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.

In a worn blue pickup truck with a metal box of tools on the floor, David Syrus cruises slowly, vigilantly past the deep green lawns of Brentwood. As he tours the verdant streets, the only sounds come from Syrus' truck, the rush of a garden hose or the placid heartbeat of a basketball striking cement. In the driveways wait maroon Lexuses, gray Lincolns and the odd Volvo. Syrus' own Landmark Street house is a paragon of fine maintenance; the battered blue pickup he drives reflects not an indifference to appearances but the vigor of Syrus' long carpentering career.

Syrus knows a lot about this community of 1,100 houses. He singles out the problem neighbors -- that house right there, with the two big trailers for peddling barbecue in the driveway. "They just don't care," Syrus fumes. Then, a block later, Syrus slows the blue truck near a house close to his own. "A guy from El Salvador paid cash down for this place," Syrus says approvingly. "They keep it really nice. Some of those people came here because they had drive."

Despite battling cancer, the 56-year-old Syrus is handsome. Posture perfect, he wears a crisply pressed plaid shirt, mustard-green socks and beige leather slip-ons. He is not afraid of inconsistency. "You can't deprive a person from making a living, buying a home, just because they have an illness," he says. But you have to look out for decay, he believes, and certain neighbors -- such as those who live in group dwellings, and those with AIDS -- are more likely to bring it on in a neighborhood. Syrus doesn't want the traffic, the rootless residents and, yes, the unsupervised AIDS patients that the cottages would bring in.

Above all, he says, he resents his neighborhood slipping from his control. All his life, Syrus, an ex-Marine who worked his way out from an impoverished Texas small town, has succeeded by fighting for what he wanted. The planned AIDS housing is only the last straw in a series of changes here, he explains. In 1974, the Brentwood neighbors fought all-out against a proposed public housing unit just beyond the subdivision's borders. The housing went up anyway. To this day, its shabby exterior remains an irritating reproach for longtime Brentwood residents. Worse, he says, these days he can't prevail on the kids playing basketball at a cul-de-sac to clear up the beer bottles nesting near the backboard. And last month, the Eagle Food Mart put up bulletproof glass by the cash register. The neighborhood that crowned his escape from the two-house town of Honeygrove, Texas, seems to slip away a little more every day.

For Huey Fonteno, the Brentwood controversy also is about more than multifamily houses. To Fonteno the plan seems to threaten a whole ideal from his past, of an inviolate place where black families could look out for each other's children and teach them to strive. Just how seriously Fonteno takes that dream become clear when his 16-year-old son lopes up to him and waits patiently for a break in his father's monologue. "I wanted to know if I can go play basketball," the teenager asks. Fonteno nods, and then proudly says, "How many 16-year-olds do you know ask permission to play basketball?"

Fonteno himself grew up on a place called Fidelity Road, near the Ship Channel Bridge. "Fidelity was a ghetto, but it was rich in the sense that everyone was a big family," Fonteno says. "Then all of a sudden things changed. Integration took place. Fidelity's school was dismantled, because white people didn't want to send their kids there. But let me tell you: Fidelity achieved, athletically and academically. The people who grew up there became somebodies."

"I spent my whole life trying to get to a place like that again, and this is where I found it," Fonteno continues. "It's not really a land-use issue. The question is, what's on the horizon? What does it take to make things even better? That's the way I live my whole life."

Strolling down a Brentwood street late one afternoon, though, it becomes clear that while few of the area's residents have gone so far as to openly confront anti-AIDS project neighbors, some are still torn on the issue.

"I'm sort of 50-50," says Dale Usher, a 33-year-old computer programmer washing his red minivan as his two elementary school kids explore the open garage. On one hand, he says, "I think people ought to be able to be sick and not be cast out." At the same time, Usher says, "I don't believe any of the myths about AIDS. But if you start something like that housing here, what happens next? When I get ready to sell this place in ten years, I want to be able to sell it for a good price." And, he adds, it's not just the multifamily dwelling aspect of the project that perturbs him. "It's the AIDS part and the gay part," Usher says. "I'm anti-gay. I'm politically incorrect on that. From a man's point of view, I don't think it's natural."

Paul Gill, a 62-year-old family counselor with a professorial gray beard and tweed hat, pauses only briefly on his way into his house to say "I'm against the project for a lot of reasons. The main one is the minister's approach. It was very arrogant. He thinks he can treat people any kind of way."

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