A Neighborhood Divided

In the Heights, a gate blocks Dian Street, separating the haves from the have-lesses, whites from Hispanics and once, an ambulance from an emergency. Three years after the city erected the "traffic calming" measure, how you feel about it still depends on

In the artificial darkness of the living room, Cynthia Walters sits in a well-worn chair and talks about her husband, Tim, as if he weren't there. In a lot of ways, he isn't. Right now he is watching cartoons on Nickelodeon. Cynthia, frustrated, says that he used to listen to the BBC.

She is calm, though, almost detached, as she recounts the events of March 24, 1995; she's told the story many times to many audiences. She had taken the day off to attend her aunt's funeral, and she and Tim were about to leave when he said his chest hurt and went to lie down. She went to check on him and saw that he'd stopped breathing. Immediately, she called 911, and within five minutes, a fire engine arrived. Firemen administered CPR and shocked Tim four times while they waited for the ambulance and a trained paramedic.

Walters tried to call family members for support. Unable to reach them, she called three friends -- who made it from downtown to her house in the Heights before the ambulance did.

Yet the ambulance had left on time. It was coming from station 62, not two miles from the Walters's house, and it reported en route four minutes after Cynthia's call. But unlike the fire engine, which came from a different direction, the ambulance encountered a barrier, a "911 gate" that stopped traffic at the point where Dian Street makes a 90-degree turn and changes to Wynnwood. The gate hadn't appeared on the ambulance driver's map, and when he got there, he wasn't able to open it. The lock box containing the gate's key was open and empty, and the driver didn't realize that his universal lock-box key would also open the gate. He was forced to detour nearly 20 blocks, driving down Wynnwood to T.C. Jester, north to 18th Street and east to Beall.

Cynthia Walters estimates now that the delay was 15 minutes. In that time, Tim's heart stopped, and his brain was deprived of oxygen. By the time the ambulance arrived, he was clinically dead.

The Dian Street gate was already controversial when Tim Walters suffered his heart attack. Just three days before, a neighborhood committee -- the Committee to Keep Dian Open -- had warned the Houston City Council that the gate would impede emergency vehicle access. But response time was only part of the committee's argument. The gate had been intended to stop speeding cut-through traffic, and the committee claimed that the gate failed at even that task. Besides, they said, there were negative consequences to closing the street, and they fell disproportionately on those on the wrong side of the gate.

Other proposed gates, at other locations, have since been rejected by the city, which now seems to prefer speed bumps. But more than two years after the gate at Dian was erected, it still stands: a physical barrier that divides what had once been a peaceful, cohesive neighborhood along the lines of race, class and -- most of all -- feelings toward the gate itself. Those who rallied for the gate -- among them, a past president of the civic association, the coordinator of citizens on patrol, the lawyer who was involved in the process of getting the gate installed and even residents questioned at random -- prefer not to talk now. But opponents, such as Cynthia Walters, are more than happy to talk. As long as the gate remains, there will be someone around to fight it.

On the Dian side of the gate, Heights Annex is a tight grid of small houses, many of them rented, many of them suffering the effects of aging and disrepair, and most of them valued between $35,000 and $60,000. Eighteen-wheelers rumble down narrow, potholed streets that are lined with ditches instead of sidewalks. Vacant lots alternate with residences and the occasional business, a ramshackle store or a body shop.

On the other side of the gate, the street is named Wynnwood, and the neighborhood is Timbergrove. But more than the names change: Here, chainlink fences give way to flower beds, driveways and small, well-manicured lawns. The streets are wide and curving, and the houses generally cost $85,000 to $90,000. The subdivision is modest, neat and quiet. The effect is of an old-style suburb, an inner-city refuge for the white middle class.

Naturally, Timbergrove residents disliked the traffic that cut through their enclave. The subdivision is surrounded by three major streets -- T.C. Jester, 11th Street and North Durham -- and drivers found that they could avoid a few stoplights by using Dian as a shortcut through Timbergrove. Starting in 1989, residents complained to the city of Houston, saying they were sick of the constant roar of 18-wheelers and of cars that treated their streets like speedways. And they believed that burglars were escaping down Dian.

In 1993, City Council passed an ordinance that added "neighborhood traffic projects" to the existing traffic ordinance with the intention of giving communities more control over the traffic that passes through them. Timbergrove's neighborhood organization requested a gate that would block Dian. Over time, meetings were held, engineers consulted, traffic counts taken and letters written. Finally, on October 5, 1994, the gate was erected. Timbergrove had won.

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