LA BAJADA URBAN YOUTH FARM TAKES ROOT IN WEST DALLAS
October 25, 2017
Can green beans and okra be the way out of poverty for West Dallas youth?
July 12, 2014
A UTA dean pledges his last two years in academia to bring La Bajada Urban Youth Farm from fallow to fruition.
There’s so much riding on a 2.5-acre field in West Dallas that Don Gatzke, dean of the UTA School of Architecture, is devoting his final two years in academia to transform it from fallow to fruition.
Gatzke, who is retiring from his deanship next month, has been the guiding force behind La Bajada Urban Youth Farm, an inner-city produce garden, teaching facility and community gathering place for this working-class, predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.
It’s within eyeshot of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and just a block from the trendy Trinity Groves enclave being developed by restaurateur Phil Romano. But in some regards, La Bajada and Trinity Groves are miles apart.
Gatzke wants to interlock the two.
He sees the urban farm as a way to invest in the neighborhood and slow down inevitable gentrification so that current residents reap the benefits of rising real estate values instead of being pushed out at the lowest price levels.
“You can have a small residential community that thrives next to a higher-density, hipster environment,” Gatzke says. “That’s the great opportunity of the Trinity Groves area. It’s the most eclectic landscape that I know of in Dallas. That should be built upon, not obscured.”
Last semester, Gatzke and Dallas landscape architect Kevin Sloan co-taught 16 grad students of UTA’s design studio who drew up master plans for the urban park. At its core is a produce farm that will be worked by high school students. In the process, they’ll learn how to hold a job, run a business and something about the science of agriculture.
The park, which also includes a pavilion with a commercial kitchen, teaching areas and a little league baseball diamond, is being developed in partnership with West Dallas Community Centers Inc.
Over the decades, there have been a string of broken promises for the property owned by the nonprofit. Gatzke didn’t want UTA’s youth farm to be another one. So he’s using a year of paid research leave earned by two terms as dean and a subsequent teaching year to make certain that the school lives up to its word.
Karen Factory Salmond, chairwoman of the community organization, has no doubts about his commitment. She says Gatzke has orchestrated every monthly meeting with the neighborhood since December and has allowed residents to name the garden and pick design features of the facilities.
“I joined his [youth farm] board because I’m joining something that I know is going to leave a legacy,” she says. “It’s going to bring a beautiful new setting to the West Dallas community.”
Gatzke has firm verbal commitments for nearly $1.5 million needed to construct and maintain the park for two years. Austin Commercial, which is constructing the project without charging management fees, is expected to begin in early fall.
He hopes the first acre of crops will begin to sprout in the spring.
Tyler Shafer, 26, is one of two graduate students who stayed on this summer. “I don’t really aspire to get rich being an architect,” he says. “I want to enjoy what I do. A project like this where people’s lives, society and culture are being enriched is very inspiring.”
Gatzke understands that. More than fame or fortune, he’s pursued social impact.
In 1968, Gatzke left a small town in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, intent on becoming a newspaper reporter. He got caught up in Madison’s counterculture movement and switched to political science.
After graduating in 1972, he moved to Boston and “had a bit of a slackard existence” until he realized that “the revolution was not coming.”
He went back to college — this time UW-Milwaukee — where he earned his master’s in architecture with an emphasis in urban planning.
He spent six years in Seattle, where he hated the climate and competed with too many architects for too little work.
In 1985, Gatzke decided teaching would be his escape route and landed at the historically black Tuskegee University in Alabama, founded by Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.
Integrating computers with architecture was new. Gatzke knew how to turn on a computer and insert a floppy disc, so he instantly became the computer guy. “I put up a computer lab, invented classes in early [computer-assisted design] and applications, and I learned along with the students,” he says.
Gatzke loved Tuskegee, but his first wife didn’t like living in Alabama. At her encouragement, Gatzke responded to an advertisement for a similar position at Tulane University. He was hired over the phone in 1987.
Ten years later, he became dean of Tulane’s architecture school.
In 2003, UTA came calling. The previous dean had left abruptly, the faculty was disgruntled, and the school was having accreditation problems, says Ralph Hawkins, chairman of HKS Inc. and a UTA alum who was on the search committee.
In short order, Gatzke had the school back to full accreditation, Hawkins says. “Don introduced innovative architectural studios and education. Over the last 10 years, Don made a profound impact on the school of architecture.”
Making his mark
So why did Gatzke leave a plum post at Tulane in the Big Easy to become dean of a struggling program at a less prestigious college in Arlington?
UTA has the only architecture school in the Dallas area, and coming to a second-tier university with high aspirations gave Gatzke a chance to make his mark.
“If you’re part of the educational elite of a Top 50 campus, you’re desperate just not to slide back,” Gatzke says. “UTA had spunk, ambition and prospects for moving forward. And UTA is my kind of people. I’m first-generation college. I worked my way through school.”
The architect community — locally and nationally — now competes to hire the school’s graduates. That’s Gatzke’s proudest accomplishment.
“Universally, our grads are described as well-trained with great graphic and design skills, hard workers and definitely not prima donnas,” Gatzke says. “We’ve brought in some exceptional new faculty, established three research initiatives, gotten more engaged in the community, while still maintaining the design fundamentals focus and reputation of the curriculum.”
Gatzke says it’s time to move on. “I’ve got one more chapter to reinvent myself and do something new and interesting.”
He’d like to get back into designing buildings and developing projects. La Bajada gives him a two-year window to figure out just how to do that.
Title: Dean, UTA School of Architecture
Grew up: Buena Vista in the Shenandoah Valley, Va.
Resides: Arlington, in a house he designed and built
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1972; master of architecture, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1979
Previously: Interim dean, then dean of Tulane University’s School of Architecture, 1996-2003; also taught undergraduate and graduate courses at Tulane in design, urban studies and computer technology beginning in 1987.
Personal: Married to Diane for eight years; grown stepson and stepdaughter
Don Gatzke, dean of the UTA School of Architecture, has been the guiding force behind La Bajada Urban Youth Farm, an inner-city produce garden, teaching facility and community gathering place for the working-class neighborhood in West Dallas. There have been a string of broken promises for the property, but Gatzke wants to hitch a ride on the success of the nearby Trinity Groves enclave being developed by restaurateur Phil Romano.