Taking Back the Blight
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, CORNER OF STUDEWOOD AND EAST NINTH STREET -- Some two dozen Heights residents march the chain-linked periphery of The Lincoln Man's recently opened used car lot, pumping homemade signs -- "Save Our Studemont!" and "Go Back to North Shepherd!" and "Bad Credit? BIG Problem!" -- into the morning air.
According to an informal poll, most of today's protesters have moved to the neighborhood within the past two years, paying $200,000 and up for reproduction Victorians and settling quickly into neighborhood association memberships, vigilant in defense of the residential charm on which their property values rest.
One man, Tommy Hilfiger shirt tucked into his khaki shorts, shakes a fist at an inert Chevy Nova promising "cold a/c" and tries to rouse the crowd:
"Are we going to let these seedy businesses invade our neighborhood and infect our children's quality of life?"
"NO!" comes the unanimous response.
Shermann Bilks, meanwhile, wearing tattered cutoffs, an equally tattered beard and a thrift-store T-shirt that fails to contain the tangled thicket of hair sprouting like crabgrass from his impressive belly, stands off to one side, running color commentary on the proceedings.
"Can you believe these chickenshits? Look at this!" Bilks snorts, fishing a greasy wad of canary-yellow paper from his pocket and thrusting it in a reporter's face. The paper is a flyer urging citizens to join the "SOS" (Save Our Studemont) campaign.
"One drive along North Shepherd," the broadside reads, "blighted with car lot after car lot, is enough to show why the residents of the Heights and the Woodland Heights must unite to protest this lot. Let's stop this one, and throw a wet blanket on others who have no regard for the neighborhood. We have only ourselves to defend the neighborhood."
"Blight my ass," roars Bilks, waving a hand across the vista of the lot, where several Ford trucks and a variety of ten-year-old domestic sedans await a second, or third, chance on the road. "I don't suppose these people ever trade in a car. Noooo, and they wouldn't be caught dead buying a used one. Lease crowd.
"What they're calling blight, man, it's just not right. Hell, I used to live in this neighborhood, over on Rutland, 'bout ten years ago, in the house my dear dead granny built in 1924. She taught me how to tend chickens in the back."
Across the street, a woman with blond hair tied back in a black velvet scrunchy deplanes her shiny black Range Rover and pulls her own sign from the cargo bay. Sighting Bilks, she cuts a wide path around his corner of turf before hoisting her placard in line with the like-minded crowd. It reads "N.I.M.B.Y." in six-inch rub-on lettering.
"These people here, man, they would have run me out on a rail, but I'm telling you that was a nice little neighborhood before everybody started hanging their goddamn porch swings out. These new folks over here have got their butts in such a pucker you can't hardly drive a pickup down the street without fresh crown molding tacked up in the cab."
Bilks nods toward the Range Rover and snorts.
"These chickenshits'll probably drive that poor bastard outta here one way or another," Bilks says, gesturing at the cowering shadow of a man peering out from behind the blinds of the trailer that serves as The Lincoln Man's sales office.
"But if they're gonna keep protesting everything that ain't in the running for yard of the month, then somebody oughta step up for the blight. You ask me, we need more of it, not less."
Bilks pauses and scratches the side of his nose for longer than is strictly necessary, as if mulling an idea that has never quite occurred to him before.
His eyes suddenly light up, and his left hand, still grasping the SOS leaflet, begins to tremble.
"Save our Studemont my ass. We need our own neighborhood association. Someone needs to save our blight!"
Shermann Bilks lives a few blocks off Canal Street about ten minutes east of downtown in a neighborhood shadowed by light and not-so-light industrial plants, stocked with elderly housing in varying states of disrepair and peppered with the sort of small business establishments urban planners euphemistically call "residentially inappropriate."
Bilks's rent is $350 per month. Several days a week, the prevailing breeze puts him downwind of a sewage treatment plant on Waco Street, fragrant with the smell, oddly, of boiling cabbage.
"It's a sulfur compound," Bilks volunteers. "Your nose adapts to it after a while and you don't smell it anymore. That's true."
