Taking Back the Blight

A ragtag "neighborhood association" hits revitalization where it hurts

"Hi, my name is John Strindberg, and I'm a producer at Channel 2 here in Houston. I saw your ad in the Houston Press and just checked out your Web site. I'd like to do a story on you guys, ummm, what you stand for and what revitalization you're after and things like that. Please give me a call." The producer leaves his number.

Gutierrez looks at Monsanto with his eyebrows raised.

"Sweet," he says, already dialing.


Three days later the faithful again amass at Shermann Bilks's ragtag homestead. The first cool hint of false fall is sharp in the air, and Bilks stokes a trash fire in an upright steel drum in his driveway. The ranks have swollen since the last powwow, with more than a dozen activists drawn by the advertisements and the Web site and the networking efforts of Gutierrez and his roommates.

One delicate-looking middle-aged woman keeps a notepad constantly in one hand and a Bic pen in the other. She introduces herself as Sherri O'Malley, a creative-writing student at Houston Community College and self-described "Poet of Blight." [See "Sherri O'Malley, 'Poet of Blight' "].

The occasion is Blight Savers' first annual "Take Back the Blight" march, hastily organized at the last minute, and elderly Nadine Eustabio is busily shuffling to and fro, affixing handmade posterboard signs to a small fleet of wobbly shopping carts that Bilks has amassed for the march. The signs read: "Blight is Beautiful" and "Revitalize THIS!" and "Culverts YES! Sidewalks NO!"

Monsanto hands out Blight Savers T-shirts to people in the crowd, who pull them on for warmth over whatever they're already wearing.

As darkness begins to fall, Bilks ties a patterned handkerchief around his neck, masking his mouth and nose guerrilla-style, and leads the motley crew down the driveway and into the blacktopped street under the faint buzz and yellow haze of engaging streetlamps. They march block by block, occasionally acquiring the company of a street-strolling vato out exercising his pit bull, busted cart wheels spinning in tight circles on the rough asphalt.

At every heavy trash pile, the marchers halt and rummage through the refuse in search of reusables. Certain carts are designated repositories for particular materials. One collects cans. Another, discarded clothing and cloth. Another, metal scraps. Another, wood.

"This is an underground economy all its own," hoots Bilks. "We're literally taking back the blight!"

Several carts are reserved for trash pure and simple, objects for which there is no obvious alternative use. Plastic bags filled with organic refuse, irreparably damaged small appliances, shards of broken glass, cat litter bags filled with clumped dung, small chunks of drywall and rotted window framing.

The roving band rounds a corner onto an oak-lined boulevard. The Blight Savers have entered the eastside enclave known as Eastwood, a several-square-block pocket of advanced gentrification surrounded on all fronts by previtalized streets. Houses here regularly sell at Heights prices, and those that haven't been renovated have signs in their yards promising renovations to come. Bilks grabs the signs when he sees them and stacks them in his cart.

Bilks calls out: "Time to spread the wealth, Blight Savers!" and on his command the preservationists begin dumping the trash carts' contents onto the well-manicured lawns of Eastwood's spiffed-up bungalows.

Several porch lights pop on. No doors open, but the Blight Savers don't linger, rattling their now empty carts on to the end of the block, out of enemy territory.

But before turning the corner, Shermann Bilks takes a last look over his shoulder at the freshly, if temporarily, blighted block.

"Now that's better," he says, almost wistfully. "A man could get to feeling right at home on a street like this."

And with that, the Blight Savers clatter across the pavement and out onto the median of Lockwood, toward the next round of trash piles, inflamed with quixotic fervor, and receding, until the next sortie, into the safe anonymity of the waning blight.

Contact Blight Savers at www.blightsavers.com, where $10 T-shirts are also available for purchase.

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad.tyer@houstonpress.com.

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