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Elizabeth Dry’s tools may be robbed, but she gardens on.EXPAND
Elizabeth Dry’s tools may be robbed, but she gardens on.
Jim Schutze

East Dallas Community Gardeners Are the Marines on a Beachhead of Misery

Who has a crime problem? Not me anymore. I don’t see crime outside my front door, and I sure used to see a lot of it. The new young people on my block in old East Dallas don’t believe me when I tell them, but in the old days when we saw some goofball coming up the walk toward the front door, we used to open it a crack, snap our fingers at him and say, “I am already calling 911.”

Of course, half of them said, “Nine one what?”

Now we’re gentrified, I guess, although frankly I don’t see us as gentry. Can old hippies be gentry? Really? I think that here, in a once dodgy and embattled domain, gentrified just means every other person who knocks on your door isn’t a scam artist or an escapee. I love it. Now anybody could live here. You don’t have to be nuts.

But where did it go? Did we cure crime? I’m thinking back, remembering some of those faces. I don’t think so. They could be dead now but not cured. I seriously doubt it. They must have gone somewhere. Maybe another planet. I hope it’s another planet. Took a transfer.

My wife has a different view. She suggested to me that, rather than being on another planet, crime is now on lower San Jacinto Street, one mile southwest of our house. She was aware from Facebook that Elizabeth Dry, executive director of Promise of Peace Gardens, has been dealing with an ongoing plague of crime at her garden on San Jacinto, especially recurring burglaries of her tool shed. On one occasion the burglars got in by peeling back the metal roof. Maybe that’s the planet. Not really far enough out into the solar system for me.

In a way I hate to focus on Dry, because she has enough trouble. Promise of Peace Gardens has established community gardens all over the inner city, sometimes acting on its own and sometimes as a partner with neighborhood groups. Once the gardens are up and running, they all tend to be the best things that ever happened to the areas around them, but sometimes the gardens have trouble getting up and running. In one instance in a more gentrified area, neighbors fought against the creation of a garden because I guess they were afraid the vegetables might attack them. People do get nervous.

So I don’t want anybody to think the Emmanuel Recreation Center Community Garden on San Jacinto, a partnership with Emmanuel Lutheran Church, is responsible for the bad news all around it. Quite the contrary, Dry and her helpers are trying to bring good food and garden know-how to a very tough area.

The day I dropped by, she told me, “We’re trying to hang on, but it’s very hard.” She was working that day with a half-dozen volunteers, including engineering students from Southern Methodist University who are members of the North Texas Chapter of Engineers Without Borders USA. The engineering students showed me a genius “wicking bed” they had invented, which is like a hot weather lettuce-growing machine.

“We’ve been here three years,” Dry said. She gestured toward two big, old abandoned apartment buildings across the street, low-slung broken-shouldered humps with plywood in most of the windows, broken glass in others. The buildings were occupied when she started this garden, but after a long effort she was able to persuade the city to condemn them.

“I saw two dead bodies pulled out of there. Children were in there. They would come over here, and I’d work with them in the garden. I’d say, ‘What’s going on over there, baby?’ They’d say, ‘It’s no good.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ They said,‘It’s screaming and yelling all night long.’ There was no air conditioning, not enough water, lots of schizophrenic-like behavior.”

This garden and others directed by Dry participate in a program called Soup It Forward. Produce from the gardens is distributed to families living in the city’s vast food deserts, along with soup recipes. The idea is for the families to make their own soup and also make some extra, then give the extra to neighbors as a way of proselytizing for healthy food. From small beginnings like this, movements may be born.

But now the situation across the street may be worse. The stinking hulks have been condemned, but low-level drug dealers are now squatting in them so they can be near their clientele in the halfway houses a block away on Ross Avenue. She doesn't just suspect the people across the street of stealing from her. She talks to them about it.

