A neighborhood in South Dallas is undergoing a beautification project that transcends time by celebrating the communities of the past, present, and future.
In the Bonton neighborhood in South Dallas, what once was a vacant lot has been transformed in a matter of weeks into a neighborhood art park. The installation, titled RE:Imagine Vacancy, Bonton, features many sculptural artworks by artist Art Garcia. Funded by the City of Dallas’ Office of Arts and Culture (OAC) and the Department of Code Compliance (Code), this project is part of a pilot program called RE:Imagine Vacancy, that focuses on revitalizing empty lots in neighborhoods across the city.
Though beautification projects are typically centered around visually improving an area, Garcia’s installation takes the project a step further by highlighting the history of Bonton while engaging with the present-day community that continues to thrive and rebuild itself. As a historically Black and segregated neighborhood in the Jim Crow South, Bonton was underserved and considered undesirable due to its location along the rail tracks and the Trinity River’s floodplain. Additionally, it became increasingly difficult for residents to find adequate housing in the area, and attempts to relocate were met with violent backlash in the 1940s and 1950s.
The concept behind the installation stems from the various stories told by Bonton residents nearly a century ago: memories of streets flooding when it rained, homes without water and electricity, new highways that isolated the community from its neighbors, and revitalization projects spearheaded by the Bonton community itself over the past few decades. RE:Imagine Vacancy, Bonton consists of five evocative sets of objects: a small gate, a footbridge, three free-standing houses, a raft, and a series of large sunflower displays.
Deriving from the once-existing fences that outlined Bonton residential homes, Front Yard serves as an entry point into the installation. The small human-shaped hole, reminiscent of a child, is a reference to stories told by some of the earliest residents of Bonton in the early twentieth century. The residents recall their parents’ warnings to stay within the confines of their front yard and not to wander beyond, for obvious safety reasons. The depiction of a gateway traditionally symbolizes an entryway into a place of great importance, but in this installation the gate also functions as an exit for the children to elude the boundaries of their yard and venture into the world beyond.
A small, two-step footbridge embellished with multicolored footprints recreates the stairway entrance that existed in a majority of the original Bonton homes. Bridges typically operate as passageways from one distinct space to another: outside to inside, past to future, old to new. Whether Steps is being used to enter or exit, visitors are certain to experience a new appreciation and understanding of those who inhabited the space before them.
The primary focal points of the installation are the three large-scale, house-like structures titled Home. These objects represent both the original homes of Bonton — many of which were ultimately demolished for being too costly to repair — and the newly built homes which are the product of revitalization efforts. The structures are complete with a roof and seating area, functioning as an ideal spot to enjoy a picnic, stop to rest, or simply escape the sweltering Texas sun. Home serves as a homecoming, inviting the public to connect with the Bonton’s rich history and continue to grow with the community of the present.
Developed in the Trinity River’s floodplain with no storm drains, the neighborhood was subject to immense flooding during the rainy season. With no playgrounds or pools, the local Bonton children took advantage of their flooded streets and created their own playscape. Cleverly titled Water Park, this sculpture depicting a raft speaks to the children’s ingenuity and resilient spirit to create their own adventure no matter the circumstances.
Standing at over ten feet tall, thirty-two vibrant sunflower sculptures adorn the area. The sunflowers not only add color and uplifting imagery to the space, but also function as individual canvases for the youth of the Bonton Community Center to add their own narrative into the installation. When asked “What will your community look like when you grow up?” the youth responded with drawings of their vision for the near future. Informed and inspired by the stories of Bonton’s past — including personal accounts of the sunflower fields neighboring the residential homes — and imbued with hopeful images of the youth’s imagined future — Sunflower Field celebrates the community of the past, present, and future.
An additional group of Bonton teens assisted in the installation of the project, which was built almost entirely using recycled and donated materials. The teens were also taught how to develop conceptual art practices and various fabrication methodologies along the way.
The last element in the installation is the subtle yet powerful Ghost House. Ghost House is not a material object at all; it is merely an empty space outlined in chalk, much like the diamond of a baseball field. While remnants of the house that once existed on the plot remain in bits and pieces of its foundation, the space is less than a shell of the original 1909 home. Although Ghost House is primarily immaterial, visitors are invited into the home to observe, connect, or simply imagine the history that the small plot of land holds. As Garcia puts it, “through the entropy, it’ll erase.”
Art Garcia’s work has a unique visual language; the physical objects alone are minimal enough to not overwhelm, but provocative enough to spur interest and empathy. Each piece is a common and recognizable object, but within the context of the juxtaposition between the space and the artwork, new meaning emerges. Garcia gives each object enough space of its own to convey itself while incorporating bright colors as a semiotic mode, invoking hope, peacefulness, vitality, and growth. Additionally, his use of steel, a material with a wide potentiality in sculpture, grounds his installation with a visual weight and balance.
Within the history of art, site-specific installation marks a shift in artwork being purely aesthetic to focusing more on what the artwork communicates and how it resonates with the human experience. Much like the artists Richard Serra, Rachel Whiteread, and Ai Weiwei (to name a few), location and visitor interaction are key elements in Garcia’s work. Similarly, connection to contemporary artists such as Dan Havel and Dean Ruck, who transform demolition spaces and materials into visual works that reflect the history of the space, can be seen in how RE:Imagine Vacancy, Bonton responds to its site, incorporating it into the media itself. Garcia’s work is a part of its locale, centering around the community of Bonton and emphasizing the interdependence between artwork, a place, and its history.
As a whole, this installation invites visitors to discover what a resilient community can do in the face of injustice and neglect, and to experience a space that facilitates education, expression, exploration, and above all, imagination.
The installation is a six-month, temporary project that opened on June 18, 2022. Visit the installation at 2515 Wells Street, Dallas TX 75215.
Emma S. Ahmad is an art historian and writer based in Dallas, TX.