’s possible, and it’s attainable. I really believe South Dallas is going places,” Spead said.


Spead acknowledged that the pop-up, as encouraging as it is for residents like her to see, doesn’t solve South Dallas’ chronic lack of grocery stores and fresh food options. She doesn’t understand why grocery store chains and restaurants see her neighborhood as unworthy of investment, but she said she hopes this pop-up will spark something.


The main purpose behind the food park pop-up is twofold, said Felicia Pierson, senior director of community investment for TREC. It was designed to be a vision of what the neighborhood can be — a place where residents can gather over meals and where people from northern suburbs come to visit — and to give small food businesses in the area a space to grow and promote themselves.


The food park is just one small part of the revitalization efforts TREC and its partners have undertaken over the years to fight blight in the area and repurpose spaces to better serve the community. Pierson said the food park, which was set to take place last year but was postponed due to the pandemic, is just the start of the push to tackle food insecurity in the Forest District. A fresh market will soon open along with a commercial kitchen space and a new retail center that will be anchored by a restaurant.


The food park vendors, who will rotate out each weekend and include non-food vendors as well, are primarily small South Dallas businesses without physical storefronts that rely on online sales and pop-up events to get by, Pierson said. Some of them are pandemic businesses like Brown Suga Vegan, which started in the kitchen of Kapreta Johnson last summer as a side hustle. She couldn’t find a vegan doughnut and decided to launch her own line of vegan baked goods. Others like Rev. Gerald Davis’ barbecue business have served up food around South Dallas for a decade.


Davis, a longtime pastor and outreach minister at Cornerstone Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, runs the aptly named Holy Smoke BBQ trailer on the side, mostly catering parties and events. Brisket, smoked chicken, sausage and ribs doused in barbecue sauce are staples on the menu along with smoky baked beans.


Barbecue seems to be another form of outreach ministry for him. He learned the trade by watching his father make large meals for his equally large family and knows a thing or two about feeding a crowd. Even still, he sold out of food within the first hour or so of the pop-up on Saturday, as he did the night before.


The aproned reverend sank himself into an old camp chair with a cold soda in hand to recover from a marathon of serving up more than 80 plates of food. He marveled at what he saw playing out in the transformed dirt lot in front of him.


“Finally,” he said with a tired smile. “I’ve been here for 33 years, and I’m finally seeing God’s shalom coming to this area.”


To Davis, the MLK Food Park is an example of what food can do for community building. It brings people together who might not otherwise come together, he said. North Dallas and South Dallas; Black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods; vegans and barbecue lovers.


“What do you see happening there? You look out there and you see diversity,” Davis said, squinting into the sun to look out at the crowds gathered around food stalls and tables in front of him. “This is community at its fullest. It’s perhaps what heaven looks like, no?”


MLK Food Park is at 1611 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Dallas, and runs through May 2, Fridays from 6 to 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 2 p.m. betterblock.org/mlkfoodpark.


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