The garden of life

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

Nodding around at the storefront building--now a beehive of activity from dawn to midnight seven days a week, crowded elbow-to-elbow with people involved in police work, health care, community meetings, Boy Scout troops, literacy programs--he remembered what it was then.

"It was a bar," he says. "We drove by one day, and a prostitute standing out in front lifted her dress up over her head to show us. Man, she had not one thing on under that dress."

He thinks for a while. "Then it was a Bible church. Then the Communities Foundation of Texas provided funding to convert it into the storefront."

He talks about who is still here, as opposed to the Asians who had moved up and out by the early 1990s.

"Some are here because, I think, this is where they stopped. Others are here because they don't have certain skills or education they would need to go elsewhere. But some of them are here because they like it."

That was the surprise. By the early '90s, people were pronouncing Little Asia dead. It had served its purpose. It was the Asian Ellis Island. The Asians who were brought here during the emergency had all made the necessary adjustments to life in America and had accomplished the quintessential American goal of moving up and getting out.

But by the mid-'90s they seemed to be coming back in a trickle. Some of them.

Don Lambert walks through the Live Oak garden and explains the difference between the beds here and the ones back in the original garden.

"The plantings here are much more diverse," he says. He points out the mixture of things growing in individual beds--wax gourds, banana trees, garlic chive, dill, eggplant, lemon grass, spinach, malabar, peppers.

Lambert explains that these are gardens designed to supply the gardener's household with food. These are not cash gardens.

"These are more old-fashioned beds, growing everything in one bed that a household might need. These are people who are more likely to be employed, more stable, not moving from apartment to apartment.

"Some of these are even people who have moved to Garland or wherever, but the older men come back on the weekends and stay in an apartment nearby with friends so they can work in the garden."

The Live Oak garden, then, is a link, tying the more successful, upwardly mobile Asian community back to East Dallas. But, given what they saw on their first days here and what was all around them, why would the Asians want to be linked to East Dallas?

When I was a little boy I asked my grandfather once about farms, because I knew he had lived on a farm when he first arrived in this country. He said, "On farms, they have dirt. Forget about farms."

Paul Pich, the young Cambodian-American refugee who now teaches at Cesar Chavez Elementary, says his own mind and the minds of many in his community work the opposite way. He was drawn back to East Dallas, he says, because it was where things were tough for him and his family, and it was where they overcame those obstacles.

"A lot of us got victimized by the other people who were here," he says. "Number one, we didn't even know how to contact the authorities. But this place was a struggling ground for us, to grow up and make it.

"I was fortunate enough to get an education and a good job. I could decide to go to North Dallas and live there. But I chose to come back here, to help my community. This is my hometown in the new world."

Khamhou Khamphong tries to explain the same thing to me:
"When you come first to a new place, you would consider it like your birthplace in the New World. You will have a very deep feeling, like a root to that area."

As she tries to help me see it, she grows perhaps a little frustrated. There is some aspect of what she is saying that is difficult for my American mind, and perhaps the language barrier is also interfering.

"Look," she says, "in our old birthplace, where we are from, we have very, very deep feelings for that place. We have whole generations in the same place. If you marry someone else in a different place and move there, you will stay there only a little time, and then you will come back to your birthplace.

"East Dallas is our new birthplace," she says. "It is our birthplace in the New World."

But what about the McDonald's wrappers and those real bad-looking guys across the street with bottles of malt liquor in brown paper bags and the few pathetic drugged-out hookers who are still around?

And then it begins to dawn. The few hookers who are still around.
Twenty years ago, when the Asians began to arrive in this area, it looked as if the whole human race was a hooker. This place was bedlam. Since then, waves of poor families have slowly, relentlessly, quietly shouldered their ways onto the ground here. Not all Asian. In the apartment buildings up and down Gaston and Live Oak, there are fewer drug dealers, more working-class black and Hispanic families.

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