Allen Parkway Village: The Movie

The big yellow backhoe reared up and, with a hydraulic bang, slammed its wicked-looking claw into the building.

Nothing happened.
It was August 23, 1996, just after 1 p.m., somewhere on the sprawling grounds of Allen Parkway Village, the 1,000-unit, 1940s-era public-housing project just west of downtown Houston. A herd of local housing officials stood nearby, smiling and laughing, quite satisfied that, after years of disappointment, APV would, as they'd always hoped, be returned to the earth.

The backhoe roared again. The claw rose and fell with screeching violence, but nothing happened. The mechanical attack continued, but not so much as a brick was torn loose. The fanfare of the local swells grew guarded. Suddenly, the sun felt hotter. They were perspiring now, and behind the noisy dust their smiles began to fade.

There seemed but one thing to say, and naturally the person who said it was Joy Fitzgerald, the executive director of HACH, the Housing Authority of the City of Houston, and, since 1989, APV's appointed executioner.

"Where's Lenwood?" she asked warily.
Lenwood Johnson was someplace else, to be sure -- unwilling or, quite possibly, simply unable to witness the end of his 15-year crusade to save Allen Parkway Village. The irony in the damn thing's reluctance to come down that August day would not have been lost on Johnson, the president of APV's residents' council. After all, since Ronald Reagan had been elected president, the official line was that APV was on the verge of collapse and needed to be demolished. No one ever really believed that, least of all Lenwood Johnson, who, it seemed, always had a reason, usually a good one, for saving Allen Parkway Village.

Until the end, that is. By then, Johnson's reasons had less to do with the fact that, like everyone else, the poor need a place to live and more to do with sustaining his own very public life as APV's chief protector. Indeed, for better or worse, the story of Allen Parkway Village became hopelessly entangled with the story of Lenwood Johnson, who, as even his supporters acknowledged, made the mistake of buying into his own shtick.

How much the public perception of APV and Johnson will change as APV undergoes its transformation from public housing to a "campus-style" community for people of mixed incomes will largely fall to Christine Felton, a local independent filmmaker. Since August 1990, Felton has recorded more than 500 hours of public and private meetings, speeches, protest marches, one-on-one interviews and random encounters that chronicle the interminable saga of Allen Parkway Village.

Felton still must edit her footage, a process that she hopes can be completed in a year. The final cut, she says, will "show what went down and how it affected the lives of real people, as well as how the public policy that killed APV affects everyone who still needs a place to live."

That said, even Felton admits that it will be hard not to focus on the dynamic between the infinitely complex Johnson and the equally enigmatic Fitzgerald, whose public and private battles over APV's future should provide an interesting study in human nature.

"The saddest part was that people were suffering while both sides played these political games," Felton says. "But I was surprised at how personal the fight between Lenwood and Joy became."

Bill Simon, a sociology professor at the University of Houston and a former adviser to Johnson, appears in Felton's footage. Simon believes that APV is "a real Houston story" and also a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of citizen activism.

"I really think this says it all about the extraordinary difficulty of citizen involvement," Simon says. "The only person among the residents who had any legal standing was Lenwood Johnson, who after a while was constantly tripping over his own ego. He became the conduit through which citizen involvement could become a factor at APV, and I think it was precisely this narrowness that allowed the situation to be manipulated in such a way that no actual citizen participation was reflected in the outcome."

The significance of Felton's documentary as a historical archive cannot be underestimated, says Simon. Indeed, it's doubtful anyone else has footage of a black public-housing resident teaming up with a a powerful Hispanic member of the U.S. Senate, the since-retired Henry Gonzalez of San Antonio, to tie up thousands of acres of extremely valuable land.

Felton and her camera were outside the door during a dramatic meeting in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1994, when HUD's executive director, Henry Cisneros, promised Johnson he would give the APV residents a $300,000 grant to participate in developing a master plan for APV. At the time, developers had for decades been fairly salivating at the potential profits to be realized from the development of such prime real estate, and keeping them at bay, albeit temporarily, was in itself an amazing feat.

