A Neighborhood Divided
In the artificial darkness of the living room, Cynthia Walters sits in a well-worn chair and talks about her husband, Tim, as if he weren't there. In a lot of ways, he isn't. Right now he is watching cartoons on Nickelodeon. Cynthia, frustrated, says that he used to listen to the BBC.
She is calm, though, almost detached, as she recounts the events of March 24, 1995; she's told the story many times to many audiences. She had taken the day off to attend her aunt's funeral, and she and Tim were about to leave when he said his chest hurt and went to lie down. She went to check on him and saw that he'd stopped breathing. Immediately, she called 911, and within five minutes, a fire engine arrived. Firemen administered CPR and shocked Tim four times while they waited for the ambulance and a trained paramedic.
Walters tried to call family members for support. Unable to reach them, she called three friends -- who made it from downtown to her house in the Heights before the ambulance did.
Yet the ambulance had left on time. It was coming from station 62, not two miles from the Walters's house, and it reported en route four minutes after Cynthia's call. But unlike the fire engine, which came from a different direction, the ambulance encountered a barrier, a "911 gate" that stopped traffic at the point where Dian Street makes a 90-degree turn and changes to Wynnwood. The gate hadn't appeared on the ambulance driver's map, and when he got there, he wasn't able to open it. The lock box containing the gate's key was open and empty, and the driver didn't realize that his universal lock-box key would also open the gate. He was forced to detour nearly 20 blocks, driving down Wynnwood to T.C. Jester, north to 18th Street and east to Beall.
Cynthia Walters estimates now that the delay was 15 minutes. In that time, Tim's heart stopped, and his brain was deprived of oxygen. By the time the ambulance arrived, he was clinically dead.
The Dian Street gate was already controversial when Tim Walters suffered his heart attack. Just three days before, a neighborhood committee -- the Committee to Keep Dian Open -- had warned the Houston City Council that the gate would impede emergency vehicle access. But response time was only part of the committee's argument. The gate had been intended to stop speeding cut-through traffic, and the committee claimed that the gate failed at even that task. Besides, they said, there were negative consequences to closing the street, and they fell disproportionately on those on the wrong side of the gate.
Other proposed gates, at other locations, have since been rejected by the city, which now seems to prefer speed bumps. But more than two years after the gate at Dian was erected, it still stands: a physical barrier that divides what had once been a peaceful, cohesive neighborhood along the lines of race, class and -- most of all -- feelings toward the gate itself. Those who rallied for the gate -- among them, a past president of the civic association, the coordinator of citizens on patrol, the lawyer who was involved in the process of getting the gate installed and even residents questioned at random -- prefer not to talk now. But opponents, such as Cynthia Walters, are more than happy to talk. As long as the gate remains, there will be someone around to fight it.
On the Dian side of the gate, Heights Annex is a tight grid of small houses, many of them rented, many of them suffering the effects of aging and disrepair, and most of them valued between $35,000 and $60,000. Eighteen-wheelers rumble down narrow, potholed streets that are lined with ditches instead of sidewalks. Vacant lots alternate with residences and the occasional business, a ramshackle store or a body shop.
On the other side of the gate, the street is named Wynnwood, and the neighborhood is Timbergrove. But more than the names change: Here, chainlink fences give way to flower beds, driveways and small, well-manicured lawns. The streets are wide and curving, and the houses generally cost $85,000 to $90,000. The subdivision is modest, neat and quiet. The effect is of an old-style suburb, an inner-city refuge for the white middle class.
Naturally, Timbergrove residents disliked the traffic that cut through their enclave. The subdivision is surrounded by three major streets -- T.C. Jester, 11th Street and North Durham -- and drivers found that they could avoid a few stoplights by using Dian as a shortcut through Timbergrove. Starting in 1989, residents complained to the city of Houston, saying they were sick of the constant roar of 18-wheelers and of cars that treated their streets like speedways. And they believed that burglars were escaping down Dian.