Dry’s problem on San Jacinto right now is that she’s not operating on turf that falls within what most of us think of as the rule of law. She told me the story of a nickel-and-dime drug dealer from the hulks across the street who operates more or less like the mayor of the block.

The building across the street from the Emmanuel Community Garden was less of a problem before the city condemned it, when it was still full of schizophrenics. Now it's home to nickel-and-dime dope dealers.EXPAND
The building across the street from the Emmanuel Community Garden was less of a problem before the city condemned it, when it was still full of schizophrenics. Now it's home to nickel-and-dime dope dealers.
Jim Schutze

“Homeless, maybe 30 years old, it’s hard to tell. He could be in his 20s and just looks older. He has on a Cowboy jersey. He keeps saying, ‘Go Cowboys.’”

She confronted him when she caught him going into her tool shed, which had already been robbed. But he wasn’t breaking in. He had a key. The only thing she could figure was that the key had been stolen from the Lutheran Church that co-sponsors the garden.

She expressed to him that she was not happy about people stealing tools from the shed. The man looked concerned and asked what tools she was missing. She told him she would really like to get her wheelbarrow back. The man said he would see what he could do. A few hours later, he came back with a wheelbarrow for her.

“It wasn’t our wheelbarrow,” she said. She shrugged. It was a wheelbarrow.

He’s in charge of the area, she said. “He built a barbecue pit down there,” she said, nodding to a vacant lot on down the block. The man has a staff of young women who help run the barbecue operation for him.

She said the city has been responsive when she has complained, but these homeless people, the criminally involved homeless, know the rules better than the city does. Running them off is a long, labor-intensive operation for the police, who are short-handed most of the time anyway. The homeless here know just how close to skate, when and where not to cross the line.

Yes, I remember that from when they lived in the alley behind my house. You wind up making certain compromises with them, because that’s your best bet. These aren’t the dispossessed poor, the people who are easy to love in their misfortune. These people are really hard to love. They are the predators of wretchedness, the cagey ones who feed on the meek.

This is what it’s all about for Elizabeth Dry and her helpers. If all they had to do was carry their soup-makings to the meek, it would all be so much easier. But to even get to the meek, they must deal with the predators. Ask the guy for the wheelbarrow back. Say thank you when he brings somebody else’s.

I notice that the predators are not living in vacant buildings in the Park Cities. Of course not. But I don’t blame the Park Cities. These people are not living in my own neighborhood anymore, either, and they did live there up until fairly recently.

We push them. Push them. Nudge them. Herd them. They seek paths of least resistance. If we slap plywood on the windows of a condemned apartment building, they’re there the same night. Might as well have advertised the place on TV.

Forty years ago, the working class was still in place in all of these modest old neighborhoods. Thirty years ago the young renovators were already taking over vast swaths, paying prices that allowed working class families to go somewhere else nice in the suburbs. Twenty years ago the crunch came. Enough people with decent incomes were in place to declare war on the remaining whorehouse, crack-house absentee landlords. Ten years ago I began to detect the ultimate index of our success: We were beginning to attract genuine assholes, rich entitled sissies who hyperventilated if a poor person physically touched them. Now I don’t even know what we are. I’m starting to get bored.

But the hardcore had to go somewhere. We pushed them and compressed them and squeezed them into a hard ball. But they didn’t just cease to exist. Obnoxious as they may be, wheelbarrow kleptos, drug-pushers to halfway houses, roof-peelers and church-robbers, guess what? They’re human beings. You can’t just snap your fingers and make human beings vaporize. I’ve worn out my fingers trying.

Dry is a type I know well from my years in East Dallas. She will not back down. If she’s afraid, her fear won’t make a difference. She will not back down. Over time, her gardens will prevail, and the guy with the barbecue pit will move on. She and her helpers are the marines. They take the beach, and behind them come the vast armies of double-stroller-pushers and people with carry-out lattes.

But where do the hardcore go? Where do they end up? Suggestions will be welcome. 

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