On Shaky Grounds

So far HSPVA Friends has raised less than 1 percent of its promised funds.
Al Cameron

The children running around in the schoolyard pay no mind to the solitary iron post in the large vacant lot nearby. They are more concerned with basketballs, jump ropes and each other. The post doesnt look like much, but for Claudetta Dyer its a totem of memory.

Dyers old house used to stand near that post. Her mother did laundry in a large black pot near the house and hung it from a line. Her mother and uncle grew up in that house. She grew up in that house. And her children grew up in that house.

Now the iron post is all that remains.

Just over two years ago, the Houston Independent School District acquired the property through eminent domain and leveled the house, along with all the other ones on a seven-acre stretch of land in Freedmens Town in the Fourth Ward. Seventy people were displaced.

The district is planning two projects: a new Gregory-Lincoln Education Center and a new High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The Gregory-Lincoln building is sorely in need of either renovation or replacement. The HSPVA building is overcrowded.

But nothing has happened on either one.

Standing in the way:

Reports that there could be a Civil War-era cemetery beneath the property. Seems the district began its tear-down even as rumors were circulating that there might be bodies under that stretch of land. Now that the whispered rumors have become a roar, the districts plans have been put on hold indefinitely.

A little matter of money whether the HSPVA Friends, the schools booster club, is really going to be able to come through with a promised $15 million to help pay for construction of the new school. While there is little doubt HSPVA has needed an update for a while, it isnt among the ranks of worst-shape buildings in HISD. So the Friends offer did help things along.

And a little bit of additional controversy thrown in: If the district is going to all this trouble to build two new schools, why wont it go environmentally friendly as the city and Houston Community College have done and build green schools?

That was my grandmother and my grandfathers home. They built that home, says Dyer, a 67-year-old retired nurse. That house was 100 years old. And [HISD] tore it completely down.

Let me tell you, she says. If youre going to build something, I think its more fair for the people to stay there until you are definitely sure that this is what youre going to do.

The longer it takes to figure out whats under that plot of land, the less likely it is that HISD will be able to finish the project by June 2006 and get the promised funds from the HSPVA Friends. That, of course, is assuming the booster club will reach its goal.

Welcome to the Fourth Ward, where development isnt as easy as it seems.

The words crack kills are spray-painted on the side of a house right by the land where HISD plans to build the new Gregory-Lincoln and HSPVA. This public service message is a not-so-subtle reminder of what Claudetta Dyers neighborhood has become.

Once upon a time, it was a prominent neighborhood, she says. It was very nice. You had the postmen living up in there, you had the teachers, and then, all of the sudden, everybody started moving out and it started going down, downhill. And then, next thing you know, it was a crack neighborhood. And I was right there in the midst of it all. But I still wanted to stay in my house, because that was mine.

When the school district notified the Texas Historical Commission in 2002 of its plans to tear down all the houses bounded by West Gray, Taft, Andrews and Genesee, the commission informed the district that some of the buildings were eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

We wanted them to think about what they were doing and potentially work with us, says the commissions Mark Denton.

The district knew the commission had no power to stop the razing of historical buildings, so houses started coming down.

District spokesman Terry Abbott refused to comment on why the district chose to ignore the commissions request.

Braeswood resident Anthony Pizzitola owned a brick house on Taft. His family built that house in 1926. Its where he grew up, and he claims he and his wife planned to move back there.

The school district had other ideas.

Pizzitola took the district to court and wrote several guest editorials in the Houston Chronicle and other local newspapers, criticizing HISD for moving forward without doing its homework. He ended up losing his house, but he got a ball rolling that just might flatten the districts plans.  

The 55-year-old project manager had been long aware of the folklore that there was an African-American soldier cemetery in the area. In January 2001 he wrote the trustees, informing them that the cemetery might be right where they planned to build the new schools. The district in turn contracted the Law Gibb Group, an environmental services company, which then subcontracted local historian Janet Wagner to do some archival research.

The trustees voted to condemn the buildings before Wagners report was published. Her research eventually concluded that there was a 50-50 chance a cemetery could be on the property.

Wagner started to come to the conclusion that possibly what we were talking about was the national cemetery, the post-Civil War cemetery that was developed by the Union soldiers who were stationed in Houston as part of the occupying force during the Reconstruction years, says Denton. Usually the federal government keeps meticulous records, particularly when theyre buying pieces of land and using it for something. In this case, there doesnt seem to be that kind of a follow-up. We know the exact names of the individuals who were buried in this cemetery they were supposed to have been exhumed but then theres archival records indicating that when they started moving the national cemeteries out of Texas in 1878, that they forgot about the Houston cemetery.

