Artists' Lofts

No one knows for sure when the first Paleolithic cave-dweller stuck a mammoth tail in crushed-up berries and began painting stick figures on the wall of his rocky abode, but you can bet the market value of the neighboring caves instantly went up.

Nothing gentrifies a neighborhood, for better or worse, like the addition of a group of freewheelin' artists. Just ask the longtime residents of Houston's historically black Acres Homes, who've seen their property values begin creeping up with the arrival of local bohos such as Paul Kittelson, Terrell James and The Art Guys. Just ask anyone who used to live in New York's Greenwich Village but who had to move to Williamsburg. Or anyone who used to live in Williamsburg but had to move to Greenpoint.

Want to inject a little life into your urban blight? Bring in a bunch of artists.


Elder Street Artist Lofts

Such was the reasoning of activists in the First Ward when they banded together in 2000 with the local Avenue Community Development Corporation to try to buy the old Jefferson Davis Hospital, a decrepit, red-brick landmark peeking its head above the Pierce Elevated.

"We really wanted to see that building be saved and be put back into a productive use for the community," says Mary Lawler, director of Avenue CDC.

The organization couldn't do it alone, so Lawler and company brought in ArtSpace Projects, a nationally recognized nonprofit from Minneapolis that specializes in taking historic buildings and turning them into affordable living spaces for artists.

Deals were struck. Tax breaks granted. Moneys raised. Jeff Davis Hospital was to become Elder Street Artist Lofts.

When the $6.3 million project was completed in 2005, just in time to house several Katrina evacuees, it was heralded by local and national media. The Houston Press gave the building Best Renovation in our 2006 Best of Houston® issue. HGTV handed over a Restore America award.

And it was one helluva restoration.

But it's not one helluva artist community, according to several current and former tenants. The environment is oppressive, they say, and fraught with favoritism. There are too many nonartists in the building's 34 units, they say, and ArtSpace and Avenue CDC don't really seem to care.

"To me it's not an artist loft anymore," says one resident who's been there since the beginning. "We receive the newsletters from ArtSpace in Minneapolis and we see the artist live-work spaces that are opening up in Buffalo, New York and in San Francisco and other parts of the country, and they're active and they're artist-run and they've got the support of the city, they've got the support of the community and they're vibrant. And we're not on that level, and I don't know if we ever will be."

Local artist Cecelia Johnson says she always loved the old Jeff Davis building, its crumbling cupola, its red bricks, its ghostly history. "We used to go there on Halloween and hang out with the security guard back before it was renovated," she says. "And me and my friend were driving around, actually looking for a place to live at the time, and we decided to go look at the building, not as a place to live, but just to go see it. We were just really surprised to see someone had gone in and renovated it, and it said ‘Elder Street Artist Lofts' and I was, like, ‘This is too good to be true.'"

She walked in, had a look around and by the end of the day had already handed over a check, she says. It was a giant leap toward establishing her independence.

Johnson has multiple sclerosis. For her the disease is more than an excuse to ride a bike to Austin. She lives with it every day. It affects her entire nervous system, often making difficult the most quotidian of tasks. But it doesn't stop her from taking highly stylized, often eroticized photos and creating dark, character-driven paintings. And it didn't stop her from being overjoyed at the thought of moving into an artist community.

The joy didn't last long.

One night there was a party up on the second floor, she says. "There was beer, and it smelt horrible, and someone had pissed everywhere. It was absolutely horrible, the smell." She and a few other residents started cleaning up the hallway late that night, she says, not wanting to rile the management. And when Johnson thought she'd found out who had thrown the party, she knocked on the door and asked for help. The door was shut in her face and the next morning she got a call, she says, from Aaron Reece, regional manager for Alpha Barnes, the company contracted by ArtSpace to run the place, who also lived in the building.

The manager wanted her to stop harassing the other tenants, she says. "It was absolutely horrible and horrifying and I was in tears."

But that was just the beginning.

A committee was formed to decide what art would be hung on the walls, but Reece soon shut it down. "They never would let us show our art," she says. "Because Aaron, even though he made me chair of the committee, he told me everything had to be approved by him."

