The Battle Over Brentwood
Every morning, when he steps out into the still foggy air of the pristine, orderly African-American subdivision of Brentwood, David Syrus can see a battlefield. It doesn't look the part. From Syrus' buzz-cut lawn, it looks like little more than brambles, a gray, wild patch of real estate at the juncture of Brentwood's decorously maintained homes, the playground of the neighborhood's elementary school and the brown swell of Brentwood Baptist Church's geodesic sanctuary. It's the very intimacy between these places that impresses a visitor: the way the ranch-style houses nudge against the grade school grounds, and how the playground stretches toward the parking lot that fronts the church. Almost a physical definition of the word community, this piece of Brentwood seems an icon of a time when home, education and religion all clasped together into one, universally accepted whole.
But since last November, that intimate proximity has become a burden. Because it has meant that whatever happens in one section of Brentwood can't help but touch the rest, and in direct and sometimes disturbing ways.
That's what the 56-year-old Syrus broods about when he looks across the barely one-lane wide expanse of Landmark Street toward what he has come to define as the enemy: a planned set of cottages for 18 AIDS patients. Part of a complex planned by Brentwood Baptist for the 25 empty acres, which it owns, the bungalows have yet to be built. They were meant to be part of a family life complex, a complex including a senior citizen's home and recreation rooms.
The church had penned the blueprints, won the grants and assembled the volunteers for its set of transitional homes for gay men with AIDS. But many Brentwood residents, who welcomed the recreational center, saw the AIDS care bungalows as an intolerable invasion of their way of life. When the plans were publicly announced, Brentwood citizens rose up in revolt against them, packing a Houston City Council meeting and protesting so furiously that the council decided to veto the city's promised grant of federal funding. The church, unwilling to accede to its neighbors' objections, decided to take the case to court, and on January 19 filed suit to get both its funding and the plans for the AIDS cottages back on track.
Both sides would say that the dispute is an obvious one. Brentwood Baptist calls it a classic AIDS discrimination case; Brentwood residents says it's a typical land-use dispute about multifamily housing. But there's also something distinctive about the tug of war over Brentwood's identity. With a determination they invoke as if it were a deity, both Brentwood the neighborhood and Brentwood the church have spent lifetimes hacking down any obstacles to their goals. Both rivals are extraordinary, and they know it. And they face each other with two fierce visions of what their community should be -- but only one place to put it.
Maybe six miles from where 610 and Highway 59 intersect at the Galleria, a skein of high tension wires laces a long pasture nibbled by cows. Buildings are few, and sound seems somehow muffled out here along Hiram Clarke Road, the thoroughfare that borders these fields. Here in the southwest suburbs, even the grimy Eagle Food Mart, stocked with requisite ATM machines, gas pumps and parking lot loiterers, retains the air of a small country store.
It's the kind of place where a suburban mother in Sunday heels feels comfortable popping in to buy after-church snacks. Watching some strangers puzzling about directions, she suggests they follow her as she takes the route they need into Brentwood. The Vietnamese man tending the register listens interestedly, free of the edginess that convenience store owners sometimes get after too long in a city.
It was for this small-town quality, in part, that at least three generations of homeowners -- one white, the second two black -- moved up and out from Houston when they began settling Brentwood in the early 1960s. And although by the mid-1970s, the lily-white neighborhood was gradually becoming all black, the transition by most accounts was fairly gentle -- and if anything, scaled Brentwood even further up economically.
Today, to pass the redwood "Brentwood" sign on Airport Street beside Eagle Food Mart is to enter a lapidary haven of gemlike lawns, immaculate houses and burnished cars. Every few blocks, on Saturdays and Sundays, somebody is sudsing one of these automobiles down or rummaging for garden tools in a garage with the door flung open to the street. Hobby Elementary School is minutes away, a brief walk from streets with storybook names such as Wuthering Heights, White Heather and Regency. The Brentwood Baptist dome, cater-corner from the school grounds, is clearly visible through treetops several blocks off.
While Brentwood's population has changed over the past three decades, its charms have remained much the same. "When I moved here in 1968, there were only two other blacks on my street," says 60-year-old Rosetta Thompson. A small, preternaturally youthful woman with taffy-hued skin and dark eyes, Thompson is head nurse of the Veterans Administration Medical Center's Spinal Cord Injury Clinic. In her spare time, Thompson chairs Brentwood Baptist's AIDS ministry.