His house is what Heights realtors advertise brightly as a "tear-down." Its cinder-block piers have settled unevenly over the years into an otherwise hardpack dirt lot, skewing the deteriorating clapboard into wrong angles. What's left of a half-porch strains to support a sagging orange velour couch occupied by two full black plastic trash bags. Apparently unoccupied garage apartments attached to neighboring houses loom and tilt over the tiny backyard, also dirt, in the center of which Bilks has installed a halved 55-gallon drum, open-side up, in a rough furrow. At dusk the coals are already glowing, and a discarded window-size burglar grate laid across the opening waits ready to serve as a grill.
In a back corner of the yard, by a tin-sided garage that seems to be supported by the fence against which it's leaning, Bilks removes a blindingly white leghorn from its chicken-wire coop, maneuvers his hand into a fist around the bird's head and swings it in sharp, snapping circles over his own until its neck cracks with an audible pop. Seeing his visitor, he points invitingly toward an uncooled suitcase of Pearl Light on the back stoop and nods toward the dead foul dangling in his right hand.
"We're doing chicken right tonight."
By the time Bilks has defeathered dinner, a small cadre of fledgling Blight Savers has arrived.
There's Nadine Eustabio, Bilks's spry 72-year-old neighbor from down the block, and her grandson Eugenio Gutierrez, a junior at the University of Houston pursuing a double major in urban planning and sculpture.
Gutierrez has recruited two of the three roommates who split bills with him at a rental house off Martin Luther King Drive near UH: Jaylenor Monsanto, a quiet, coffee-skinned student photographer, and by quiet implication Gutierrez's girlfriend, and Todd Burnside, a white kid with the inimitable combination of dirty clothes and vaguely aristocratic bearing that invariably marks the presence of the trust-fund activist. Burnside mumbles something about pursuing a degree in "insurrection."
Bilks, who makes his living running an air-conditioner repair shop out of his living room and taking on handyman jobs on the side, adopts the tones of a teacher. He wants everyone sitting on lawn chairs or ground to introduce themselves and say something about their interest in blight.
Nadine Eustabio is widowed. She and her husband moved into their house in 1961. In the early 1970s they added a carport, sheathed the clapboard with scalloped asbestos siding and paneled the interior walls. Because of Eustabio's green thumb, her house looks better than most in the area. That's why she's worried. A house of the same vintage, much more run-down, two blocks away, recently sold for $42,000, and she is worried about property values going up. After all, she's retired on a fixed income. If it goes much higher, she might have to sell her house, and she doesn't know just exactly where she might go under such circumstances. She keeps seeing on the news how big the city is getting, and it seems like it's squeezing east. All you have to do is walk out on Harrisburg and look west at the green steel girders of the new ballpark. It's close.
Bilks says, "You know, Miss Nadine? Them asbestos shingles won't hurt you if you just leave 'em where they are. People start ripping 'em off, that's where you get the problem."
Gutierrez, it turns out, grew up with his grandmother in that same house, and the neighborhood stirs nostalgia in him, but there's a political streak in him, too. He has read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and he has studied The Federal Bulldozer. He is taking a class on "environmental racism" and views "revitalization" and "urban renewal" with a jaundiced eye.
He says things like, "The eradication of 'blight' is nothing more than programmatic minority removal."
He combines his politics and his art by shoveling warm asphalt out of freshly filled potholes and molding the material into waist-high busts of slain civil rights leaders. He says a classmate with a work-study internship at the Public Works department tips him off to the city's pothole-filling schedule.
Jaylenor Monsanto digs the aesthetics of blight. She says she thinks it's really raw and honest material for her photographs, which she shoots on black-and-white film, hanging the prints unmounted on strips of galvanized chain link.
"The buses and the dirt and the old people It's just really real, you know?"
Todd Burnside says something about "insurrection, man."
Bilks stands up and says he's just good-and-goddamn tired of getting crowded out of neighborhoods by advancing waves of young marrieds and their renovating instincts. Bilks says he's too old to be young anymore and too ugly to be married, and hell, that's who they build new houses in the suburbs for anyway, why can't they just let him have his little old house and leave him be.
Bilks works up a sweat with his speech. When it's over, he reaches to the ground with a bare chicken bone and drags a line in the dust.
"Ladies, gentlemen, we have ourselves a fight. We'll need people. We need to get the word out. We need a battle plan, and there may well be sacrifices to be made. Anyone doesn't feel up to it, say so now. You can just cross this line and go on home."
Shermann Bilks, it hardly needs be noted, owns a highly developed sense of melodrama.
The Blight Savers remain seated in solidarity as a second chicken sizzles on the grill.
