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Flanked by shaggy lawns and empty malt liquor cans, Catherine Roberts stands in the center of the last surviving brick street in Freedmen's Town, closes her eyes and raises her arms to the sky in prayer. In much the same way, she says, early residents of Houston's first African-American neighborhood may have positioned themselves on the street's inlaid brick patterns and used them as tools for spiritual practices inherited from Africa.
A board member of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the historic yet decaying Fourth Ward district, Roberts has for years offered to restore Andrews Street's neglected brick designs and investigate their potentially unique links with African culture. Yet she says the city isn't interested and instead plans to rip out at least some of the bricks as early as October, eventually relocating them under a commemorative plaque at a local school.
"It would be just a token of what was once there," she says. "It's really terrible, an insult."
The brick designs are still visible on three intersections where Andrews hasn't been overlaid by paved cross streets. Each varies slightly, but all three consist of lines of bricks running diagonally across the street and coming together in a cross pattern near the center.
Local archaeologists and authorities on African and early African-American designs say other cross symbols on African-American objects -- ranging from quilts to pottery -- indicate the role of the designs on the street is worth investigating. "It suggests the idea to me that before we tear the streets up, we understand the patterns that are there while we can," says Carol McDavid, an archaeologist who works in Freedmen's Town and teaches at the University of Houston.
McDavid and other archaeologists want to conduct more oral histories on the community's use of the street and compare the brick patterns with those across the country.
City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, whose district includes Freedmen's Town, says she had heard of the plan to move some of the bricks to an exhibit at the relocated School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which HISD plans to build on two vacant lots along both sides of Andrews where it dead-ends at Taft Street. She says the school's plans for those blocks would influence the city's decision whether to restore or pave the rest of Andrews, which runs for nearly a mile.
"That's about all I know," she says. "We are probably going to regroup with HISD again. We just had an initial agreement that we would work together on the brick issue."
A public information officer for HISD did not return a phone call.
Yet Catherine Roberts says even a plan to "restore" Andrews Street could be a disaster under one scenario that apparently has been favored by the city. That would involve removing all the bricks, paving the underlying road and then laying them back down along with new bricks to fill in the gaps.
"Then it totally destroys it as an archaeological site," she says. "It is no longer an important historical element, because it has been removed...It is better not to touch it than to ruin it."
A casual visitor to Andrews Street might easily conclude it already is damaged beyond repair. Over many years, developers have torn into the bricks in search of connections to the antiquated underground utility lines, Roberts says, and then crudely paved over the holes with asphalt or cement.
Walking down the middle of the street, Roberts points to a hole where several bricks have become completely dislodged and sit loose in a pile of sand. "The developers don't care," she says. "They don't put them back, and they are disappearing."
The problem rapidly accelerated after the street became ground zero for a near-downtown housing boom. Postmodern corrugated-metal lofts and low-income housing units continue to pop up in a virtually interminable flurry of construction. Roberts estimates 10 percent of the street has been lost in the past year. "It is causing kind of a de facto demolition," she says.
Wes Johnson, spokesperson for the city's public works and engineering department, says developers who alter the street are required to restore it to its original condition. "They can't dig into the street without a city permit," he says, "...and if it has some historical value, then they will not be able to do that unless of course it's under supervision of the Historical Society, and they put everything back as it was."
Larry Davis, owner of Urban Lofts Townhomes, a major builder on Andrews, says he's unsure if his workers have dug into the street, but insisted any work would have been done with a city permit. He blamed the city for the poor condition of the bricks.
Representatives from Larus Builders, Inc., which also allegedly cut into Andrews, did not return a call.
Given the digging on Andrews and the modern onslaught of SUVs, the street has survived remarkably well. It is believed to be the only public brick street in Houston built without any help from the city.
Years after former slaves founded Freedmen's Town in the late 19th century, city officials still refused to provide services to the district, Roberts says. Andrews remained a muddy breeding ground for yellow fever until residents eventually donated dollar bills to a local African-American minister, now remembered only as Jeremiah, and built the street themselves.