Oak Cliff Activists--Between Their Bikes And Gardens And Chickens And Goats--Seek To Redefine Their Community Without Destroying It

Bonnie and Clyde have chewed up the cord that connects their automatic food bowl to its solar-powered battery, which is why they are baaaaa-ing mercilessly at Andrew Howard, the 34-year-old bespectacled goat enthusiast who spends most evenings feeding and watering his two charges in the summer heat. Howard leashes up the two white-haired, blue-eyed La Manchas as if they might be a couple of labradors and leads the goats around the farm for an evening snack of weeds and grass, though Clyde has bigger dreams: that blackberry bush, in his mouth, at any cost—tether be damned. Bleating goats in tow, Howard tugs around a water hose, quenching the tousled patches of gourds, veggies and berries that have been planted here over the past few months.

Howard calls this setup a "farm." He says he's a goat "herder." But really, his goats are urban goats, living in a kind of goat-condo near a dead-end lane off old Commerce Street in West Dallas, a stone's throw—over Interstate 30—from North Oak Cliff.

Goats satiated, Howard wanders toward the street—no curbs, no sidewalks out here—past a pile of donated IKEA boxes that will no doubt be put to some use within days, if not hours. One of the neighbor kids runs over from across the street, where his parents are sitting with a couple of cold beers at sunset while their big, brown horse grazes in the driveway nearby, eyeing Bonnie and Clyde with apprehension.

"Would you like a beer?" the kid asks. Howard politely declines, though he grins his way over to the neighbors' aging chain-link fence. Some watermelons are ready at Bonnie and Clyde's place, Howard says to the neighbors, did they want some? Howard trades a lot with them for their peaches, or whatever's available out here. It's a goodwill gesture toward the Hispanic folks who've lived here for decades, long before Howard arrived with the goats. It's also just a thing Howard does, trading and bartering the fruits of his labor.

More than a year ago, Howard was an urban planner and a happy resident of Lakewood. He was into kayaking and mountain biking, but goat herding seemed way out of his comfort zone. Howard started thinking about buying a place. And damn, if Oak Cliff prices weren't cheaper than what he was looking at in East Dallas. He bought a place on the other side of the river, and it was all over the levees in his bright blue Toyota FJ Cruiser from there.

Today, Howard spends his free time working, watering and growing organic food on this empty lot in Western Heights, the neighborhood by the Dallas Police Department auto pound that's been more or less left to its own devices, nestled among industrial warehouses and salvage yards, for years. He didn't think he was going to ever be a goat farmer. But then his friends bought this empty lot, less than half an acre in size, and a collective of Oak Cliff transplants began planting corn, melons, really anything they could get seeds for, out on the land.

This is what happens to some people who move to Oak Cliff these days. They get their first utility bill in the 75208, and it's all responsible green living and bike rides and leisure activities that come after hours, days, weeks of building something with their own two hands. For gas-guzzling, luxury-shopping Dallas, it is downright bizarre.

And it could happen to you.

The lot's been jokingly christened the "West Dallas Country Club" by its owners, thirtysomething bike and gardening enthusiasts Mariana and Scott Griggs, who live in Stevens Park. Bonnie and Clyde's little goat-condo sits on the back of the lot, though most of the land is dedicated to small-scale farming. Near a shady patio table, empty coolers sit ready to be filled with ice and beers, and the Slip 'n Slide by the goat pen needs to be hosed down before it's ready for action. Overshoot the slide, however, and you'll find yourself in a patch of newborn okra. All of this a scant five-minute drive from downtown Dallas.

Mariana spends three or four hours every morning at the WDCC, watering her projects, pulling weeds and tending the hive of bees she's hoping will help pollinate her crop. Her husband, Scott, a lawyer whose passion for urban planning has made him one of Oak Cliff's most outspoken champions when it comes to preservation and development, says the WDCC was a gift to his wife. She wanted a place to begin a community garden. "It's kind of an urban laboratory," Scott told me over Shiners at Oak Cliff's Bar Belmont. He mostly stays out of the way, so Mariana has full run of the land.

In late July, Mariana invited me to the WDCC for lunch. She pours a bag of ice into a cooler and places a carafe of home-brewed tea on the patio table alongside tubs filled with salads and fresh fruit. I remind her that she's kind of a criminal, out here, in the eyes of a city that has recently decided to require all manner of permits, fees and procedures for community gardeners who'd like to plant a thing, eat it with their friends and maybe sell or trade the leftovers. In fact, even planting a garden on a vacant lot is illegal—the only gardens currently allowed in the city must be part of an existing structure like a home or church.

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Andrea Grimes
Contact: Andrea Grimes