Forest Forward, a nonprofit organization that partners with the community to drive equitable development, economic mobility, and improve outcomes for children, residents, and families of the South Dallas community, has announced a transformational infusion of $75.215 million into the heart of zip code 75215 that they hope will ignite healthy neighborhood revitalization and create a new vibrant core for the City of Dallas. This investment will renovate South Dallas’ beloved Forest Theater and renew the surrounding area with mixed-income housing, innovative arts-education solutions and economic vibrancy.
Depicting the history of an iconic landmark theater dating back to 1949 and the ambitious plans to revive it, a new exhibit titled “Forest Forward: The Future Is Here” was unveiled this week at NorthPark Center in Dallas. On view through Oct. 17, the exhibit is presented by South Dallas-based nonprofit Forest Forward in partnership with NorthPark Center. Free and open to the public, the display is located in NorthPark Center’s NorthCourt area (Level One between Nordstrom and Macy’s).
“Forest Forward: The Future Is Here” explores the $75 million plan to not only restore the Forest Theater for future generations to enjoy, but to ignite a just, healthy and thriving South Dallas. Key components include re-establishing the 74-year-old Forest Theater as a thriving neighborhood anchor and versatile arts center, creating cradle-to-college education pathways with Dallas ISD and the Martin Luther King Jr. Arts Academy, and developing mixed-income housing surrounding the theater.
Forest Forward is the result of thousands of hours of direct input and involvement from members of the South Dallas community. Early on, Forest Forward leaders met – and listened closely – to everyone from families living in South Dallas for decades, to community and faith-based leaders, to business owners and educators, to artists and performers, and even children. Embraced by the community, Forest Forward is a grass-roots initiative at heart that represents the invaluable insights, ideas and dreams of those who live, work, learn and play in South Dallas.
“Although the Forest Theater in South Dallas has served as a proud beacon of hope for decades, its history and significance is unknown or often forgotten by many,” said Forest Forward founder and CEO Elizabeth Wattley. “Restoring this historic treasure to its full potential as an arts and culture center – and using it as a catalyst to improve education, housing and economic vibrancy – is a good-news story for everyone living in Dallas and North Texas.”
Additionally, Wattley announced an exciting giving opportunity called the “Forest Fund” designed to engage and amplify community support, offering a 5-to-1 match for donations made by residents living in 75215 neighborhoods. South Dallas resident and community leader Willie Mae Coleman was on hand to make the first gift to the “Forest Fund” that she described as “the People’s Campaign.”
“I have lived in South Dallas for 89 years. I am proud of my community, and I am so excited about what is taking place at the Forest Theater,” said Coleman. “Thank you to Forest Forward for their hard work, dedication and the financial investment they are bringing to South Dallas. And, thanks to the ‘Forest Fund, every gift – no matter large or small – is so very special and will help make this vision a reality!”
Visitors to the exhibit will see images of the Forest Theater in its prime: Crowds of people lined up for blockbuster movies and performances by legendary acts, playbills promoting the theater’s lush velvet seats and coveted air conditioning, a richly appointed lobby with plush carpets and leather furniture, and a “cry room” for families with young children. Photos illustrating the destruction that the S.M. Wright Freeway (State Highway 175) caused to the neighborhood are also displayed.
Also on view will be renderings of the project, designed by HKS Architects. These include the newly imagined theater, the expanded MLK Arts academy, and the revamped boulevard featuring affordable, mixed-income housing developments. A film called “MVMTLS” (Movements of Lone Stars), created by filmmaker Adriane McCray, will run on a loop. Recorded during the pandemic, the film traces the memories of Dallas residents during their childhoods, using archival footage, home videos, personal photos, and present-day images that reveal the fragile truths and sacredness of the Black community.
“Nancy Nasher continues to engage in the community, and we are grateful for her embracing Forest Forward. She learned about the Forest Theater and understands that our mission deserves to be shared across Dallas,” said Forest Forward Chair Matrice Ellis-Kirk. “Giving us an opportunity to tell our story at NorthPark Center is another step in broadening community support across Dallas and bringing this dream to light.”
Overcoming a challenging history, beloved Forest Theater will soon return to life, spurring changes
The Forest Theater has a rich and diverse history. It was built in 1949 by Karl Hoblitzelle, the successful developer of the Majestic, Lakewood and Inwood theaters. At the time, Forest Theater served a predominantly Jewish population who resided in South Dallas.
In the early 1950s, construction of the S.M. Wright Freeway adjacent to the Forest Theater began, causing the demolition of 1,300 homes, bifurcating neighborhoods and sparking white flight. After segregation and redlining took its toll, the Forest Theater eventually transitioned to serve the growing African American population. A mecca of art, music and community gatherings, the treasured hub welcomed legendary artists such as Tina Turner, Prince, B.B. King and Gladys Knight.
After experiencing numerous closures and uses since its heyday – including being used as a place of worship, a gathering spot for Girl Scouts and an arts center operated by musician Erykah Badu – the Forest Theater has remained largely vacant since 2009. In 2017, it was acquired by a philanthropic couple committed to equity in the arts and education, and Forest Forward obtained ownership in 2017.
Currently, as part of the Texas Department of Transportation’s S.M. Wright Phase II project, the freeway is being converted into a six-lane, street-level boulevard with traffic signals. Overpasses will be removed, and landscaping and sidewalk will be added to the boulevard, returning it to the walkable neighborhood it once was.
The plan unveiled: Improving outcomes for children, residents and families in South Dallas
Founded in 2017, Forest Forward’s mission is to drive equitable development and economic mobility and improve outcomes for children, residents and families of the South Dallas community. This is particularly important because, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an individual’s zip code predicts life expectancy more than genetic code. The life expectancy in the 75215 zip code is 67 years, the lowest in the Dallas area. The Forest Forward 75215 Capital Campaign focuses on three key pathways to spearhead the community revitalization process.
- Theater and cultural center. The Forest Theater will serve as a neighborhood anchor with a 13,000-square-foot arts education hub, featuring a 1,000-plus seat performance hall, multi-use black-box space, recording studio, café, restaurant and roof-top feature.
- Cradle-to-college educational pathways. Forest Forward has partnered with Dallas ISD to convert the Martin Luther King Jr. Learning Center into the Martin Luther King Jr. Arts Academy for pre-k through 8th graders. The renovation includes more than 25,000 square feet of new construction and 7,800-plus square feet of improvements. The Academy will offer a STEAM-based curriculum (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) and utilize the restored Forest Theater for courses and educational offerings.
- Mixed-income housing. With a focus on minimal displacement of residents and preserving affordability, Forest Forward aims to build 150-plus units of mixed-income housing surrounding the Forest Theater.
The Forest Theater is located at 1920 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Dallas, 75215. For a video on the history and future plans of the Forest Theater, go here.