Taking Back the Blight

A ragtag "neighborhood association" hits revitalization where it hurts

Exceptionally white, exceptionally middle-class organizations such as Scenic H-Town work tirelessly to remove eyesores as mild as the common billboard, referring to its presence within eyesight of any roadway, or "view-shed," as "visual blight." Such groups -- locally including The Park Persons, The Society for the Prevention of Ugly Districts (S.P.U.D.), and the Anti-Car Lot Urbanists (A.C.L.U.) -- along with uncounted regional neighborhood associations, lobby City Council ceaselessly for allocation of cleanup funds and scenic district designations.

Asked for her reaction to the formation of Blight Savers, Martha Stuart, spokeswoman for S.P.U.D., seems almost flabbergasted at what she clearly perceives as a personal affront.

"You say they're dedicated to preserving blight? What does that mean? I mean, is that somebody's idea of a joke?"

Easy street: The fruits of the trash-pile economy on display.
George Hixson
Easy street: The fruits of the trash-pile economy on display.
Blight Savers have gotten into merchandising.
Blight Savers have gotten into merchandising.

Most often the word "blight" is used by city planners and architects to describe residential areas with older housing stock and the attendant lack of tidiness generally associated with proximity to the poverty line.

Early federal programs gave money to local housing authorities to identify blighted areas, condemn the property, scrape off the structures with bulldozers and replace them with public housing for low-income renters. This is the approach responsible for Allen Parkway Village.

Alternately, cities have encouraged the clearance of blighted real estate and then handed incentives, including the popular TIRZ designation, to private developers, who it's not surprising aim their developments at the higher tax brackets, displacing not only structures but the people who live in them, who subsequently scatter to other blighted areas: those too run-down or underserved or poorly located or otherwise undesirable to attract moneyed residents, but not so decrepit as to qualify as slum.

Architects tend to take a sympathetic view of blighted areas, where often are found roughly handled structural jewels from bygone architectural eras. Some of the sharper ones choose to actually live in blighted neighborhoods, knowing full well where they're likely headed. Being largely liberal as a group and sensitive to charges of colonial racism, architects shy away from talk of blight "eradication." "Revitalization" is a better word. That's where they get the commissions.

City planners hesitate to identify it too explicitly. The label is a sign of their own failure and a call for action to a problem they don't know how to solve. They tend to downplay the march of blight eradication via market pressures, the expanding waves of city and citizen money headed, in Houston at present, eastward.

One county-employed planner who agreed to be quoted on condition of anonymity put it this way: "People with money just aren't going to live over there. They don't want those old above-ground utility lines crisscrossing the street. They don't want to live with industry and liquor stores and poor people."

That said, the planner admits it's almost impossible to tell which blighted neighborhoods might "renew" themselves. Nobody wanted to live with industry and liquor stores and poor people in Montrose or the Heights either, and now the industry and the liquor stores and the poor people are gone.

"The urban renewal programs were an abject failure. Central cities either renewed themselves or they didn't. It's not predictable. Montrose did. The Heights. West U for God's sake is renewing itself beyond all reason. MLK, parts of HarrisburgŠ God knows whether they will ever renew."

Shermann Bilks, meanwhile, doesn't have any doubts about whether his close-to-downtown chunk of the eastside, between Harrisburg and Navigation, will renew.

"I have seen the writing on the wall, my brother. The anti-barbarians are at the gate."

He's giving Jaylenor Monsanto and a reporter a guided blight tour of his neighborhood through the rolled-down windows of his 15-year-old Chevy Cheyenne, pulling to the curb periodically and hopping out to yank a real estate for-sale sign out of the soil and toss it in the bed of the truck. Jaylenor documents the "liberations" in 35 millimeter.

"We don't want people buying over here. We don't even want 'em looking. And if they have to be looking, we don't want 'em finding anything to buy. You see 'em driving down your street sometimes, young marrieds, driving real slow, looking at everything real close, writing down addresses. There's not much for sale over here just yet, but when something does sell, it just starts the slide. Suddenly there's people out leveling beams and reroofing and painting and sodding the yard, and then that's just one more house that the next couple of young marrieds won't mind moving in next to them. Then boom, your taxes double."

Bilks spots another for-sale sign and says, "Hot spit. That's one of Fawn Amway's. You see what she's done to Woodland Heights. These Carlos Santana signs I almost don't mind so much, I mean he's local, but Fawn Amway out in this neighborhood -- that, sir, is an awful bad sign."

Bilks swings the sign into the back of the truck with the others. In an hour we've collected seven, five cherry-picked off an established route that Bilks drives, doing just this, almost every Sunday afternoon. Asked about the dubious legality of the act, he says only, "You don't see many cops over here until someone gets shot, and then they're usually pretty busy."

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