Was This Disaster Necessary?

To paraphrase Woody Allen, Houston is like a shark: When it quits moving, it is dead.

Since the late 1970's, through four mayoral administrations, the Housing Authority of the City of Houston (HACH) has never wavered from its intent to demolish Allen Parkway Village and return the 37 acres at the site to the private sector. In order to free the land up for redevelopment, court orders have been ignored, laws have been broken, blacks and Asians have been pitted against each , careers have been ruined, and well-intentioned advocates have been corrupted by the system they were trying to change.

The demolish-and-sell movement began during the construction boom of the late 1970's, when the price of a city block of vacant land in downtown Houston exceeded the gross national product of many third world nations. Houston grew to the west; the Allen Parkway Village west of downtown made it a natural target for what looked like a growth spurt that would continue, world without end.

As Houston struggled back to its feet after the bust of the mid-1980's, the demolition applications to Housing and Urban Development resumed. HUD approval is necessary to change the public-housing character of the development because HUD, as the sucessor to the New Deal agency that financed the construction of the complex, holds the mortgage on the property and provides most of HACH's funding.

If you have ever known a wealthy and powerful father who attempted to restrain an errant and profligate son only when prosecution and disgrace seemed imminent, you understand the relationship between HUD and HACH.

Although the perceived need for more office space had now evaporated, HACH's desire to be shed of the complex was as strong as ever. The land would never become a commercial corridor linking, say, downtown to the American General Insurance complex at Waugh Drive and Allen Parkway

Nevertheless, there still are powerful incentives to demolish Allen Parkway Village. I think that I can describe them as (A) the practical incentive, (B) the petty incentive and (C) the shameful incentive.

A) The Practical Incentive
The practical reason for the demolition and sale of APV is that continual development of some type is essential to keep a modern city viable.

From the time that Allen Parkway Village was built during World War II until the first demolition application was made, Houston grew from a relatively small city to a major American population center. The Houston area swelled until it stretched from the Woodlands to Katy to Clear Lake. The natural laws that govern all growth -- the same biological rules that say while it takes a hell of a dog to weigh a ton, the bitch is going to have hip problems -- eventually limited Houston's expansion. As the borders of growth firmed, the character of growth changed from expansion and development to contraction and re-development. In short, nobody with regular business at Shell Plaza wants to commute much farther than Katy to downtown. The only option left to developers was to go back to the neighborhoods close to downtown and start over.

In fact, Houston's population flow now has reversed. If you paid top dollar for a new house in the nether reaches during the boom, you have... problems finding a buyer. Meanwhile, members of the business community who bought low into inner-loop rent-house neighborhoods like Montrose and the Heights are now (after decades of promoting neighborhoods apart from the city) ready to profit from our newfound enthusiasm for neighborhoods that are a part of the city.

Given that the Montrose lot which in 1985 held a $30,000 single-family house is home now to four $250,000 towmhouses, Allen Parkway Village, a few blocks away, multiplies out to a caisson full of money. More importantly, between APV and Emo's Alternative Lounge is a huge tract of land, with more potential value than a fistful of S&Ls.

After you drive around Allen Parkway, West Grey, West Dallas, and Tuam, then cross the T's on Bagby and Taft. Inside the grid laid out by this fifteen-minute drive is a neighborhood which has been neglected by property owners both private and public. A tiny fraction of Houstonians have ever been to the interior of this grid; when the patrons of Emo's are subtracted from the equation the number becomes even more diminutive.

To an outsider like me, the interior of the Fourth Ward imparts waves of despair in times of boom, bust and diversification alike. The occasional owner-occupied house, painted and maintained, shines like a good deed in a cruel world. Fortified wine and crack cocaine are staples here; jobs for residents are rare and minimal.

The degradation of an old neighborhood, and the depopulation of Allen Parkway Village, has been by design. Piecemeal redevlopment of the Fourth Ward is unlikely; it would not be a cheery place to move into one family at a time. But when the last of the shotgun shacks and wooden two-flats fall to neglect, arson, and War-on-Drugs bulldozers, (and the foodstampers move to whichever newly blighted, neglected areas to which it is their continual lot to be assigned), here will stand the trendy, new, expensive neighborhood to move to. Replacing the misery with vitaltiy would be good, had not the misery been deliberately inflicted in order to maximize the eventual vitality.

So, the practical incentive for depopulating APV - high-dollar residential construction -- is unthinkable near a high-capacity public housing project, and the land that would be ideal for that same constuction is occupied by people, who, to many minds, are non-persons. With APV gone, the absentee landlords of Freedman's Town will be free to evict and demolish, realizing heady profits.

B) The Petty Incentive
The petty reason for the removal of Allen Parkway Village is more powerful than the financial incentive. The powerful people of Houston who will profit the most from the destruction and redevelopment of Freedman's Town are not motivated by money as a means to essential ends like groceries. There is such a thing as enough money; beyond that point, there is no such thing as too much power. The petty incentive for the death of APV is that in 1979 very powerful people sought to exercise their power and were told they couldn't. That pissed them off.

And who were these pissed-off power people? Beats hell out of me, as far as names I can quote for the record. Sitting at the press table at City Hall, I think I can see strings being pulled. But who is ultimately manipulating the puppet show that passes for representative democracy in Houston is the great mystery of this town. No reporter will ever compile an accurate membership list of Houston's fraternity of power. Why, it's merely cosy friends who send each other a little bidness once in a while. Sometime allies, sometimes competitors, usually both at the same time, a handful of people in banking, law, energy, development and publishing make the decisions that govern this city. On the whole, they haven't done bad over the last century. Occasionally, they may have to throw us citizens a bone like zoning to vote on. But most of their dealings are invisible to citizens; we just wake up and know that Something Happened.