"It was a pretty well-to-do white community," Thompson recalls of Brentwood. "We were just ready to buy a home -- the price was right, and we could buy here! You didn't have to fight. In some communities, you got all these excuses. By the time you fought City Hall, you didn't want to live there. [But] as black people moved into Brentwood, the people who were here, the white people, made you feel welcome. They brought you a cake."
As it turned out, the welcome, if exceptional for those days, was conditional. Thompson bemusedly remembers one white neighbor confiding that she'd be happy as long as the community had an equal number of whites and blacks. If the community began to attract more blacks, the woman said, she would move.
The words were prescient. Over the years, most of the white residents moved out and Brentwood became a sought-after prize for successful black Houstonians tired of the city. And in contrast to the stereotype of what happens when a neighborhood changes hue, Brentwood became if anything more pristine, more fiercely nurtured, as its black residents multiplied.
David Syrus, a retired carpenter, is typical of Brentwood's residents; he's accustomed to seeing his efforts produce. To success. One of his favorite sights these days is the line of saplings that, last spring, he and half a dozen neighbors hand-planted near the "Brentwood" sign in a traffic island near the Eagle Food Mart. "A community's entrance is a good indicator of what's inside," Syrus says. And he has no intention of letting what's inside slip away.
Today, neighborhood kids thump basketballs or lurch through driving lessons on streets so placid that any stranger wandering by gets a careful vetting from watchful adults. Meanwhile, at Brentwood Baptist, elegant, activist parishioners fill the gold-colored collection plates for church charity work at three Sunday services. Physically entwined, historically siblings, the two Brentwoods are educated, driven, self-confident communities strikingly alike in their values, and bitterly fixed on protecting them in separate ways.
Under Brentwood Baptist Church's big dome, the hats have come out in force. The best view this Sunday morning is from the balcony, a wide crescent of purple seats that spans half the sanctuary's circumference. Nowhere else in Houston at this hour can one see so many people so energized, wearing such a quantity of scarlet, turquoise blue and vermilion, or sporting so many towering and turban-like hats.
The huge sanctuary is an exciting place Sunday mornings. In starchy shirts and bow ties, the choir pours out a gospel that soars like a movie soundtrack. A volcano of flowers explodes from a big crystal vase near the pulpit. Two sisters in lavish Swahili outfits, a grandmother dressed entirely in fire red and a middle-aged woman whose huge hat sports a brown plume punctuate the full pews. It's clearly a congregation of people who have something to celebrate.
Yet despite the likeness between this upscale congregation and its neighbors, Brentwood Baptist has never really been a community church. In Brentwood, many people go back to where they were raised, to the wards, to go to church. For several years, too, while the neighborhood changed from all-white to majority black, Brentwood Baptist was a dismal place. When the Reverend Joe Ratliff, Brentwood Baptist's commanding minister, arrived in 1980, the neighborhood transition had hit the always-small church so hard that membership numbered only 400 people; only about 200 came to services.
Ratliff came in just as the Brentwood subdivision had become a mecca for inner-city blacks who had made good. And for Ratliff, then a fiery 29-year-old preacher raised on civil rights activism and schooled at prestigious Morehouse College -- the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a place known for cultivating strong leadership skills in its students -- Brentwood Baptist proved an ideal stage. Even before he arrived in 1980, the church was something of an anomaly, being among the first Southern Baptist Convention churches to accept blacks. But after he arrived, it became more spectacular still. Word of mouth between friends, rather than proximity, became Brentwood Baptist's best lure. Prominent African Americans, including HISD superintendent Rod Paige and astronaut Bernard Harris became linked with the church.
People began to drive from as far as Galveston to attend services. Others came in from Clear Lake, Conroe and Missouri City. "We grew out of the church," Rosetta Thompson, who was church treasurer at the time, says. "For every service, we had chairs all around the doors for all the people who couldn't fit inside." In 1985, the church's signature domed sanctuary -- with a single window placed in the ceiling to face heaven -- was built. Once so poor it paid only the interest portion of its debts to the Southern Baptist Convention, Brentwood Baptist Church in 1995 boasts a nearly 8,000 name membership, and a $2.5 million budget.
Word of the dynamism of both church and minister is what first attracted Robert Frelow, a 29-year-old assistant to Mayor Bob Lanier, to Brentwood Baptist. Frelow, who grew up attending his family's quiet, blue-collar northeast Houston community church, says he grew restless there after returning home from college at Howard University in 1990.
"My neighborhood church was good in its way, but it was as if the minister was still giving the same message, year after year: 'doing this or that is evil,'" Frelow says. "I went to Brentwood and realized I could relate to the message. One of the things that attracted me is it seemed to be upwardly mobile people, in positions I wanted to be in. I felt comfortable with the organizations, the outreach programs, the support it gave to young college students."
Frelow says he is also drawn to the church's strong sense of responsibility to the less fortunate. "Brothers and sisters, don't get comfortable," Ratliff is prone to exhort, "just because you have arrived." It's a reminder that resonates deeply for Frelow, a young man whose shirts are always laundered to dress-for-success perfection. Like many Brentwood church members, Frelow says, his mother and father, both blue-collar workers, always downplayed barriers and emphasized opportunities. The habit echoes in Frelow's own storytelling today. "We lived in a nice, comfortable brick house," he says. Only later does he mention this: "We were the second black family to move on that particular street in Chatwood. It was kind of awkward for other people. Never awkward for us. But it was strange waking up in the morning finding that beer cans had been thrown on our front lawn. It took a while to think that people might be throwing them there on purpose."
Today, as the choir subsides and Ratliff approaches the pulpit, Frelow adds that recently he's given more thought than ever to community work. A year ago, his 22-year-old brother Dexter was shot and killed two blocks from their parents' house. The murderers were young black men trying to steal Dexter's car. "I think of my brother a lot," Frelow says. "His death made me rethink my mission and what it is I want to accomplish after I leave this job." It's one reason he so strongly supports Brentwood's community outreach projects including the AIDS cottages, Frelow says.
The Reverend Joe Ratliff likes to think big. In his long, hall-like office at Brentwood Baptist, processions of model elephants line nearly every bookshelf. The elephants are made of wood, brass and rosy stone, and each set features a big lead elephant trailed by a tidy parade of his fellows. Ratliff, a broad man whose girth seems neither flab nor muscle but simply stage presence, says friends and parishioners give him these pachyderms all the time. It's easy to see why: the purposeful little caravans mirror Ratliff's relationship with his church. Incessantly traveling, speaking and planning, Ratliff charges forward flanked by a congregation well-used to reaching its goals. "He has a plan, and a vision, and he makes it clear you're invited to share it with him," Frelow says admiringly.
Unwinding behind his desk this particular Sunday, Ratliff settles back to explain what he sees as the long roots of the AIDS housing dispute. He has just finished his third service of the day and changed into an oversized black T-shirt. Surrounded by the elephants, all marching resolutely his way, Ratliff attacks a large sandwich, still glowing a bit from the day's marathon.
In today's sermon, Ratliff had discussed a favorite theme: hard work and the glory of activism. With the rolling cadence that makes his congregation laugh out loud and applaud, Ratliff called out, "Come on, I'm not the only one here who comes from somewhere!" He was referring, as he often does, to his roots: Ratliff's mother gave birth to him when she was 14, and he was raised by nearly illiterate grandparents on a tobacco farm in Lumberton, North Carolina.
The town was so deeply segregated that its movie theater balcony had separate sections for blacks and for Indians. Yet along with the poverty, Ratliff says, he recollects the rock-solid self-respect and unity that abided in that pre-integration black community. "My grandparents always told me that no one was above me, and that I was no better than anyone else either," Ratliff says. By high school, Ratliff had joined the NAACP and was taking part in lunch counter sit-ins. "That's the kind of activism I grew up with: you defend people's rights," he says.
Today, Brentwood Baptist's activism is so varied that the church provides a small pink handbook to sort through its offerings. There are ministries for young girls; fellowships strictly for young men; a spectacular choir; women's groups; family values groups; even something called the Brentwood Business Chamber, "designed to provide spiritual, educational and motivational exchange with small-business owners of Brentwood."
Such is the precision with which Joe Ratliff aims his religion into his congregation's personal lives. And that purposefulness, Ratliff says, was in action long before the controversy over Brentwood Baptist's proposed AIDS housing exploded.
Brentwood's AIDS ministry began in 1989, after a nonprofit group now called Foundation for Interfaith Research and Ministry, or FIRM, summoned local black ministers to a meeting about the growing crisis of African-Americans with AIDS. "FIRM," Ratliff recalls, "was lamenting that [the African-American community] had so few volunteers."