In 1993, City Council passed an ordinance that added "neighborhood traffic projects" to the existing traffic ordinance with the intention of giving communities more control over the traffic that passes through them. Timbergrove's neighborhood organization requested a gate that would block Dian. Over time, meetings were held, engineers consulted, traffic counts taken and letters written. Finally, on October 5, 1994, the gate was erected. Timbergrove had won.
Heights Annex wasn't pleased, and the rancor still remains. Nondus Tidmore, 76, will reminisce happily about her 46 years on the 1300 block of Dian, but the good times, she says, ended when "the Mayor's Hate Gate" entered the picture. "When there is absolutely no communication between people in a neighborhood, the friendship is gone," she says. "I noticed particularly when some of the people we had worshipped with for 40 or 50 years turned their backs and wouldn't take the collection plate from my husband, who was an usher."
Tidmore also maintains that the gate led to the death of her dog, which was poisoned several weeks ago. But far worse, she says, is that when her grandchildren ride their bikes in Timbergrove, they're told to go back to their side of the gate. Timbergrove residents yell at 12-year-old Brandon Ramos in particular, she says, because he looks Hispanic.
"It's pure and simple hate," says Cynthia Walters. "They don't want the Mexicans to come over there. That's what they don't want, the minorities to come over there through that street.... If I were Hispanic, I would be offended by it. As a human being, I'm offended by it."
Walters lives in Clark Pines, a subdivision that is ethnically similar to Timbergrove but, like Heights Annex, lies on the Dian side of the gate. Shady Acres is the fourth subdivision in the neighborhood area, as defined on Timbergrove's application, and, like Clark Pines and Heights Annex, it is also opposed to the gate on Dian Street.
Chiefly, though, the gate divides Timbergrove from Heights Annex -- and, in doing so, separates a largely white subdivision from one that's mostly Hispanic. According to the 1990 census, Heights Annex is 57 percent Hispanic; Timbergrove is 78 percent white.
To many on the Dian side of the gate, the separation smacks of racism. On October 28, 1994, right after the gate had been constructed, 11 minority residents in Heights Annex and Clark Pines filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, claiming that the gate violated Titles VI and VIII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibit discrimination. HUD is currently investigating.
Now, much of the traffic that used to zip down Dian into Timbergrove has moved farther into Heights Annex, onto Prince Street, which has developed its own problems with cut-through traffic. Parked cars often line the narrow, rutty road, transforming it into a one-lane street -- especially problematic during rush hour. And, too, there's no sidewalk, which means that kids walk on the street, often on their way to Love Elementary School, two blocks away and 90 percent Hispanic.
Yet the city doesn't consider Prince Street a problem, even after one of its own studies showed that a year after the gate was installed, traffic on Prince Street increased by 76 percent. In a memo, the Department of Public Works and Engineering dismissed the jump, claiming that although the percentage was alarming, it translated to only 15 to 20 extra cars an hour.
The gate's opponents say the city's numbers are not to be trusted, noting that the traffic count on Prince began only after construction had started on Dian and some of the cars had already started using Prince. Likewise, James Lusk, a Shady Acres resident who drives down Prince Street an average of four times a day, says the gate hasn't solved Timbergrove's traffic problems: "They're just moving it over one street."
The traffic has been transferred to a poorer, more Hispanic neighborhood.
The Timbergrove Manor Civic Association once sent a letter to the city describing Dixie Friend Gay, a leader of the anti-gate movement, as "indefatigable" -- and they, better than anyone, should know. Gay is tall, blond and bony; she goes rollerblading at 7 a.m., takes care of a baby all day, home-schools her son, paints and sculpts, and still finds the energy to fight City Hall. She is all about efficiency, and nowhere is that more evident than in the records she has kept of her correspondence with various bureaucrats and agencies. In her files, she says matter-of-factly, you can find "more than you ever wanted to know about the gate."