In the early 1980's, the deputy director of the HUD area office that monitors Houston was Elbert Wynn, who provided the documentation that led Mayor Whitmire to order the commisioners of HACH to fire their staffs and turn in their resignations. For a brief moment, it appeared that local and federal government had united against the power players to renovate Allen Parkway Village as what University of Houston sociology professor Bill Simon calls "the realization of the best dream public housing has ever dreampt in this country." At this point, Wynn says, Senator John Tower became very interested in the future of APV and in the career of one Elbert Wynn, who was demoted from a GS-15 to a GS-6. Wynn says that his supervisor was warned by annonymous voices to "keep that nigger out of Houston or you're going to find him in the Gulf of Mexico."

At about this time, Whitmire began to waver in her commitment to APV, and a member of the HACH legal staff named Joy Eliziabeth Fitzgerald began a change of roles. Fitzgerald started out, says Wynn, as the APV interim manager who "was feverishly trying to make some good things happen." Fitzgerald eventually rose to the directorship of HACH, by which time she was working to erase Allen Parkway Village.

(C) The Racist Incentive
Perhaps the most shameful and cynical use of racism to depopulate APV was HACH's wholesale dumping of recently arrived Vietnamese boat people among the complex's predominately black population during the early 1980's, when the complex was still about half occupied. The Asians, unable to communicate with their neighbors and untrained at housing-project life, were moved in to disrupt the lives of the long-term residents. Elbert Wynn described to me how the lack of mentoring and monitoring resulted in the Vietnamese committting such cultural gaffes as using the clotheslines between apartment buildings to clean garfish harvested from the pristine waters of Buffalo Bayou, excavating the soil around the foundations for agriculture on the roofs of the buildings, and cramming as many as sixteen family members into a single apartment.

The black residents responded as anticipated. A courtyard race war simmered as Resident's Council head Lenwood Johnson fought for a solution. The new arrivals responded to the hostility of their neighbors by boarding up the windows of their apartments in violation of the fire code. The city took no action to resolve the conflict.

HACH had avoided the crossfire by moving without warning from offices the agency occupied for free at Allen Parkway Village to a new facility in River Oaks. The full story of the financing of that move, the purchase and remodeling of the building on San Felipe and its recent sale for raw-land value is likely to have a lot of entertainment value, even in a solemn courtroom.

After HACH headquarters decamped from Allen Parkway Village in the dead of night, more residents fled the chaos of the complex. As they moved, housing authority officials added to the plauge of plywood by boarding up the vacant apartments. This shuttering was paid for out of the ten million dollars granted by HUD to begin renovation of the projects after the first demolition permit was denied. Although a contract was awarded for architectural drawings, the only other "renovation" HACH undertook was hammering shut the doors of apartments. This use of housing funds to deny housing is alleged by APV advocates to have been in violation of every federal statute this side of the Mann Act, and resulted in HUD eventually freezing the balance of the ten million dollars.

Although HACH had de facto abandoned its responsibilites to the residents, some officials of of HUD were still monitoring the situation. One of Elbert Wynn's last acts as a HUD offical was his attempt to set up programs to acclimate the Vietnamese residents to life in America. Today, among the handful of remaining residents, there are still Vietnamese who, after a decade in the shadows of downtown Houston, must use an interpreter to communicate in English.

And that is some of what went wrong with Allen Parkway Village. The whole story may never be told. As this is written, HACH is negotiating with Secretary Cisneros of HUD for permission to abolish APV. Current HACH plans call for 150 units to be modernized and remain public housing, and the rest to be demolished and sold. A recent appraisal of the remaining 800-odd apartments and support buildings gave the property a raw-land value of fifteen million dollars. To comply with the public-housing privitazation requirements first laid down by the Reagan administration, the Residents' Council will have a sixty-day head start on the private sector to come up with $15 million.

Please quickly calculate the odds on a handful of public-housing residents coming up with that kind of money -- and at least another $15 to begin restoring the long-neglected buildings.

An impossible sum to one group, of course, is pocket change to another. If the privitization plan goes through, please do not be too surprised to discover that a corporation (with close ties to the Board of Commisioners of the Housing Authority of the City of Houston, of course) has wound up with a nice piece of property near downtown.

There is one small physical difficulty in demolishing APV, and in that physical difficulty lies a solution which gives the powerful what they want and the poor the righteous justice they deserve.

Unlike the pork-barrel public-housing highrises of the Great Society, APV was intelligently designed. Built for defense workers during the Second World War, the patriotic will-power that went into its construction is still evident. A decade and a half after being abandoned by the city, these are still some of the structurally soundest buildings in Houston. These dwellings are fireproof; a fire in one room will scarcely blister the paint on the other side of the wall. During my last walk through the project I located only one structural crack despite fifteen or more years of neglect. This place was built to last; it's going to be a monster to tear down.

I'm thinking about explosives here, specifically, an air strike. Here's my Fantastical and Satisfyingly Gruesome Proposal:

Let's wait until the next batch of local bankers and politicians who come to the attention of the Department of Justice are up for sentencing. Let's ask the judge to give them a choice between telling everything they know about HACH and APV, or being in maximum-security population until, as Joseph Wambaugh puts it, they can carry six armadillos and a bowling ball with no hands.

And when we know the deeds of every elected official, every bureaucrat, every developer and banker whose greed, incompetence and selfishness contributed to the misery, the despair, the waste of money and lives that has been the final chapter of Allen Parkway Village, we gather those guilty individuals on the site. And when they are all there, among the oak trees and old buildings, down swoop the the Tomcats.

I can supply the names of a few people who would pay to stand on the Sabine Street Bridge with a walkie-talkie and ground-guide the Tomcats in.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >