Like most of the rental houses in the Freedmen's Town section of the Fourth Ward, the two-story duplex at 1023 Bailey Street hadn't received much in the way of even routine maintenance for years, if not decades.
Last fall an inspector from the city's Neighborhood Protection Division discovered that Lizzie Reynolds, 79, was living on the bottom floor of the building, which, among other deficiencies, had no windowpanes or screens. On September 8 the inspector ordered the owners of the property, the Mattalino family, to make the necessary repairs.
Under ordinary circumstances, the windows, as well as the decrepit beams, the rotting fascia and the holes in the floor of the front room, might have been fixed, and everything that Lizzie Reynolds has endured since the inspector's visit would have taken place in some bad dream, if it happened at all.
But these are not ordinary times in Freedmen's Town. After decades of neglect by the city of Houston, the neighborhood, which was settled by freed slaves more than 100 years ago and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, is at the heart of a taxpayer-funded redevelopment of the Fourth Ward. The city-sponsored project has spurred unprecedented interest among private real estate developers, which has led to a threefold increase in land values in the last few years.
The Mattalino family did the math and decided that, at this point in their long history as the owners of 1023 Bailey Street, it would make more sense to demolish the building than to make even rudimentary repairs for the tenant, even if she did happen to be a 79-year-old widow on social security who had lived there since Dwight Eisenhower was president.
This bottom-line decision might have been the right one for the Mattalino family, but for Lizzie it was cataclysmic. Like anyone threatened with the loss of something so close to the heart as a home -- not to mention so key to her physical well-being -- she fought to keep it. For two months Lizzie refused requests, and then demands, to vacate.
"I tried to get her out myself," says Ola Mae Kennedy, a neighbor who lives around the corner on Gillette Street. "But you stay somewhere for so long, it seem like your own house. She didn't want to just jump up and move to another neighborhood."
Lizzie's obstinacy ended in the early-morning hours of December 8. Two deputy constables cuffed her hands and feet, pulled her out of bed and took her to the Harris County Psychiatric Center.
On February 4, around mid-afternoon, a Houston police officer responded to a call that an elderly woman, clearly confused, was wandering around in the vicinity of Gregory-Lincoln Education Center on Taft Street. Lizzie Reynolds, according to the police report, had walked away from her group home and was looking for her house.
It was gone -- demolished, along with most of her possessions, such as they were, less than a week after Lizzie's awakening at the hands of the local constabulary.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't even realize someone was living in there," says Carl Carter of Neighborhood Protection. According to city records, Carter made 23 visits to 1023 Bailey Street between September 7 and December 13, the day the house was demolished. Carter thought the building was abandoned. "The house was in pretty bad shape for someone to be living in it."
Indeed, other than collecting $125 a month in rent from Lizzie Reynolds, the Mattalino family had all but abandoned their interest in the property. Not that they and the other absentee landlords of Freedmen's Town were ever offered much incentive to do otherwise in the blighted area. Until recently, the metes and bounds of individual parcels in Freedmen's Town were based on a 19th-century land survey.
The streets themselves are impossibly narrow and rutted; some are still paved with red bricks put down by the original settlers. Water and sewer lines are so inadequate the city is spending some $10 million to bring the basic infrastructure up to modern standards.
The city's long history of neglect bred an indifference among Freedmen's Town's landlord class, which consisted largely of the families of Italian immigrants who made their living selling goods and services to what was once an energetic hub of local African-American society. That economy died at the hands of Jim Crow and the Great Depression, and, ever since, it's all been downhill for Freedmen's Town. Landlords like the Mattalino family ended up with property that could barely generate enough rental income to cover the annual tax bill. Tenants like Lizzie Reynolds remained because they couldn't afford to live anywhere else.
"When the old man, Mr. Mattalino, was living, he took pretty good care of it," recalls Hazel Cotton, Lizzie's sister, who lived upstairs at 1023 Bailey in the 1960s and early 1970s. "But then Mr. Mattalino died."
Even determining who is responsible for the property now is difficult. The Harris County Appraisal District still lists the owner as Ben A. Mattalino, the gentleman Hazel Cotton knew as the old man.
Ben's widow is well into her eighties now and living on a fixed income, according to Dixon Montague, a Vinson & Elkins attorney who represents Mattalino's grandson, Joe Dichiaro. Montague was unable or unwilling to put the Press in touch with his client, or even to give his address or occupation. He says he thinks Dichiaro works downtown, "for some securities firm."
Montague insists that after the city notified the family of housing-code violations at 1023 Bailey, Lizzie wouldn't let anyone into the house to make the necessary repairs. For two months, Montague says, Lizzie ignored the efforts of her neighbors, representatives from two Fourth Ward churches and at least one social worker to convince her to let someone inside to replace the windows.
Carter, the city inspector, notes that the Mattalino family didn't need to get inside 1023 Bailey to address some of the code violations. "I don't really see the need to go inside to put in a window screen," Carter says. He ticketed the Mattalino family on November 12 for failing to bring the house up to minimum standards.
By then, apparently, the Mattalino family had decided to demolish the house at 1023 Bailey and the building they owned next door. City records indicate the utilities were disconnected at both locations on November 8. Montague says all the tenants moved out without complaint -- everyone, that is, except Lizzie.
On November 24 the Mattalino family initiated eviction proceedings against Lizzie. According to Montague, they also contacted Hazel Cotton, Lizzie's only living relative. She traveled to Houston from her home in New Orleans to convince her sister to give up the fight.
Lizzie and Hazel were born four years apart in Pointe Coupee Parish, near Morganza in rural Louisiana. Their mother died when they were both "itty-bitty children," Hazel says. Their young father took off for Mississippi, leaving his daughters with relatives. Hazel says Lizzie didn't do well in school and often ran with "the wrong people." She got pregnant and was "put out" by the aunt with whom they were living. Lizzie's baby died of whooping cough, Hazel recalls.
