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.

"They were bogging us down with a lot of loops and hoops to try to get us back to where they wanted to be, which was demolition," says Roberts, who has been trying to distance herself from HACH's "diluted" version of her original concept. She has even given it a new name -- the "Learning Center for Sustainable Living at Allen Parkway Community Campus" -- to distinguish it from the "campus-like setting" of the housing authority's plan.

Johnson pulled out of all future meetings with HUD officials, demanding instead an audience with Cisneros. That meeting was set up, delayed, set up again, rescheduled. Eventually, it was clear that HACH and HUD had no intention of implementing the tenants' campus concept. Meanwhile, trouble was brewing between Johnson and Roberts' campus planning team. It began when Johnson insisted that Dana Cuff, a former Rice University faculty member and Johnson ally who now works at UCLA, be brought in as an urban planner.

"That really caused us a lot of pain," Roberts says. "We were meeting nearly every day, and there was no way we could do it by phone with someone in California."

Denkler, who had brought Roberts into the fold in the late 1980s, says Johnson became distrustful of the planning team, perhaps fearing the future of APV was ending up in the hands of others. He tried to bring in more and more of his own people. But the campus concept needed the "input of the superb team" that had sold Cisneros on the idea, she says. Johnson resisted and soon began to distance himself from the Houston Housing Concern, Roberts and her concept.

"I was angry because I had spent nine years trying to get a plan to that stage, and I thought we had something that was inches away from success," Denkler says. "But Lenwood made it very clear that he was going to run everything from then on, and he did. And the group that was assembled slowly drifted away."

Johnson says that he started having differences of opinion with Denkler and others soon after City Council voted to rescind its support for demolition in 1989. He and the residents wanted to "nail Whitmire against the wall," but, he says, the others backed away.

"They were trying to carve out niches for themselves, including Joan Denkler," Johnson says. "Sometimes, people get so involved, they try to take ownership of the situation in an effort to come up with their own solutions. They have been invaluable to this effort. If Joan Denkler hadn't come along when she did, there probably wouldn't be an Allen Parkway Village. But over the years I've developed a sense of what needs to be done."

But what's needed now, argues Catherine Roberts, is a different approach. With HUD and HACH clearly determined to move forward, that means a renewed emphasis on the original campus concept, as well as increasing public awareness of its possibilities. Johnson, she believes, is hurting that effort by boycotting the master planning deliberations.

"Lenwood has a lot of really interesting qualities," Roberts says. "He can be really brilliant, very frustrating and downright obnoxious. He's sure that there is a betrayal around every corner, and it's really difficult to have someone like that on a planning team that needs to shift into a planning mode.

"Sometimes it seems he doesn't want to win, because then what would he do? This has been his whole life. When we asked him what role he saw for himself once the community campus is finished, he couldn't really say. I don't think he knows. Maybe when you've been in the battle so long, you don't think about a future."

When Lenwood Johnson walked into the November 28 meeting at the local HUD office an hour and a half late, he was brandishing his latest manifesto: a 14-point document assailing the master planning process that he has refused to participate in.

Not surprisingly -- and it certainly came as no surprise to Johnson -- the housing officials who had wasted half their morning waiting for him were in no mood to be assailed. Within 15 minutes, Johnson walked out of the meeting, his four supporters in tow.

"We couldn't even ask them the questions we needed to ask before they started cutting us off, raising their voices in anger and talking to us like we were little children," Johnson told his supporters and a couple of reporters outside the room. "They said, 'We're not hearing that, we're going forward.' "

So Lenwood Johnson, whose crusade has remained constant since he first opened his mouth in defense of APV, finds himself on the outside looking in, while the officials he's held off for so many years go about their plans to demolish Allen Parkway Village.

Is it time to compromise? Even Gladys House, the longtime Freedmen's Town activist with whom Johnson began the fight so long ago, has succumbed to what she thinks is the inevitable -- the demolition of most of Allen Parkway Village's units. But she hopes to convince HUD and HACH to abandon its plan to scatter replacement housing around the city, and, instead, build it in the Fourth Ward as part of that neighborhood's redevelopment.

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