Bonton Farms: Transforming a Community from Within

This week, we're sharing stories from Strong Towns members who will be speaking at our transportation summit in Tulsa, OK beginning on Thursday, March 30. Daniel Herrig is leading a workshop during the summit entitled "Health, Safety, Welfare: Is the Transportation Profession Providing for the Public?" His article today tells the story of a local organization in his hometown of Dallas, TX that is helping to improve the health, safety and welfare of a low-income neighborhood. 

I’ve always loved the mission of Strong Towns: “to support a model of development that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.” As you look through the Strong Towns Principles and Approach to see the diversity of this mission and the complexity of it, you realize it’s not this simple cure-all or hyper-focus on a singular issue. It’s a comprehensive approach that focuses on the people and social fabric at the foundation – strong citizens. People who care.

With that, I want to highlight a neighborhood in Dallas, TX that demonstrates the resolve of strong citizens—a neighborhood plagued by failures of the past, but hopeful for the future. That neighborhood is Bonton.

Located in South Dallas, Bonton is a historically African American neighborhood that was developed pre-World War II. Disadvantaged from the start, Bonton was built along the Trinity River floodplain with a commercial rail line running through it. And, like many African American communities of that time, the abuse that was seen during its development continued through decisions that left Bonton isolated physically, socially, and economically. The neighborhood suffered the wrath of an urban freeway dividing the neighborhood, concentrated poverty in public housing units, and disinvestment as public policies shifted wealth away from the neighborhood.

Bonton is a neighborhood that has seen crime, drugs, and violence get out of control. It’s a neighborhood that’s seen decline. It's an area where, according to Bonton Farms, “63% of residents lack personal transportation and the nearest grocery store is a 3-hour round-trip bus ride away.” An area where, “cardio-vascular disease rate is 54% higher than that of the city of Dallas. Diabetes is 45% higher. Stroke 61% higher. Cancer 58% higher.” But that is not the end of the story. This is not a neighborhood that quits or gives up.

The video below was put together to tell their story—the story of Bonton and Ideal, two neighborhoods once cohesive but then split by the urban freeway. It’s about 45 minutes, but the film is worth watching. Specifically, to see the social ties in this community and to hear commentary by residents who exemplify G.K. Chesterton’s quote that, “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”

Bonton is a neighborhood of people who care.

While there are many stories of Bonton that could be shared, I want to share that of Bonton Farms – an urban farm started in the neighborhood to, “restore health, create jobs, and ignite hope.” Designated by the USDA as a “food desert” city leaders have attempted to lure a grocery store to these underserved areas in South Dallas through millions in economic incentives, but Daron Babcock, director of Bonton Farms, saw another way. “Why not invest where our residents get to own the stores? And our residents get to share in the profits? And the money begins to stay in South Dallas, instead of going to some corporate office in another state, in another city, or potentially another country,” Babcock challenged. This is how it started. From the bottom up. From a garden in his yard and chickens in the alley, to an array of vegetables, chickens, goats, and honey bees on an acre and a half in Bonton. But it all goes back to the people.

Goats on the farm

Goats on the farm

Bonton Farms’ purpose is more than plants and eggs. It is passionate about the people of the community; empowering them from within. Their workforce isn’t people from the outside, but rather people from the community that are trying to build lives outside their crime and drug history and trying to breakout of cyclical poverty. It’s a place of respite. A dependable support system for the neighborhood to help in times of need – something rare for those in poverty.

This is just the start for Bonton Farms though. The small bet in the garden led to the bigger farm in the neighborhood. From there, 40 acres have been donated to grow the farm in another area of town. And Bonton Honey has been created as a separate business alongside Bonton Farms. Incrementally, the farm is growing. Learning from the community and adapting as needed, it’s transforming and empowering the neighborhood from within.

Bonton and Bonton Farms shows that even in the most neglected neighborhoods with the most marginalized people, there is hope. Piecemeal approaches to transportation or affordable housing or access to healthy food continually come up lacking, but there is hope when you change your approach and focus on empowering the people and the community. So there is hope for the future in Bonton as jobs and investment from within begin to return to the neighborhood.

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About the Author

Daniel Herrig is a transportation engineer and planner at Freese and Nichols, Inc. in Dallas, Texas. His work focuses on long-range transportation planning and financial tool development for municipalities and other public sector clients. His background includes roadway and signal design, traffic assessment and modeling, and corridor management plans. Daniel’s work recently has focused on creating a framework for furthering a holistic, multidiscipline approach to urban design within Freese and Nichols. Daniel received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Texas A&M University. He lives in the urban core of Dallas where he advocates for human flourishing through the design of lovable neighborhoods and resilient transportation networks. He is a member of the local chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism and Institute of Transportation Engineers.