In response, Ratliff turned to his sister-in-law, Glenda Gardner, who at the time was chief of the Houston Health Department's AIDS education program. Gardner, a member of Brentwood Baptist, arranged for a FIRM speaker to come to the church and explain the group's project of linking AIDS patients with religious institutions.
"The pastor had asked over the pulpit that anybody interested in an AIDS ministry come back that evening," Rosetta Thompson recalls. "About 20 or 30 people went. There were a lot of churches that had volunteer groups that took care of AIDS. I think FIRM wanted to get Wheeler Avenue, Windsor Village and Brentwood -- the city's three largest black churches -- to participate, too."
In 1989, the black community was just starting to acknowledge the threat of AIDS. Black homosexuality was not widely discussed, and there had been denial by many that what was then seen as a gay disease could harm blacks. But following the FIRM representative's talk, about 75 people, Thompson among them, signed up to clean house, bring food and provide other basic services for African-American AIDS patients. Today, about 30 to 40 from Brentwood Baptist volunteer on a regular basis.
Those first volunteers had to overcome their own doubts. To the great annoyance of some Brentwood residents, Ratliff bluntly states that homophobia is especially strong among blacks. "The gay stigma is probably more scorned than in the white community," he says. "Because of all the aberrations that go on in our community, this is probably the last thing you want."
Thompson agrees, but thinks religion has more to do with it. "I'm a Sunday school teacher," she says. "I actually would tell my Sunday school class that the Lord made men and he made women, that the vagina was for sex, not the anus. I didn't take into account hemophilia or anything else. I was talking out of the side of my head, and I was a nurse. All of a sudden I got convicted. The Lord said, 'I am the judge, not you.'"
"I have not changed my basis," Thompson adds matter-of-factly. "According to the Bible, homosexuality is wrong. But my duty is to help people with AIDS, no matter what caused it. The point is, the person is ill, the person needs your help."
For reasons like these, Ratliff's aggressive AIDS activism has made his church relatively unique. As things at Brentwood Baptist tend to do, the nascent AIDS program quickly grew large. Today, specially trained respite teams log thousands of hours a year. Two church-sponsored vans, running 40 hours a week, ferry AIDS patients to their appointments all over Houston. Brentwood Baptist also runs a food pantry for AIDS patients, as well as AIDS support and grief-handling groups. As if this AIDS activism were not unusual enough, the church also had a highly visible leader, counseling minister Don Watkins, who suffered from AIDS. Watkins, who died last year, participated in services from the pulpit until the week before he died. "I don't know if he was gay," Thompson says, a little uneasily. "We didn't ask."
Finally, in 1992, Ratliff led several church members to urge the church's board of trustees to include AIDS care in an elaborate, 25-acre community service complex the church was then planning. The board voted for AIDS cottages to be part of the complex, which also included a gymnasium and senior citizens housing.
By 1993, the church had purchased the land for its compound in the shadow of the sanctuary's vaulting brown dome. Shortly before, in 1992, Brentwood had been one of about 200 nonprofits invited to apply for $3.16 million in federal AIDS housing funds being administrated by Harris County. Brentwood Baptist tried for a grant, but failed -- because, Harris County officials explained to Ratliff, administrators were leery of handing state money to a religious group. So the church took the common route of forming a secular, nonprofit group to petition for the needed $625,000. The nonprofit Brentwood Economic Community Development Corporation, though nominally separate, was just an instrument to smooth the way for funding: Ratliff is president of its board. In 1993, the church's AIDS project got its money.
The funds would have built four bungalows for 18 residents, to be staffed full-time by volunteers. The residents, Ratliff insists, would have been carefully selected by caseworkers who would look for AIDS patients with little risk of behavior problems.
It's a detail that Ratliff gives after the fact. Before things exploded, church activists did little by way of community outreach to explain their project. Most of the talk stayed within the church. Then, once the grant committee and Houston's Housing and Community Development Department both signed off on the church's plan, it was announced in the Chronicle. That was last October 19, and that's when things went awry. It was then that Brentwood residents such as David Syrus, who's a member of the Hiram Clarke Civic Association, say they first heard of the plans to build AIDS housing only yards away from their hand-clipped lawns with pansy plantings and plaster statuettes -- and immediately across the street from their public elementary school.
