The garden of life

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

This was not the America Ron Cowart had almost given his life to protect.

Khamhou Khamphong, head of the Lao Women's Association, came to East Dallas in 1982. She says the experience of living in nightmare apartment buildings at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords was no more acceptable to the Asians, in the long run, than to people like Cowart.

One evening at the Lao Community Center, she sat across a table from me and tried to explain:

"In our background, back there, we don't easily rent a house. Most of the Laos and Cambodians who came here were farmers. We built our own house on our own farm," she says. "We owned our own land. I'm not used to renting a house."

The Lao Community Center is a donated condominium unit in a building on Virginia Street, in the heart of an area that was one of the very worst in the city in the early 1980s. This building and the apartment building next door are monuments to the kind of heroic progress the refugees began to make almost as soon as they got their wits about them. These two buildings--spotlessly maintained in stark contrast to the structures around them--are now owned jointly by the dozen or so Lao families who occupy them.

The money for refugee assistance was limited and ran out quickly. Cowart remembers how quickly the survival instincts of the refugees appeared. Farmers in a foreign city, some of them barely literate in their own tongue, the rural Laos and Cambodians set out to find a crop they could harvest in East Dallas.

"In the very early morning, you saw the men come out and begin going up and down the alleys collecting aluminum cans," Cowart recalls. "Then later that morning, you saw all of the women out in front of the apartment buildings pounding the cans flat. And that afternoon you would see the young people headed off with big bags of cans on their backs to sell."

The first Asian garden, at Fitzhugh and Bryan, provided the Asian refugees of East Dallas with their first opportunity since being driven off their own farms to sink their hands into the soil, to sit beneath the sun and till, to grow things, to be rooted themselves, however briefly, to the soil. The idea for it came from the newly emerging leadership of the Asian community itself. Built on loaned land, with an irrigation system donated by Leadership Dallas, the garden was viewed mainly as a therapeutic device to draw the unemployed elderly out of their cramped apartments.

Since then, the original garden and the newer annex garden on Live Oak have gone through a number of evolutions and iterations. Don Lambert is a University of California-Berkeley anthropologist who runs an organization called "Gardeners in Community Development." For the last four years, Lambert has served as the main technical adviser to the two gardens.

Even an unpracticed eye sees subtle differences between the two places. The older garden, near Jimmy's Foods, is a busier, dustier place, with a convivial social circle gathered by the front gate where gardeners sell their wares to people who walk in. The Live Oak garden seems at once greener, more jungle-like, and much more serene. Lambert says those differences reflect differences in the kinds of people who garden in each place.

Strolling through the original garden by Jimmy's one day recently, he points out that the long, narrow beds there are crammed from border to border with salable crops.

"Each family has two beds or a total of 300 square feet of growing space," he says. "This is a pick-on-demand garden. The food grown here is sold here, so they don't want to waste any space."

Not all, but some of the people who garden here are in a group that might be called the Left-Behind Asians. While their younger, better-educated, more skilled compatriots were moving off to places like Plano and Garland, where they could buy their own houses and grow their own gardens, these people, for whatever reason, did not go. Lambert estimates that some of these families may earn more than half their annual income from their garden beds.

"There are two kinds of people left here: the people who are really poor or unskilled or disadvantaged in various ways and can't move. And then you have a small number of people who like it here."

It's a theme--a surprising theme, for the Westerners who have helped them--that is echoed all over the East Dallas Asian community. Some are here, some have even returned to East Dallas, because they like it.

On another day at the East Dallas Storefront, Charles Kemp, who was a Marine in Vietnam in 1966 and '67, is helping run a steady stream of poor Asian, black, and Hispanic patients through a gantlet of nursing stations. Kemp, who works now for the Baylor School of Nursing, was one of those early-on Vietnam vets who just walked into the apartment buildings in the early 1980s and started helping people. He remembers every inch of the neighborhood from those days.

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