Other possibilities include the remains of federal troops captured by Confederate soldiers or those of the Confederates slaves.

The historical commission ordered the school district to halt demolition in November 2002.

The antiquities code affords more authority related to archaeological sites than it does for historic buildings, says Denton. Thats just the nature of the state law.

But the bulldozers were fired back up shortly thereafter. Commission officials determined that there was several feet of fill dirt on the site, so the district was told its heavy machinery wouldnt screw up any evidence of graves. This fill dirt also had been placed on top of any potential 19th-century artifacts from the area. The fill led Denton to conclude that anything found from the late 19th century wouldnt contribute substantially to the historical record.

That fill could radically contaminate the archaeological deposits, says Denton. So just because you start digging and you think youve a great artifact associated with, say, Grandpa Jones or the Pizzitola family, doesnt mean that at all, because the area has been so badly contaminated by previous impacts.

Denton perhaps should have chosen his words more wisely. Members of the black community expressed outrage that the historical commission wasnt considering the archaeological value of the site, regardless of whether there were graves on it. Plus Dentons calculation of how much dirt was on top of the whole plot apparently was based on studies of only a small portion of it.

Broken glasses, watches, coins they might have had, things they might have made, pipes they might have smoked all of that stuff is going to be down there somewhere, says activist Lenwood Johnson.

By the time state Senator Rodney Ellis called a public meeting in April 2004, all the houses had been demolished and the entire stretch of land had been further impacted by heavy equipment.

The public meeting was a fiery one, with local residents reportedly cheering every time anyone said anything negative about the school district. No doubt the specter of Allen Parkway Village was hanging over the proceedings. During the development of that housing project, bulldozers unearthed dozens of bodies from makeshift gravesites.

At the meeting, Johnson suggested a committee of community leaders be formed, to monitor the districts future moves with regard to the Fourth Ward site. Johnson is best known for his prolonged and ultimately failed attempt to save Allen Parkway Village.

In a show of good faith, the school district agreed to the advisory committee. Its members include HISD trustee Diana Dvila, concerned citizen Pizzitola, activist Gladys House and several other members of the community.

Dvila refused to answer questions from the Houston Press, instead referring all questions to district spokesman Abbott.

Johnson is not on the committee, but controversial politician Jew Don Boney is.

An effort was made to keep the committee at a workable size and to fairly represent the constituents of the area, wrote Abbott in an e-mail to the Press. Mr. Boney was recommended by the elected officials who had expressed an interest in this projectHe is an experienced group leader and has knowledge of the historical importance of the 4th Ward area.

Funny thing is, most of those reasons given by Abbott apply to Johnson as well. But Johnson has a reputation for fighting vehemently for the rights of poor people almost to the point of stalemating any negotiation while Boney is seen as a man who can get the job done. He has been accused of selling out the black community on numerous occasions.  

Jew Don Boney has always been brought in to squash any community hopes, dreams or aspirations, says Johnson.

Boney did not respond to repeated interview requests from the Press.

House caused an uproar at a recent meeting when she learned that Boney had changed the wording in correspondence sent to the historic commission without first consulting the other members. He had removed references to mistakes made by the commission during the demolition of Allen Parkway Village.

This is a historic document, she yelled. People need to know what happened to us.

So then she and other members sent a letter to the commission. It included this admonishment:

While we are aware of the lip service your agency has paid the [Freedmens Town] community over the years, your actions have shown us that when push comes to shove your agency bows its head and kowtows to some of the most politically reactionary forces in the state of Texas.

It continues, While we may remain in an advisory role regarding HISDs intentions, we want you to know that we have been and will continue to be watching.

Perhaps the most levelheaded figure at these meetings is archaeologist Fred McGhee, who was hired by the district on the advice of the historical commission. Hes a consultant charged with the task of overseeing the districts historic preservation efforts for the Fourth Ward site.

McGhee doesnt see the need to antagonize the commission unnecessarily. He thinks the best way to show such agencies how minority archaeology could and should be done in this state is to actually go out and show them. That will speak volumes louder than incessant bitching and moaning, complaint letters and annoying speechifying.

McGhee has been doing archival work and conducting oral histories with longtime residents of the Fourth Ward, looking for clues to the possible location of the cemetery.

