Bulldozers at the Gate

Houston fiddles while its architectural and cultural heritage disappears

"It was mostly Mexican-Americans with the church, but they didn't want just a Mexican festival," Morin recalls. "They wanted to celebrate the whole history of the neighborhood, the Germans and the Italians who lived here way back when, and the Vietnamese and the Cambodians who had just arrived. Nobody else was doing that. Diane and I looked at each other and said, 'This is a great neighborhood.' "

And, Morin will tell you, it remains a great neighborhood. But while the St. Joe's festival is still held every year, fewer and fewer of the people who attend are residents of the Old Sixth Ward. The neighborhood has simply become too expensive for many who once lived there. In the last few years rents have risen from an average of $250 to at least $1,000 a month, which is why every time Morin sees another vacant lot where an elegant Victorian or a late-19th-century cottage once stood, he thinks about Mrs. Castillo and how the price paid for economic prosperity is often too high.

"The real history of this place is as a working-class district," he says. "I don't want to lose that….All we're saying is that if you want people to have a say in their communities, then let's do that. If not, then the whole thing is a sham."

J.D. Bartell: The opt-out provisions of the ordinance are "ludicrous."
Deron Neblett
J.D. Bartell: The opt-out provisions of the ordinance are "ludicrous."
Barry Klein: "Are you ready for $500-a-day fines?"
Deron Neblett
Barry Klein: "Are you ready for $500-a-day fines?"

On the whole, few people seem to share Al Morin's respect for the city's past.

For almost a week in the early 1990s, protesters held a vigil outside Warren's Inn, a revered bar on Market Square, before it was eventually torn down to make way for a parking garage. In 1997 a minor outcry preceded demolition of the well-known Allen-Paul House,, but the only part of the building that was salvaged from the rubble was its distinctive "witch's hat" cupola. And through the years, African-American leaders criticized the neglect that ravaged Freedmen's Town, which was designated a national historic district in 1988. But when many of the neighborhood's low-income residents were evicted to make way for gentrification, those same leaders were quick to rationalize it as an unfortunate "economic reality."

Easily the city's most successful preservation effort, if not the only authentic activism on behalf of a landmark structure, was Lenwood Johnson's fight to keep the wrecking ball away from Allen Parkway Village. Johnson may have been poor and unemployed, but he was as shrewd as they come: He never underestimated his opponents, and he never compromised. Although a good part of APV eventually was torn down, Johnson managed to hold off private developers, who coveted the near-downtown site, for more than 15 years, saving more than 800 units of affordable housing in the process.

Though Johnson was hardly surprised, some of his supporters were disappointed that the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, the self-styled "voice" of the local preservation movement, didn't lend a hand to save APV. The nonprofit alliance started out in the late 1970s as a branch of the blue-blooded Heritage Society, keepers of what's often referred to as the architectural "petting zoo" at Sam Houston Park. The alliance hosted wine-and-cheese parties and gave old-home tours, an advocacy that was more boosterism than activism and that does not require the principles of a true believer. Consequently, elected officials and the business community realized they could solicit the alliance's opinions -- which are expressed calmly and, more often than not, privately -- then disregard them without fear of reproach.

This reassuring style undoubtedly smoothed the way for the city's first preservation ordinance in 1995, just as the alliance's failure to rally much grassroots sympathy for the cause ensured nothing would be preserved -- unless you count turning the Rice Hotel into an apartment building or attaching a ballpark to Union Station.

To be fair, the politics of land use in Houston have their own heritage to maintain, one that is inherently hostile toward efforts to impose even minor restrictions on development. In the bigger scheme of things, historic preservation is so irrelevant here that a building is torn down before anyone knows about it, let alone before any attempt to save it can be organized.

Stephen Fox, a professor at Rice University and the city's preeminent architectural historian, says local preservationists "lack the critical momentum that would really give them a public presence." "And, he adds, "neither the city's planning officials nor its elected officials see preservation as a legitimate issue or as having any cultural value."

In retrospect, it's astonishing that freewheeling Houston even has a preservation ordinance, weakened or otherwise. The role of the Houston Archeological & Historical Commission was spelled out in the zoning ordinance put before voters in 1993. When the referendum failed, commissioners -- who already had been appointed by then-mayor Bob Lanier -- agreed to try to draft an ordinance. Commission members studied laws enforced in other cities and solicited input from business and the preservation alliance to come up with something they hoped would fit within Houston's peculiar environment. They failed.

"We submitted a pretty good document," recalls Cary Wintz, an original member of the commission and its current chairman. "It went up to the planning commission and it was gutted, primarily by developers who feared that a bunch of wackos would come out of the woodwork and stop development by private interests."

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