Bulldozers at the Gate

Houston fiddles while its architectural and cultural heritage disappears

Twenty years have passed since Mrs. Castillo died, but Al Morin is more certain than ever that change killed her. She lived in the Heights, on Columbia Street, and like most of her neighbors, she was poor and elderly. Morin met her -- "a beautiful woman," he recalls -- when he worked for the city's community-development office, scouting targets for federal urban-renewal grants.

His boss at the city often reminded Morin that he wasn't the neighborhood handyman, but he was happy to do whatever he could for the residents. For Mrs. Castillo, who used a wheelchair, he built a plywood ramp so she could get in and out of her house more easily.

Morin learned carpentry from his father, a contractor who started taking his son to work with him when Al was ten years old. Every summer he fetched tools and washed baseboards for a dime an hour, although what he took away -- a color-blind reverence for working-class people -- had more enduring value. "I don't know if it was intentional, but it was something my father gave me," he says. "It was a gift."

Al Morin wants to capture the Old Sixth Ward's past.
Deron Neblett
Al Morin wants to capture the Old Sixth Ward's past.

From that point on, Morin's faith in the essential, egalitarian order of things touched everything he did. He enrolled at the University of Houston, and instead of living with his parents in the West End, he took up residence in the Third Ward with the family of a black truck driver. Though he had it in mind to become an architect, before long Morin was devouring philosophy texts, classic literature and poetry. In his spare time, he tutored other students, including a young man from Louisiana who, in no time, enlisted Morin in the civil rights movement.

Morin began building a life that would be guided by an unfailing commitment to community activism. He taught high school during the tense early years of classroom desegregation. He organized low-income communities during the war on poverty. He was a career counselor for undereducated and underpaid union workers employed by the county. In the mid-1970s Morin became a community-development program coordinator for the city, a job that would test his faith in government's ability to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

Mrs. Castillo had lived on Columbia Street for 20 years, surrounded by friends and her children, who had settled nearby with their families. While most outsiders thought the place depressing, Morin was moved by the expansiveness of the Mexican-American residents and how, despite their lack of means, they could rely upon, and find security in, one another.

But just below the surface, the neighborhood around Columbia Street was changing. An oil boom had triggered a coming wave of real estate speculation that, after years of declining land values, inner-city property owners were keen to capitalize upon. Slowly at first, then more quickly, longtime residents in Mrs. Castillo's neighborhood were displaced by investors and "urban pioneers."

One day Morin got word that Mrs. Castillo's landlord had asked her to move. The woman was so distraught that Morin volunteered the city's help in finding her another place in the neighborhood. But beyond a few hundred dollars for moving expenses, neither the city nor Morin could do much, and Mrs. Castillo ended up across town in the East End. Morin continued to visit, but he couldn't help noticing how the change in Mrs. Castillo's surroundings, from the nurturing familiarity of Columbia Street to the frightening anonymity of the East End, had depleted her spirit.

When she died, no more than a year after the move, Morin's spirit plummeted. Believing that he and the city of Houston had somehow failed Mrs. Castillo, he went home that night and thought about his place in the world.

In the ensuing two decades, Houston hasn't changed so much as it has been recycled, from good times to bad and, as the last half-decade will attest, back to the very good. The city's current prosperity often turns Al Morin's mind back to Mrs. Castillo, so many years after she passed away in an unfamiliar place.

"I got out because I couldn't see any action," Morin says, shaking his head as he remembers the day he quit his job with the city. "My soul was racked. I went back to what my dad taught me."

Morin is standing on the small front porch of his 120-year-old house on Kane Street in the Old Sixth Ward. His oval face is faintly creased. He's wearing a pair of worn chinos, a plaid work shirt and silver-framed glasses. Morin's 59-year-old body is fit, other than a slight paunch in the middle, and he stoops briefly at the shoulders, like someone who's been a long time on his knees, pounding fat, heavy nails into ancient hardwood.

Typically, Al Morin, Contractor, is a proxy for the ideals that have shaped its sole proprietor since he was a ten-year-old on the job with his father. Those ideals led Morin and his wife, Diane, to buy the house on Kane Street in 1977. They closed the deal while demolition crews were waiting to go to work on the old Victorian, which had a 15-foot hole in the roof and a pier-and-beam foundation infested with termites. Al and Diane rented a place down the block for 17 years until the house was in livable shape, although that's no reflection on Morin's carpentry skills.

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