In my own archival work I have attempted to fill in some of [Wagners] gaps, he wrote in an e-mail response to the Press. It is generally accepted, however, that much of African-American history is not reflected in written documents and will thus not necessarily be reflected in archives. That is why oral history and folklore studies are so important.

Once McGhee has pieced together the clues, hell pass this information along to a yet-to-be-hired archaeologist, wholl then do the physical search for the graves, most likely by boring into the soil. Further digging for other artifacts is also planned.

McGhee claims the school district is acting in good faith.

They do understand that this is not an ordinary project and have so far expended more resources on historic preservation efforts than required to by the historic commission, he wrote.

We will be doing our best to answer the question of whether there are graves or not. But people also need to be realistic; we do not have unlimited resources or time. The level of planning effort for this project already exceeds what was done at Allen Parkway Village at a similar stage, and has been made an explicit part of what I am trying to do.

Says the historical commissions Denton, There are many aspects of this and theyre going to be taken care of, and its going to take a little more time and cost a little more money than HISD had originally proposed. And thats the nature of it. When youre planning big projects like this, you need to contact the historical commission and your local constituency to figure out: If were going to dig up eight square blocks, what are we digging into?

Lenwood Johnsons fight to save Allen Parkway Village made him a local celebrity in the 80s and 90s. The media considered the activist he of quick wit and fiery disposition a fount for flavorful quotes. When he called a press conference, you could bet people would show up.

Fast-forward to a crisp November day in 2004. Johnson and two other activists, Timothy J. OBrien and Edwin Johnston, are standing at the corner of Andrews and Genesee, preparing to talk to the press about green schools. Johnson stands tall in a gray pinstriped suit, with the proposed site for the two new schools stretching out behind him. He looks ready for a crowd.

One reporter, from the Press, stands before the three men. Were it not for the kids playing in the schoolyard at nearby Gregory-Lincoln, youd expect to hear crickets chirping.

Apparently the media doesnt think green schools are as sexy as poor black people getting kicked out of their homes.

Lets do a dry run, says Johnson.

He clears his throat and starts to speak:

We have a real interest in what major institutions do in our community, and therefore we are trying to address a number of issues that affect the community. One of the things we found out, in building these two new facilities that theyre supposed to build here, is that they hadnt done an environmental impact study and flooding is a concern in this neighborhood, which has never flooded before, but all of the sudden we have streets that are impassable because of the current development. This entire area here is approximately 14 city blocks. If you put concrete and buildings on 14 city blocks, well, weve talked to architects and other people who say that waters got to go somewhere. And thats why were here. But then we found some other things, and Im going to turn you over to Tim OBrien, who is the chair of the neighborhood associations Green Building Committee.  

OBrien is a graduate student in history at the University of Houston. He lives down the street from the controversial site in subsidized housing. As a new homeowner, hes worried about the threat of flooding from all the proposed concrete, as well as the potential for an increase in his property taxes. He and his wife are planning to have children, and they hope to send their kids to a green school.

OBrien steps forward and speaks calmly and succinctly about his efforts to get HISD to adopt standards put forth by the U.S. Green Building Council. He and his cohorts want the district to use the new Gregory-Lincoln and HSPVA as test cases for building green.

Upon hearing the phrase green building, most people imagine some kind of biodome-looking structure decked out in solar panels and windmills. But this is only the extreme version. A building is green so long as it conforms to a certain standard of energy-efficiency and healthfulness.

Studies show that schools built according to these standards result in up to a 26 percent improvement in student test scores, say OBrien. HISD has continued to not address the issue. They wont put it on their agenda.

Its hard to argue against healthier schools for kids, but some critics claim such improvements are too expensive to be practical.

Not so, says Rebecca Bryant of the Houston chapter of the Green Building Council.

Theres a soft cost increase, but not necessary a hard cost increase, she says. Builders generally pay a little more up front during the design phase of the project maybe 1 to 5 percent and then reap the benefits in the long term thanks to energy efficiency.

Her agency uses a rating system called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED.

She says other school districts across the nation have adopted these standards for more than environmental concerns.

People were dissatisfied with the existing facilities, she says, and they wanted some kind of third-party oversight, some kind of assurance that they were getting what they paid for.

And thats where LEED certification comes in.

