Situational Ethics

As Jew Don Boney has moved upward in public life, have his values changed to meet his needs rather than those of his constituents?

Boney is also quick to point out his hard work beyond District D. The best known of those efforts came during his first term, when Boney and former councilmember Helen Huey pushed through a new ordinance that restricts how and where topless bars and other adult businesses operate. While critics, and even a few supporters, think the new ordinance will never pass constitutional muster, Boney is nonetheless proud.

"Here's a freshman writing new legislation and chairing the committee," he says. "That doesn't happen."

But some of those who voted for Boney in District D could care less about topless clubs when they can't get the councilman to respond to their needs. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the loudest complaints come from Montrose, an eclectic, largely white area that attracts both the city's bohemian element and young, upscale professionals in droves. Most people, particularly longtime residents, like it that way, but are wary of the acres of new townhomes being constructed in the central and northern portions of the rambling Montrose. Meanwhile, the less affluent areas are receiving little or no attention from the city.

"I think he's been a huge disappointment," says a Montrose activist who supported Boney as a member of the Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. "We don't need speed humps, because the potholes are so big."

According to other Montrose residents, Boney hasn't even tried to reach out to them since he was elected. Last year, for instance, Montrose celebrated the formation of its first-ever Little League baseball competition. Though he was sent an invitation, neither Boney nor anyone from his office bothered to attend opening-day ceremonies at Dunlavy Park.

"We tried to get portable toilets for Dunlavy Park for months," says one parent active in the league. "We ended up going through [at-large Councilman] Chris Bell's office."

By far the most widespread discontent, however, is in regard to Boney's approach to the upcoming redevelopment of the Fourth Ward and Freedmen's Town areas, just west of downtown. The area was settled almost 150 years ago by freed slaves and grew to be the jewel among Houston's black, inner-city neighborhoods. The emergence of a black middle-class in the 1950s and '60s sent many residents to places like Missouri City, leaving the poor who remained to watch helplessly as the once-vibrant area decayed around them.

In the past year, a massive redevelopment plan proposed by the nonprofit Houston Renaissance has placed Freedmen's Town on the endangered species list. The plan calls for the demolition of hundreds of shotgun shacks and bungalows in the Freedmen's Town National Historic District, to be replaced by a densely packed settlement of upscale townhomes and commercial development.

Aside from the destruction of one of Houston's few truly historic neighborhoods, there is the sad, but inevitable displacement of several hundred poor, minority households, many of which settled in Freedmen's Town decades ago. While their prospects have improved some under Lee Brown, the future of these residents was blatantly ignored by the administration of Bob Lanier.

To the Fourth Ward's guardians, Jew Don Boney's failure to protect the area's heritage and its residents is the clearest signal yet that the onetime champion of the poor has been co-opted by the city's establishment. His harshest critic has been Lenwood Johnson, president of the Allen Parkway Village Residents' Council. No surprise there -- for almost 20 years, Johnson has lived, and he will probably die, with the Fourth Ward on his mind. He says Boney began selling out the residents in 1983, when, as a community representative on a committee analyzing the area's viability, he signed off on a final document that called for wholesale demolition.

"In our population," Johnson says, speaking of the African-American community, "there has always been a group of us willing to sacrifice everyone else for their own benefit. Even during slavery, they'd trade us off for beads and trinkets. I think that maybe Jew Don is a descendant of that tradition."

The historian and professor Amilcar Shabazz says that Boney has always been "defeatist" about the possibility that the Fourth Ward could be saved. More troubling to Shabazz is that he says Boney has let down the larger African-American community by failing to show what's called "elite commitment."

"If your black elite has a commitment to the black community, you might see some progress for everyone, all down the line," Shabazz says. "If there isn't that elite commitment, and they simply thrust the big fist in the air, black power and all that, it's all for naught. That's where the co-optation will lead to nothing but more regression for the community."

Boney, of course, strongly disagrees with the notion that he's somehow less committed to the principles on which he built his reputation. He is satisfied that the Fourth Ward Community Coalition, a group of local ministers, was able to participate in the redevelopment's master-planning process. (Actually, the preachers didn't do much more than help pay the planner's bill.)

As for the fate of historic Freedmen's Town, the cost of the housing that will be built there and the lack of inexpensive housing for its displaced residents, Boney backpedals noticeably.

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