Dear Press Readers: The jig, as Styx once so eloquently sang, is up. So in the interest of full disclosure, let's lay it down right here at the top: What you are about to read is entirely true. The cover story of the Press's November 4 issue, "Taking Back the Blight," was not.
It was fiction. Blight Savers is not a real organization. The Blight Savers Web site (www.blightsavers.com) is a decoy designed and launched by the Press in-house, as is the Blight Savers information telephone hot line. The advertisements that ran in local weeklies were paid-for plants. The photos accompanying the article were staged. The Blight Savers T-shirts are real, 100 percent cotton and still available in adult extra large, adult large and children's medium sizes for ten bucks a pop, but they were printed up for the Press, and any profits are being donated to charity.
The characters and their activities, however, were invented out of whole cloth. This was a carefully strategized hoax, and judging from the overwhelming response that article has generated -- dozens of e-mails and letters addressed both to myself and to Blight Savers, another dozen or so phone calls to Press offices and the Blight Savers info line, and numerous letters to the editor -- you bought it hook, line and sinker. This makes us think that we were on to something, which is gratifying. Let me tell you why we did what we did.
Several months ago one of our editors arrived at a story meeting with a flyer advertising a Save Our Studewood campaign being organized by a neighborhood association in the Heights, the purpose of which was to protest a recently arrived used-car lot on that thoroughfare. The flyer was filled with arm-the-battlements rhetoric about saving the neighborhood from such unwanted intrusions. Some of us thought the idea was ridiculous. Used-car lots, we thought then and think now, are perfectly reasonable commercial enterprises -- especially in a city as locked in codependency with auto traffic as Houston undeniably is -- and Studemont, of course, is no great shakes as a scenic roadway in the first place. The protesters, however, equated the mere presence of the lot with "blight," a buzzword increasingly tossed about in these salad days of revitalization, and used with an increasing diffusion of whatever meaning it may once have legitimately carried. Certainly there are legitimately blighted areas in Houston, both residential and industrial, as in most major and many minor cities. Just as certainly, we thought, the application of the label to a legitimately operating business that just happened to be located in proximity to a presently tony neighborhood constituted an overzealous use of the word.
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We could have chosen to write a factual article focusing on the related issues of neighborhood revitalization, gentrification and their effects on the survival of lower-income housing stock in Houston, as in fact we have done on numerous occasions in the past (see especially Brian Wallstin's work in this paper). We chose this time to approach the subject with a satire aimed at the emotional heart of the issue: What if a group of residents chose to fight fire with fire, however absurdist their actions might seem? If Heights residents could become so overwrought about "protecting" their neighborhood as to protest a mere car lot, why might not a group of eastside residents become so overwrought about gentrification as to dump trash in the yards of encroaching gentry? It didn't so much matter that no such group had come forth as yet. The idea seemed on the verge of possibility.
Even more so than we guessed, it is.
A local news outlet called to inquire about interviewing Blight Saver honcho "Shermann Bilks" for a story. Several local filmmakers and production companies sought access to shoot a documentary on the organization. Barry Klein of the Houston Property Rights Association left a message saying that he was "delighted to see that your organization has come into existence." "I think it's probably something that's long needed," he said, and invited Bilks to speak to his organization at its next meeting. Informed of the hoax, Klein invited me to speak instead. A local artist called begging for a T-shirt to wear on stage at his band's next performance and offered his art-bus as transportation for Blight Savers tours. And an out-of-state art critic in town to review a show at Project Row Houses e-mailed "Eugenio Gutierrez," the Blight Savers artist known for "shoveling warm asphalt out of freshly filled potholes and molding the material into waist-high busts of slain civil rights leaders," to ask his opinion of what the critic described as Project Row Houses' "art-based social/political project." Does such a project, the critic wondered, "help or hinder the preservation of urban blight?" He asked: "Does it help to raise awareness of the inherent value of these areas, and instill pride in the community? Is Blight Savers for or against such initiatives?"
Eugenio, being an absurdist phantom, was stumped for an answer.
Though response to the article/organization was largely positive, with residents offering to volunteer time and money to the cause, a vocal minority were appalled at Blight Savers' mission and methods.
"If they want to live like filthy pigs," one wrote, "that is their decision but they shouldn't try to force other people to accept it. Also they should realize that just because they have a lower income doesn't mean they have to continue living in a slummy environment."
Another was offended by photos he deemed to depict "gang members" and wondered if the Blight Savers, who appeared to be over 21, actually worked for a living. "They look straight out of TDC," he wrote, adding, "A couple of huge sprawling office towers would look fantastic smack on top of these areas! Maybe these people will see what happens when you don't pick up after yourself! I wish I had a couple of bulldozers so I could start the process!"
Meanwhile, the bulletin boards on the Blight Savers Web site have taken on a life of their own, hosting real conversations by real people about deed restriction remedies and property tax law and whether the movement ought to focus strictly on blighted areas or include the sustainability of "mixed" neighborhoods. Visitors have provided links to related articles in The New York Times and Salon.com and have spawned discussions of the "New Urbanism." One participant penned a mini-essay on what he or she sees as the organization's misguided methods ("littering and vandalism are criminal") while agreeing in principle with the Blight Savers agenda. Perhaps here is a real-life Shermann Bilks poised to take the "organization" to the next level.
What all this seems to mean -- aside from the fact that people are willing to believe that they live in a city where a woman named Martha Stuart acts as spokesperson for an organization called Society for the Prevention of Ugly Districts -- is that there are in fact an awful lot of folk in this town who feel strongly that "revitalization" is a runaway bulldozer that fails to acknowledge the broad spectrum -- aesthetic, economic, racial -- that many of us feel is an essential component of that elusive x-factor: quality of life. And if the hard-nosed realists among the would-be Blight Savers realize that market forces will inevitably do their work in a town as development-centric as this one, the romantic pragmatists continue to find hope springing eternal.
"Progress will march on," one such pilgrim wrote. "And revitalization will occur Don't worry, there will always be somewhere for you Houston's a big city -- just get a Key Map."
Small consolation, perhaps, for residents possessing neither the resources nor the inclination to uproot and move every time another neighborhood is targeted for "blight" eradication. But it's the only consolation available, at least until some enterprising cadre of real-life Blight Savers decides to pick up the ball, where this satire has dropped it, and move it on down the field.
Brad Tyer and assorted sometime Blight Savers will participate in the 100th Anniversary No tsu oH Parade, departing the Commerce Street Art Warehouse (2315 Commerce Street) at 1 p.m., Saturday, November 20, and arriving sometime later at DiverseWorks (1117 East Freeway) along the route of the Seventh Annual Warehouse Art Crawl. Copies of the satire issue will be available, and T-shirts will be on sale for $10 apiece. Email Brad Tyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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