Taking Back the Blight

A ragtag "neighborhood association" hits revitalization where it hurts

Bilks's blight tour is a smorgasbord of heavy trash piles ("The city doesn't pick up out here so regular. You can find a lot of good stuff in there if you know how to look."), street-roaming packs of loose dogs ("You just tell 'em to git. Dogs know what git means."), cars parked in rutted yards, old swing-set frames chained to support rusting engine blocks, corrugated tin fences and dirty bedsheets doubling as window drapes.

"People need to see this stuff for what it is," Bilks says. "This isn't a bad neighborhood. This isn't a slum. This is just how people live who can't afford for everything they own to be shiny and new. It's got a beauty all its own. It's got a history. Some people call it grime, but it's more like a patina. There's a gravity to it, you know? And when it's gone, you can't just replace it."

Monsanto wonders aloud how to communicate this idea to people who might never see it, or even worse, who take it for granted, and a lightbulb seems to switch on over Bilks's head.

"You know how they do 'Lights in the Heights' every year? Put out all those candles and stuff and do a walking tour through the neighborhood? Well Jesus Jumping Christ, why couldn't we do that here? We could set a route and host a walking tour, maybe do it on Halloween weekend. Call it 'A Thousand Points of Blight.' "

"Write that down," Bilks instructs Monsanto, who borrows a pen to make a note on her hand.

Bilks's tour ends at the highlight, a dirt extension of Commerce Street that cuts a diagonal against the street grid into an accidental blight park where stands, shaded by gigantic sycamore trees, his personal blight grail: a battered shopping cart from an H-E-B Pantry three miles away, wheel-less, up on blocks.

Monsanto fires her shutter.

"Beautiful," sighs Bilks. "JustŠ lovely."


In the University of Houston's student computer lab, Eugenio Gutierrez is getting busy. He has borrowed $70 from his grandmother to register a domain name, www.blightsavers.com, and he speaks with the fervor of a convert as his fingers fly over the keyboard, piecing together a Web site he hopes will attract more interest from beyond the core circle of activists. There's a ranting manifesto [see "Blight Savers' Manifesto"], a page of jpegged blight images scanned from Monsanto's latest prints, the framework of a bulletin board for the posting of messages. At the moment he's compiling a page of links titled "Know Your Enemy." He has already placed small ads in local weekly papers, including this one, seeking recruits to the cause. Gutierrez says the site, still under construction, has received more than 1,500 hits already.

"Blight is a battlefield," says Gutierrez. "These neighborhoods don't just disappear by accident. There's a loose cabal of organizations and forces at work to actively destroy them. Do a Web search on blight. All you'll find is do-gooder groups working to make it go away."

Gutierrez establishes links to the Web sites of an organization called Keep America Beautiful, another to a group called Scenic Texas, and yet another to town-house builder Perry Homes.

"These people are the enemy. They want to tear it down, clean it up and replace it with something shiny and new. And when that happens, it just completely changes the character of the neighborhood. The people get driven out, trying to stay one step ahead of 'revitalization.' But we can't stay one step ahead forever. There's only so much land. We have to take a stand somewhere before it's all gone. Eastside is just about all that's left inside the Loop, and with all the money pouring into downtown, it's vulnerable."

Gutierrez establishes a final link to the home page of Starbucks Coffee, mostly just for grins.

"Once you've got a Starbucks on the corner, your blight is already long gone. People don't realize the shift is taking place until it's too late to do anything about it. We're not going to let that happen on the eastside. There's still time to head it off at the pass."

Monsanto and Burnside arrive wearing crisp new T-shirts. There are two boxes filled with them in the trunk of Burnside's car outside, fresh from the printer. The design, which Burnside created on his Macintosh, features a silk-screened badge over the left breast with the words "National Blights Savers Association, Houston Chapter."

"So we'll be ready when the insurrection spreads," Burnside explains.

On the back is the image of a sign hanging crookedly on a backdrop of chain link, derived from Monsanto's installation work. The sign, modeled after the "Bad Dog" warnings ubiquitous in blighted neighborhoods, reads "Save Our Blight" over the silhouette of a barking dog.

Wrapping up his work on the Web site for the moment, Gutierrez calls to check for messages on the voice mail he has set up to field inquiries generated, he hopes, by the newspaper ads. Several messages have come in, some people wanting to get on the mailing list, a few hang-ups. Gutierrez breaks into a grin as he listens to the most recent message and then replays it through the speakerphone.

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