The Dead Zone

Houston buries its Inner Loop past under bright new shiny Perry Homes town houses

Williams climbs back into the Audi and drives past Agnew's house in the Fourth Ward, where her car fits right in. It squeezes past BMWs, which are pulling into prominent garages. But the houses look much the same. And Williams is flummoxed: "If we were standing here and we didn't have the view of downtown, would we really be able to tell that we weren't down a side street down where we just were?"

The distinction once would have been an easy one. The Fourth Ward, or Freedmen's Town, was always one of the city's most unique neighborhoods. Its oldest houses were built by freed slaves using locally fired bricks. Originality defines many other Houston neighborhoods as well, whether it's the Victorian bungalows of the Heights, the fourplexes of Montrose or the experimental ranch homes of Memorial. But Perry is transforming the Inner Loop into a single place.

Squinting at street names through her green-and-purple glasses, Williams cruises through the neighborhood in search of the site of a paved-over pecan grove. She drives in widening circles. "It should be this street," she says, rounding a corner. But it isn't. A self-described visual driver, she's clearly out of landmarks.

A sinking foundation has left Debbie Rylander's Perry 
Home riddled with cracks.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
A sinking foundation has left Debbie Rylander's Perry Home riddled with cracks.
A sinking foundation has left Debbie Rylander's Perry 
Home riddled with cracks.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
A sinking foundation has left Debbie Rylander's Perry Home riddled with cracks.

Despite the attendant confusion, uniformity isn't solely to blame for the neighborhood's problems. James Howard Kunstler, a frequent lecturer on urban design and the author of the book The Geography of Nowhere, argues that homogenous neighborhoods can be inspiring. He points to the monolithic row houses on London's west side and the mostly undifferentiated avenues of Paris. "The fact of the matter is, nobody is suffering from these houses being identical," he says. "In fact, it's some of the most expensive and desirable real estate in the world, because it's so beautiful.

"The problem with the town houses [in Houston] is not that they're all the same; the issue is that they're the same miserable, low-quality design."

And for that, Kunstler blames the suburbs. The widely spaced lots of the vast urban periphery gave birth during the 1950s to an American pantheon of the ersatz. Fake columns, fake cornices and crackpot pediments looked just good enough, when fleetingly glimpsed from a car booking it to the local strip mall, to seem convincing. And now developers such as Perry are dragging these suburban stage props into the city. Williams slams on the brakes and stares at a wall plastered with three wooden rectangles. "Look at those fake doors!" she says.

Add these insults to a host of others facing pedestrians, and a movie set could seem comparatively livable. Williams leaves her car next to a barren patch of grass -- the neighborhood's only "park" -- and sets off down a narrow sidewalk. She doesn't notice any attractive brickwork or moldings, can see no corner stores or dry cleaners, and encounters no green spaces or monuments. Instead, she's met with the endless, blank stares of street-front garages. Five-foot gates block her from knocking on doors. The residents presumably unlock them to grab bills from a metal agglomeration of mailboxes along the curb. But why else would they?

"If the public realm is not a truly, richly rewarding realm for our spirits," Kunstler says, "then what you will get is the glorification of the private realm. And you will consequently not have any collective neighborhood life."

And that kind of vibrant community is exactly what urban neighborhoods are supposed to offer. It's an alternative to the cloistered life of the suburbs, and few Houston town-house tracts achieve it. Sutton Square is a particularly pathetic failure.

On the way back to her car, Williams passes a man in a puffer coat who is strutting toward one of the Fourth Ward's relic strips of shotgun shacks. She walks faster. But it's the new houses that really scare her. She's afraid nobody will appreciate the community as it ages; nobody will care enough to tend to the cracks.

"When I see a community that's this anonymous," she says, "I'm always spooked that it could go into decline in the future."

On the wraparound porch of a lime-green turn-of-the-century cottage in the West End, Lynn Edmundson listens to nail-gun blasts echo like shots from charging marauders. Nine multistory town houses are rising nearby in the place of three small bungalows. As the director of Historic Houston, a preservation group, Edmundson is the neighborhood's unofficial triage nurse. She examines the cottage's ornate moldings and pristine siding. "There is nothing wrong with this house," she proclaims, turning to glare at the construction across the street. "Except now it's on a property that will be redeveloped like that."

The bulldozers will arrive in a few days, leaving Edmundson little time. Her workers will cut the house in half with a massive buzz saw, load it onto a flatbed trailer and set off on a slow, three-day journey to a farm near Chapel Hill. But without a permit to carry the giant load across a country bridge, the deal could fall through.

Edmundson is used to the stress. Since 1999, she has relocated more than 20 historic homes. And she still can't fathom why Inner Loop residents are eager to see them go. "I think there's a huge value, an unrecognized value, in an older home," she says.

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