On Shaky Grounds

HISD got more than it bargained for when it decided to develop the Fourth Ward

The children running around in the schoolyard pay no mind to the solitary iron post in the large vacant lot nearby. They are more concerned with basketballs, jump ropes and each other. The post doesn’t look like much, but for Claudetta Dyer it’s a totem of memory.

Dyer’s old house used to stand near that post. Her mother did laundry in a large black pot near the house and hung it from a line. Her mother and uncle grew up in that house. She grew up in that house. And her children grew up in that house.

Now the iron post is all that remains.

So far HSPVA Friends has raised less than 1 percent 
of its promised funds.
Al Cameron
So far HSPVA Friends has raised less than 1 percent of its promised funds.
HSPVA students must jockey for practice space in the 
Al Cameron
HSPVA students must jockey for practice space in the hallways.

Just over two years ago, the Houston Independent School District acquired the property through eminent domain and leveled the house, along with all the other ones on a seven-acre stretch of land in Freedmen’s Town in the Fourth Ward. Seventy people were displaced.

The district is planning two projects: a new Gregory-Lincoln Education Center and a new High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The Gregory-Lincoln building is sorely in need of either renovation or replacement. The HSPVA building is overcrowded.

But nothing has happened on either one.

Standing in the way:

Reports that there could be a Civil War-era cemetery beneath the property. Seems the district began its tear-down even as rumors were circulating that there might be bodies under that stretch of land. Now that the whispered rumors have become a roar, the district’s plans have been put on hold indefinitely.

A little matter of money — whether the HSPVA Friends, the school’s booster club, is really going to be able to come through with a promised $15 million to help pay for construction of the new school. While there is little doubt HSPVA has needed an update for a while, it isn’t among the ranks of worst-shape buildings in HISD. So the Friends’ offer did help things along.

And a little bit of additional controversy thrown in: If the district is going to all this trouble to build two new schools, why won’t it go environmentally friendly as the city and Houston Community College have done and build “green” schools?

“That was my grandmother and my grandfather’s home. They built that home,” says Dyer, a 67-year-old retired nurse. “That house was 100 years old. And [HISD] tore it completely down.

“Let me tell you,” she says. “If you’re going to build something, I think it’s more fair for the people to stay there until you are definitely sure that this is what you’re going to do.”

The longer it takes to figure out what’s under that plot of land, the less likely it is that HISD will be able to finish the project by June 2006 and get the promised funds from the HSPVA Friends. That, of course, is assuming the booster club will reach its goal.

Welcome to the Fourth Ward, where development isn’t as easy as it seems.

The words “crack kills” are spray-painted on the side of a house right by the land where HISD plans to build the new Gregory-Lincoln and HSPVA. This public service message is a not-so-subtle reminder of what Claudetta Dyer’s neighborhood has become.

“Once upon a time, it was a prominent neighborhood,” she says. “It was very nice. You had the postmen living up in there, you had the teachers, and then, all of the sudden, everybody started moving out and it started going down, downhill. And then, next thing you know, it was a crack neighborhood. And I was right there in the midst of it all. But I still wanted to stay in my house, because that was mine.”

When the school district notified the Texas Historical Commission in 2002 of its plans to tear down all the houses bounded by West Gray, Taft, Andrews and Genesee, the commission informed the district that some of the buildings were eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We wanted them to think about what they were doing and potentially work with us,” says the commission’s Mark Denton.

The district knew the commission had no power to stop the razing of historical buildings, so houses started coming down.

District spokesman Terry Abbott refused to comment on why the district chose to ignore the commission’s request.

Braeswood resident Anthony Pizzitola owned a brick house on Taft. His family built that house in 1926. It’s where he grew up, and he claims he and his wife planned to move back there.

The school district had other ideas.

Pizzitola took the district to court and wrote several guest editorials in the Houston Chronicle and other local newspapers, criticizing HISD for moving forward without doing its homework. He ended up losing his house, but he got a ball rolling that just might flatten the district’s plans.

The 55-year-old project manager had been long aware of the folklore that there was an “African-American soldier cemetery in the area.” In January 2001 he wrote the trustees, informing them that the cemetery might be right where they planned to build the new schools. The district in turn contracted the Law Gibb Group, an environmental services company, which then subcontracted local historian Janet Wagner to do some archival research.

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