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.

"I think he's shown some pretty good skills in a variety of ways that he could be putting to other uses related to affordable housing or just making a living," Baloutine says. "He's chosen to continue doing this, so I guess he's sacrificing whatever income he could be making in other ways. But I think he could be accomplishing some other things in the city for the same people he's fighting for now, which are lower-income people who don't have a lot of housing choices."

Much of the bitterness directed at Johnson by those who oppose him has less to do with his obstinacy than his stubborn ability to survive. Johnson says city officials assume that because he's been able to fight them so long, "I have a whole bunch of money."

That appears to be light-years from the truth. His refrigerator is nearly empty, except for some juice and a jar of honey, which he glops between two pieces of bread for a sandwich. When things get bad, he calls fellow APV residents, who will hustle up a potluck meal or some leftovers. Patrons who support his cause offer a donation every now and then.

Still, says Sissy Farenthold, who has helped Johnson financially in the past, "I see him more than struggling, and I've seen it first-hand for a long time."

Johnson used to keep the Resident Council going by collecting a dollar or two from each APV household, a door-to-door campaign that took three days. He could do it in an hour now, and still not be able to buy the paper he needs for press releases and correspondence. The council survives on what it can get for renting the project's Community Building. Some "white punk rockers," as Johnson calls them, hold periodic dances there, from which a portion of the cover charges goes to the council. The Impact Church of Christ ministry rents the Community Building for services and a soup kitchen.

Johnson's copier was paid for with a grant from the Center for Community Change in Washington. The fax machine is on loan from the Clark Reed Foundation. He wears secondhand clothes, passed along by friends or bought cheap from the Salvation Army. The right lapel on his gray suit is split; the pants on his brown one are partially hemmed with straight pins.

Johnson says he survives on what remains of APV's "underground economics," a system of bartering. Wessie Scyrus says all APV residents do the same, though she suspects Johnson relies on "the will of God to keep him going."

"There is something sort of funny and different about Allen Parkway Village," she says. "It's so much like living in a small town, and with the housing authority depriving us of repairs and services, we access whatever resources we can, from whatever source we can. We've become very reliant on one another for protection and safety and the ability just to exist."

Those who have worked with Johnson say he perseveres because there is little difference between what he stands for and who he is -- a poor but proud man; fair but uncompromising; determined to succeed, yet distrustful of so many of the mechanisms that might help him the most. For the last decade and a half, Lenwood Johnson kept Allen Parkway Village standing with the strength of his personality and the ability to inspire righteousness in others.

It worked in 1987, when Johnson apparently embarrassed one of Sheila Jackson Lee's predecessors in the 18th Congressional District, U.S. Representative Mickey Leland, into supporting a congressional amendment barring the use of federal funds to demolish APV. Leland "was not keen" on the legislation in the beginning. "We told him, 'If you can't represent our interests, then we're going to tell the public,' " Johnson says.

That strategy put Johnson at odds with some supporters, particularly the Houston Housing Concern. To force Leland into decisive action, Johnson recruited a young lawyer to write an op-ed piece that, as he puts it, "said that Mickey could take care of the world, but he couldn't take care of the people in the 18th Congressional District." Joan Denkler, the president of the Houston Housing Concern, acknowledges that her group hoped Leland would come around on his own and tried to convince Johnson not to have the article published.

"That was his decision," says Denkler, "and I didn't like it."
But it worked. The Frost-Leland Act was passed in 1987 and signed into law by Ronald Reagan in January 1988. Today, no other phrase out of Johnson's mouth inspires African-Americans to the APV cause more than his call to "protect Mickey Leland's legacy" -- even though the congressman wasn't quite the friend to APV he is now portrayed to have been, six years after his death in a plane crash while on an African relief mission.

"He didn't help us that much when he was alive, except for the Frost-Leland and some public statements," Johnson says slyly. "So we decided he might as well help us in death."

Johnson's willingness to attack and embarrass government officials was equally effective in killing HACH's 1984 demolition application. He led anti-demolition marches outside City Hall, while inside, white suburban supporters he had recruited paraded their opposition before City Council. Led by Klein, Denkler and the Houston Housing Concern, the white supporters gained Council's ear like a black public-housing resident never could. They presented a resolution to save APV that was signed by more than 100 church and community groups. In 1989, Council eventually voted to rescind its 1984 resolution that supported tearing down the complex. HACH withdrew its application.

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