Taking Back the Blight

A ragtag "neighborhood association" hits revitalization where it hurts

In a back corner of the yard, by a tin-sided garage that seems to be supported by the fence against which it's leaning, Bilks removes a blindingly white leghorn from its chicken-wire coop, maneuvers his hand into a fist around the bird's head and swings it in sharp, snapping circles over his own until its neck cracks with an audible pop. Seeing his visitor, he points invitingly toward an uncooled suitcase of Pearl Light on the back stoop and nods toward the dead foul dangling in his right hand.

"We're doing chicken right tonight."

By the time Bilks has defeathered dinner, a small cadre of fledgling Blight Savers has arrived.

The beast comes knocking: New construction encroaching on blight.
George Hixson
The beast comes knocking: New construction encroaching on blight.
The beast comes knocking: New construction encroaching on blight.
George Hixson
The beast comes knocking: New construction encroaching on blight.

There's Nadine Eustabio, Bilks's spry 72-year-old neighbor from down the block, and her grandson Eugenio Gutierrez, a junior at the University of Houston pursuing a double major in urban planning and sculpture.

Gutierrez has recruited two of the three roommates who split bills with him at a rental house off Martin Luther King Drive near UH: Jaylenor Monsanto, a quiet, coffee-skinned student photographer, and by quiet implication Gutierrez's girlfriend, and Todd Burnside, a white kid with the inimitable combination of dirty clothes and vaguely aristocratic bearing that invariably marks the presence of the trust-fund activist. Burnside mumbles something about pursuing a degree in "insurrection."

Bilks, who makes his living running an air-conditioner repair shop out of his living room and taking on handyman jobs on the side, adopts the tones of a teacher. He wants everyone sitting on lawn chairs or ground to introduce themselves and say something about their interest in blight.

Nadine Eustabio is widowed. She and her husband moved into their house in 1961. In the early 1970s they added a carport, sheathed the clapboard with scalloped asbestos siding and paneled the interior walls. Because of Eustabio's green thumb, her house looks better than most in the area. That's why she's worried. A house of the same vintage, much more run-down, two blocks away, recently sold for $42,000, and she is worried about property values going up. After all, she's retired on a fixed income. If it goes much higher, she might have to sell her house, and she doesn't know just exactly where she might go under such circumstances. She keeps seeing on the news how big the city is getting, and it seems like it's squeezing east. All you have to do is walk out on Harrisburg and look west at the green steel girders of the new ballpark. It's close.

Bilks says, "You know, Miss Nadine? Them asbestos shingles won't hurt you if you just leave 'em where they are. People start ripping 'em off, that's where you get the problem."

Gutierrez, it turns out, grew up with his grandmother in that same house, and the neighborhood stirs nostalgia in him, but there's a political streak in him, too. He has read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and he has studied The Federal Bulldozer. He is taking a class on "environmental racism" and views "revitalization" and "urban renewal" with a jaundiced eye.

He says things like, "The eradication of 'blight' is nothing more than programmatic minority removal."

He combines his politics and his art by shoveling warm asphalt out of freshly filled potholes and molding the material into waist-high busts of slain civil rights leaders. He says a classmate with a work-study internship at the Public Works department tips him off to the city's pothole-filling schedule.

Jaylenor Monsanto digs the aesthetics of blight. She says she thinks it's really raw and honest material for her photographs, which she shoots on black-and-white film, hanging the prints unmounted on strips of galvanized chain link.

"The buses and the dirt and the old peopleŠ It's just really real, you know?"

Todd Burnside says something about "insurrection, man."

Bilks stands up and says he's just good-and-goddamn tired of getting crowded out of neighborhoods by advancing waves of young marrieds and their renovating instincts. Bilks says he's too old to be young anymore and too ugly to be married, and hell, that's who they build new houses in the suburbs for anyway, why can't they just let him have his little old house and leave him be.

Bilks works up a sweat with his speech. When it's over, he reaches to the ground with a bare chicken bone and drags a line in the dust.

"Ladies, gentlemen, we have ourselves a fight. We'll need people. We need to get the word out. We need a battle plan, and there may well be sacrifices to be made. Anyone doesn't feel up to it, say so now. You can just cross this line and go on home."

Shermann Bilks, it hardly needs be noted, owns a highly developed sense of melodrama.

The Blight Savers remain seated in solidarity as a second chicken sizzles on the grill.

The word "blight," in its usage having to do with neither potatoes nor arboreal disease, entered the common vocabulary in the 1930s in connection with federal public housing programs. Metaphorically, the literature treats blight exclusively as an enemy and a disease. It's a condition, in legislative language, to be "attacked," "eradicated," "reduced," "prevented," "eliminated." Literally and legally, there is no hard-and-fast definition of just what constitutes blight, though it is generally agreed that whatever it is, it's ugly by white middle-class aesthetic standards.
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