The word "blight," in its usage having to do with neither potatoes nor arboreal disease, entered the common vocabulary in the 1930s in connection with federal public housing programs. Metaphorically, the literature treats blight exclusively as an enemy and a disease. It's a condition, in legislative language, to be "attacked," "eradicated," "reduced," "prevented," "eliminated." Literally and legally, there is no hard-and-fast definition of just what constitutes blight, though it is generally agreed that whatever it is, it's ugly by white middle-class aesthetic standards.
Exceptionally white, exceptionally middle-class organizations such as Scenic H-Town work tirelessly to remove eyesores as mild as the common billboard, referring to its presence within eyesight of any roadway, or "view-shed," as "visual blight." Such groups -- locally including The Park Persons, The Society for the Prevention of Ugly Districts (S.P.U.D.), and the Anti-Car Lot Urbanists (A.C.L.U.) -- along with uncounted regional neighborhood associations, lobby City Council ceaselessly for allocation of cleanup funds and scenic district designations.
Asked for her reaction to the formation of Blight Savers, Martha Stuart, spokeswoman for S.P.U.D., seems almost flabbergasted at what she clearly perceives as a personal affront.
"You say they're dedicated to preserving blight? What does that mean? I mean, is that somebody's idea of a joke?"
Most often the word "blight" is used by city planners and architects to describe residential areas with older housing stock and the attendant lack of tidiness generally associated with proximity to the poverty line.
Early federal programs gave money to local housing authorities to identify blighted areas, condemn the property, scrape off the structures with bulldozers and replace them with public housing for low-income renters. This is the approach responsible for Allen Parkway Village.
Alternately, cities have encouraged the clearance of blighted real estate and then handed incentives, including the popular TIRZ designation, to private developers, who it's not surprising aim their developments at the higher tax brackets, displacing not only structures but the people who live in them, who subsequently scatter to other blighted areas: those too run-down or underserved or poorly located or otherwise undesirable to attract moneyed residents, but not so decrepit as to qualify as slum.
Architects tend to take a sympathetic view of blighted areas, where often are found roughly handled structural jewels from bygone architectural eras. Some of the sharper ones choose to actually live in blighted neighborhoods, knowing full well where they're likely headed. Being largely liberal as a group and sensitive to charges of colonial racism, architects shy away from talk of blight "eradication." "Revitalization" is a better word. That's where they get the commissions.
City planners hesitate to identify it too explicitly. The label is a sign of their own failure and a call for action to a problem they don't know how to solve. They tend to downplay the march of blight eradication via market pressures, the expanding waves of city and citizen money headed, in Houston at present, eastward.
One county-employed planner who agreed to be quoted on condition of anonymity put it this way: "People with money just aren't going to live over there. They don't want those old above-ground utility lines crisscrossing the street. They don't want to live with industry and liquor stores and poor people."
That said, the planner admits it's almost impossible to tell which blighted neighborhoods might "renew" themselves. Nobody wanted to live with industry and liquor stores and poor people in Montrose or the Heights either, and now the industry and the liquor stores and the poor people are gone.
"The urban renewal programs were an abject failure. Central cities either renewed themselves or they didn't. It's not predictable. Montrose did. The Heights. West U for God's sake is renewing itself beyond all reason. MLK, parts of Harrisburg God knows whether they will ever renew."
Shermann Bilks, meanwhile, doesn't have any doubts about whether his close-to-downtown chunk of the eastside, between Harrisburg and Navigation, will renew.
"I have seen the writing on the wall, my brother. The anti-barbarians are at the gate."
He's giving Jaylenor Monsanto and a reporter a guided blight tour of his neighborhood through the rolled-down windows of his 15-year-old Chevy Cheyenne, pulling to the curb periodically and hopping out to yank a real estate for-sale sign out of the soil and toss it in the bed of the truck. Jaylenor documents the "liberations" in 35 millimeter.
"We don't want people buying over here. We don't even want 'em looking. And if they have to be looking, we don't want 'em finding anything to buy. You see 'em driving down your street sometimes, young marrieds, driving real slow, looking at everything real close, writing down addresses. There's not much for sale over here just yet, but when something does sell, it just starts the slide. Suddenly there's people out leveling beams and reroofing and painting and sodding the yard, and then that's just one more house that the next couple of young marrieds won't mind moving in next to them. Then boom, your taxes double."
