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Renovated Out of Existance

St. Paul AME church may move to a new neighborhood, but Cleola Williams is staying.

Cleola Williams has greeted almost every day of her 60 years in the same wood-frame cottage, two rooms wide and three rooms long, on Edwards Street in the First Ward.

The experience has never failed to humble her. Williams's great-great-grandfather built the house in the late 1860s, and it has been in her family ever since. So, it seems, has St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. St. Paul AME was founded by a group of former slaves who were gathering in a nearby brush arbor. It opened its doors in 1873, not 20 feet from the front porch of Williams's house.

On Sunday mornings, Williams, smartly attired, with her gray-flecked hair pulled back into a bun, climbs the steep concrete steps of the church on sturdy legs to praise God for allowing her place in the world to endure.

Used to be, everyone who attended St. Paul AME would share in the comfort of the church's long history. Even those who had left the First Ward to live in other parts of the city would return on Sunday. But over the last few years, St. Paul's spiritual claim on the First Ward has steadily weakened.

At first, it was for the usual reasons, related to the cycle of death and decay that have afflicted inner-city neighborhoods everywhere.

Longtime residents aged and passed on, leaving houses that even their children didn't want. Scores of turn-of-the-century cottages and shotgun houses, even the larger classic Victorians that were once the pride of the First Ward, were shuttered and abandoned. Other property owners fled and became absentee landlords, whose renters didn't show much interest beyond their front yards.

Lately, though, signs of rejuvenation are appearing up and down the First Ward's narrow, leafy streets. Vacant property, ignored by private investors for decades, is changing hands. Here and there, old buildings, like a 100-year-old firehouse on Houston Avenue, are being turned into loft apartments. A smattering of new construction is under way, including some town-home development.

Still, though, the light at St. Paul AME continues to fade.

Three years ago the Reverend Roderick Dawson took over as pastor of the church. At the time, the congregation numbered no more than about 125 families, down from the roughly 700 that filled the church 25 years ago. Dawson launched an aggressive effort to attract new members, and he has managed to rebuild the congregation to about 300 families. But nearly all of the new members come from outside the First Ward and have little or no connection to the past.

A few weeks ago Dawson announced from the pulpit that St. Paul AME was officially for sale. His plan is to build a new church in Greenspoint, where the pastor hopes to establish a nonprofit agency to provide day care, affordable housing and other social services to his flock. As an African-American, Dawson doesn't cherish the thought of selling Houston's second-oldest black church to the highest bidder. But the past has not been kind to St. Paul, he says, and the future does not bode well, either.

"It's very evident the transition that's taking place," Dawson says. "For many, many years, slumlords let the housing deteriorate. Developers are purchasing this property for upper-middle-class housing, and none of that is going to touch us. None of our people, when it comes to African-Americans, can afford that."

Cleola Williams doesn't dispute much of what Dawson says. The once prominent black population of the First Ward has dwindled, and there is little evidence, despite the neighborhood's modest revival, that it is being replenished. But, unlike the pastor, who believes that, under the circumstances, St. Paul must physically die in order for its soul, the congregation, to live on, Williams refuses to accept that the past has no role in the future of the First Ward.

A passionate woman with an activist spirit, Williams is trying to redirect the forces of change that have been unleashed in the neighborhood. A few years ago she got herself appointed to the board of Avenue Community Development Corp., which began moving homes from other parts of the city to empty lots in the First Ward, where they are sold or rented to families of limited means. While speculation driven by the revitalization of downtown has begun to push land prices beyond the nonprofit's means, Avenue CDC has its eye on one more project: renovating the old Jefferson Davis City-County Charity Hospital, a decrepit landmark at the corner of Elder and Girard streets.

While relatively few people could find the First Ward on a map, "old Jeff Davis," as longtime residents like Williams still call it, is an enduring symbol of the neighborhood's demise and its struggle to rise again.

