For most people, the State Fair of Texas is about as ’South Dallas’ as they’ll ever go. Its a fair argument, there is certainly some crime, poverty, and general fear surrounding that area. Houses lay abandoned. Cars sit without wheels, and broken glass litters the road. Its certainly grim in most of it, but as Yoda wisely states, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.” South Dallas more than likely sits somewhere in the middle of that phrase, and where most of Dallas sits, polarized on either spectrum of the issue, there is a little shack on a corner that has both hands on the rope, pulling both sides together.
I’m not actually sure what the ‘official’ name of the place settled on the corner of Hamilton Ave. and Foreman St. I’m actually fairly certain to even designate it with a name would be doing it an injustice. Daniel and I were driving around South Dallas looking for a story on the people who offer up pieces of their property for a few bucks in order to cut the rising costs of State Fair parking. After a few miles and a few leads, our eyes had nearly glazed over with the seemingly endless stretches of forlorn homes and empty liquor bottles. We turned the corner, and sitting on the edge of the lot was a gigantic, fiberglass lizard, boldly warming itself on the setting sun. Its oddity was only make more so by the sign resting at its feet “Art in the Hood” it said. We were hooked.
We parked the car and cautiously walked onto the property. A large rectangle of land, absolutely covered on every inch with chaos, most of it in varying reggae greens, blacks, and whites. A smattering of steel drums sat idly near the open doorway, and before we could even hazard a thought of looking inside this dark, seemingly abandoned home, Joseph stepped out and greeted us. Joseph is a tall, sinewy man with dark skin and a broad smile. The contrast between his beaming teeth and skin almost makes him look like a split coconut of sorts. He invited us in, and told us the whole story.
The place we were currently resting our feet on was a ‘cultural center’ of sorts, more of a common ground for the community to come together through all things artistic and musical. While some people call it “Art in the Hood” and some call it “The Caribbean Connection House” and some call it “The Trinidad Cultural Center”, Joseph and his wife Gayla call it sanctuary.
The back wall is adorned with artifacts from Trinidad, some loose cabling going God knows where, and a musical tuning chart for steel drums. Their kitchen sits in the room over, a home-brew of traditional cold medicine sits fermenting in the corner, and the entire place smells of wood glue and incense. Its comfortable, in a chaotic kind of way. It would take most people a few months to sort through everything, but Joseph and Gayla insist that that’s the way they like it. The two hold outreach programs to those in the neighboring communities to come together through the practice and pleasure of music, and although the whole place has a very Christian meets Rastafarian vibe to it, they welcome any and everyone. Joseph makes steel drums from 55 gallon oil drums, and the muscles running through his forearms tell me that he seems to be well versed in almost any kind of handy man work that needs to be done.
Joseph has bounced around Trinidad, the US, and eventually Dallas, and his wife is a lifelong Dallas girl. Gayla is a shorter, white woman, with hair as crazy as Joseph’s eyes, and the two of them standing together conjures up the image of Ebony and Ivory. Gayla jokes that Joseph smiles so much because that’s the only way people can see him in the dark. While racism is still certainly around, Daniel and I hadn’t even imagined that Joseph and Gayla got accosted for being an interracial couple, yet Gayla stated exactly that. Some of the folks in the hood disapproved, and held no hesitation in saying so. It didn’t seem to bother them all that much, it in fact seemed to give them all the more reason to push for unity, especially in such un-unified times.
While Daniel and I originally had set out just to find some fun, afternoon-ish story, we wound up being culturally enriched ourselves without even realizing it. The community center doesn’t really show up on google maps, it doesn’t appear in any newspapers, and its not setting billboards out next to the highway. They just are, in every sense of that word. They are generating something that is much more valuable than a restaurant on that same piece of land could produce. They are creating an intangible service that may never truly be recognized for the genius that it is. They are but a lens, focusing the attention of those around them to a singular spot, where anyone who enters can see, that our differences don’t make us different, they just make us human, and that’s something to be celebrated.