Lenwood Johnson's Last Stand

APV is more than his home. It's his life. No wonder he can't let it go without one final struggle.

For another, Johnson's ample measure of righteous indignation appears to be suffering from diminishing returns. He goes into this, perhaps his toughest challenge yet, having alienated some of his most important allies -- most notably Gladys House, the president of the Freedmen's Town Association, and Joan Denkler, president of the Houston Housing Concern. House may be the one person who has fought the demolition of APV longer than Johnson. But these days, frustrated by Johnson's refusal to compromise, House is working alone to protect the interests of Freedmen's Town.

Denkler's largely white, suburban-based organization was instrumental in mobilizing the support of church and community groups when Johnson needed it most. Yet Denkler and Johnson have split over the latest alternative to demolition, the Allen Parkway Community Campus plan.

"I had to leave," Denkler says. "He's a remarkable man, but his political instincts failed him on this."

Perhaps. But, as was apparent at the November 28 meeting, Lenwood Johnson can still raise hell, even when he doesn't show up. At about 9:45 that morning, with Johnson nowhere to be found, several of his supporters tried to enter the meeting. They were unceremoniously told to leave.

"Basically, they told us that when Lenwood arrives, he can pick four people to go in," announced Delores Elliot, a public housing resident, after emerging from the room. "And until then, we all had to stay out."

Most of Johnson's supporters had been recognized as "interested parties" and were permitted to attend previous meetings. They were therefore alarmed to learn that the welcome ostensibly extended to Lenwood Johnson and company was wearing out. Deborah Morris, an architect and member of the APV's Resident Council board, saw it when she crossed paths with Charlene Vaughn, the deputy director of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

"She was immediately snappy and agitated," Morris reported after being booted from the meeting. "She is ready for a fight."

To get it, however, she would have to wait for Johnson, whose whereabouts were of no small concern to everyone. Elliot, Morris and the others were desperate to know what was happening inside. Meanwhile, those in the meeting were in a bind as well. They knew that to arrive at a decision on how much of APV to demolish without Lenwood Johnson in the room would be a huge mistake.

It fell to George Rodriguez, a local HUD official, to placate the increasingly restless supporters. A small, nervous man, Rodriguez had already hired an armed security guard to sit in on the meeting. Later, he summoned a plainclothes policewoman, who arrived and took up a position outside the meeting room, jotting down notes on a legal pad.

Rodriguez announced that if Johnson could be tracked down by phone, he could designate four supporters to sit in on the meeting in his absence. Delores Elliot was dispatched to make the call. She returned with a bemused look on her face.

"He's on his way," Elliot said.
As it turned out, Johnson was waylaid by an equally important cause: Wessie Scyrus, APV resident, mother of 11 and secretary of the Resident Council, needed a pair of stockings to go with the new blue suit her daughter had bought her for the meeting. Anxious to look her best for a roomful of federal and local officials, Scyrus was also on the hunt for some lipstick. Their arrival was further delayed by a broken weld on the muffler of Johnson's decrepit, primer-stained Toyota Corolla, which slowed the trip across town from Allen Parkway Village.

It was 11 a.m. when Johnson, wearing a frayed brown suit and a tie two decades out of fashion, finally stepped off the elevator at the HUD offices. While Johnson's supporters surged around their leader, Rodriguez stepped up and urged him to quickly pick four supporters and get inside. The six-foot-four-inch Johnson considered the all-female entourage hovering below him like the captain of a sandlot baseball team. Rodriguez folded his arms and shook his head -- and waited some more.

A few moments later, someone from inside the meeting room called out, "We're starting."

An hour and a half late and completely at ease, Lenwood Johnson led the way, his head held high and a look of defiance on his face.

Lenwood Johnson makes no apologies -- unless you happen to be a first-time visitor to unit Number 924 at Allen Parkway Village. And even then, his folksy act of contrition lasts only as long as it takes to clear a place to sit. Johnson lives alone, but he shares his home with the ghosts of APV's past.

They lie about his tiny living room in the form of thousands and thousands of pieces of paper -- lawsuits, government studies and reports, press releases, memos, letters, meeting minutes, speeches and newspaper clippings. In 15 years, it seems not a shred of information was discarded. In one corner, the doors of a wooden cabinet are broken and open. Hundreds of file jackets spill out onto two adjacent sofas covered by sheets. Enough space remains on each for one person to sit alongside boxes of documents and shoulder-high stacks of manila folders.

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