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.

A whole lot of people came. Quickly.
And whether it was emergency or expedience that dumped so many of the first ones into the area around Peak and Bryan streets, between Gaston and Live Oak in East Dallas, the impact on the refugees was the same. They came here from hell. But East Dallas scared the hell out of them all over again.

Down Fitzhugh from the Live Oak garden, past Jimmy's Foods, Bobbye Hall's Hobby Shop, and the Binh Minh Market, in another Asian garden, Khomang Chunang is kneeling at the border of one of her two family plots and breaking up little clods of East Dallas gumbo soil with her fingers. She's wearing a magenta windbreaker, knit cap, aqua slacks, and neat white tennies. She plants green onion sets someone manages to bring in for her from Thailand.

"They are more fragrant and sweeter than the ones I can get here," she tells me through an interpreter.

She tells me about her two teenage sons who go to Spence Middle School. They're doing well, she says. Pretty well. They speak no Cambodian. She speaks very little English. She looks a little worried when she talks about them.

Khamhou Khamphong, head of the Lao Women's Association, has already told me that the mythology of industrious Asian youth hurrying home from school to do their homework and honor their parents comes to a bitter end with the ones who are born here. She says 60 percent of the American-born Asian children in DISD are dropping out before graduation. Many succumb to drugs.

Khomang Chunang doesn't garden only for her health. She needs the money she gets from selling these onions to help support her family. I ask her to pause in her work and humor me with a hypothetical question.

If she could raise her sons anywhere on earth, in any place she chose, where would it be? The translator puts it to her a couple of times to get it right. She smiles at me (a look that says, in part, "You're a little nuts, aren't you?"). She puts her head back to dream. And then she says:

"Garland."
Ah, Garland! It's where many of the more upwardly mobile Lao and Cambodians have gone. But they have also gone to Richardson, on the heels of the Vietnamese, the Chinese, and the Koreans. And some have gone much farther, many to small rural outposts far from the city.

Now I ask her a question I know she won't want to answer, because she will worry that her answer may seem impolite or ungrateful. I ask her how she felt on that very first day in 1986 when she stood on the front steps of her new home--some junked-out stewardess apartment building, I'm sure, with winos and hookers in the front yard--and got a good, long look at America.

Her hands come together in front of her. She knits her fingers and knits her brow. Still smiling but with a rueful dip of the head to the interpreter, she says, "I was worried. Worried and afraid."

Peter Pich, now a teacher in the Dallas public schools, was 16 years old when his family landed in East Dallas from Cambodia. He met me one evening in the back room of the East Dallas Police Storefront. Founded by Ron Cowart when he was a patrolman in the early '80s and funded in part by the Meadows Foundation, the storefront is the unofficial City Hall of Little Asia in East Dallas.

Pich tries to explain what it was like for him to come here. The larger experience of leaving his life in Southeast Asia and coming to America in the first place was disconcerting enough, he said.

"Just try to imagine yourself," he says, "if you were 16 years old, and you had nothing but the clothes on your back, if they picked up you up one day and put you down on the street in China."

Pich, a handsome, intense young man, has mastered the American habit of bluntness. He talks about the specific experience of coming not just to America but to East Dallas.

Obviously he came from a very bad place at the time--a teeming refugee camp in Thailand, with death and horror lurking just beyond the barbed wire. But that's not exactly what we are talking about this evening, sitting a few feet from each other in the police officers' desk chairs at the back of the storefront.

"In Laos," he says, "America is the most wonderful place in the world, the very best place. It's what everyone believed in the refugee camps."

He remembers his first day in East Dallas. Maybe I saw him then and didn't know it. I used to drive by the apartment buildings and marvel at the crowds of bewildered people in sarongs and saffron wraps. They would come out and stand in speechless throngs in front of the junked-out apartment buildings, staring--staring at the hookers, staring at the Hispanic mothers leading their kids to school by a tightly held finger, staring at the Bonfire 500 motorists, staring at me as I passed with eyes that asked, "Where are we? Are you a good man or a monster? Can you tell us anything?" I never got out of my car.

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."

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.

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.

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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