The garden of life

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

The improvement of the area has been so gradual and incremental that it escapes even the eyes of those who live nearby. Yet when you do the math, compare the picture today with the picture 20 years ago, the difference at the bottom of the page is astonishing. The improvement clearly has a lot to do with the recent expressions of interest in the area by real estate developers.

A few weeks ago, the various ethnic communities of East Dallas banded together to present the fourth annual "Inner-city LIFE! and Harvest Moon Festival." One of the people who attended was James Pratt, the architect, who, along with the Dallas Institute, has been a driving force behind much of the best urban thinking and design in inner-city Dallas over the last 20 years.

Three weeks after the festival, Pratt is still effusive. "It was just a wonderful thing," he says. "They had [Congresswoman] Eddie Bernice [Johnson] MC it, and they had booths with Latin and Asian food. [School board member] Kathleen Leos handed out awards to K-8 students. There were three members of the city council there and the U.S. attorney. [U.S. District Judge] Jerry Buchmeyer swore in 101 new U.S. citizens.

"And then all of a sudden there were people dancing with bamboo poles and flamenco dancing, and then there were marching bands. It was such a marvelous, truly wonderful occasion!"

Pratt is furious right now with the city, because it looks as if the Plan Commission may agree to break the zoning accord that has protected residential neighborhoods in East Dallas for a quarter-century. A developer has proposed installing an enormous suburban-style grocery store right in the middle of Little Asia, to capitalize on the growth of yuppie housing nearby. Pratt, along with all of the established neighborhood associations in East Dallas, thinks the grocery store and the zoning changes demanded for it will spell the end of Little Asia as a community.

"We talk about wanting to be a world-class city," Pratt says, " and then the city comes in and doesn't even fill out an analysis sheet to see what this will do to the Asian community and says, 'Oh, great, it's fine to put an Albertson's in there.' And they may go ahead and destroy this community that is providing a link to the outside world that we desperately need.

"We're still a little backwater, intellectually, and this community [Little Asia] tells us something about ourselves that we need to understand."

Ron Cowart estimates that there are only 1,200 permanent Asian-American residents in Little Asia now. At the height, there were about 4,500. But he is sure the ones who are still here are here to stay, and he is equally certain that, as long as they are here, their gardens will endure.

"I always think of the rocking man," he says. "You know, most of the refugees came with their extended families. He was an old man, a grandfather who had lived with all of his family on a farm in Cambodia. They had kept their farm through invasions by the Japanese, the Chinese, the French, the Americans.

"The Khmer Rouge ran them off. It took him four years after that to get to the Thai border. By the time he got to the camps, all that was left of his family was himself, two daughters-in-law, and a son-in-law. By the time he got to East Dallas, he was alone.

"We found him all dressed in black, sitting in front of an apartment building, rocking. Arms folded. Head down. Just rocking, all day long.

"He told us he had lost everything. His farm. His family. But, worst of all, he had lost his ancestors. He had lost the spirits of his ancestors."

They took the rocking man out into the original Asian garden. He sat there on the edges of the beds all day long. Not speaking. Digging. Working. Working his soul into the earth with his hands.

Cowart looks up, quiet for a moment. "He disappeared one day. He was just gone. I still wonder every day where he went.

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