Built in 1924 at a cost of $500,000, the hospital quickly became too small and obsolete to handle the city's indigent population. On January 1, 1938, its mission was transferred to a new hospital, also called Jefferson Davis, on Allen Parkway. Since then, the old hospital has been a convalescent home, a venereal disease clinic, a psychiatric ward, a home for juvenile delinquents, a food stamp distribution site, a drug treatment center and, before it was finally abandoned completely, a storage facility for the county.  

Despite that yeomanlike service to various causes, the old hospital has never seemed important enough to demand much care or resources, and today it is literally a shell -- a filthy, creepy and vaguely menacing shell.

Half the windows in the four-story building are boarded up. The rest are wide open to the weather, which, along with a generation or two of vandals and squatters, has wreaked havoc on the inside. Plaster curls off the walls. The dirt-encrusted floors are covered with glass slides stained with indistinguishable bodily fluids. Each room has become the repository for a different type of junk: old gurneys, office furniture, surgical scrubs. A nurse's station is piled waist-high with filthy mattresses. A restroom floor is lined, wall to wall, with bags of plastic cups and lids. Weeds grow out of every crack. Trees have somehow taken root in the concrete sills of blown-out windows.

Harris County has often entertained the idea of selling the old hospital, but never got around to putting it on the block until 1998. A private group that included Avenue CDC asked the county to postpone the sale pending approval of a federal grant application to study possible uses for the site. The application was rejected, but Avenue CDC forged ahead with a plan to renovate the building into loft-style apartments and workspace for low-income artists.

On July 11, county commissioners will decide whether to accept the nonprofit's proposal and donate the hospital site for a nominal fee, or start the bidding at $710,000. While no other developers have stepped forward with their own plans for the building, there are reportedly about a half-dozen prospective bidders awaiting the county's decision.

On the surface, old Jeff Davis and St. Paul AME would seem to have little in common. But in Cleola Williams's mind, they are equally important to maintaining the connection between the First Ward's past and its future.

"Everything that presents us as a neighborhood is being taken away, to make a whole new facade," Williams says. "It's taking away the feeling of community, and it's also taking away the history of the neighborhood. We want to keep this as it was, as houses and families and schools. We want to preserve it as such, so that people can walk down the street and know their neighbors."

Andy Bell was born 78 years ago in East Texas, and it may be true that he hasn't stopped talking since. A former pitcher for the old First Ward Hawks, which won a string of city Negro League fast-pitch softball championships in the 1950s, Bell is a trim man, with a broad face and a full head of dust-colored hair. He still looks fit enough to windmill a pitch past a batter.

Bell and his wife, Dorothy, moved away from the First Ward in 1948, but their connection to the neighborhood remains strong. Dorothy grew up across the street from St. Paul AME, not far from the brush arbor where the church founders used to meet. Her great aunt, Susie Ammons, was among the free blacks who helped organize the church in 1869, and was St. Paul's first secretary. Dorothy's ancestors were prominent members of the First Ward's black business community, which grew out of and around the church. Her great-grandfather, W.O. Cabot, a cement contractor, built the original sidewalks on Crockett, Sabine and Silver streets.

"His name was stamped on a lot of those sidewalks, and years ago my father and I talked about trying to find a piece of one," says Linda Robinson, one of the Bells' four children, all of whom were baptized at St. Paul. "But we procrastinated and procrastinated. Now we can't find them. The grass has grown over them or they've been removed."

Andy Bell was still an infant when his parents moved to Houston and settled in the First Ward. For a time the family lived on Houston Avenue before moving to Dart Street. Bell attended Brock School, which at the time was an all-black elementary on Bingham Street. On Thursday nights in the summer, kids gathered to watch silent movies projected on a sheet hung on an outside wall of Hawthorne School, the school for whites.

Every year the circus would unload at the railroad tracks and march to a fairground on Spring Street. One year, Bell recalls, an elephant named Black Diamond killed a man who had gotten too close to the animal with a cigar. "They hate tobacco," he explains with a knowing wink.  

