Artists' Lofts

The Elder Street Artist Lofts sold itself as a place for artists to live and work. So where are all the artists?

Reece says he gave Johnson a list of people he'd like to see included, making sure folks of different ages, ethnicities, educational backgrounds and artistic media were represented. "So what she did was, she took that upon herself and she kind of formed her own committee," he says. "Her own art committee. And I did put a stop to that. I said absolutely not. It was kind of like a little brat pack."

But the greatest battle wound up being over Johnson's electrical bills, which soon hit $300 a month. Her ground-floor unit had a shaft that ran up through the building, and not only could she hear other residents bumping uglies throughout the night, she also couldn't keep the bills down. "One month I was in the hospital for more than half the month, yet I still had the same high electricity bill," she says. The management ran tests to see if her meter was connected to another unit. They brought in engineers. Nothing worked.

Eventually, ArtSpace agreed to start paying for Johnson's electricity.

If you want to know how we deal with death, just look at how we treat our cemeteries, says archaeologist Mark Denton.
John Anderson
If you want to know how we deal with death, just look at how we treat our cemeteries, says archaeologist Mark Denton.
Luke Davis has had problems with management in the past, but some of his larger concerns are echoed by other residents.
Daniel Kramer
Luke Davis has had problems with management in the past, but some of his larger concerns are echoed by other residents.

"Aaron would hold it against me," she says. "‘Why are you complaining? We're paying for your electricity.' These really rude, horrible comments to me. As if I was getting something for free that I didn't deserve."

Reece says he did everything he could to satisfy Johnson. "I don't want to get into her medical condition, that whole history there," he says, right before doing just that. "She was a very emotional person and I think her illness contributed to her emotional state."

It was eventually agreed that Johnson could break her lease. She moved out, less than a year after she'd moved in, and went back to Sugar Land to live with her parents. Defeated.

"It just took your soul away, after living there," she says. "You didn't want to make art, and if you're an artist, that is your soul. You were totally dried up."

Johnson's situation was definitely unique, but her interactions with management were not atypical, according to five current residents interviewed by the Press who wished to remain anonymous for this story.

"A lot of people are afraid to speak, because they're afraid — Aaron Reece can kick me out for speaking up," says one artist. "There's this underlying fear that they're going to lose this apartment, that they're going to get evicted if they speak up about any problems with the building."

"Because we've gotten no support from Avenue CDC, because we've gotten no support from ArtSpace, it kind of made a lot of people feel like, ‘Well, all right,' so we stay in our lofts and our apartments and paint and do what we're going to do anyways," says another artist. "Where's our community we were told we were going to have?"

The mission got sidetracked somewhere along the way, they say. But then again, you wouldn't expect anything less in one of our city's most storied sites.

"We don't like thinking about dying and we don't like being dead and so we don't like taking care of cemeteries," says Mark Denton, an archaeologist with the Texas Historical Commission. "Our society has this out-of-sight, out-of-mind philosophy about the dead, and it's reflected in how many cities have built over and turned former cemeteries into something completely other than a cemetery."

Need proof? Just take a look at the history of the Elder Street site.

Originally deeded to the city for $750 by the A.C. and J.K Allen Trust — yep, the Allen Brothers — the land became the city's second cemetery in the 1840s. (The first was Founder's Cemetery, on West Dallas.) Buried beneath its surface were white people, black people, brown people, yellow-fever victims, pretty much everyone.

"Everybody and their mother was buried in this cemetery," says Denton. There were four official sections, one for rich white folks, one for poor white folks, one for Hispanics and one for African Americans, he says, "but it pretty much included everybody over the years, including the Union general who occupied Houston during the Reconstruction years. His body was eventually exhumed and sent back to wherever."

The city grew. People kept dying. By the 1870s, the caretaker was showing up at city council meetings, complaining he couldn't dig one grave without hitting another, so the city decided to kick some black folks out of their homes in Freedman's Town, in the Fourth Ward, and build the new cemetery there. This third cemetery eventually wound up underneath what would become the Allen Parkway Village housing project, but that's another story altogether [See "Lenwood Johnson's Last Stand," by Brian Wallstin, December 14, 1995].

The aldermen began parceling up the Elder Street land, selling it to themselves and developing rental property on top of the graves. ("It was kind of a good deal for the aldermen," deadpans Denton.) By the 1920s there were tons of headstones missing, and the city decided to reappropriate the land for use as a hospital, says Denton, so the city took itself to court and got the property decertified due to neglect — its own neglect.

Up went the Jefferson Davis Hospital in 1924, but not before the family members of the Confederate soldiers buried below raised a ruckus. The eventual compromise included naming the new building after the Confederate president. The $400,000 hospital, built in a Classical Revival style, featured four large columns out front and held 240 beds. The basement was built aboveground, so as to disturb as few of the dead as possible.

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