Lenwood Johnson's Last Stand

It would turn out that Lenwood Johnson was just doing things the way he's always done them. But at the moment, it seemed a curious time to be missing in action.

The occasion was a November 28 meeting to settle a question that, for going on three decades now, has proved near-impossible to answer: how much of Allen Parkway Village, the sprawling public housing project in the shadow of downtown Houston, would be demolished, and how much would be spared, renovated and re-opened as housing for the city's poor?

On hand to fashion a so-called "memorandum of agreement" on APV's fate were representatives from the Housing Authority of the City of Houston, or HACH, which, since 1977, has wanted to tear down every building on the 37-acre complex, and officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, whose failure to check HACH's longtime pattern of malfeasance and neglect has helped reduce the number of families living in the 1,000-unit project to less than two dozen.

A representative from the Texas State Historic Preservation Office also attended the meeting, along with the deputy director of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Their presence was required because APV, situated on the edge of history-rich Freedmen's Town, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Any decision to raze a portion of the complex would have to be examined for its impact on the cultural heritage of the city's African-American community.

By 9:30 a.m., when the meeting was scheduled to begin, a cellular phone-toting representative from Mayor Bob Lanier's office, two aides to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, whose 18th Congressional District includes APV, and an urban planner from Boston had also taken seats at a rectangular arrangement of tables inside the local HUD office on Norfolk.

It seemed every entity that ever had an interest in whether APV lived or died was represented. Every one, that is, except the Resident Council of Allen Parkway Village, which, since 1983, has been headed by a 53-year-old African-American man who, undoubtedly, cares the most: Lenwood E. Johnson.

A former laboratory research technician, Johnson moved to Allen Parkway Village in 1980. He has since made it his life's mission to save the place he calls home. For better or worse, whether heroic or just stubbornly obstructionist, the 15-year standoff between a single black man and powerful real-estate developers -- and the government bureaucrats who, as well, long for the coveted land on which APV sits -- will likely be remembered as legendary. That it occurred in a city dominated by a white establishment that so easily eradicates the line between resistance and acquiescence -- usually with nothing more than a nod, a wink and a little money -- makes it nothing short of extraordinary.

Yet Lenwood Johnson has thwarted at least three federal applications filed by HACH to demolish Allen Parkway Village. He has done it by building consensus where there was none, by befriending politicians sympathetic to the poor and by shaming those he believes are not. But, above all, he has done it by using the law, which, as he reads it, gives a public housing resident the right to be involved in any issue having to do with public housing.

Buoyed by the Republican takeover of Congress, HACH filed another demolition application this past January. And in all likelihood, it will be the last. HUD has given the city the go-ahead, and $36.6 million in urban redevelopment funds, for a massive overhaul of APV. While the plan won't be completed until March, the demolition of more than 800 units could begin any time now. One sign of the likely implementation of the plan is the emergence of a group of developers that is negotiating with property owners in the Fourth Ward, with ambitious plans for redeveloping that area.

Federal and local housing officials are hell-bent on seeing an end to the APV saga, and the odds are in their favor. HACH, HUD and the city say they've done their part to end the conflict by agreeing, albeit reluctantly, that a portion of the complex can remain standing. The federal funds are there to take care of the rest, as is a master planning team led by the Boston firm of Tise, Hurwitz & Diamond Inc.

As Sissy Farenthold, a housing advocate who has fought beside Johnson to save APV, observes with resignation, "All the bases have been covered."

It also has seemed that way in the past, but then Lenwood Johnson would file a lawsuit or stage a protest march or persuade some politician to join his fight, and Allen Parkway Village would still be standing. This time, however, the battleground has moved from the street, the courthouse and the corridors of power to the negotiating table. And Johnson, who remains determined to save as many -- if not all -- of APV's units as he can, is sporting some freshly inflicted wounds. For one thing, U.S Representative Henry B. Gonzales, the San Antonio Democrat who was Johnson's patron saint in Washington, has been replaced as chairman of the influential House subcommittee on housing and community development. The congressman's departure means the powerful advocate of APV's preservation will no longer be heard.

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Brian Wallstin