Was This Disaster Necessary?

A citizen at Allen Parkway Village

To paraphrase Woody Allen, Houston is like a shark: When it quits moving, it is dead.

Since the late 1970's, through four mayoral administrations, the Housing Authority of the City of Houston (HACH) has never wavered from its intent to demolish Allen Parkway Village and return the 37 acres at the site to the private sector. In order to free the land up for redevelopment, court orders have been ignored, laws have been broken, blacks and Asians have been pitted against each , careers have been ruined, and well-intentioned advocates have been corrupted by the system they were trying to change.

The demolish-and-sell movement began during the construction boom of the late 1970's, when the price of a city block of vacant land in downtown Houston exceeded the gross national product of many third world nations. Houston grew to the west; the Allen Parkway Village west of downtown made it a natural target for what looked like a growth spurt that would continue, world without end.

As Houston struggled back to its feet after the bust of the mid-1980's, the demolition applications to Housing and Urban Development resumed. HUD approval is necessary to change the public-housing character of the development because HUD, as the sucessor to the New Deal agency that financed the construction of the complex, holds the mortgage on the property and provides most of HACH's funding.

If you have ever known a wealthy and powerful father who attempted to restrain an errant and profligate son only when prosecution and disgrace seemed imminent, you understand the relationship between HUD and HACH.

Although the perceived need for more office space had now evaporated, HACH's desire to be shed of the complex was as strong as ever. The land would never become a commercial corridor linking, say, downtown to the American General Insurance complex at Waugh Drive and Allen Parkway

Nevertheless, there still are powerful incentives to demolish Allen Parkway Village. I think that I can describe them as (A) the practical incentive, (B) the petty incentive and (C) the shameful incentive.

A) The Practical Incentive
The practical reason for the demolition and sale of APV is that continual development of some type is essential to keep a modern city viable.

From the time that Allen Parkway Village was built during World War II until the first demolition application was made, Houston grew from a relatively small city to a major American population center. The Houston area swelled until it stretched from the Woodlands to Katy to Clear Lake. The natural laws that govern all growth -- the same biological rules that say while it takes a hell of a dog to weigh a ton, the bitch is going to have hip problems -- eventually limited Houston's expansion. As the borders of growth firmed, the character of growth changed from expansion and development to contraction and re-development. In short, nobody with regular business at Shell Plaza wants to commute much farther than Katy to downtown. The only option left to developers was to go back to the neighborhoods close to downtown and start over.

In fact, Houston's population flow now has reversed. If you paid top dollar for a new house in the nether reaches during the boom, you have... problems finding a buyer. Meanwhile, members of the business community who bought low into inner-loop rent-house neighborhoods like Montrose and the Heights are now (after decades of promoting neighborhoods apart from the city) ready to profit from our newfound enthusiasm for neighborhoods that are a part of the city.

Given that the Montrose lot which in 1985 held a $30,000 single-family house is home now to four $250,000 towmhouses, Allen Parkway Village, a few blocks away, multiplies out to a caisson full of money. More importantly, between APV and Emo's Alternative Lounge is a huge tract of land, with more potential value than a fistful of S&Ls.

After you drive around Allen Parkway, West Grey, West Dallas, and Tuam, then cross the T's on Bagby and Taft. Inside the grid laid out by this fifteen-minute drive is a neighborhood which has been neglected by property owners both private and public. A tiny fraction of Houstonians have ever been to the interior of this grid; when the patrons of Emo's are subtracted from the equation the number becomes even more diminutive.

To an outsider like me, the interior of the Fourth Ward imparts waves of despair in times of boom, bust and diversification alike. The occasional owner-occupied house, painted and maintained, shines like a good deed in a cruel world. Fortified wine and crack cocaine are staples here; jobs for residents are rare and minimal.

The degradation of an old neighborhood, and the depopulation of Allen Parkway Village, has been by design. Piecemeal redevlopment of the Fourth Ward is unlikely; it would not be a cheery place to move into one family at a time. But when the last of the shotgun shacks and wooden two-flats fall to neglect, arson, and War-on-Drugs bulldozers, (and the foodstampers move to whichever newly blighted, neglected areas to which it is their continual lot to be assigned), here will stand the trendy, new, expensive neighborhood to move to. Replacing the misery with vitaltiy would be good, had not the misery been deliberately inflicted in order to maximize the eventual vitality.

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