Houston Heights Association Cans Board Member Who Built a Beloved Playground Train
If you've driven through the Heights recently and thought, "Gee whiz, I wish this historic, beautiful neighborhood could become really douchey," you're in luck: The nonprofit Houston Heights Association, whose volunteers once created a jogging trail, planted trees, and created playgrounds, just dismissed a 74-year-old founding member and former president for installing a wood train in Donovan Park without asking permission first.
Paul Carr says he spent about $5,000 of his own money to build the four-car structure, which has been a big hit with kids and, at the time of its installation in December, received glowing media coverage. Certain people reading those articles may have thought "Wow, the Heights seems like a really close-knit community where folks go out of their way to help others. As a complete and utter douchebag, I hate that. They need to fire that guy."
Fortunately, HHA president-elect Matt Bedingfield and Bill Baldwin, vice president of finance and operations, are here to make sure the voices of the Douche Contingent are heard.
The firing of Carr, a retired fireighter and former fire department chief, from his job as property manager, was first reported by The Leader's Michael Sudhalter on January 23, and the blowback was immediate. After all, a lot of long-time Heights residents knew Carr and his wife Mary, who bought their Heights home in 1961. Carr led the volunteers who planted 312 oak trees in the neighborhood, as well as the construction of the popular jogging path, which was named in Carr's honor.
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According to the article, Baldwin said the HHA's board was first concerned about insurance issues, but that ultimately the insurance company cleared the train (probably when they discovered it was made out of wood and was not an actual locomotive). The article also pointed out that Baldwin's brother John would replace Carr as property manager.
We would've thought that sentient beings with working brains could anticipate criticism for firing a guy who first served his city by becoming a firefighter, and then served his community through volunteer work. We would've thought Bedingfield and Baldwin would've had a statement ready to go that very day, and would have had no problem defending their decision -- after all, maybe the Leader article was inaccurate, or didn't tell the whole story. Because, really, what kind of people would behave that way? Baldwin, who owns a "boutique real estate firm" specializing in "neighborhood-centric niche marketing" wouldn't talk to us, though. He cited HHA policy, which dictates that only the president may talk with the media. Which is, of course, a crucial building block in creating a douche-centric neighborhood association. You don't actually shoot straight with anyone, much less the media. You don't man up. You duck and cover. You defer.
But when we called Bedingfield, it turned out that he didn't actually want to talk to us either. He stuck as close as he could to an official written non-statement mired in vagueness, obfuscation, and pseudo-corporate palaver. (The non-statement also accused media coverage of being "one sided and derogatory to the Houston Heights Association," which is definitely a risk that an organization runs when it does stuff that looks like it might be really, really dumb, but doesn't say why).
The key part of the non-statement was this: "Beginning in 2011, HHA contracted with Paul to maintain the Association's properties. However, it became evident that Paul's views on the management of the parks grew apart from the Board's, and he often disregarded the Board's wishes. Paul's increasing lack of respect of the Board's decisions in these matters include several attempts to restrict access to Donovan Park, and, most recently, the purposeful concealment of the construction and installation of the train."
It also noted that "Paul Carr has served as a valued member of this Association since its inception, including serving as President. As a long-time participant in the maintenance of our parks and past member of the Board, Paul is fully aware of the HHA's established policies and procedures with regard to its properties."
Getting Bedingfield to elaborate and clarify was like pulling teeth. From a duck. We told him we had no idea what "attempts to restrict access" meant. Did the dude build an alligator-filled moat? Did he ensconce Donovan Park in razor wire? Were robots somehow involved?
Bedingfield told us the statement speaks for itself. When we told him that, no, it really didn't, he alleged that Carr put up signs to keep people out. Which is completely in keeping with the character of a guy who spends $5,000 of his own money on building an awesome train for kids to play on. (Bedingfield also initially told us that The Leader article contained inaccurate quotes, but after we asked him to point out specific inaccuracies and if he had contacted the newspaper to request a clarification or correction, he said that he took another look at it, and that it was, in fact, accurate.)
As for "purposeful concealment"? If that truly speaks for itself, what it's saying is this: "God, we really are a bunch of douche-nozzles."
But then we thought we were missing something. After all, we weren't familiar with the Houston Heights Association. What does it actually do? What are its goals? When we asked Bedingfield, he told us it's all on the website.
But what we found on the website, under "mission," was "to foster a sense of community" in a number of ways, including "maintaining, improving and beautifying parks...." and "promoting and fostering friendship, goodwill, and community spirit."
And it touts the grassroots blood, sweat, and tears that went into the create Donovan Park's playground in 1996. That's when, according to the site, "a close-knit community in Houston, Texas, rolled up its collective sleeves and built a lasting legacy for its children. Families, neighbors, craftsmen, teachers, students, local businesses, and friends of Houston Heights joined together in a monumental effort to construct what is now The Heights Playground. They worked from early morning until late night. They sawed, drilled, hammered and painted. They served food, tended minor wounds, and provided child care. They gave their time, their skills, and their hearts, yet asked nothing in return."
Which, to us, sounds like Carr.
When we spoke with Carr this week, he also sounded like a guy with no real hard feelings. Just disappointment when thinking about the days when being part of the HHA was really like the website's description. Back then, he says, there was real sweat-equity; there was a sense of pride and ownership that came from getting your fingers dirty planting trees just because you wanted to make your neighborhood an even prettier place.
When we told Carr about Bedingfield's allegation that Carr put up signs to keep people out of the parks, Carr said the only sign he put up stated "Parties and group activities prohibited without approval," as a way to make sure there was no trash left behind from large gatherings.
People "would call our business manager to see if they needed to get approval, and she would tell them, 'No, you don't need approval, but would you mind bringing some garbage bags'...and it worked perfect. It took care of our garbage issue."
Carr believes Bedingfield and Baldwin love the Heights just as much as he does -- they just have differing philosophies. And Carr isn't fuming or wallowing. His biggest fear is that his firing will cause friction, and he just wants the whole thing to go away. In case you missed that: dude was just fired for no real reason, and his only concern is that it might pit neighbor against neighbor.
"This is really a win-win for everybody," Carr says. The HHA "got rid of me, so they got what they want. The children got the train, and that's what I wanted, and then my wife and I don't have to deal with these people anymore [and] that's what we want."
And as it turns out, Carr didget paid for building the train. He says that last Christmas Eve, shortly after the train was unveiled, he was presented with a banner -- a long section of butcher paper filled with messages and drawings from children in the neighborhood who loved playing on the train.
"It's the best Christmas present I ever got...I really cherish it," Carr says, adding later, "I tell you -- that banner those kids...created and gave me, that paid me for everything."
Sheesh, that kind of selfless community spirit must drive douchebags crazy. Thank goodness they've got the Houston Heights Association in their corner.
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