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.

As Municipal Channel TV cameras whirred from the ceiling and watching reporters murmured among themselves in surprise, one after another, speakers from the Brentwood community gave fervent testimony into the mike in front of Council's horseshoe-shaped table. Then they continued their talk in the small anteroom near the Council chambers. Civic association leader Rick Holden warned of plummeting property values; another neighborhood leader, Fred Outley, complained that the potential health risk was "all a big question .... I don't believe you would like the children playing basketball with some people."

The accusations got more sophisticated -- and sometimes, more bizarre -- in the days that followed. Few people now talked about the dangers of AIDS patients; instead, at a meeting held by the AIDS Equity League on December 5, Rick Holden implied that Brentwood Baptist meant to use its housing funds for a parking lot.

"It's obvious this is about money, folks," Holden said darkly. Perhaps oddest of all, witnesses say, a community member even accused Ratliff of using a racist epithet about Brentwood's residents.

However free-floating, the community's hostility toward the Brentwood AIDS housing had already found a sympathetic ear at City Council. On November 16, nearly a month before the Equity League meeting, councilmember Al Calloway had led a unanimous vote to effectively kill the project's funding.

Any hopes that Houston's officials could lead a path through the volatile case soon shriveled. Apart from describing his role as that of a "mediator," Calloway refused to speak about the dispute, explaining his silence by pointing to the fact that the case is in litigation. City Attorney Gene Locke remains quiet for the same reason. And Mayor Bob Lanier, who deferred leadership on the dispute to Calloway, has stayed most silent of all.

Today, Ratliff says simply, he'd do things differently. Instead of assuming interested residents would follow the project through pulpit announcements and business meetings, Ratliff would call for community meetings to discuss the project. "I underestimated how emotional this would get," Ratliff says. "I knew there might be some resistance, but nothing like this." As evidence of his good faith, he points out that even before the community erupted, the board's planners had already rethought their original blueprints. Concerned with their neighbors' sensibilities, they had moved the AIDS cottages out of sight of the school.

Brentwood resident Huey Fonteno doesn't buy it. "It was a sneak play," scoffs the 43-year-old computer consultant, echoing many neighbors' views. "It was like, 'I hope you don't find out about this project until it's too late to do anything."

Fonteno's neighbors aren't the only ones who find Ratliff's arguments disingenuous. "Common sense dictates that AIDS organizations need to understand the neighborhoods they're in," says a Houstonian who has long worked on Houston AIDS housing issues, but whose position prohibits him from giving his name. "You basically go out there and knock on doors and find out who's willing to support your project beforehand."

But Thompson can't help but call Brentwood's angry activists the disingenuous ones. She herself has invested considerably in Brentwood, where she's lived since 1968. Like many of her neighbors, Thompson didn't come by her spacious house, her late model car and her vacations to Europe and Africa easily. Thompson was born in rural Louisiana to parents who could barely write their names, and she grew up in a tiny house where four adults and three children shared two rooms. She's still amazed sometimes by what she has attained -- and if she thought the AIDS housing would endanger her home, Thompson says, she would oppose it.

"The thing that puzzles me the most is why this came up to begin with," she says. "The Brentwood civic club, until all of this came up, met in the church -- they have met there 15 years. And this has been on the drawing board for two years. We didn't just decide in one passionate moment that this is what were going to do." As for anticipating community reaction to AIDS patients in their midst, Thompson notes indignantly that "AIDS patients have been meeting at the church for years."

The fact that AIDS patients had been coming into and out of the church for years is one of the curious elements of the conflict. If, indeed, the community is simply engaging in AIDS phobia, then the question is, why were there no earlier objections? And if the community truly thinks the church was being secretive, what would explain the years of AIDS programs that took place openly on church grounds?

Hiram Clarke Civic Association president Rick Holden, a longtime church member who has been one of the most outspoken Brentwood neighbors, didn't respond to numerous requests for an interview. But the Houstonian who has worked on AIDS housing issues theorizes that as community leaders, both Holden and Ratliff had the power to keep the conflict from escalating.

"The honest thing is, this situation didn't have to polarize like this," he says. "I've heard from people in the church on both sides that Rick Holden and the pastor have long-standing problems. It's typical Baptist church politics that has spilled over into the neighborhood and AIDS housing. It makes it very easy to whip up sentiment." Had Brentwood sat down with the neighborhood and looked for compromise early enough, the activist adds, "there could have been compromise."

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