Ain't That a Ditch

Hiram Butler and his neighbors are fighting to retain the funky charm of Magnolia Grove, and they're drawing their battle line in the ditch.

Hiram Butler arrived in Magnolia Grove about nine years ago, a man of some means and aesthetic sensibility who ran an art gallery out of a renovated laundromat on Kirby near Greenway Plaza.

Butler bought a three-quarter-acre plot of land that was settled in the 1880s by a German cabinetmaker named Stark, who built the first house in Magnolia Grove when the neighborhood north of Memorial Drive, between Jackson Hill and Shepherd, was a tiny burg called Bruner. After hauling off 55 truckloads of trash and junk, he built a hulking cedar-and-glass gallery on the east end of the property. On the west, he faithfully reconstructed Stark's simple one-story bungalow, which was built entirely of cypresswood and is capped by a tin roof. The two structures are separated by a large, neatly landscaped sculpture garden, dominated by thick rows of wildflowers and a half-dozen different species of trees.

To Hiram Butler, this immaculate restoration is more than a nice place to live and work. It's art. Or it's enough like art that, in Butler's view, how the whole creation -- home, garden and gallery -- is framed is the difference between monstrosity and masterpiece. In that regard, Butler has found himself engaged in a struggle being waged in the drainage ditches -- or, as they are called in polite company, swales -- that surround his compound at Blossom and Patterson streets and run alongside nearly all the pocked, narrow lanes in Magnolia Grove.

It should be noted that these are no ordinary ditches; they aren't smelly messes filled with beer cans and standing water. In fact, Butler and other neighborhood homeowners have pampered their swales to the point where they are more like roadside gardens, dressed in exotic grasses and a sturdy perennial called the Louisiana iris.

This, too, is art -- or it is to some people.
"I realized one day that we have a real asset in these ditches," says Butler, a mild, well-bred man of 45. "You can grade them, you can plant them and they look good. And if you grow flowers in a ditch, people don't dump trash in them. They respect it."

Unfortunately, the lowly ditch finds no such appreciation at the city's Public Works and Engineering Department. At least once a year, city workers show up in Magnolia Grove with mowers, a backhoe and an honorable intent to clean out the neighborhood swales. If they proceed, the ditches are generally subjected to a crude gutting that removes every hint of vegetation while laying bare utility pipes and other important-looking underground hardware. Butler was the first to actually stand in his ditch in defiance of the city's tools of destruction. He is ever vigilant for enemy troops, and on behalf of his less vocal neighbors, fights, begs and cajoles public works officials by phone on a regular basis.

"Whenever we see a city vehicle in the neighborhood," he says, "we stop it and make them tell us why they're here."

Butler's battle of the swales has been joined by other neighborhood residents, some of whom are, like Butler, members of the Magnolia Grove Civic Association. They exhibit an equally zealous urge to protect what has become a sacred amenity in the neighborhood.

"I heard all this noise very early one morning," recalls Lee Littlefield, a schoolteacher and sculptor who lives on Lillian Street, about a dozen blocks north of Butler's place. "I looked down the street, and they were scraping the ditches. So I asked them why they were doing that, and they said they have to do it every once in a while because they drain better. I said, 'What about all the stuff that's in 'em?' " -- Littlefield's swale is lined with his sculptures, which resemble mutant trees -- "He said, 'Well, it's gotta go."

"And I said, 'Over my dead body. It's not gonna go. When you get down there in front of my house, don't touch a hair of that grass or the other things in the ditch.' So they scraped right up to my place and went on by and scraped it on the other side. I tried to get ahold of some of the other people who weren't home, but there was nothing I could do."

As you might expect, in a neighborhood where people think of a ditch in terms of artistic possibility, the fight for the right to have their storm water meander through elephant grass is symbolic of a more sublime struggle. What was once done for art's sake is now being carried out in the name of civic pride.

"I used to think this was about modern art," Butler says. "But what it's really about is recreating the place I love most in the world. This is about returning the neighborhood to what it used to be."

It's proven to be a rather complex assignment, despite the fact that nothing much has changed in Magnolia Grove since paved roads and indoor plumbing became the standard. The city, for instance, never bothered to build more than a few sidewalks as the original settlement was subdivided and developed. The walkways that do exist have been trampled to bits by time or fractured by the thick, twisting roots of ancient oaks and cedars that snake up from beneath tiny front yards. The rutted streets and alleyways remain untamed by the homogenizing effect of concrete curbs and gutters, and even those ditches that are not landscaped explode with out-of-control vegetation.

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