Buses cost a nickel when Bell was growing up. That was more than a lot of people were willing to spend, he says, and besides, back then you could walk everywhere you needed to go. Getting downtown was a bit of a challenge, though, especially after some streets were closed, segregating the First Ward and its large black population from the city's central business district. Bell remembers having to cross Buffalo Bayou on a "swinging bridge."

Bell's father worked for a time at the old Universal Terminal Warehouse, an enormous building not far from where the downtown post office is now located. But by the 1930s, it seemed everyone in the First Ward worked, in some capacity, for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Bell's father eventually retired from the Pullman Company.

"That was the job to have," says Bell, who took a night job on the trains while he was still in high school, cleaning coaches and making up the sleeper bunks. Before the war, he spent a good part of the summer traveling on troop trains, though "they never told you where you were going," he recalls.

The First Ward was a rambunctious place for a young man, flush with life and, it seems, gambling houses. Card games, dice, numbers, you name it, were set up "in every little hole-in-the-wall they could fit a table," Bell says. "A nickel of every dollar bet would go to the police, and there wasn't anybody that was gonna bother you."

Bell was too young to remember the opening of Jefferson Davis Hospital, the city's first hospital for poor people, in 1924. But he knows the story, pieced together by archeologists and historians, about how it was built on top of a public cemetery.

The land for the cemetery was purchased for $750 from a trust set up by the Allen brothers, Houston's founders. According to city records, the burial ground was divided into four parts: a so-called potter's field for "criminals, persons of infamous character, such as [those who] commit suicide, and [those] killed … from a wound received in a duel"; the commons, for people "not otherwise provided for"; a section for blacks, who at the time were usually slaves; and a section subdivided into plots for families.

Among those buried in the cemetery were victims of the occasional yellow fever and cholera epidemics, including Union soldiers who had occupied the city after the Civil War. A number of Confederate veterans were also buried there.

In 1904 the city moved to rescind the land's designation as a burial ground in order to sell it for industrial development. City Council approved a resolution to subdivide the property and to lay out streets. But mayor A.L. Jackson, under pressure from the Daughters of the Confederacy and the First Ward Division of the Houston Civic Club, vetoed the idea.

By the 1920s, when the city decided to build a hospital at the site, the cemetery largely had been abandoned. But a local chapter of the Sons of the Confederacy, which was caring for a portion of the burial ground, protested. The matter ended up in court, and according to Mark Denton, an archeologist with the Texas Historical Commission, city officials interpreted the judge's ruling to mean the hospital could be built, just not on the portion of the property where Confederate soldiers were thought to be buried.

"So they went ahead and developed the property without regard to anyone else's bodies or graves," Denton says.

To further appease the veterans group, City Council agreed to name the new hospital after the president of the Confederacy. At the dedication ceremony, organized by the veterans group and attended by assorted city dignitaries, a bronze plaque was unveiled that read, "In loving memory of our Confederate soldiers, whose sacred dust lies buried in the shadow of this building. The great soul of the South can never forget her heroes as long as liberty, honor, love and country and heroic deeds of the brave and good are cherished virtues."

Forty-four years later, the South's "great soul" was a dim memory to most, as was the city cemetery. In 1968, with no public outcry, the city paved over another portion of the burial ground during construction of a maintenance yard for fire trucks and ambulances.

The reaction was quite a bit different in 1986, when construction workers digging a water line for a $10 million expansion of the maintenance yard uncovered at least 30 graves. Armed guards were posted at the site after it was learned workers had looted the remains, taking bones and teeth for souvenirs. The Houston Historical Commission, created just two years before, criticized city officials for ignoring "a wealth of historical information" about the burial ground.  

