The Battle Over Brentwood

To one side, it's a question of power; to the other, it's a question of homophobia. For both it's a question of whether a community, once sundered, can ever be bound together again.

Every morning, when he steps out into the still foggy air of the pristine, orderly African-American subdivision of Brentwood, David Syrus can see a battlefield. It doesn't look the part. From Syrus' buzz-cut lawn, it looks like little more than brambles, a gray, wild patch of real estate at the juncture of Brentwood's decorously maintained homes, the playground of the neighborhood's elementary school and the brown swell of Brentwood Baptist Church's geodesic sanctuary. It's the very intimacy between these places that impresses a visitor: the way the ranch-style houses nudge against the grade school grounds, and how the playground stretches toward the parking lot that fronts the church. Almost a physical definition of the word community, this piece of Brentwood seems an icon of a time when home, education and religion all clasped together into one, universally accepted whole.

But since last November, that intimate proximity has become a burden. Because it has meant that whatever happens in one section of Brentwood can't help but touch the rest, and in direct and sometimes disturbing ways.

That's what the 56-year-old Syrus broods about when he looks across the barely one-lane wide expanse of Landmark Street toward what he has come to define as the enemy: a planned set of cottages for 18 AIDS patients. Part of a complex planned by Brentwood Baptist for the 25 empty acres, which it owns, the bungalows have yet to be built. They were meant to be part of a family life complex, a complex including a senior citizen's home and recreation rooms.

The church had penned the blueprints, won the grants and assembled the volunteers for its set of transitional homes for gay men with AIDS. But many Brentwood residents, who welcomed the recreational center, saw the AIDS care bungalows as an intolerable invasion of their way of life. When the plans were publicly announced, Brentwood citizens rose up in revolt against them, packing a Houston City Council meeting and protesting so furiously that the council decided to veto the city's promised grant of federal funding. The church, unwilling to accede to its neighbors' objections, decided to take the case to court, and on January 19 filed suit to get both its funding and the plans for the AIDS cottages back on track.

Both sides would say that the dispute is an obvious one. Brentwood Baptist calls it a classic AIDS discrimination case; Brentwood residents says it's a typical land-use dispute about multifamily housing. But there's also something distinctive about the tug of war over Brentwood's identity. With a determination they invoke as if it were a deity, both Brentwood the neighborhood and Brentwood the church have spent lifetimes hacking down any obstacles to their goals. Both rivals are extraordinary, and they know it. And they face each other with two fierce visions of what their community should be -- but only one place to put it.

Maybe six miles from where 610 and Highway 59 intersect at the Galleria, a skein of high tension wires laces a long pasture nibbled by cows. Buildings are few, and sound seems somehow muffled out here along Hiram Clarke Road, the thoroughfare that borders these fields. Here in the southwest suburbs, even the grimy Eagle Food Mart, stocked with requisite ATM machines, gas pumps and parking lot loiterers, retains the air of a small country store.

It's the kind of place where a suburban mother in Sunday heels feels comfortable popping in to buy after-church snacks. Watching some strangers puzzling about directions, she suggests they follow her as she takes the route they need into Brentwood. The Vietnamese man tending the register listens interestedly, free of the edginess that convenience store owners sometimes get after too long in a city.

It was for this small-town quality, in part, that at least three generations of homeowners -- one white, the second two black -- moved up and out from Houston when they began settling Brentwood in the early 1960s. And although by the mid-1970s, the lily-white neighborhood was gradually becoming all black, the transition by most accounts was fairly gentle -- and if anything, scaled Brentwood even further up economically.

Today, to pass the redwood "Brentwood" sign on Airport Street beside Eagle Food Mart is to enter a lapidary haven of gemlike lawns, immaculate houses and burnished cars. Every few blocks, on Saturdays and Sundays, somebody is sudsing one of these automobiles down or rummaging for garden tools in a garage with the door flung open to the street. Hobby Elementary School is minutes away, a brief walk from streets with storybook names such as Wuthering Heights, White Heather and Regency. The Brentwood Baptist dome, cater-corner from the school grounds, is clearly visible through treetops several blocks off.

While Brentwood's population has changed over the past three decades, its charms have remained much the same. "When I moved here in 1968, there were only two other blacks on my street," says 60-year-old Rosetta Thompson. A small, preternaturally youthful woman with taffy-hued skin and dark eyes, Thompson is head nurse of the Veterans Administration Medical Center's Spinal Cord Injury Clinic. In her spare time, Thompson chairs Brentwood Baptist's AIDS ministry.

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