Reece says he gave Johnson a list of people he'd like to see included, making sure folks of different ages, ethnicities, educational backgrounds and artistic media were represented. "So what she did was, she took that upon herself and she kind of formed her own committee," he says. "Her own art committee. And I did put a stop to that. I said absolutely not. It was kind of like a little brat pack."

But the greatest battle wound up being over Johnson's electrical bills, which soon hit $300 a month. Her ground-floor unit had a shaft that ran up through the building, and not only could she hear other residents bumping uglies throughout the night, she also couldn't keep the bills down. "One month I was in the hospital for more than half the month, yet I still had the same high electricity bill," she says. The management ran tests to see if her meter was connected to another unit. They brought in engineers. Nothing worked.

Eventually, ArtSpace agreed to start paying for Johnson's electricity.

"Aaron would hold it against me," she says. "‘Why are you complaining? We're paying for your electricity.' These really rude, horrible comments to me. As if I was getting something for free that I didn't deserve."

Reece says he did everything he could to satisfy Johnson. "I don't want to get into her medical condition, that whole history there," he says, right before doing just that. "She was a very emotional person and I think her illness contributed to her emotional state."

It was eventually agreed that Johnson could break her lease. She moved out, less than a year after she'd moved in, and went back to Sugar Land to live with her parents. Defeated.

"It just took your soul away, after living there," she says. "You didn't want to make art, and if you're an artist, that is your soul. You were totally dried up."

Johnson's situation was definitely unique, but her interactions with management were not atypical, according to five current residents interviewed by the Press who wished to remain anonymous for this story.

"A lot of people are afraid to speak, because they're afraid — Aaron Reece can kick me out for speaking up," says one artist. "There's this underlying fear that they're going to lose this apartment, that they're going to get evicted if they speak up about any problems with the building."

"Because we've gotten no support from Avenue CDC, because we've gotten no support from ArtSpace, it kind of made a lot of people feel like, ‘Well, all right,' so we stay in our lofts and our apartments and paint and do what we're going to do anyways," says another artist. "Where's our community we were told we were going to have?"

The mission got sidetracked somewhere along the way, they say. But then again, you wouldn't expect anything less in one of our city's most storied sites.

"We don't like thinking about dying and we don't like being dead and so we don't like taking care of cemeteries," says Mark Denton, an archaeologist with the Texas Historical Commission. "Our society has this out-of-sight, out-of-mind philosophy about the dead, and it's reflected in how many cities have built over and turned former cemeteries into something completely other than a cemetery."

Need proof? Just take a look at the history of the Elder Street site.

Originally deeded to the city for $750 by the A.C. and J.K Allen Trust — yep, the Allen Brothers — the land became the city's second cemetery in the 1840s. (The first was Founder's Cemetery, on West Dallas.) Buried beneath its surface were white people, black people, brown people, yellow-fever victims, pretty much everyone.

"Everybody and their mother was buried in this cemetery," says Denton. There were four official sections, one for rich white folks, one for poor white folks, one for Hispanics and one for African Americans, he says, "but it pretty much included everybody over the years, including the Union general who occupied Houston during the Reconstruction years. His body was eventually exhumed and sent back to wherever."

The city grew. People kept dying. By the 1870s, the caretaker was showing up at city council meetings, complaining he couldn't dig one grave without hitting another, so the city decided to kick some black folks out of their homes in Freedman's Town, in the Fourth Ward, and build the new cemetery there. This third cemetery eventually wound up underneath what would become the Allen Parkway Village housing project, but that's another story altogether [See "Lenwood Johnson's Last Stand," by Brian Wallstin, December 14, 1995].

The aldermen began parceling up the Elder Street land, selling it to themselves and developing rental property on top of the graves. ("It was kind of a good deal for the aldermen," deadpans Denton.) By the 1920s there were tons of headstones missing, and the city decided to reappropriate the land for use as a hospital, says Denton, so the city took itself to court and got the property decertified due to neglect — its own neglect.

