Sam Duplechain had just moved into a condo off Sherwood Lane, so he was still using his iPhone GPS to drive in and out of the neighborhood. Then last week, as he was about to head north, the iPhone alerted him to crushing traffic off TC Jester heading toward the Garden Oaks/Oak Forest area. The phone showed him a shorter route that cut through the neighborhood, so he took it.
Then Duplechain hit a gate that for two decades has acted as a barrier between the low-income apartment complexes to the south and the small neighborhood of single-family homes to the north. Stunned, he asked his neighbors why what looked like a public street would be arbitrarily blocked. Always been that way, they said.
Basic facts about that rusting gate on Vollmer Road, between Sherwood and 34th, are hard to come by. While it's on the edge of councilwoman Brenda Stardig's District A, all her office could tell the Houston Press this week is that the city's public works department appears to have erected it some 20 years ago at the request of homeowners whose property now sits north of it.
Here's what Lisa Riley, the district's constituent liaison and events coordinator, told Duplechain in an email this week after he asked about the gate:
"This particular gate was erected by the City over 20 years ago as a deterrent for cut through traffic in the Shephard Forest neighborhood. The gate has since been maintained by the civic club as a traffic calming devise. Although the city no longer uses gates to prohibit cut through traffic, this gate was grandfathered in due to when it was first erected.
Looking for answers, Duplechain also took to Nextdoor, the semi-private Internet cesspool of neighborhood gossip. It didn't exactly go over well.
Many nearby homeowners insisted the gate was necessary not only to block cut-through traffic but also, they said, to stop crime from spreading into their neighborhoods. To Duplechain, that sounded like racially coded language. He called it “a segregation gate of sorts.” He referred to himself as a young white guy who'd recently bought property in the area, and got this response: “In reality I have not seen any so called young white guys even drive on Sherwood let alone own property. Haha.”
This was among the more articulate replies to Duplechain's concerns — which is, essentially, that the gate has been used for two decades to separate the haves from the have-nots:
“The gate needs to remain closed. I keep track of crime reports for Shepherd Forest, using www.spotcrime.com. (sign up for it yourself - there's even an app for your iPhone). I get an email every day with a map and a list indicating where reported crimes have occurred. Almost every day, at least 5-7 times per week, HPD has responded to thefts, burglaries and assaults on those two blocks of Sherwood. Shepherd Forest is a lot safer without the foot traffic between Sherwood and 34th. A line on a map does not make it a public street.”
If neighbors want the gate to block not just car traffic but people, it's not exactly working. When we went to go take a look, school was just letting out. High schoolers living at those allegedly-crime-ridden apartments told us they just hop the gate whenever they want to cut through.
Still, Warren Kahle, a homeowner in the neighborhood south of Sherwood, told the Press that his homeowners association actually tried to get a similar gate on his side of Sherwood many years ago – again, to block people from the same row of apartment complexes from walking and driving past their houses. As he remembers it, it never happened because of “the fear it would be seen as a racial problem.”
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Kahle bristles at the notion that blocking nearby apartment dwellers from driving or walking through his neighborhood has anything to do with race or class. Yes, his neighborhood's mostly white. “But there are some other ethnicities here,” he told the Press. “They keep their homes up nice. They're good people.” Kahle says he won't even let his family drive down Sherwood. “I wish you could just take a bulldozer and bulldoze all those seedy apartments.”
Duplechain's not backing down. He's been emailing Stardig's office back and forth this week. Her office tells us that the city's public works department is now investigating the situation.
Asked why he's raising such a stink about an old, rusted gate, Duplechain said: “It just reminded me of segregation. Literally, physical segregation. This is a situation that's clearly not okay.”