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The big yellow backhoe reared up and, with a hydraulic bang, slammed its wicked-looking claw into the building.
It was August 23, 1996, just after 1 p.m., somewhere on the sprawling grounds of Allen Parkway Village, the 1,000-unit, 1940s-era public-housing project just west of downtown Houston. A herd of local housing officials stood nearby, smiling and laughing, quite satisfied that, after years of disappointment, APV would, as they'd always hoped, be returned to the earth.
The backhoe roared again. The claw rose and fell with screeching violence, but nothing happened. The mechanical attack continued, but not so much as a brick was torn loose. The fanfare of the local swells grew guarded. Suddenly, the sun felt hotter. They were perspiring now, and behind the noisy dust their smiles began to fade.
There seemed but one thing to say, and naturally the person who said it was Joy Fitzgerald, the executive director of HACH, the Housing Authority of the City of Houston, and, since 1989, APV's appointed executioner.
"Where's Lenwood?" she asked warily.
Lenwood Johnson was someplace else, to be sure -- unwilling or, quite possibly, simply unable to witness the end of his 15-year crusade to save Allen Parkway Village. The irony in the damn thing's reluctance to come down that August day would not have been lost on Johnson, the president of APV's residents' council. After all, since Ronald Reagan had been elected president, the official line was that APV was on the verge of collapse and needed to be demolished. No one ever really believed that, least of all Lenwood Johnson, who, it seemed, always had a reason, usually a good one, for saving Allen Parkway Village.
Until the end, that is. By then, Johnson's reasons had less to do with the fact that, like everyone else, the poor need a place to live and more to do with sustaining his own very public life as APV's chief protector. Indeed, for better or worse, the story of Allen Parkway Village became hopelessly entangled with the story of Lenwood Johnson, who, as even his supporters acknowledged, made the mistake of buying into his own shtick.
How much the public perception of APV and Johnson will change as APV undergoes its transformation from public housing to a "campus-style" community for people of mixed incomes will largely fall to Christine Felton, a local independent filmmaker. Since August 1990, Felton has recorded more than 500 hours of public and private meetings, speeches, protest marches, one-on-one interviews and random encounters that chronicle the interminable saga of Allen Parkway Village.
Felton still must edit her footage, a process that she hopes can be completed in a year. The final cut, she says, will "show what went down and how it affected the lives of real people, as well as how the public policy that killed APV affects everyone who still needs a place to live."
That said, even Felton admits that it will be hard not to focus on the dynamic between the infinitely complex Johnson and the equally enigmatic Fitzgerald, whose public and private battles over APV's future should provide an interesting study in human nature.
"The saddest part was that people were suffering while both sides played these political games," Felton says. "But I was surprised at how personal the fight between Lenwood and Joy became."
Bill Simon, a sociology professor at the University of Houston and a former adviser to Johnson, appears in Felton's footage. Simon believes that APV is "a real Houston story" and also a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of citizen activism.
"I really think this says it all about the extraordinary difficulty of citizen involvement," Simon says. "The only person among the residents who had any legal standing was Lenwood Johnson, who after a while was constantly tripping over his own ego. He became the conduit through which citizen involvement could become a factor at APV, and I think it was precisely this narrowness that allowed the situation to be manipulated in such a way that no actual citizen participation was reflected in the outcome."
The significance of Felton's documentary as a historical archive cannot be underestimated, says Simon. Indeed, it's doubtful anyone else has footage of a black public-housing resident teaming up with a a powerful Hispanic member of the U.S. Senate, the since-retired Henry Gonzalez of San Antonio, to tie up thousands of acres of extremely valuable land.
Felton and her camera were outside the door during a dramatic meeting in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1994, when HUD's executive director, Henry Cisneros, promised Johnson he would give the APV residents a $300,000 grant to participate in developing a master plan for APV. At the time, developers had for decades been fairly salivating at the potential profits to be realized from the development of such prime real estate, and keeping them at bay, albeit temporarily, was in itself an amazing feat.
Later that year Felton filmed negotiating sessions, which took place in Houston, and involved an assistant secretary of HUD. As Joy Fitzgerald herself often commented, Felton had "amazing karma." To be sure, the filmmaker's own life is a study in persistence.