Later that year Felton filmed negotiating sessions, which took place in Houston, and involved an assistant secretary of HUD. As Joy Fitzgerald herself often commented, Felton had "amazing karma." To be sure, the filmmaker's own life is a study in persistence.

In 1980, just before Ronald Reagan began disengaging the feds from the low-cost-housing business, Felton was working as a nanny for the director of the famous Hotel Beau-Rivage in Lausanne, Switzerland. One day she met King Hussein of Jordan and, after watching the royal offspring for a couple of days, "his majesty," as Felton still calls the late head of state, offered her a job as family governess.

Felton worked for Hussein and his American-born wife, Queen Noor, until 1983, when she returned to Houston with plans to finish school. But on her way to Boston College, Felton was rear-ended in an auto accident and spent a year in bed with a bad back. By the time she was on her feet again, she'd ditched her plans to be a theater major and had decided to combine her love of history and her interest in journalism to make documentary films.

In 1989, a year after undergoing spinal surgery, she graduated from the University of California at San Diego. Less than a year later, she was in Houston and got caught up in American General's aggressive effort to take control of the Fourth Ward, including APV, and build upscale housing. The opposition, led by Lenwood Johnson, of course, was fierce, and Felton saw a fascinating story taking shape.

"There was so much drama, even early on," she says. "But beyond the highest levels of national government, beyond all the debate over government policy, there was the daily suffering of people who were so vulnerable, yet who were fighting for self-determination."

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Felton often found herself part of the story. One day she'd be filming the teenage daughter of an APV resident dressing for the prom, and the next she'd be helping out the girl's mother by running errands or watching her kids.

But, if most APV residents liked and trusted Felton -- Simon calls her "the quintessential fly on the wall" -- her relationship with Lenwood Johnson was much more complex.

For reasons neither wants to discuss, Felton and Johnson experienced a falling-out a few years ago that has never been resolved. According to Johnson, he "had to back off of her for several years," after Felton refused the residents' request for greater control over her film.

"We wanted a contract," recalls Johnson. "If the residents' council was going to continue to invest its time and the support of its members, we needed something concrete."

Felton did not respond to their request. "As a journalist," she says, "I couldn't jeopardize my credibility by giving control of the film to one side."

Eventually, of course, it didn't matter. In 1994 the Republican party became the majority in Congress, stripped Henry Gonzalez of his chairmanship of an influential HUD oversight committee and, symbolically at least, gave notice of APV's imminent death.

But no matter what shape Felton's documentary eventually takes, those closest to the struggle will always wonder what might have been. And, perhaps, no film will be able to completely capture the real Lenwood Johnson.

"The turning point, in my mind, was this little window of opportunity where we were invited to participate in the planning process," Simon recalls. "We were in a meeting in my living room -- Christine was there, filming -- and I said to Lenwood and the others, 'We have what they don't have. We have ideas and a a vision of what can really happen here that Henry Cisneros just endorsed. Let's go to the table.'

"And Lenwood said no. If I was smarter, I would have realized at that moment, it really was all over."

For Felton, the story of APV is over, but her job is far from finished. She's applying for grants to fund the arduous process of editing 500 hours of video down to two, two and a half, tops. And technically she's still shooting and will be capturing snippets of APV's redevelopment until August, when she'll undergo another back surgery.

Clearly, the emotional climax of her film occurred on August 23, 1996. But through no fault of her own, her footage isn't cinematically perfect: Since Lenwood Johnson was nowhere to be seen, Felton was unable to capture his reaction to the actual demolition.

Still, his spirit of resistance lingered at the site. "What I found interesting," Felton says, "was that it took an eternity to make a dent in that damn building."

E-mail Brian Wallstin at brian_wallstin@houstonpress.com.

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