Construction was allowed to resume, though officials ultimately decided not to relocate the graves. That would not be the case today. Though there is scarcely a sign that a cemetery ever existed there, the site has been declared a state archeological landmark, and any disruption would have to follow guidelines set by the historical commission. It would likely be an expensive process: Less than two years ago the city housing authority spent almost $1 million reburying the remains of 465 people discovered during redevelopment of Allen Parkway Village.

That might explain why, although people are more committed to historic preservation than they were 15 years ago, old cemeteries are another matter altogether.

"This is not just Houston," says Denton. "It's everywhere. It's just American society. We don't want to think about the dead, don't want to deal with the dead. It used to be that a cemetery was a park and a park was a cemetery, and you went to have a picnic at the park and you had your picnic on Grandmother's grave. It was a link to the past."

As part of its proposed redevelopment of old Jeff Davis, Avenue CDC plans to honor that link in some way, says the nonprofit's executive director, Mary Lawler.

"The cemetery has always been an issue to the people in the community," Lawler says. "Putting some sort of monument is going to be central to our plans for the hospital."

But the heart of the group's proposal is to turn the 25,000-square-foot interior of the hospital into 31 lofts, where low-income artists can live and work at an affordable price. The project would be the first of its kind in Houston and, in the view of the development team -- which includes a local real estate firm, Pierce Scarpulla, and ArtSpace, a Minneapolis nonprofit that has built nearly a dozen low-cost housing projects for artists -- would be a unique contribution to the city's depleted affordable-housing stock. Avenue CDC has renovated 14 single-family homes in the so-called Washington Avenue corridor, which includes the First and Sixth wards. But rising land prices have essentially forced the nonprofit out of the Sixth Ward. Lawler has noticed the same thing happening in the First Ward, where not long ago rents were as low as $200 a month.

"It's not happening at the rate it's happening in Sixth Ward, but low-income renters are being evicted as people are buying these traditional rental properties to fix them up," she says. "The fact that it's an older neighborhood, close to downtown, with attractive and historic homes, means people are starting to get priced out of the market."

That's almost inevitable, says Bert Tibbits, president of the First Ward Civic Council. A tall man in his mid-forties, with a silver-and-black goatee, Tibbits is an architect by trade and a contrarian by nature. He moved to the First Ward from the Rice Village area 15 years ago, when he bought and renovated an old home on Dart Street, behind old Jeff Davis. Tibbits remembers sitting on his deck, sipping cocktails and watching vagrants wheel rusty gurneys piled high with old X-rays out of the hospital. "I guess they were washing off the silver and selling it," he says.

Tibbits used to fantasize about someone turning the old hospital into a hotel that was linked to downtown and the Theater District by a fancy new boulevard. But that would take someone with a little "political clout," he says, who could entice city and county officials to stop ignoring the First Ward as they have for so long. Now, Tibbits is critical of Harris County's proposal to sell the hospital and is supporting the Avenue CDC proposal.

"I'd be more than happy to back a nonprofit to go in there, because they are the only ones who could pull something out of the fire," Tibbits says. "The city and the county have completely abdicated their responsibility to the community by ignoring that hospital for so long. Now that the area is coming back they want to get rid of it? Give me a break.

"If I owned a rental property and it had a few broken windows, they'd have the neighborhood protection people over here in no time. But I guess the government doesn't play by the same rules."

Tibbits recently moved his family to a large Victorian on Houston Avenue, near Washington, that was once a boarding house for traveling railroad executives. By the time Tibbits bought it, the building had become a sort of flophouse for the "near-homeless." He has gutted the structure and, after eight months, is almost finished with the renovation. Tibbits has also invested in a number of the "traditional rental properties" Lawler described that were once affordable for low-income families.  

Tibbits acknowledges that what's good for the First Ward is good for his business. But he takes seriously his role with the nonprofit civic council. He says the First Ward has the potential to be more "family-oriented" than other inner-city areas being redeveloped, and toward that end, the council helped bring the city's SPARK park program to the neighborhood and has built trees, benches, a play area and a new fence around the local elementary school.