Both the City of Houston and the Houston Community College System have adopted these standards. City Councilmembers Carol Alvarado, Ada Edwards, M.J. Khan and Gordon Quan as well as Mayor Bill White have sent letters encouraging the district to follow these standards when building the new Gregory-Lincoln and HSPVA.

When queried about this, district spokesman Abbott wrote: [T]he design and construction of new schools and other facilities for the Houston Independent School District have been over many years advancing in energy efficiency, environmental sensitivity, durability, improvement of indoor air quality and use of daylightThe pros and cons of formal certification of our schools through the LEED process are also being considered.

Says Bryant, They have nothing to be ashamed of. I think theyre doing pretty well to be considering it at this point.

Bryant and the other members of the Green Building Council are all industry professionals with vested interests in seeing the school district go green.

But Timothy J. OBrien has nothing to lose by speaking critically of the district.

Were questioning why HISD wont adopt [the standards] when the City of Houston has and HCC has, he says. Its the right thing to do.

We want our kids to have the best schools. Why cant we have it, when it saves taxpayer money? It doesnt make any sense to homeowners like us.

OBrien and other green advocates wonder if the district is unwilling to spend a little more up front on soft costs because it has already dumped so much money into the project.

And then theres the pesky little fact that the HSPVA Friends might not be able to pony up its part of the loot.

Every time the fire marshal pays a visit to HSPVA, students scurry to remove their cases and supplies from the halls, cramming them into already cramped places. Closets have become offices, and many teachers float about without permanent classrooms.  

If they want us to practice, we need to have enough spaces to practice in, says HSPVA senior Kayleigh McCormac, a 17-year-old flutist.

Sometimes theres someone practicing at the beginning and the middle and the end of a hallway because theres not enough space, adds her twin sister, Kathleen, who plays the cello.

Space has always been an issue for the school.

Founded in 1971, HSPVA was originally housed in a former synagogue just south of downtown. That location was temporary, and the school was even more overcrowded than it is now. Students practiced in hallways and stored their equipment wherever they could.

But the school was a success. More than a thousand students applied each year for a couple hundred slots. Awards started racking up and students went off to top-notch universities.

The district set its sights on a wooded area in Timbergrove Manor, near the Heights, as the spot for the schools permanent location. By 1979, HISD had spent $500,000 drawing up plans for the site.

But Timbergrove Manor was too far away from the arts corridor, parents claimed. They wanted the school to be much closer to downtown and the Museum District.

So the school district had a problem. It had already spent a half-million bucks on the proposed site on 11th Street, but parents didnt want their kids to go to school out there.

Like a deus ex machina, the Friends swooped in and saved the day. The booster club agreed to raise the half-million needed to pay back the district, if only HISD would find a better location.

Everything had worked out okay sort of. The Friends never really paid much of the bill, citing misunderstandings between the booster club and the district about the nature of the agreement.

In 1981, HISD trustees grudgingly appropriated an additional $1.3 million to complete the school at its current location.

And thats where the narrative starts to fold in on itself.

The building on Stanford Street was overcrowded from the get-go. The school had been built to accommodate three grades, but that was the year the district moved from a junior-high to a middle-school concept, so HSPVA had to handle four grades.

Parents were happy their kids were getting such a unique education, but they began complaining that more space was needed.

By 1998, HSPVA was still low on the districts list of schools that needed to be replaced. Other inner-city schools were falling apart, and the district didnt want to draw negative attention to itself by letting HSPVA jump the queue. The fine-arts magnet school wasnt included in the school districts $60 million bond issue.

The Friends once again swooped in to save the day. By agreeing to raise $15 million one-half of the anticipated cost for a new campus through private donors, the booster club got then-superintendent Rod Paige to agree to a new school. HISD was getting a sweet deal: the chance to expand one of its crown jewels for basically half the price.

And the district already owned a nice piece of property that would be a perfect place for the new school. It was a wooded area in Timbergrove Manor, on 11th Street near the Heights. Sound familiar?

The Timbergrove site eventually was nixed, on account of the same geographical concerns as before, as well as a large outcry from area residents who didnt want to see their bucolic park turned into a concrete complex. (Ironically, many of those residents moved out of the neighborhood after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, when the area became a lake even without the extra concrete.) So the district considered other sites and settled on the Fourth Ward, right by Gregory Lincoln, which is a fine-arts magnet school for grades kindergarten through eight.

