Oak Cliff Genesis
Murals projecting neighborhood pride in Oak Cliff are not uncommon: a prominent one reads “Oak Cliff Raised!” and depicts Yvonne Craig, costumed as Batgirl from the 1960s Batman series, a role for which she is best known. That sense of local dignity permeates South Oak Cliff High School, where another mural, designed by students, pronounces “Still We Rise” in capital letters across a parking lot wall, a nod to a poem by Maya Angelou.
But it wasn’t long ago that the community conveyed a less assured self-image. One sore spot was Alice Branch Creek, a tributary of Five Mile Creek that runs behind South Oak Cliff High School—and, now, along South Oak Cliff Renaissance Park. The creek had become a dumping ground for old tires, empty beer cans, and other refuse.
Data from the city’s safety and economic reports showed poor health and high crime rates in the area. And a report from TPL revealed that South Oak Cliff was a park desert: “We were shocked to find out that our zip code, 75216, had one of the least amounts of green space within a 10-minute walk of residents nationwide,” says Derrick Battie, a towering former NBA player and South Oak Cliff alumni who serves as the school’s community liaison.
Children enjoy room to run at South Oak Cliff Renaissance Park. Photo: Jason Flowers
In 2015, students protested poor conditions at the high school by staging a walkout; their outcry gained national attention, ultimately leading to a $52 million investment in a new facility. And the community didn’t stop with indoor improvements. To hear Principal Dr. Willie Johnson tell it, students here were just waiting for their first victory: “Once you start winning,” he says, “it becomes a mindset.”
“Once you start winning, it becomes a mindset.”
– Dr. Willie Johnson, principal of South Oak Cliff High School
Taylor Toynes, founder of For Oak Cliff, speaks at the South Oak Cliff Renaissance Park grand opening event. Photo: Brittany Gryder
When students and alumni raised concerns about the polluted creek, Dr. Johnson got in touch with TPL, and plans for what is now South Oak Cliff Renaissance Park were hatched. “Trust for Public Land was very significant in getting this thing accomplished,” says Johnson (known to students as “Dr. J”). Battie adds that TPL staff came in with the understanding that the steering committee for the project needed to reflect the demographics of the community. “It can’t be . . . some non-Black faces in the Black community putting in a park,” he says. So TPL empowered locals to lead the effort.
The resulting 1.8-acre park, a mere six-minute walk from the high school down Overton Road, opened in November 2021, the miraculous timing of which was not lost on Taylor Toynes, founder of For Oak Cliff, a nonprofit that works to combat systemic oppression through education. “We got the park in the midst of a pandemic,” he says of working with TPL on community engagement. “That’s dedication.”
Toynes, who joined TPL’s National Board of Directors in 2021, sees green spaces as essential to well-being. “Everyone, no matter the age or person, race, creed, whatever, there’s one place that we all belong and that’s outside,” he says. “It’s the most natural space for you to be in. It provides you everything that you need to be in harmony, to be healthy.”
Currently, more than 186,000 people live within the Five Mile Creek watershed, but only about half have access to a park or trail within a 10-minute walk of home. Our Five Mile Creek Greenbelt project aims to improve on that, and if South Oak Cliff High School is any indication, positive change can happen quickly.
Johnson and Battie said people thought it would take a while to see the success related to the new school and nearby park. “We had a 100 percent graduation rate that first year,” says Battie. “Then a state [football] championship. I think we know a little something about winning in 75216.”