Was This Disaster Necessary?

A citizen at Allen Parkway Village

So, the practical incentive for depopulating APV - high-dollar residential construction -- is unthinkable near a high-capacity public housing project, and the land that would be ideal for that same constuction is occupied by people, who, to many minds, are non-persons. With APV gone, the absentee landlords of Freedman's Town will be free to evict and demolish, realizing heady profits.

B) The Petty Incentive
The petty reason for the removal of Allen Parkway Village is more powerful than the financial incentive. The powerful people of Houston who will profit the most from the destruction and redevelopment of Freedman's Town are not motivated by money as a means to essential ends like groceries. There is such a thing as enough money; beyond that point, there is no such thing as too much power. The petty incentive for the death of APV is that in 1979 very powerful people sought to exercise their power and were told they couldn't. That pissed them off.

And who were these pissed-off power people? Beats hell out of me, as far as names I can quote for the record. Sitting at the press table at City Hall, I think I can see strings being pulled. But who is ultimately manipulating the puppet show that passes for representative democracy in Houston is the great mystery of this town. No reporter will ever compile an accurate membership list of Houston's fraternity of power. Why, it's merely cosy friends who send each other a little bidness once in a while. Sometime allies, sometimes competitors, usually both at the same time, a handful of people in banking, law, energy, development and publishing make the decisions that govern this city. On the whole, they haven't done bad over the last century. Occasionally, they may have to throw us citizens a bone like zoning to vote on. But most of their dealings are invisible to citizens; we just wake up and know that Something Happened.

In the early 1980's, the deputy director of the HUD area office that monitors Houston was Elbert Wynn, who provided the documentation that led Mayor Whitmire to order the commisioners of HACH to fire their staffs and turn in their resignations. For a brief moment, it appeared that local and federal government had united against the power players to renovate Allen Parkway Village as what University of Houston sociology professor Bill Simon calls "the realization of the best dream public housing has ever dreampt in this country." At this point, Wynn says, Senator John Tower became very interested in the future of APV and in the career of one Elbert Wynn, who was demoted from a GS-15 to a GS-6. Wynn says that his supervisor was warned by annonymous voices to "keep that nigger out of Houston or you're going to find him in the Gulf of Mexico."

At about this time, Whitmire began to waver in her commitment to APV, and a member of the HACH legal staff named Joy Eliziabeth Fitzgerald began a change of roles. Fitzgerald started out, says Wynn, as the APV interim manager who "was feverishly trying to make some good things happen." Fitzgerald eventually rose to the directorship of HACH, by which time she was working to erase Allen Parkway Village.

(C) The Racist Incentive
Perhaps the most shameful and cynical use of racism to depopulate APV was HACH's wholesale dumping of recently arrived Vietnamese boat people among the complex's predominately black population during the early 1980's, when the complex was still about half occupied. The Asians, unable to communicate with their neighbors and untrained at housing-project life, were moved in to disrupt the lives of the long-term residents. Elbert Wynn described to me how the lack of mentoring and monitoring resulted in the Vietnamese committting such cultural gaffes as using the clotheslines between apartment buildings to clean garfish harvested from the pristine waters of Buffalo Bayou, excavating the soil around the foundations for agriculture on the roofs of the buildings, and cramming as many as sixteen family members into a single apartment.

The black residents responded as anticipated. A courtyard race war simmered as Resident's Council head Lenwood Johnson fought for a solution. The new arrivals responded to the hostility of their neighbors by boarding up the windows of their apartments in violation of the fire code. The city took no action to resolve the conflict.

HACH had avoided the crossfire by moving without warning from offices the agency occupied for free at Allen Parkway Village to a new facility in River Oaks. The full story of the financing of that move, the purchase and remodeling of the building on San Felipe and its recent sale for raw-land value is likely to have a lot of entertainment value, even in a solemn courtroom.

After HACH headquarters decamped from Allen Parkway Village in the dead of night, more residents fled the chaos of the complex. As they moved, housing authority officials added to the plauge of plywood by boarding up the vacant apartments. This shuttering was paid for out of the ten million dollars granted by HUD to begin renovation of the projects after the first demolition permit was denied. Although a contract was awarded for architectural drawings, the only other "renovation" HACH undertook was hammering shut the doors of apartments. This use of housing funds to deny housing is alleged by APV advocates to have been in violation of every federal statute this side of the Mann Act, and resulted in HUD eventually freezing the balance of the ten million dollars.

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