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By Sean Pendergast
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"It is not merely a commendable thing for man to be kind and bountiful to the poor, but our bounden duty ...."
-- "Duty of Charity to the Poor, Enforced and Explained," from The Works of Jonathan Edwards
Stephen Fairfield's improbable destiny was approaching fulfillment on a rainy spring afternoon when he was flagged down by a soggy pedestrian sauntering along Lyons Street.mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm At the time -- this was 1990 -- the avenue wasn't the ideal place for a walk, rain or shine. A generation earlier, Lyons had been the Fifth Ward's equivalent of center court, vibrating daily with the personality and commerce of Houston's largest African-American community. As time went by, though, the money, jobs and future of the Fifth Ward migrated elsewhere, and fewer and fewer people could remember the glory days, before Lyons became just another battered and neglected inner-city corridor to nowhere.
Fairfield pulled his car up alongside the young African-American woman and cracked his window.
"Need a lift?" he asked.
"Sure," replied the woman, sliding into the passenger seat.
Before answering, the passenger sized up her ride. She saw a heavyset young man with an almost jolly countenance, dressed preppily in khakis, loafers and a button-down Oxford shirt. The round, boyish face -- white, well-fed and unfazed by the blight around him -- was framed by a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. His brown hair was thin and soft as a child's.
Maybe she figured him for another out-of-town motorist who'd lost his way by exiting I-10 at Waco Street. Or perhaps she took him for a good Samaritan on his way to a shift at the soup kitchen. More than likely, though, she pegged him for another cracker from the far suburbs who'd come to town in pursuit of a forbidden thrill. And times being what they were, the young woman apparently felt compelled to oblige him.
"Anywhere you want to," she replied.
Stephen Fairfield had to drive another block before he understood the proposition before him. The realization left him feeling ignorant, yet he harbored neither anger toward the woman, nor reproach for her profession. He simply gave her a smile, expressed the sincere hope that he would "save" himself for a wife, and drove on, in no particular hurry, until she asked to be dropped off.
In the six years since that afternoon, rarely has the day passed when Steve Fairfield, the 35-year-old executive director of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, hasn't driven down Lyons and the less-traveled side streets of the ward. The naivete that landed a prostitute in his car is gone, of course. But the benevolence that brought her in from the rain has helped spur the revitalization of one of the poorest sections of the city.
To the uninitiated, stretches of Lyons still conjure the utter absence of hope that plagues much of urban America. And, in fact, it may be years before any portion of the street once again resembles a living, breathing promenade. But few doubt the day is coming. Last year, the Community Redevelopment Corporation polled the Fifth Ward's residents before developing a master plan that, if all goes as hoped, will restore a sense of trust between a place and its people.
It's already taken shape along the raw, narrow streets off Lyons, where such prominent sons and daughters as Barbara Jordan, Mickey Leland, George Foreman and Smith College president Ruth Simmons were raised. It's there one finds -- sometimes in neat, almost inconspicuous clusters; sometimes on an otherwise desolate block -- the more than 50 low-cost homes the Fifth Ward CRC has built and sold since 1990, when the United Way funded the group's start-up with a $50,000 grant.
Since then, only private developer Bob Perry, whose pricey multiunit modulars in Montrose are seducing the upwardly mobile away from the suburbs, has built more inner-city, single-family housing than the Fifth Ward CRC. Not to diminish his effort, but Perry's success seems almost guaranteed by comparison with the CRC -- he is, after all, catering to an eager market with flexible buying power. Fairfield, on the other hand, is trying to dam the exodus of the Fifth Ward's young working families, a phenomenon that is sucking the life out of the community.
It's a difficult task. Inner-city rescue missions of the past self-destructed because of an insidious attitude that the poor should take what's given to them and like it. The Republican revolution in Congress is threatening to further absolve the government's responsibility to the poor by decimating federal housing aid.
Nonprofit community development corporations began emerging as a vehicle for urban renewal more than a decade ago, after Ronald Reagan divested the country's interest in building affordable housing. CDCs, as they are known, are starting to pick up the slack in places like Brooklyn, Boston and Atlanta. The success in those cities and elsewhere has housing advocates across the country talking about a "movement."
The core of the CDC is passionately philanthropic, yet the process requires patience. Developers will tell you the hardest part of building a house is the paperwork -- securing land, developing it and finding homebuyers. To actually build the houses, CDCs have had to become politically savvy enough to ensure investment of resources and goodwill from local governments and financial institutions.