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Cleola Williams has greeted almost every day of her 60 years in the same wood-frame cottage, two rooms wide and three rooms long, on Edwards Street in the First Ward.
The experience has never failed to humble her. Williams's great-great-grandfather built the house in the late 1860s, and it has been in her family ever since. So, it seems, has St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. St. Paul AME was founded by a group of former slaves who were gathering in a nearby brush arbor. It opened its doors in 1873, not 20 feet from the front porch of Williams's house.
On Sunday mornings, Williams, smartly attired, with her gray-flecked hair pulled back into a bun, climbs the steep concrete steps of the church on sturdy legs to praise God for allowing her place in the world to endure.
Used to be, everyone who attended St. Paul AME would share in the comfort of the church's long history. Even those who had left the First Ward to live in other parts of the city would return on Sunday. But over the last few years, St. Paul's spiritual claim on the First Ward has steadily weakened.
At first, it was for the usual reasons, related to the cycle of death and decay that have afflicted inner-city neighborhoods everywhere.
Longtime residents aged and passed on, leaving houses that even their children didn't want. Scores of turn-of-the-century cottages and shotgun houses, even the larger classic Victorians that were once the pride of the First Ward, were shuttered and abandoned. Other property owners fled and became absentee landlords, whose renters didn't show much interest beyond their front yards.
Lately, though, signs of rejuvenation are appearing up and down the First Ward's narrow, leafy streets. Vacant property, ignored by private investors for decades, is changing hands. Here and there, old buildings, like a 100-year-old firehouse on Houston Avenue, are being turned into loft apartments. A smattering of new construction is under way, including some town-home development.
Still, though, the light at St. Paul AME continues to fade.
Three years ago the Reverend Roderick Dawson took over as pastor of the church. At the time, the congregation numbered no more than about 125 families, down from the roughly 700 that filled the church 25 years ago. Dawson launched an aggressive effort to attract new members, and he has managed to rebuild the congregation to about 300 families. But nearly all of the new members come from outside the First Ward and have little or no connection to the past.
A few weeks ago Dawson announced from the pulpit that St. Paul AME was officially for sale. His plan is to build a new church in Greenspoint, where the pastor hopes to establish a nonprofit agency to provide day care, affordable housing and other social services to his flock. As an African-American, Dawson doesn't cherish the thought of selling Houston's second-oldest black church to the highest bidder. But the past has not been kind to St. Paul, he says, and the future does not bode well, either.
"It's very evident the transition that's taking place," Dawson says. "For many, many years, slumlords let the housing deteriorate. Developers are purchasing this property for upper-middle-class housing, and none of that is going to touch us. None of our people, when it comes to African-Americans, can afford that."
Cleola Williams doesn't dispute much of what Dawson says. The once prominent black population of the First Ward has dwindled, and there is little evidence, despite the neighborhood's modest revival, that it is being replenished. But, unlike the pastor, who believes that, under the circumstances, St. Paul must physically die in order for its soul, the congregation, to live on, Williams refuses to accept that the past has no role in the future of the First Ward.
A passionate woman with an activist spirit, Williams is trying to redirect the forces of change that have been unleashed in the neighborhood. A few years ago she got herself appointed to the board of Avenue Community Development Corp., which began moving homes from other parts of the city to empty lots in the First Ward, where they are sold or rented to families of limited means. While speculation driven by the revitalization of downtown has begun to push land prices beyond the nonprofit's means, Avenue CDC has its eye on one more project: renovating the old Jefferson Davis City-County Charity Hospital, a decrepit landmark at the corner of Elder and Girard streets.
While relatively few people could find the First Ward on a map, "old Jeff Davis," as longtime residents like Williams still call it, is an enduring symbol of the neighborhood's demise and its struggle to rise again.
Built in 1924 at a cost of $500,000, the hospital quickly became too small and obsolete to handle the city's indigent population. On January 1, 1938, its mission was transferred to a new hospital, also called Jefferson Davis, on Allen Parkway. Since then, the old hospital has been a convalescent home, a venereal disease clinic, a psychiatric ward, a home for juvenile delinquents, a food stamp distribution site, a drug treatment center and, before it was finally abandoned completely, a storage facility for the county.