A garden in the desert: For Oak Cliff hosts MLK Day of Service

The Dallas Examiner

The Southern Dallas food desert has been a growing epidemic in the city that had few solutions. The lack of grocery stores in the southern sector has placed an economic and physical strain on low-income Black families, forcing them to spend extra money on transportation and spend long hours moving from one community to another.

Instead of waiting for city officials and grocery store chains to address the matter, a community leader joined local residents to take on the task head on and came up with solutions to fix the problems for one of Southern Dallas’ historic communities.

Recently, the For Oak Cliff community outreach group came together with locals to create a community garden to relieve the current food desert during a Day of Service event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 16.

“To build out a community garden in a community that doesn’t have much already is powerful,” said Taylor Toynes, For Oak Cliff founder. “To have people come out and get their hands dirty and see people come together is part of what MLK’s dream was.”

FOC is an educational non-profit organization in the area, dedicated to improving and contributing to the growth of the Oak Cliff area. The community garden is centered in the 10th Street historic district, on a lot Toynes’ grandfather bought 40 years ago.

“This is the root of where African Americans came into Dallas, and it’s a strong need here,” he said. “I don’t know anything about gardening, but I’m going to have people that do and can help out and get things done.”

Along with local citizens helping to prepare for the garden, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg surprised the volunteers by coming to the historic area to lend a helping hand to Toynes’ impactful cause and provide lunch for the workers.

“While I’m here [in Dallas] for MLK Day, I wanted to participate in a Day of Service,” Zuckerberg said. “I feel really honored to be able to join the community in doing some service and helping clear out this garden.”

The social media platform creator worked side-by-side with the men, women and children of Oak Cliff to clear dirt, debris and broken tree branches from the standard-sized landscape. Afterward, he was given a tour by older community residents and FOC members.

The tour shined a light on an issue much bigger than the food desert epidemic and the community garden as a whole. The clear divide between the African American residents in the Southern Sector and other residents in Northern Dallas in terms of resource accessibility and housing became a very heavy topic discussed between the group and Zuckerberg.

Years ago, after the Emancipation Proclamation, Oak Cliff was the first Freedman’s Town in the city. It was filled with family unity and flourishing Black businesses like the well-established Black & Clark Funeral Home, beauty salons and grocery stores. Fellowship was a long-standing principle in the town that gave birth to the former N.W. Harlee School; named after a self-taught Black man; doctors like Dr. Nathaniel Watts; entertainers like blues singer T-Bone Walker; and many churches like the Elizabeth Chapel CME church.

“It was families and beautiful homes here. Now, you don’t see that,” said Shaun Montgomery, 10th Street historian and resident. “Once people started leaving, it’s like they left and no thought was put into the community at all. It’s almost as if they left it not just the people, but the people in power forgot about it.”

Now, many of the generational homes in the community are withering away and in desperate need of repair, and the once successful businesses are now torn down due to the construction of freeways.

“You still have elderly people in this neighborhood. They want to hang onto their homes,” she said. “This is their livelihood. This is where their parents and forefathers came. If you look at the rich history here, it’s hard to let go. It may not mean much to somebody else who is just coming in and really doesn’t know, but it means a lot to the people who live here.”

The tour of the old neighborhood left Zuckerberg in awe at how the once prospering Freedman’s town transitioned into a forgotten city. The Facebook mastermind discovered a correlation to a recurring issue he noticed in every state he’s visited.

“I’ve noticed gentrification in almost every city I’ve gone to,” Zuckerberg said. “It’s like the exact same thing everywhere.”

After the tour, the social network celebrity was showered with love from local residents before departing from the community garden.

“I felt really welcome and received one of the best tours I’ve ever had,” Zuckerberg expressed. “It’s really special to be here.”

Toynes and the FOC volunteers are still working hard to create the community garden that will feed a starving residential area that was once self-sufficient.

“For us to not have a decent grocery store to go to in the neighborhood when we used to have several is hard,” Montgomery said. “I’m very appreciative that someone took the time out to think of the community. I’m ready to see growth, but growth in a way to save the community not tear it down and make it for a group of people at a special income level. No gentrification.”

For volunteer information and donations, visit http://www.foroakcliff.org.

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