Up went the Jefferson Davis Hospital in 1924, but not before the family members of the Confederate soldiers buried below raised a ruckus. The eventual compromise included naming the new building after the Confederate president. The $400,000 hospital, built in a Classical Revival style, featured four large columns out front and held 240 beds. The basement was built aboveground, so as to disturb as few of the dead as possible.

The city grew. People kept getting sick. The hospital was abandoned in 1938 in favor of the new Jefferson Davis Hospital on Allen Parkway, right down the street from the site of the third city cemetery.

And thus began the slow decline of the tall, forbidding building on Elder Street. Sitting on top of thousands of bodies, it housed a VD clinic. A psychiatric ward. A drug rehab center. It sat vacant, host to the homeless, to graffiti writers, to ghost hunters.

"They do everything they can to scare people," says Luke Davis, a crew cut on his head and a green couch on his butt. He's not talking about the specters of all those still buried beneath the Elder Street building, although the place is said to be one of the most haunted in Texas. He's referring to Alpha Barnes.

Davis, himself a nonartist, came to the Press because he's moving out of the building. By the time this article hits the stands, he'll be in Florida.

But he leaves behind a laundry list of allegations:

Alpha Barnes does not encourage creativity, and artists are passed over on the waiting list so management can bring in its friends. Aaron Reece and Suzie Branch, both employees of Alpha Barnes and both nonartists, have taken up two of the building's 34 units. Reece constantly threatens tenants with eviction, keeping them on month-to-month leases to make their situations precarious. And when it comes down to it, there just aren't enough artists in the Elder Street Artist Lofts.

Davis is self-diagnosed as having "a Don Quixote complex," and he knows some of his complaints are kind of nit-picky, such as when he points out how the standard Texas Apartment Association lease he signed actually prohibits the use of the apartment for business, technically making it impossible, at least in his eyes, for the building's artists to treat their units as studios. And he's definitely a dude with a vendetta against the management, which tried to evict him earlier this year after there were some issues with his paperwork. (Both sides lawyered up and agreed to disagree.)

Many of Davis's complaints, however, are echoed by others in the building. "It's a clique-oriented management," says one artist. "If you're not in with them and the shit they do, there's not really much room for your voice to be heard."

When Suzie Branch got hired for on-site management in September 2006, other residents had applied for the job, says the artist. "Suzie and Aaron are, like, best friends supposedly, so when she got hired as management, it kind of threw everybody off," says the artist. "All of the applications that were put in were completely disregarded. Not one of us was ever called in for an interview. And this being on-site management, that also meant keeping the focus of this thing on the community that it is, you know, the artist community."

When the Press spoke with Mary Lawler, director of Avenue CDC, about some of these complaints, she said it was the first she's heard of them and deferred questions about management to Alpha Barnes. ArtSpace's press representative did the same. (A move which, when stripped down to its core, is not without irony: "Is it true Alpha Barnes isn't doing a good job?" "I dunno. You'll have to ask Alpha Barnes.")

Aaron Reece and Suzie Branch did sit down in the lobby of the Elder Street building for a meeting with the Press, and Reece answered further questions via e-mail, going through each issue in turn.

"I feel we've got a really good relationship with the tenants in this building," he says, noting the prevalence of art on the walls despite the lack of an official selection committee. He points to a gallery run by a wife-and-husband team in a downstairs unit and to a public sculpture soon to be erected on the building's back lot by a resident with the help of a Houston Arts Alliance grant.

As for the allegation Reece and Branch have passed up artists on the waiting list and stocked the building with their friends, Reece categorically denies it, saying, "I don't even know that I would want my friends living that close to me." Branch was the only tenant he knew prior to her move-in, he says, and neither has known any of the people who've moved in since. "Of course, by the very nature of being neighbors, acquaintances and friendships will be established," he says, but he swears nobody receives preferential treatment.

"Let me address that month-to-month deal with you too," he says. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sets the maximum allowable rent for each unit, he says, but the actual rent listed on a tenant's lease has an allowance subtracted for utilities. This allowance has risen four times in the last two years, he says, so Alpha Barnes is hesitant to lock anyone in for a full year at a certain rate since the company anticipates the allowances going down in the future. In other words, keeping people on month-to-month leases isn't about intimidation, he says. "It's about economics, pure and simple."

