Not Your Standard Issue

"This was our old building," said Mardie Oakes. She was driving down Lyons Avenue, where weedy lots alternate with tumble-down buildings, and she pointed to a rickety heap that seemed supported mainly by its faux-stone facade. "I used to have squirrels in my office there," she said. "And I'd find mice in my briefcase."

She sounded wistful. She'd just left the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation's new office in the State Farm Insurance building, a tidy brick low-rise that could occupy any suburban shopping strip in America. The new office gave the CRC credibility, Mardie said; home buyers had been spooked by the ramshackle old place, worried that they might be dealing with a fly-by-night scam. Still, she had freaked about the move. The State Farm building was too nice, too generic. The old place embodied something about the Fifth Ward, something she worried about losing.

Not that Mardie is a fan of urban decay; in fact, she fights it, and she's proud of her victories. She drove further down the street to Lyons Village, sometimes described as "Houston's first mixed-use development"; Mardie called it "my baby." From the street, the brick Lyons Village looked like something copied from a small town's Main Street, the front building appearing like a series of individual sub-buildings, each in a different color of brick, each with commercial space on the first floor, apartments on the second. Mardie punched an entry code into the security box at a side gate, then cruised slowly through the back parking lot. She pointed out a playground, and two more apartment buildings behind the one that faces the street, and the homey potted greenery that surrounded some of the apartments' doors. "Plant people," she said fondly.

Mardie began managing the Lyons Village project in '96; it was her last semester as a Rice architecture student, and she was an intern for the CRC, a nonprofit developer dedicated to improving the Fifth Ward. Lyons Village gave Mardie a crash course in real-world building: She bought the land, pried environmental clearances from the various bureaucracies, and made the endless drives to and from the title company. She oversaw the construction, cramming eight months of work into six. At night, she ground her teeth to the point that she needed serious dental repairs. "About a million dollars' worth," she said.

But in the truck, she was smiling, and her teeth looked fine. She still worked for the CRC as its "special projects manager," and Lyons Village had been roundly praised as a success; because of it, the Fannie Mae Foundation awarded the CRC a $35,000 grant for excellence in the production of low-income housing. The complex holds two dozen four-bedroom apartments, Mardie explained proudly; the CRC leases them to very-low-income families for $375 a month. "And the places are nice," she exulted. "They're new! They have nine-foot ceilings!"

"Nice" and "new" aren't words often associated with the Fifth Ward, a mostly black neighborhood not far east of downtown; "poverty," "crime" and "at-risk" come up more often. The median annual income stalls out at $8,900; 62 percent of its residents live below the poverty line; nine out of ten schoolkids qualify for subsidized lunches. Empty buildings and vacant lots punctuate the commercial streets, a reminder that during segregation the Fifth Ward thrived. The existing businesses run mostly to dingy mom-and-pop operations, grim little grocery stores and cheerless liquor stores. There's no McDonald's, no Fiesta, no Target, no Wal-Mart. It's turf where national chains fear to tread.

But as she drove, Mardie talked mostly about what the neighborhood has, not what it lacks. She's amazed by the Fifth Ward's sense of history, and not just the Black History Month kind of bragging material, full of hard-won achievements and famous offspring (Barbara Jordan, George Foreman, Arnett Cobb). What particularly interested her is the neighborhood's small-scale, deep-rooted personal history, the way that, in the middle of the city, lives are intertwined in a small-town way. Families stay for generations, and in the CRC's office, Mardie would overhear clients introducing themselves to each other, then working to establish the connection they assumed must exist. They'd ask questions like "Didn't my mother go to high school with yours?" That always blew Mardie away. She's white, and grew up in Barton Hills, a south-of-Austin "village" where even the streets are privately owned. In the suburbs, people don't ask questions like that.

With the air of an architectural historian, Mardie pointed out shotgun houses, explaining how the long, skinny form makes great sense in steamy Houston; they're all about ventilation. She drove past sculptor Jesse Lott's studio, checking to see what "creature" might lurk outside. She admired the tropical flowers in people's yards, noting how this most urban of neighborhoods feels green, lush and rural. The drainage ditches are open; the grass flows to the street, uninterrupted by curbs; an occasional dog trotted across the road.

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Lisa Gray