Her tin house in Clark Pines is big and silver and new, a shocking contrast to its more traditional neighbors. It's the most stylish place in the neighborhood -- after all, Gay is an artist -- and probably the most expensive as well.
Which the pro-gate forces have noted. When Gay went before City Council the first time, Mayor Bob Lanier -- a supporter of the gate -- asked how she could talk about the income disparity between her side of the gate and the Timbergrove side when her own house was valued at $250,000. He had stood in her driveway that very day, he said, and decided to pull her tax records. For once, Gay didn't know what to say.
"We knew we were really doing something right then," Gay says now, "or they wouldn't have gone to those lengths."
After four years of fighting the gate, she has become an expert at connecting the dots in that fashion, coming up with explanations when none are forthcoming, and arriving at basically one conclusion, which is this: "The city worked against us. They really tried to keep us in the dark about what was happening, and by the time we had meetings, they said, 'It's over. It's a done deal.'"
To Dixie Gay, the gate on Dian represents a huge miscarriage of justice, and her long list of grievances starts with her neighbors in Timbergrove. "They filed a petition with the city and provided them with false information," she says, still chafing at a seven-year-old letter by John Paul Vogel, then-chairman of the Timbergrove Manor Civic Association Crime Prevention Committee. He had written that 90 percent of crime in Timbergrove took place within a two-mile radius of the disputed intersection where the gate now stands. The claim infuriates Gay -- partly because she believes it's not true, partly because crime was never supposed to be an issue in the first place. The gate was approved only as a traffic measure.
"This is the kind of thing that the city took into consideration," Gay says, pointing to Vogel's letter. "This is in the city's files. This is what they used to support their decision to close the street."
But crime was clearly a serious issue for many Timbergrove residents when they addressed City Council: Sixteen out of 30 of those speaking in favor of closing the street mentioned crime. Accurate crime statistics are currently unavailable.
For obvious reasons, talk about the "criminal element" offends people on the Dian side of the gate. Says Gay's fellow activist, Alex Martinez, "Timbergrove was afraid for their property and their lives, the way they talk, and they didn't want the criminals to go through here -- basically calling everybody on this side of the gate criminals. Just because you're low-income doesn't mean you're a criminal."
The battle on Dian Street is only part of the larger war that is being waged against gates around Houston. Under the new ordinance, the city has built ten gates. Of those, HUD is currently investigating five -- and has been investigating them since the end of 1994 without producing a finding in any of the street-closing cases. HUD public affairs spokesman Alex Sachs explains that each case must be examined separately and that working with city government is always time-consuming.
Martinez doesn't buy that explanation. "We speculate a lot about why it's taking so long, and the only real conclusion that we've come up with is that it's political," he says. "That the mayor's so strong and he has so many friends in high places that they don't want to make that final decision. Not now, anyway."
Even so, the city has slowed its installation of gates -- the most recent went up more than a year ago -- a good indication that they are now considered a last resort. "It's fair to say that it wound up not as popular as we originally thought it would be," says Dan Jones, the deputy director of Public Works. "I think that what we've done is we've identified certainly speed humps as another and somehow more benign way to address the same or similar problem."
In 1995, the city put this new attitude on paper. A revision of the neighborhood traffic ordinance provides specific and lengthy criteria for evaluation and makes it easier for opponents to voice their complaints. Not only are public meetings and test periods now mandatory, but the Department of Public Works' directors must also consider evidence of community support before approving a project.
It is likely that the gate on Dian would never have been built had the new ordinance been in place when Timbergrove filed its application. After all, about a year and a half ago, the city's legal department rejected applications for gates from Gulfton, Cragswood and Northbrook, citing the potential for discriminatory action. But, much to the frustration of opponents, the revision was never intended to be retroactive, and there are no plans to remove the gate on Dian or any other contested traffic device. As Jones says, "If you stand by the original problem that it was dangerous and the gate solved that problem, then I don't know how you can remove the gate and by definition recreate the dangerous situation."