One day, when Lizzie was still a young woman, she set out for Beaumont. But she didn't get off the bus until Houston, which is where she stayed. Hazel came here shortly after, and together they moved into 1023 Bailey Street.
Ola Mae Kennedy has known Lizzie for 50 years. Kennedy says she has maintained a soft spot for Lizzie, who always took time to visit Kennedy's mother and father, when they lived on West Dallas. "She and her little white dog used to walk down all the time," Kennedy remembers. "But things were different then."
Indeed, for all its wrenching poverty and its lingering reputation as a violent haven for drug addicts and prostitutes, Freedmen's Town was always a place that looked out for its own. Nowadays, though, between the dying and the demolition, only a few hundred homes remain in the 40-block historic district, and there are relatively few people left to keep a caring eye on their neighbors.
If it weren't for Ola Mae Kennedy and her daughter, Gladys House, president of the Freedmen's Town Association, Lizzie would have almost no neighbors within shouting distance. Virtually every vacant house for two blocks in any direction has been torn down, the lots scraped clean.
Most of the recent destruction stems from the 1996 decision by the city to target 80 blocks of the Fourth Ward for a massive redevelopment project. With more than $10 million in public money, Houston Renaissance, Inc., a nonprofit handpicked by the administration of former mayor Bob Lanier, bought up more than one million square feet of the Fourth Ward, including half of Freedmen's Town. Most of the redevelopment project land is being offered to private developers at $16 per square foot.
Mayor Lee Brown set up a "relocation assistance program" in 1998 to help people like Lizzie, but housing department records show they never even checked on her.
Meanwhile, for perhaps the first time since Reconstruction, private developers are investing in Freedmen's Town. Perry Homes and others have been aggressively gathering up tracts of land and launching their own projects.
To be sure, when Hazel came to Houston last Thanksgiving, Freedmen's Town was nothing like the place she used to call home. Her sister's neighbors told her how a demolition crew had almost started to raze 1023 Bailey Street while Lizzie was still inside. Ola Mae Kennedy had stepped in after she looked out her window and saw the wrecking ball was about to swing into action.
"They had already tore down the other house, and they thought no one was left in that one," Kennedy recalls of that day. "I said, 'Don't tear down that house. There's a lady still living in there.' "
Though Lizzie wouldn't let her sister inside, Hazel could see that the situation at 1023 Bailey was becoming untenable. "She'd tell us, 'You better get on away from here.' Finally she said, 'Get away, or I'll kill all of you.' "
Hazel realized that the only way to get Lizzie out of the house was to have her forcibly removed. She says she called a clinic in the Third Ward and got help in authorizing a mental-health warrant. That was what the deputy constables used to take Lizzie away to the Harris County Psychiatric Center.
Hazel says she knew it was a harsh solution, but she was sure it was the right decision when she saw the condition of the house later. "There was no water, no heat, no lights," she says. "I know that if she stayed in there she was going to freeze to death." She says Lizzie had virtually no belongings left inside -- no shoes or even sheets.
On a recent morning, Lizzie Reynolds, who has been staying at Kennedy's house since police found her wandering on February 4, sits down in a soft chair in the office of the Freedmen's Town Association. She's wearing some of the few articles of clothing she has managed to hang onto the past few months: a faded maroon sweat suit, a soiled white sweater and a pair of simple black house slippers.
It's hard to reconcile the irrational behavior attributed to Lizzie with the shy, good-natured matron she appears to be. While it's obvious she doesn't have any teeth, her face is smoother, less wrinkled than one might expect from a woman who turned 79 in November.
Lizzie says she told the Mattalino family that she was planning to leave 1023 Bailey Street very soon. In fact, she says, her belongings were boxed up by the front door the morning the constables arrived. She fought like hell, she says, a recollection accompanied by a huge smile.
Asked if she fought because she enjoyed living there, Lizzie simply shakes her head. She says the Mattalino family wanted her out of the house, because "they must have hated me." She's extremely reticent on the subject of Hazel. At the mention of her sister's name, she smiles tightly, unnaturally, and looks down at her lap. She doesn't say a word.
A few days later, however, Lizzie offered that she thought Hazel had her "committed" in order to lay claim to the $500 she receives each month in social security.
Gladys House, founder and president of the Freedmen's Town Association, claims that Hazel was after the government checks and was in cahoots with the Mattalinos to evict Lizzie and other tenants. But House has no proof. She accuses the landlords of intimidating the tenants by sending them notices to vacate on Vinson & Elkins letterhead, signed by Montague.
House also has advised Lizzie to sue the Mattalino family for $5 million. While no one is pleased with the eviction outcome, the Mattalinos did try for more than two months to coax Lizzie out of the house before going to court to force an eviction. And House's accusations against Hazel Cotton clearly upset her. "She's using my sister to fight the landlord," Hazel says. "My sister was suffering. She wasn't suffering."
House got a lawyer from the Gulf Coast Legal Foundation to challenge the Mattalino family for tearing down 1023 Bailey Street before anyone had a chance to remove Lizzie's household furnishings. If the case is proved, the family will be liable only for the fair-market value of those possessions.
While House pursues her righteous cause, Lizzie Reynolds is awaiting approval to move into a new apartment at the Historic Oaks of Allen Parkway Village. Oddly, she holds no grudge against the Mattalino family.
"It don't bother me that I lost everything," she says. "Seems like so many people lose everything, you know, but the clothes on their backs. I just get on my knees and pray. God always give me the strength to fight."
E-mail Brian Wallstin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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