Bilks spots another for-sale sign and says, "Hot spit. That's one of Fawn Amway's. You see what she's done to Woodland Heights. These Carlos Santana signs I almost don't mind so much, I mean he's local, but Fawn Amway out in this neighborhood -- that, sir, is an awful bad sign."
Bilks swings the sign into the back of the truck with the others. In an hour we've collected seven, five cherry-picked off an established route that Bilks drives, doing just this, almost every Sunday afternoon. Asked about the dubious legality of the act, he says only, "You don't see many cops over here until someone gets shot, and then they're usually pretty busy."
Bilks's blight tour is a smorgasbord of heavy trash piles ("The city doesn't pick up out here so regular. You can find a lot of good stuff in there if you know how to look."), street-roaming packs of loose dogs ("You just tell 'em to git. Dogs know what git means."), cars parked in rutted yards, old swing-set frames chained to support rusting engine blocks, corrugated tin fences and dirty bedsheets doubling as window drapes.
"People need to see this stuff for what it is," Bilks says. "This isn't a bad neighborhood. This isn't a slum. This is just how people live who can't afford for everything they own to be shiny and new. It's got a beauty all its own. It's got a history. Some people call it grime, but it's more like a patina. There's a gravity to it, you know? And when it's gone, you can't just replace it."
Monsanto wonders aloud how to communicate this idea to people who might never see it, or even worse, who take it for granted, and a lightbulb seems to switch on over Bilks's head.
"You know how they do 'Lights in the Heights' every year? Put out all those candles and stuff and do a walking tour through the neighborhood? Well Jesus Jumping Christ, why couldn't we do that here? We could set a route and host a walking tour, maybe do it on Halloween weekend. Call it 'A Thousand Points of Blight.' "
"Write that down," Bilks instructs Monsanto, who borrows a pen to make a note on her hand.
Bilks's tour ends at the highlight, a dirt extension of Commerce Street that cuts a diagonal against the street grid into an accidental blight park where stands, shaded by gigantic sycamore trees, his personal blight grail: a battered shopping cart from an H-E-B Pantry three miles away, wheel-less, up on blocks.
Monsanto fires her shutter.
"Beautiful," sighs Bilks. "Just lovely."
In the University of Houston's student computer lab, Eugenio Gutierrez is getting busy. He has borrowed $70 from his grandmother to register a domain name, www.blightsavers.com , and he speaks with the fervor of a convert as his fingers fly over the keyboard, piecing together a Web site he hopes will attract more interest from beyond the core circle of activists. There's a ranting manifesto [see "Blight Savers' Manifesto"], a page of jpegged blight images scanned from Monsanto's latest prints, the framework of a bulletin board for the posting of messages. At the moment he's compiling a page of links titled "Know Your Enemy." He has already placed small ads in local weekly papers, including this one, seeking recruits to the cause. Gutierrez says the site, still under construction, has received more than 1,500 hits already.
"Blight is a battlefield," says Gutierrez. "These neighborhoods don't just disappear by accident. There's a loose cabal of organizations and forces at work to actively destroy them. Do a Web search on blight. All you'll find is do-gooder groups working to make it go away."
Gutierrez establishes links to the Web sites of an organization called Keep America Beautiful, another to a group called Scenic Texas, and yet another to town-house builder Perry Homes.
"These people are the enemy. They want to tear it down, clean it up and replace it with something shiny and new. And when that happens, it just completely changes the character of the neighborhood. The people get driven out, trying to stay one step ahead of 'revitalization.' But we can't stay one step ahead forever. There's only so much land. We have to take a stand somewhere before it's all gone. Eastside is just about all that's left inside the Loop, and with all the money pouring into downtown, it's vulnerable."
Gutierrez establishes a final link to the home page of Starbucks Coffee, mostly just for grins.
"Once you've got a Starbucks on the corner, your blight is already long gone. People don't realize the shift is taking place until it's too late to do anything about it. We're not going to let that happen on the eastside. There's still time to head it off at the pass."
Monsanto and Burnside arrive wearing crisp new T-shirts. There are two boxes filled with them in the trunk of Burnside's car outside, fresh from the printer. The design, which Burnside created on his Macintosh, features a silk-screened badge over the left breast with the words "National Blights Savers Association, Houston Chapter."
