The garden of life

In East Dallas' Little Asia, a community blooms in fields of litter

The act of stepping in off the street through this gate, into this place, is a silent shock to the system, a trick on the soul.

You begin at the curb of North Fitzhugh Avenue at Live Oak Street in East Dallas, ankle-deep in fast-food wrappers, awash in racket and bad news. There's a lady on the bench across the intersection who is either dead or drunk. All around, in every direction, this is East Dallas at its most unfortunate--a jumbled, unresolved, half-baked kind of slum where the dirt and blood of American ethnic poverty is smeared across a landscape of apartments designed in the early '70s for go-go stewardesses and wild and crazy guys. Nothing adds up, and who wants to do the math?

It's late afternoon on a bright fall day, and the sport utility jet stream is already roaring along Live Oak on the way from downtown to Lakewood and beyond, doors locked, eyes steely and fixed straight ahead, everybody competing in the Bonfire of the Vanities 500. You'd like to join them.

But step through this gate instead. It's so incredible, the mind flutters. Scraps of dreams flash by like videotape. This place is invisible from the street, walled by a high wrought-iron fence woven with vines. Drive by it 100 times, and it's never there. The gate is a valve between universes.

The world inside the gate is psychologically silent. Long, narrow garden plots stretch off into verdant shadows. Even the air is green, pungent with the scent of shallots harvested by hand, of wood chips rotting and soil baking in the shallow sunlight of a cool afternoon.

The people don't appear at first: You have to stare for a while before their silhouettes emerge, kneeling like birds by the beds, working the dirt with hand tools in tiny movements. You hold your breath here at first. It's exactly the reaction any well-mannered Westerner would have on walking into a church, because you sense at an instinctive level that there is spirituality here. The place is quiet, and you are quiet, out of respect. And all the junk outside the fence, the blowing trash and the squealing tires and the guys across the street with malt liquor bottles in brown paper bags, it all evaporates.

It doesn't matter here.
The South Vietnamese came first, after North Vietnam defeated the United States at Saigon in 1975. In the late 1970s, in the wake of Pol Pot's "Year Zero" and the killing fields, the Cambodians came, followed by the Lao people who had been driven into refugee camps in Thailand by the savagery of the Pathet Lao regime. Somewhere in those waves of humanity were the clannish Hmong people of Laos, whom the United States had embraced and then abandoned. Only horror could have driven the Hmong here. Only horror could have driven any of them here.

Dallas was one of 17 cities chosen to receive the more than 1 million refugees brought to the United States from Southeast Asia from the period after the fall of Saigon to the early 1990s. Ron Cowart, a Vietnam veteran who was a Dallas Tactical Squad police officer when the Asians began to arrive, says the agencies bringing them to North Texas in the late '70s and early '80s chose East Dallas because it was a slum.

"The things that made East Dallas attractive to the VOLAGS [voluntary agencies] were city neglect, the lack of code enforcement, even the crime," Cowart says. "Their mission was to find affordable housing. Where else could you put 15 people in a one-bedroom apartment where the city doesn't even compel the landlord to provide running water?"

Russ Jewert, who worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the mid-'80s helping monitor the fate of the refugees in Dallas, doesn't deny that the hard conditions in East Dallas probably had something to do with why so many refugees were taken there.

"The VOLAGS were given only so much money," Jewert says. "They were supposed to bring people in and find housing for them and presumably find jobs and get the kids into school."

Jewert would remind us that there were millions of people on the move in Southeast Asia, fleeing the revenge of North Vietnam, fleeing the genocidal evil of Pol Pot and the Pathet Lao. The Thais were sending troops out to turn refugee throngs away from huge camps just inside Thailand.

"The VOLAGS made convenient whipping boys," Jewert says. "And certainly there were problems here because of the sheer numbers of people coming. You have to remember that people were arriving every day by the planeload. I just don't think anything was done with malice aforethought."

No one kept precise numbers. Census Bureau numbers, based on the 1990 count, show just over 50,000 Asian-Americans living in Dallas, 100,000 in Harris County. Les Tanaka, president of the Greater Dallas Asian-American Chamber of Commerce, thinks the next census will show at least 300,000 people of Asian descent in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. A recent study by the state comptroller's office found more than 10,000 Asian-owned businesses in the region contributing more than a billion dollars a year to the regional economy.

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