The consensus of values that had bound church and community together broke down badly at a November 1 City Council "pop-off," the Tuesday afternoon forum in which citizens air gripes. Rosetta Thompson didn't go to Council that day, but her neighbor David Syrus went. So did about 20 leaders of various Brentwood community groups, who filed into City Council's cramped temporary quarters at City Hall Annex to fight the perceived threat of AIDS patients in their neighborhood.
As Municipal Channel TV cameras whirred from the ceiling and watching reporters murmured among themselves in surprise, one after another, speakers from the Brentwood community gave fervent testimony into the mike in front of Council's horseshoe-shaped table. Then they continued their talk in the small anteroom near the Council chambers. Civic association leader Rick Holden warned of plummeting property values; another neighborhood leader, Fred Outley, complained that the potential health risk was "all a big question .... I don't believe you would like the children playing basketball with some people."
The accusations got more sophisticated -- and sometimes, more bizarre -- in the days that followed. Few people now talked about the dangers of AIDS patients; instead, at a meeting held by the AIDS Equity League on December 5, Rick Holden implied that Brentwood Baptist meant to use its housing funds for a parking lot.
"It's obvious this is about money, folks," Holden said darkly. Perhaps oddest of all, witnesses say, a community member even accused Ratliff of using a racist epithet about Brentwood's residents.
However free-floating, the community's hostility toward the Brentwood AIDS housing had already found a sympathetic ear at City Council. On November 16, nearly a month before the Equity League meeting, councilmember Al Calloway had led a unanimous vote to effectively kill the project's funding.
Any hopes that Houston's officials could lead a path through the volatile case soon shriveled. Apart from describing his role as that of a "mediator," Calloway refused to speak about the dispute, explaining his silence by pointing to the fact that the case is in litigation. City Attorney Gene Locke remains quiet for the same reason. And Mayor Bob Lanier, who deferred leadership on the dispute to Calloway, has stayed most silent of all.
Today, Ratliff says simply, he'd do things differently. Instead of assuming interested residents would follow the project through pulpit announcements and business meetings, Ratliff would call for community meetings to discuss the project. "I underestimated how emotional this would get," Ratliff says. "I knew there might be some resistance, but nothing like this." As evidence of his good faith, he points out that even before the community erupted, the board's planners had already rethought their original blueprints. Concerned with their neighbors' sensibilities, they had moved the AIDS cottages out of sight of the school.
Brentwood resident Huey Fonteno doesn't buy it. "It was a sneak play," scoffs the 43-year-old computer consultant, echoing many neighbors' views. "It was like, 'I hope you don't find out about this project until it's too late to do anything."
Fonteno's neighbors aren't the only ones who find Ratliff's arguments disingenuous. "Common sense dictates that AIDS organizations need to understand the neighborhoods they're in," says a Houstonian who has long worked on Houston AIDS housing issues, but whose position prohibits him from giving his name. "You basically go out there and knock on doors and find out who's willing to support your project beforehand."
But Thompson can't help but call Brentwood's angry activists the disingenuous ones. She herself has invested considerably in Brentwood, where she's lived since 1968. Like many of her neighbors, Thompson didn't come by her spacious house, her late model car and her vacations to Europe and Africa easily. Thompson was born in rural Louisiana to parents who could barely write their names, and she grew up in a tiny house where four adults and three children shared two rooms. She's still amazed sometimes by what she has attained -- and if she thought the AIDS housing would endanger her home, Thompson says, she would oppose it.
"The thing that puzzles me the most is why this came up to begin with," she says. "The Brentwood civic club, until all of this came up, met in the church -- they have met there 15 years. And this has been on the drawing board for two years. We didn't just decide in one passionate moment that this is what were going to do." As for anticipating community reaction to AIDS patients in their midst, Thompson notes indignantly that "AIDS patients have been meeting at the church for years."
The fact that AIDS patients had been coming into and out of the church for years is one of the curious elements of the conflict. If, indeed, the community is simply engaging in AIDS phobia, then the question is, why were there no earlier objections? And if the community truly thinks the church was being secretive, what would explain the years of AIDS programs that took place openly on church grounds?
Hiram Clarke Civic Association president Rick Holden, a longtime church member who has been one of the most outspoken Brentwood neighbors, didn't respond to numerous requests for an interview. But the Houstonian who has worked on AIDS housing issues theorizes that as community leaders, both Holden and Ratliff had the power to keep the conflict from escalating.
