Bonton Farms is so much more than the romance we have made of its urban gardens and entrepreneurial market, café and coffeehouse — all tucked into an unlikely greenspace where Bexar Street dead-ends into a Trinity River levee in South Dallas.
The farm’s magic lures folks from all over North Texas — almost none of whom previously knew the Bonton community existed. We are all welcome, of course, but that’s hardly why Daron Babcock created this healing oasis.
His sights are set on the unemployable, the addicted, the formerly incarcerated, the homeless and the survivors of domestic abuse, human trafficking and near-death crises.
Bonton Farms has taken small but profound steps to disrupt the cycles of oppression and neglect that have long prevented the surrounding historic Black community of 5,000 residents from growing into a place assured of even the basics of life.
Even as Bonton Farms has provided decent jobs and healthy food in a place that had neither, Babcock’s heart remained deeply disturbed by all that is still wrong around him.
That’s why he’s planning a huge expansion to try to restore the entire foundation of Bonton — starting with health care, affordable housing and banking.
“You have to focus on the entire ecosystem for a community to flourish,” he told me as we talked on the Bonton Farms patio a few days ago.
“If you come here, are loved on and given the tools to build your life with, people will do just that. But they need all the tools.”
With that audacious goal, Bonton Farms will publicly kick off Project Gamechanger on Thursday, an $11.6 million fundraising effort designed to allow it to become an even more powerful catalyst for change.
If the effort succeeds, Bonton will finally get a health and wellness center, a financial institution, more than 40 truly affordable housing units and expansion of the farm’s signature enterprises.
That means accessible health care for a community where life expectancy is only 67 years — 11 less than the Dallas County average. Where there’s a 54% higher rate of cardiovascular disease, 45% higher rate of diabetes and 58% higher rate of cancer than the city as a whole.
That means more housing and jobs for a neighborhood in which 44% of residents live below the poverty line, 85% of male residents have a criminal record and only 51% of adults finish high school.
I still have the notes from my first reporting assignment in Bonton, back in 2007. At the rotten — and since razed —Turner Courts housing project, just yards from where Bonton Farms now sits, 8-year-olds talked about gunfire awakening them the night before.
Mothers cautiously pointed out the drug users, gangbangers and gamblers ruling the nearby street corners. They described a dead-end community of crime and poverty — awash in flood damage and liquor stores but without sidewalks and street lights.
But in a place so materially poor, it was rich in community. Daris Lee’s family had the only car in one three-block stretch, so for years, he and his brothers collected grocery lists and shopped for their neighbors.
Wyshina Harris told us that winter day 14 years ago that her community was looking for opportunities — not handouts. “This is not some charity,” she said.
Daron Babcock arrived in Bonton just a few years later — and he stayed.
In recovery for his own addictions, Babcock felt a powerful spiritual calling — something that to this day he says he can’t explain — to sell his Frisco home and move to Bonton, where, with H.I.S. BridgeBuilders, he had been mentoring men coming out of prison.
He saw one difference between these men and himself: “There was a time where I had lost all hope with life, but I had people who wouldn’t let me quit. These men didn’t have that.”
Babcock had no idea what God wanted him to do in Bonton, so he just listened — mostly to stories of the complexities and injustices preventing these men from getting work.
He learned of car payments that had to be paid weekly. People who lost limbs due to diabetes. Men who couldn’t find a way to pay halfway-house rent other than to sell dope — the very reason they went to prison in the first place.
Babcock’s first response was to organize cleanup crews — mowing overgrown yards, mending fences, picking up litter — anything that would allow guys to get a little experience and build a resume.
Bonton’s first garden, next door to the Valentine Street house where he and wife Theda live, started as a way to provide a little decent food. Next came more jobs through the launch of the Bonton Honey operation.
Impressed with what they saw happening, Dallas Habitat for Humanity’s leaders donated the two properties at the end of Bexar Street where Bonton Farms sits today. Six more lots for expanded planting came from the city.
Today, Bonton Farms provides 60 jobs with good salaries. But with every expansion, Babcock knew he mostly was attacking individual problems — not remaking the community’s broken ecosystem.
That’s the foundational fix that Babcock prays our city will invest in. “Dallas is full of generous people, but we’ve never gone into a place like Bonton and said, ‘We created this and people continue to suffer to this day,’” he said.
Partnering with Catholic Housing, Bonton Farms already has secured 17 property lots through a City Hall nonprofit-based program.
Babcock wants to see part of that property, at the intersection of Bexar and Carlton Garrett streets, become home to a 9,000-square-foot health and wellness center run with the help of Parkland Health and Baylor Scott & White Health.
In addition to primary-medicine services, the space will provide classrooms for both learning and exercise.
Babcock also hopes to get a financial resource center into the space with tools custom-fit to Bonton’s needs.
“Horrible things happen here without access to fair credit,” he said. “People wind up using street credit — prostituting one’s self to keep a roof over the kids’ heads or muling dope up to the suburbs.”
A few blocks north on Bexar, Babcock expects to build work-force apartments, housing 60 to 70 people who are on the brink of homelessness. “This can be home for people as, in the first 18 months, they get job-ready then in another 18 months, they have their resume built,” he said.
Babcock used a photo of two ladders — one with rungs far apart and one with them much closer together — to explain how we traditionally go about this work all wrong.
“What I didn’t understand for too long was that the ladder I was extending was only suitable for somebody like me,” he said, pointing to the photo with the widely spaced rungs. “I had millions of opportunities. … So I feel very little risk in reaching up with one hand to take the next step.”
Many people in Bonton have never felt those opportunities. That’s why the next dignified small step is the only way to climb out.
One of Babcock’s key team members is Clifton Reese, who grew up in Bonton and is excited to see his home change from a place that nobody wanted to come to into a neighborhood that’s now on the map — in a good way.
He credits Babcock with making the difference. “We’ve had plenty of people come through here … but when there’s no photo op or any other fuel for them to stay, they left and went somewhere else.”
“That hurts the people that you are serving,” Reese said. “Daron moved here. He was here for the long haul.”
Another of the many folks I visited with Monday morning was Gerald Willis, who was living in a metal storage building with no running water or electricity when he met Babcock almost a decade ago.
It was Willis who first persuaded others to give this white man a chance before telling him he wasn’t welcome. Today, Willis is part of the Bonton Farms family and a big believer that whatever Babcock plans will succeed.
“It’s a miracle he’s down here. If it weren’t for him, no telling where I or a lot of people would be right now,” he told me.
That’s Daron Babcock — a steward of the farm itself and all the people who surround it.