The garden of life

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

Pich shrugs and forces a smile. "It was nothing like most of us would have expected from a refugee point of view. I felt strange. Lonely. Frustrated. What can I say? You stand there and stare, and you drop to the bottom of your chest quickly when you see. It was just the opposite of what we had hoped of America."

Maybe some day, in the grand American tradition, they'll tell their grandchildren jokes about the day they hit East Dallas. The one for my own immigrant forebears was, "They told us the streets in America were paved with gold. When we got to America, we found out the streets weren't paved with gold. We found out the streets weren't paved. Then we found out we were supposed to pave them."

In the early '80s, Dallas was consumed by its own strange brew of real estate mania and ethnic strife, having mainly to do with the African-American battle for political self-determination. There was no big official civic cognizance taken of the arrival of the Asians. At all. For the most part, Dallas had other fish to fry.

A few private agencies, mainly in the religious community, moved in and took a serious ongoing interest in the plight of the refugee community in East Dallas, among them Temple Emanu-El, Refugee Services of North Texas (Church World Services), Catholic Charities, Lutheran Family Services, and the International Rescue Committee. And there were key individuals, several of them Vietnam vets, who saw those bewildered crowds of Asians in front of the go-go apartment buildings and parked their cars at the curb and got out and approached them. Two who wound up devoting their lives to Little Asia were Cowart and Charles Kemp, both Vietnam vets.

Cowart had served on Navy monitor gunboats in the Mekong Delta. He came close to dying there when his boat was ambushed and a bullet severed an artery in his leg. When he came home to Texas, he went to work for the Dallas Police Department, where he served on an ambush team in the Tactical Division, hiding in the back of convenience stores, waiting for guys to come in with shotguns and hold the place up. His job, his fellow officers' job, was to jump out with guns and see who lived or died.

For three years he led the division in in-the-act arrests. He had just rotated to patrol and was working the whorehouse apartment buildings of East Dallas when the Asians began to arrive.

Cowart remembers his own first moment, back in the very early '80s, when he saw them. For him, it was the kids. The children. He saw them from his patrol car.

"We worked that whole area, dealing with the prostitutes and the pimps and the drug dealers. And then, one day, I'm driving down the street, and here's this group of Southeast Asian children.

"I parked the car, and I got out, and I started following them. I don't know why. It's like I was drawn to them. I followed them into a dilapidated apartment building on San Jacinto. As soon as I stepped onto the porch of that building, I was just overwhelmed.

"The smells. The sauces, the fish oil. That staccato sound of Oriental music. The voices. Children crying. I swear when I stepped on that porch, I thought I was back on the muddy river banks of the Mekong Delta."

His heart churned. Cowart had come home from Vietnam with unresolved feelings about Southeast Asia and its people. Now suddenly, without warning, they were here. The mind fluttered, scraps of dreams and memory flashing by like videotape.

By the early 1980s there were 4,000 to 4,500 refugees in East Dallas. The Asian refugee kids began turning up in large numbers at Spence Middle School, where Cowart's wife, Melinda, taught English as a second language. A Ph.D. in her field, Melinda was fascinated by the arrival of the Asian children in the schools. On night after night, she led her husband back into those scary apartment buildings to visit their families.

Cowart remembers those visits vividly:
"You always notice the shoes outside the doors. And when you come inside the apartment, you enter a very sacred place, because it is the family."

Whenever he asked how they were, they always told him they were fine. No problems. But his policeman's eye was roving the walls. He saw knives stuck in the door jambs to hold the doors closed at night, because there were no locks, in many cases not even door knobs or latches. Gradually the Asians came to trust Cowart and his wife enough to tell them what life was really like for them.

"They told me about the bad guys who came in from the street and roved the hallways at night. They said the bad guys would come into their apartments and fondle their children, molest them, assault them.

"They had their babies sleeping in hammocks, and there was always a family member sitting there to rock them. I noticed that the older people, who slept on the floor, all had rat bites on their toes and ankles."

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