"The honest thing is, this situation didn't have to polarize like this," he says. "I've heard from people in the church on both sides that Rick Holden and the pastor have long-standing problems. It's typical Baptist church politics that has spilled over into the neighborhood and AIDS housing. It makes it very easy to whip up sentiment." Had Brentwood sat down with the neighborhood and looked for compromise early enough, the activist adds, "there could have been compromise."
In a worn blue pickup truck with a metal box of tools on the floor, David Syrus cruises slowly, vigilantly past the deep green lawns of Brentwood. As he tours the verdant streets, the only sounds come from Syrus' truck, the rush of a garden hose or the placid heartbeat of a basketball striking cement. In the driveways wait maroon Lexuses, gray Lincolns and the odd Volvo. Syrus' own Landmark Street house is a paragon of fine maintenance; the battered blue pickup he drives reflects not an indifference to appearances but the vigor of Syrus' long carpentering career.
Syrus knows a lot about this community of 1,100 houses. He singles out the problem neighbors -- that house right there, with the two big trailers for peddling barbecue in the driveway. "They just don't care," Syrus fumes. Then, a block later, Syrus slows the blue truck near a house close to his own. "A guy from El Salvador paid cash down for this place," Syrus says approvingly. "They keep it really nice. Some of those people came here because they had drive."
Despite battling cancer, the 56-year-old Syrus is handsome. Posture perfect, he wears a crisply pressed plaid shirt, mustard-green socks and beige leather slip-ons. He is not afraid of inconsistency. "You can't deprive a person from making a living, buying a home, just because they have an illness," he says. But you have to look out for decay, he believes, and certain neighbors -- such as those who live in group dwellings, and those with AIDS -- are more likely to bring it on in a neighborhood. Syrus doesn't want the traffic, the rootless residents and, yes, the unsupervised AIDS patients that the cottages would bring in.
Above all, he says, he resents his neighborhood slipping from his control. All his life, Syrus, an ex-Marine who worked his way out from an impoverished Texas small town, has succeeded by fighting for what he wanted. The planned AIDS housing is only the last straw in a series of changes here, he explains. In 1974, the Brentwood neighbors fought all-out against a proposed public housing unit just beyond the subdivision's borders. The housing went up anyway. To this day, its shabby exterior remains an irritating reproach for longtime Brentwood residents. Worse, he says, these days he can't prevail on the kids playing basketball at a cul-de-sac to clear up the beer bottles nesting near the backboard. And last month, the Eagle Food Mart put up bulletproof glass by the cash register. The neighborhood that crowned his escape from the two-house town of Honeygrove, Texas, seems to slip away a little more every day.
For Huey Fonteno, the Brentwood controversy also is about more than multifamily houses. To Fonteno the plan seems to threaten a whole ideal from his past, of an inviolate place where black families could look out for each other's children and teach them to strive. Just how seriously Fonteno takes that dream become clear when his 16-year-old son lopes up to him and waits patiently for a break in his father's monologue. "I wanted to know if I can go play basketball," the teenager asks. Fonteno nods, and then proudly says, "How many 16-year-olds do you know ask permission to play basketball?"
Fonteno himself grew up on a place called Fidelity Road, near the Ship Channel Bridge. "Fidelity was a ghetto, but it was rich in the sense that everyone was a big family," Fonteno says. "Then all of a sudden things changed. Integration took place. Fidelity's school was dismantled, because white people didn't want to send their kids there. But let me tell you: Fidelity achieved, athletically and academically. The people who grew up there became somebodies."
"I spent my whole life trying to get to a place like that again, and this is where I found it," Fonteno continues. "It's not really a land-use issue. The question is, what's on the horizon? What does it take to make things even better? That's the way I live my whole life."
Strolling down a Brentwood street late one afternoon, though, it becomes clear that while few of the area's residents have gone so far as to openly confront anti-AIDS project neighbors, some are still torn on the issue.
"I'm sort of 50-50," says Dale Usher, a 33-year-old computer programmer washing his red minivan as his two elementary school kids explore the open garage. On one hand, he says, "I think people ought to be able to be sick and not be cast out." At the same time, Usher says, "I don't believe any of the myths about AIDS. But if you start something like that housing here, what happens next? When I get ready to sell this place in ten years, I want to be able to sell it for a good price." And, he adds, it's not just the multifamily dwelling aspect of the project that perturbs him. "It's the AIDS part and the gay part," Usher says. "I'm anti-gay. I'm politically incorrect on that. From a man's point of view, I don't think it's natural."