The civic council's next goal is to institute deed restrictions in the First Ward. Tibbits says that would limit the gated communities and generic town-home construction that is sucking the character out of inner-city neighborhoods while robbing them of their cultural and economic diversity. He acknowledges that no matter what kind of redevelopment takes place in the First Ward, rents and mortgage payments will rise. But he's adamantly opposed to the neighborhood becoming strictly a haven for the affluent.

"The neighborhood needs to be redeveloped and it wants to be redeveloped," Tibbits says. "What we're trying to do is get a seat at the table so that it's redeveloped in a fashion where it's beneficial to the people who live here now, and have been paying taxes for 150 years, and it's beneficial to the people who move in here, and it's beneficial to the city."

Late last month, at a public hearing on the future of the old Jefferson Davis Hospital, Cleola Williams -- a black woman who wants to save a building named after a man who fought a war over the right to keep slaves -- stood at the podium and asked Harris County commissioners to look into their hearts "and realize there are things more important than money."

Williams's love for the First Ward has, no doubt, been tested over the years. The front porch of the tiny house on Edwards Street once offered her one of the sweetest unfettered views of Houston's downtown skyline. But 12 years ago a pipe manufacturer built a 55-foot-tall metal building across the street, blocking sight of all but a few skyscrapers.

Just south and west of her house are nondescript warehouses and a beer distributorship, which are an almost constant source of tractor-trailers that roar up and down the street at all hours. A few blocks to the north, freight trains, a dozen or more a day, start blowing their whistles at the Taylor Street crossing and don't stop until they're on the other side of White Oak Bayou, at the eastern end of the First Ward.

Shopping in the First Ward used to be simply a matter of walking a block or two to one of the neighborhood groceries owned by Italian immigrants who settled here in the early 20th century. "Now," she says, "if you want to buy groceries, you have to get in your car or take the bus."

But on a recent morning, when she led a visitor on a windshield tour of the neighborhood, Williams didn't dwell on those changes. Instead, she talked about how the First Ward used to be, and pointed out the many efforts under way to recapture its past.

There are the handful of newly restored cottages on Dart Street that are fronted by vibrant gardens. Over on Shearn, Pierce Scarpulla has bought four ramshackle buildings, including an empty fourplex. The company is in the process of rehabilitating them for low-cost rental housing. One of the houses was recently completed and is painted ochre and burnt umber, a color scheme the developers researched and used for its historical accuracy.

"Oh, wait," Williams says in front of a lonesome bungalow down the block. "When I was a little girl, that house was haunted. I know it was haunted because I came down here and watched the trees rock back and forth when there was no wind, and there was a piano playing in there. I'll never forget it."

The once abandoned house -- Williams reckons it's about 100 years old -- has new owners who are rebuilding the porch. A small vegetable garden is growing on one side of the house. Scenes like this can be found all over the First Ward, though they're not always easy to see. One of the striking things about the neighborhood is how green it is. Pecan trees shadow almost every house, it seems. Hedges and chaotic vegetation surround and separate the lots. There are no curbs or gutters in most of the First Ward, but for an inner-city neighborhood, plenty of lawn.  

Back at her house, Williams's confidence in the First Ward's future wanes a bit when she talks about St. Paul AME. It saddens her to realize that despite her enthusiasm and deep love for the old church, she's powerless to stop it from being sold. That said, if she can't keep the Reverend Dawson from picking up and moving to Greenspoint, she plans to convince whoever buys the church not to tear it down.

"If we can't hold on to the congregation, maybe we can hold on to the building," she says, "and keep somebody from coming in and tearing down history."

It suddenly grows quiet in front of St. Paul. For a moment, there are no trucks churning past, no train whistles whining in the background -- nothing but the chirping of birds. It could have been 100 years ago, and Cleola Williams smiles, knowing that whatever happens, she's not going anywhere.

"People have been saying to me, 'You live where? Oh, don't get rid of your property.' I never intended to. I still like the view."


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