As for threatening people with eviction, Reece says affordable-housing rules don't even give him that opportunity. "If I give you a notice to vacate, it can't be just because your lease is up. It has to be because you've committed these violations or because there's a rental payment issue, and you have to back those up, so I don't even have the opportunity to give somebody a notice, say if I didn't like you or I hated your shoes or whatever it is about you, I don't even have the option to do that." Only three people have been asked to leave since the building opened, he says — one for drugs, one for serious housekeeping issues and one for making unwelcome advances on other residents.

And finally, to the complaint there aren't enough artists in the building, he says, by his count, 24 out of 34 units are occupied by artists. Some of them might not have art degrees, he says, but that doesn't make them nonartists. And since the building receives affordable-housing funds, management isn't even legally allowed to cherry-pick applicants based on artistic merit, he says, and he's correct.

"There is nothing in the federal rules and regulations that would allow this particular property to exclude nonartists," says Gordon Anderson, spokesman for the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Which means Elder Street Artist Lofts could one day conceivably not even have a single artist living in it.

The Press contacted several of the foundations on ArtSpace's donor list, to see how the project was originally presented. We spoke with Barbara Snyder of the Wortham Foundation, which gave "a small amount" to the project. Snyder sat in on a meeting with the Minneapolis nonprofit, and she says she was given the impression the building was going to be artisty but not necessarily full of artists.

"I don't remember that they specifically said you had to be an artist to live there," she says. "The main reason the foundation gave the small amount they did was to preserve the old building."

Elder Street isn't the only ArtSpace refurb in Texas. There's also the National Hotel Artist Lofts in Galveston, where the focus also appears to be more on preservation than on providing space for artists. The 28-unit building on Market Street, originally opened in 1871 as an opera house (and eventually home to weatherman Isaac Cline's equipment during the 1900 hurricane), was reopened in 2001 at a cost of $3.6 million.

Photographer Rick Wells lived there from 2003 to 2006. There was an original group of artists, he says, but a lot of them moved out over time and the place eventually became "just a general rental space, not necessarily geared for artists."

"For the most part," he says, "you'll find more med students there than anything."

Finding affordable live-work space in this city has almost always required creativity and a willingness to get a little dirty. Nestor Topchy once lived in a plastic yurt on a loading dock, only to move to a metal shack. Rick Lowe squatted in an old barn. Jeff Elrod slept in a hut inside a leaky warehouse.

Two of the city's most active studio compounds, Commerce Street Artists Warehouse and Winter Street Studios, don't actually allow artists to live on site, so they don't. They just work there. And eat there. And sleep there. And keep their stuff there.

Most artists are used to living rough. It's almost expected of them. So when Cecelia Johnson found out she was going to get to live and make art in a big, beautiful building she'd adored, it was a dream come true.

"I was so excited to move in," she says. "And so was everyone. The potential was really great."

She soon began dating a local drummer by the name of David Garcia. They've since broken up, but Garcia still remembers how excited she was about Elder Street.

"She was going to have her independence," he says. "These ArtSpace people were going to support her."

Garcia was there when the neighbors' noises were coming down the shaft, when the bills were coming in the mail, when Reece was coming by and telling her things would be fixed. He was there to help her when her muscles locked up, when her limbs began to shake.

"Living with that illness and then having to deal with someone talking down to you," he says, "and feeling that point of vulnerability and of course having someone promise you something and not following through, that really took its toll on Cecelia."

He was there to help her move.

"I rented a truck and it was her and I who did it," he says. "It took a while, obviously, because it was just us two. It was heartbreaking."

It was back to Sugar Land, back to her parents', where she still lives. Johnson says ArtSpace offered to try to help her find a new place, but she declined, saying, "What you're doing is unfortunate. What you're doing is you're taking these beautiful buildings that have meant something to us for a long time. Hell, Jeff Davis Hospital has meant a lot to a lot of people. That hospital has been here for a long time and it's got a lot of history to it. And people want to be able to go to these places. But what you've done to it is, it's scarred. You've scarred it."

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Press community and help support independent local journalism in Houston.


Join the Press community and help support independent local journalism in Houston.