By 2002 HISD had begun tearing down houses in the Fourth Ward, including the childhood home of Claudetta Dyer. The district was using $5.6 million of leftover funds from the 1998 bond money. Voters were yet to approve the November 5 bond issue that would give the district the money it would need for the new HSPVA.

In June 2003 the school district inked the current deal with the Friends, committing the boosters to raise their funds by January 2006. One of the stipulations of the agreement was that the new school be completed by June of that same year.

Although there had been murmurs about graves on the site before then, the issue came to the fore shortly thereafter.

A year and a half has passed since the Friends signed the deal promising $15 million by 2006. To date, the boosters have raised a whopping $80,408. Only $14.9 million to go.

The Friends did not respond to repeated interview requests from the Press.  

When asked what would happen if the Friends dont meet their goal, spokesman Abbott responded by e-mail that we fully expect the group will meet the commitment, and we fully expect to build the new HSPVA on this site.

When asked if this meant the district has no contingency plan, Abbott offered the same answer.

The project is not over budget at the moment, he says.

But critics such as Anthony Pizzitola and Lenwood Johnson are quick to point out the school districts costly mistakes on the site.

When the district started buying up land, developer Randall Davis was apparently told his building on West Gray wouldnt be needed, so he renovated it, raising the value of the property from $340,000 to $1.3 million. HISD decided about a year later that it wanted the property. Apparently the district originally overlooked Daviss building because a church to the north of it wasnt going to sell, so the district altered its plans to work around the problem. But then the church changed its mind, and the Davis property was back on the map.

The district purchased the building for the same land value as the rest of the site, plus the documented investment by Mr. Davis in the improvements, says Abbott. Because of the Davis buildings historic significance, it will be kept and will be part of the new HSPVA fine arts wing. The buildings architectural history will be assured and the Texas Historical Commission concurs with that plan.

And then in a strange twist, Pizzitola went to a recent HISD meeting and complained about further waste by the district. Among other things, he cited the $120,000 the district had spent fighting him in court.

But these numbers dont compare to the $15 million the Friends need to raise by January 2006.

In a June 2004 letter sent to the school district by Kimberly Sterling of Sterling Associates, fund-raising consultants to the boosters, Sterling reported that the group had secured $51,000. The letter ended on this note:

[W]e should also mention that we have received many calls about the question of the cemetery that might be located on our new site, and about the movement to delay the project. We hope and expect that the questions about the site will be resolved shortly, and we will be patient and continue our planning and cultivation activities in the interim. Clearly, any controversy about a matter like this would compromise and delay our fundraising efforts.

Says Terry Abbott, At no time have the Friends not been supportive of a thorough investigation of the issue of graves. To suggest otherwise would be false.

That stretch of land in the Fourth Ward has become a quagmire for the school district. Any way you look at it, HISD is going to spend more taxpayer money than it planned and end up offending somebody along the way although that last part is almost inevitable with these kinds of things.

Say evidence of graves is found:

We will continue to work just as we are now, at the direction of the Texas Historical Commission and in response to other government requirements that may be applicable, says Abbott. Which means the district would have to foot a rather large bill. Developers reportedly spent an additional $900,000 exhuming bodies from Allen Parkway Village. And those remains werent part of a national cemetery.

And if there is no evidence of graves?

Even if we dont find graves, says McGhee, I will feel comfortable in the knowledge that maximum effort and planning (given the already understood time and resource constraints) went into the effort to find them.

Its that part in the parentheses that worries many involved with the project. The district isnt paying to examine every single speck of dirt on the property, so theres always going to a big maybe in the minds of the districts detractors: Maybe the graves are there, but HISD missed them. These folks will be waiting with bated breath once the heavy machinery starts digging up the ground.

The quagmire deepens when it comes to the issue of environmental impact and green building. The district has been making slow steps toward improving its building practices, but that might be too little too late for its neighbors in the Fourth Ward. Johnson has a tendency to see the worst in every situation, but its hard to argue with him when he points out that the district plans to put a lot of concrete where there used to be a little. That waters got to go somewhere.

And then youve got the Friends, who just might be the best HSPVA ever had. These boosters have got a long way to go before theyve raised their promised $15 million. Maybe theres an arts patron out there with $14.9 million burning a hole in her pocket, but most people think the part of the land designated for HSPVA is going to lie fallow for a while. Or maybe the district will come up with the rest of the money on its own. Then the Friends will have talked the district and the taxpayers into letting the school jump over many others that were more in need of replacement.  

No matter what happens, this story is far from over.

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