"So we'll be ready when the insurrection spreads," Burnside explains.
On the back is the image of a sign hanging crookedly on a backdrop of chain link, derived from Monsanto's installation work. The sign, modeled after the "Bad Dog" warnings ubiquitous in blighted neighborhoods, reads "Save Our Blight" over the silhouette of a barking dog.
Wrapping up his work on the Web site for the moment, Gutierrez calls to check for messages on the voice mail he has set up to field inquiries generated, he hopes, by the newspaper ads. Several messages have come in, some people wanting to get on the mailing list, a few hang-ups. Gutierrez breaks into a grin as he listens to the most recent message and then replays it through the speakerphone.
"Hi, my name is John Strindberg, and I'm a producer at Channel 2 here in Houston. I saw your ad in the Houston Press and just checked out your Web site. I'd like to do a story on you guys, ummm, what you stand for and what revitalization you're after and things like that. Please give me a call." The producer leaves his number.
Gutierrez looks at Monsanto with his eyebrows raised.
"Sweet," he says, already dialing.
Three days later the faithful again amass at Shermann Bilks's ragtag homestead. The first cool hint of false fall is sharp in the air, and Bilks stokes a trash fire in an upright steel drum in his driveway. The ranks have swollen since the last powwow, with more than a dozen activists drawn by the advertisements and the Web site and the networking efforts of Gutierrez and his roommates.
One delicate-looking middle-aged woman keeps a notepad constantly in one hand and a Bic pen in the other. She introduces herself as Sherri O'Malley, a creative-writing student at Houston Community College and self-described "Poet of Blight." [See "Sherri O'Malley, 'Poet of Blight' "].
The occasion is Blight Savers' first annual "Take Back the Blight" march, hastily organized at the last minute, and elderly Nadine Eustabio is busily shuffling to and fro, affixing handmade posterboard signs to a small fleet of wobbly shopping carts that Bilks has amassed for the march. The signs read: "Blight is Beautiful" and "Revitalize THIS!" and "Culverts YES! Sidewalks NO!"
Monsanto hands out Blight Savers T-shirts to people in the crowd, who pull them on for warmth over whatever they're already wearing.
As darkness begins to fall, Bilks ties a patterned handkerchief around his neck, masking his mouth and nose guerrilla-style, and leads the motley crew down the driveway and into the blacktopped street under the faint buzz and yellow haze of engaging streetlamps. They march block by block, occasionally acquiring the company of a street-strolling vato out exercising his pit bull, busted cart wheels spinning in tight circles on the rough asphalt.
At every heavy trash pile, the marchers halt and rummage through the refuse in search of reusables. Certain carts are designated repositories for particular materials. One collects cans. Another, discarded clothing and cloth. Another, metal scraps. Another, wood.
"This is an underground economy all its own," hoots Bilks. "We're literally taking back the blight!"
Several carts are reserved for trash pure and simple, objects for which there is no obvious alternative use. Plastic bags filled with organic refuse, irreparably damaged small appliances, shards of broken glass, cat litter bags filled with clumped dung, small chunks of drywall and rotted window framing.
The roving band rounds a corner onto an oak-lined boulevard. The Blight Savers have entered the eastside enclave known as Eastwood, a several-square-block pocket of advanced gentrification surrounded on all fronts by previtalized streets. Houses here regularly sell at Heights prices, and those that haven't been renovated have signs in their yards promising renovations to come. Bilks grabs the signs when he sees them and stacks them in his cart.
Bilks calls out: "Time to spread the wealth, Blight Savers!" and on his command the preservationists begin dumping the trash carts' contents onto the well-manicured lawns of Eastwood's spiffed-up bungalows.
Several porch lights pop on. No doors open, but the Blight Savers don't linger, rattling their now empty carts on to the end of the block, out of enemy territory.
But before turning the corner, Shermann Bilks takes a last look over his shoulder at the freshly, if temporarily, blighted block.
"Now that's better," he says, almost wistfully. "A man could get to feeling right at home on a street like this."
And with that, the Blight Savers clatter across the pavement and out onto the median of Lockwood, toward the next round of trash piles, inflamed with quixotic fervor, and receding, until the next sortie, into the safe anonymity of the waning blight.
Contact Blight Savers at www.blightsavers.com, where $10 T-shirts are also available for purchase.
E-mail Brad Tyer at email@example.com.
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