A HUD decision might change the situation considerably, but for now, there is nothing to do but wait. In the meantime, gate opponents won't let the city forget about them. Nobody wants another Timothy Walters.
There have been other ambulance delays -- one by the city's count, three according to Dixie Gay. Susan McMillan, division manager for neighborhood traffic calming, lists along with Timothy Walters's delay one for an elderly woman in Timbergrove. Gay's count is decidedly more liberal: One of the delays she cites is a non-emergency test run in which sledgehammers were used to straighten the pins that keep the gate closed.
Despite these incidents, the gate has the approval of the Houston Fire Department, which judged that it would not unduly impede emergency vehicles. The department ruled that the gate would not create an "unacceptable delay" of more than one minute, and that it did not block the primary entrance to the neighborhood.
The firemen who serve the area don't agree. At Station 11 -- the "first responder" to Timbergrove, Heights Annex, Clark Pines and Shady Acres -- firemen say Dian Street used to be their primary route into the subdivisions north of Timbergrove, but that changed because the gate causes a delay of anywhere between 45 seconds and two minutes. Says fireman Greg Machac, "I would go around because it's quicker to go around than to go through."
Meanwhile, the alternate route requires passing through five stoplights at five major intersections, instead of just one. Prince Street, the only other cut-through route, is too narrow and convoluted for emergency vehicles to maneuver.
Still, the station's captain, Doug Weidermann, says he doesn't foresee problems unless the vehicles in his district are busy and the responding emergency team is unfamiliar with the area. Nor does the gate worry emergency service providers at the other two stations that serve the neighborhood. They say they're used to obstacles, and besides, 911 gates have long been used in apartment complexes.
In fact, some argue that rather than hurting public safety, the gates improve it. "If you look at the statistics, it is absolutely true that the more high-speed traffic you have on a neighborhood street, the more people will die or be injured," says Dan Jones. "So by attenuating that, we have, by definition, improved somebody's life or extended it."
But no one has ever died because of people speeding through Timbergrove. On the other hand, Timothy Walters came close that day in March 1995, allegedly because of the ambulance delay at the gate. Blaming the delay for his condition is too black and white for Jones, though. "If you're drawing a direct line of causality between the delay and the medical effects on the individual, whose testimony is it that the line is there? Is it his doctor's testimony?" he wants to know. "Is it just obvious that had it been there three minutes, five minutes faster, his brain would not be like that?"
It is to Cynthia Walters. The drugs her husband needed to keep his heart pumping were on the ambulance, she says, along with the paramedic who was licensed to administer them. "[Tim] was clinically dead when he got in the ambulance and DOA when we got to the hospital," she remembers, her voice taking on a bitter edge. "That's when [the doctor] came in and told me that he got a blood pressure and a slight pulse. And I knew that wasn't good."
While Tim was still in the hospital, Cynthia returned to work at the city secretary's office, where she had worked for 13 years. "I didn't ever file a lawsuit against the city, either.... It was only because of my loyalty that I didn't do it," she says, drawing out the word "loyalty." "Just a dedicated city employee, that's what I was, and I could kick myself in the butt for it now. I can't even stand to see Lanier on TV."
Before Tim's heart attack, Walters's devotion meant that she didn't get involved when her neighbors came to City Hall to protest the proposed gate on Dian Street. Instead, she answered their phone calls, put them on the speaker's list and handed it out to City Council. Only three days before Tim's heart attack, the Committee to Keep Dian Open had spoken before City Council.
Walters lingers a moment over this last bit of irony, then moves on to discuss another Committee appearance before City Council. In October 1995, she was there with her husband, and she delivered a speech. "A speakers meeting," she remembers, "the first time I'd been up there, and they all know me, the Mayor and Dan Jones and Anna [Russell, city secretary]. And I said, you might think the worst thing didn't happen because he didn't die, but it did. The worst did happen to me.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.