By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Last fall an inspector from the city's Neighborhood Protection Division discovered that Lizzie Reynolds, 79, was living on the bottom floor of the building, which, among other deficiencies, had no windowpanes or screens. On September 8 the inspector ordered the owners of the property, the Mattalino family, to make the necessary repairs.
Under ordinary circumstances, the windows, as well as the decrepit beams, the rotting fascia and the holes in the floor of the front room, might have been fixed, and everything that Lizzie Reynolds has endured since the inspector's visit would have taken place in some bad dream, if it happened at all.
But these are not ordinary times in Freedmen's Town. After decades of neglect by the city of Houston, the neighborhood, which was settled by freed slaves more than 100 years ago and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, is at the heart of a taxpayer-funded redevelopment of the Fourth Ward. The city-sponsored project has spurred unprecedented interest among private real estate developers, which has led to a threefold increase in land values in the last few years.
The Mattalino family did the math and decided that, at this point in their long history as the owners of 1023 Bailey Street, it would make more sense to demolish the building than to make even rudimentary repairs for the tenant, even if she did happen to be a 79-year-old widow on social security who had lived there since Dwight Eisenhower was president.
This bottom-line decision might have been the right one for the Mattalino family, but for Lizzie it was cataclysmic. Like anyone threatened with the loss of something so close to the heart as a home -- not to mention so key to her physical well-being -- she fought to keep it. For two months Lizzie refused requests, and then demands, to vacate.
"I tried to get her out myself," says Ola Mae Kennedy, a neighbor who lives around the corner on Gillette Street. "But you stay somewhere for so long, it seem like your own house. She didn't want to just jump up and move to another neighborhood."
Lizzie's obstinacy ended in the early-morning hours of December 8. Two deputy constables cuffed her hands and feet, pulled her out of bed and took her to the Harris County Psychiatric Center.
On February 4, around mid-afternoon, a Houston police officer responded to a call that an elderly woman, clearly confused, was wandering around in the vicinity of Gregory-Lincoln Education Center on Taft Street. Lizzie Reynolds, according to the police report, had walked away from her group home and was looking for her house.
It was gone -- demolished, along with most of her possessions, such as they were, less than a week after Lizzie's awakening at the hands of the local constabulary.
Indeed, other than collecting $125 a month in rent from Lizzie Reynolds, the Mattalino family had all but abandoned their interest in the property. Not that they and the other absentee landlords of Freedmen's Town were ever offered much incentive to do otherwise in the blighted area. Until recently, the metes and bounds of individual parcels in Freedmen's Town were based on a 19th-century land survey.
The streets themselves are impossibly narrow and rutted; some are still paved with red bricks put down by the original settlers. Water and sewer lines are so inadequate the city is spending some $10 million to bring the basic infrastructure up to modern standards.
The city's long history of neglect bred an indifference among Freedmen's Town's landlord class, which consisted largely of the families of Italian immigrants who made their living selling goods and services to what was once an energetic hub of local African-American society. That economy died at the hands of Jim Crow and the Great Depression, and, ever since, it's all been downhill for Freedmen's Town. Landlords like the Mattalino family ended up with property that could barely generate enough rental income to cover the annual tax bill. Tenants like Lizzie Reynolds remained because they couldn't afford to live anywhere else.
"When the old man, Mr. Mattalino, was living, he took pretty good care of it," recalls Hazel Cotton, Lizzie's sister, who lived upstairs at 1023 Bailey in the 1960s and early 1970s. "But then Mr. Mattalino died."
Even determining who is responsible for the property now is difficult. The Harris County Appraisal District still lists the owner as Ben A. Mattalino, the gentleman Hazel Cotton knew as the old man.
Ben's widow is well into her eighties now and living on a fixed income, according to Dixon Montague, a Vinson & Elkins attorney who represents Mattalino's grandson, Joe Dichiaro. Montague was unable or unwilling to put the Press in touch with his client, or even to give his address or occupation. He says he thinks Dichiaro works downtown, "for some securities firm."