Paul Gill, a 62-year-old family counselor with a professorial gray beard and tweed hat, pauses only briefly on his way into his house to say "I'm against the project for a lot of reasons. The main one is the minister's approach. It was very arrogant. He thinks he can treat people any kind of way."
"He talks about our lack of intelligence on this," Gill adds in a measured voice. "Most people who live here are highly educated. We are not used to being treated this way."
Retired assistant schoolteacher Joe Mooney agrees. "I resent the implication that we're ignorant about AIDS, and homophobic," he complains while a grandchild in purple Barney slippers stumbles about happily at his feet. "Some people may be, but that's not the real issue. It's the multifamily part of it, with the possibility of disturbance because of its residents. It's not the facility itself -- I think it's a good thing."
"I really like this neighborhood with the peace and quiet it has now," Mooney adds, a little apologetically. "I'm selfish in that I want to keep it the same."
But Brentwood resident and church member Joe Connor passionately supports the project and doesn't care who knows it. "What's the big deal about AIDS housing? They can put Peru over there. How's that going to knock down from my house?" snorts Connor. "Yes, the reverend made a mistake by not informing the neighborhood of his plans. But everyone makes mistakes."
Slowly waving his index finger, Connor adds, "This isn't about AIDS. This is about power. You can't move the reverend. They wish they could, but they can't."
It's late Sunday afternoon, and shadows are spreading around the frail trees on the property of Brentwood Baptist. The Reverend Joe Ratliff is in his office. The AIDS housing plans are due for a series of last-ditch discussions between Brentwood Baptist, the civic club and the city attorney's office, he explains. Maybe they can reach some kind of accord.
"We've been here, good neighbors, for a long time. We give 60 scholarships a year to the community," Ratliff says. "It's not like we're outsiders, some developers who've just come in. People have missed the big picture." As Ratliff likes to point out, both the 8,000 members of his congregation and the Brentwood residents "come from somewhere." He means from the worst wards in Houston, and poor towns and scrawny farmsteads all over the South. They have so much in common, he seems to feel, that something as small as a quartet of cottages should not keep them apart.
Not all of Ratliff's Brentwood neighbors, sadly, agree. Some say that, like the oversized dome with its window straight to the sky, the pastor is so concerned with looking to the future that he's forgotten the hardworking people who live right outside the church walls. David Syrus claims that arrogance was underlined at the attempted negotiation. When Brentwood residents asked to put a member on the corporation board, Syrus maintains, Ratliff said such a role could only be advisory.
Whether that's true is uncertain; Syrus admits he himself didn't attend the meeting, and participants made a gentleman's agreement not to discuss it publicly. But what's unquestioned is that the attempts at mediation have failed; March 8 was the deadline for compromise. Now that that time has passed, it's left to the courts to decide.
To Gene Harrington, president of the AIDS Equity League, that's unfortunate. The City Council should have dealt with the issue more reasonably, and to the letter of the law, than emotionally, he says. "It's easy to find the homeowners at fault," says Harrington. "But that's real simplistic. There's no question that ownership of property is the biggest investment of people's lives, and no one is going to say that input from the neighborhood is unimportant."
"Unfortunately," Harrington adds, "When you weigh what you have to weigh, the law is on the AIDS project's side."
Indeed, according to various experts, legally the issue appears less than complex. The church owns the land it wants to build on, it was approved for funding, and since the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against disabilities, including AIDS, removing that funding was almost certainly against the law.
Syrus, of all people, agrees. Pulling his blue pickup into the Eagle Food Mart parking lot near Brentwood's entrance, he says quietly, "Legally, they're probably going to win." Sooner or later, Syrus knows he'll probably step out onto his flawless Landmark Street lawn and see Brentwood Baptist Church's latest vision become a reality. The drab, vine-tangled battlefield at the center of Brentwood's dispute will, one day, probably hold the four dreaded cottages, and it's likely they will be as immaculate and well-tended as the neighboring sanctuary with its big dome.
But even that knowledge won't stop David Syrus, or Huey Fonteno or many of their neighbors, from pouring their souls into this fight. After all, it's the ethic of a lifetime. "Neither side is going to give in," Syrus says. "You can't just lie down, whether you win or lose. You have to stand for something.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.