Dreamer 'n the 'hood

From a tiny food counter in South Dallas, Delvin Gray struggles to change the world

Delvin Gray watches as two stray mutts--one black, one gray--circle a trash can in a small South Dallas park beside a pond. Gray's six-month-old son, Julius, sleeps soundly in his lap. It is dusk now, and so quiet in the park, so peaceful, you can almost hear the baby's breath whispering past his lips.

But conflict is brewing. The black mutt--obviously top dog--rears on his hind legs and pulls the trash can tumbling down. Its contents spill out in the dirt--a half-eaten hamburger in a greasy wrapper, and a Sam's Fried Chicken box full of bones. The black dog frantically rummages through his treasure, taking inventory before he eats.

The speckled gray dog moves in to share the grub, but the black dog won't have it. He claims his scraps in the most visceral way, snarling and lunging for the neck of his little companion. He's relentless--tearing into the smaller dog, snapping and biting and clawing even as the mutt yelps in anguish and tries to beat a retreat.

The speckled mutt soon learns he can't even look at the food--or the dog--without risking a savage reprisal. He limps a few feet away, plops onto the ground facing the pond, and despite his hunger, pretends the burger and bones and black dog don't exist.

Delvin Gray views the scene dispassionately from a park bench. He sees the one-sided combat as more than two dogs fighting for food and turf--it's a ghetto parable, an object lesson from South Dallas' streets.

"There's a state where hunger takes precedence over every idea," he says. "If you continue to be hungry and not at rest, you will never see the options that life has for you because of your hunger."

To Gray, that hunger offers an explanation for the violent way of life where he lives--on a decaying street near Bonton, one of South Dallas' toughest housing projects.

"The reason why you find a lot of violence in the projects," he says, "is because people are crammed in so close together. If a person feels his territory is being violated, he turns and instigates violence."

Delvin Gray is always watching, always thinking. Call him the Ideal neighborhood philosopher, the dreamer of the 'hood, a militant humanitarian. At 35, the intense young man lives a peculiar existence in Dallas' southern core. A former convict, drug dealer, and pimp, he now runs a tiny walk-up café not far from the park. The cafe sits on Bexar Street in the beleaguered Ideal neighborhood, south of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

He hates the name. But that is what they call it. Ideal.
Yet to many, Bexar is synonymous with Dallas' urban decay, a ragged and hopeless reminder of decades of civic neglect. Most Dallasites will never see it; it is a place to avoid whether one is black or white.

But to Gray, it is a model--an example of all that goes wrong when a neighborhood isn't a neighborhood, when a community lacks a vision. It is also an opportunity, he says, to gain back what so many urban neighborhoods have lost--good jobs and good schools and happy, healthy children aspiring to contribute something to their world.

And that's his dream. Where others see poverty and degradation, Gray sees potential. Every bit of life in the streets offers a lesson, a hard-earned insight that might point the way out.

Gray gestures toward the drug dealers lurking on a Bexar street corner. To him, they're examples of entrepreneurial economics. They make good money, they expand their resources, and they hire bored neighborhood kids to carry out grunt jobs. And since there's little work to be had in South Dallas, the dealers have become the neighborhood's measure of success.

Gray, from his cafe, wants to change all that. "I want to see our people put back to work and get back their self-esteem," he says, offering his homespun philosophy. "Right now, this area suffers from a lack of community. It is isolated against itself. There are very few people who persevere at anything.

"My vision," he adds, "is to see the community stick to one thing and complete that. Whatever it is, it should deal with labor and children, because those two things build community."

Gray pursues his dream from the cafe, where he lives with his baby son and his girlfriend, Carolyn Stafford, in a single tiny room off the kitchen. He calls the place Community Kitchen, and for the last few years, it's symbolized his yearning for a community he's never had, one denied South Dallas' children.

The kitchen stands like an outpost on a desolate island. Its brick walls are daubed white; a painting of the African continent graces the northeast wall. Except for the television repair shop across the street, Community Kitchen is the only establishment on Bexar that doesn't sell alcohol. In fact, most of the businesses in this neighborhood sell spirits as their primary source of income--including brands manufactured and marketed exclusively for the inner city, such as Cisco, Cool Colt, and Coqui 900.

From the cafe, Gray devises home-grown programs aimed at inner-city youth and the poor. He nurtures his grand concept, the Reorganization of African People (RAP)--a pan-Africanist group dedicated to unity of the African diaspora. RAP's primary goal, he says, "is to give an African perspective in the social sciences, then to address the needs of inner-city people. It might take 100 or 200 people to fill that need. It might take one person to fill that need. It might require me to talk to a family for hours and hours. It might require me to pay someone's phone bills. Whatever it takes to build community."

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