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DATELINE TEXAS Ghosts Along the Bayou BY PAUL JENNINGS Drive into Glenwood Cemetery on Washington Avenue and continue past the surprisingly understated memorial for Howard Hughes, the family plots of the oil-blessed Cullinans and Blaffers, on to the rear of the cemetery, where you can stand on a little rise and look out across Buffalo Bayou. From here you can catch a glimpse of an ugly scar on the south bank of the bayou a muddy construction site cordoned off behind temporary chainlink fences. Uprooted trees lie on their sides, awaiting a final decision on their disposition, while bulldozers pick their way through a sea of tiny pink, red, and orange flags each marking the unearthed grave of an unidentified Houstonian, long dead, long forgotten, destined to witness the events on Judgment Day from a cheap seat on the wrong side of the bayou. From the 1870s to around 1908, the gravesites on the wrong side of the bayou were part of the New City Cemetery, a public burial place located beside two quarantine houses. Houston’s city fathers had built the two pestilence or “pest” houses one for blacks and one for whites to confine indigents who couldn’t afford medical treatment. This is where the poor of Houston ended up after they were diagnosed with smallpox, tuberculosis, or other contagious diseases. But these were not places where anyone went to recover. According to Janis Hutchinson, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Houston, the two pest houses served one purpose. “You basically went to the pest house to die. You didn’t come back. It was a place they used for throwing people away.” Based on the fact that the pest houses were in operation for three decades, Hutchinson estimates that there are probably several thousand graves scattered around the site. According to a 1904 city inspection report, the cemetery was overflowing by then, with many of the grave shafts containing multiple bodies stacked on top of each other. By 1908, the burials seem to have ceased. After the cemetery was abandoned and the pest houses were torn down, the site was gradually assimilated back into the Fourth Ward, an African-American community that emancipated slaves established on the outskirts of downtown after the Civil War ended. In the 1940s, the site was razed again, to make way for Allen Parkway Village, a sprawling, 1,000-unit housing project built in the waning years of the New Deal. Today, what was the. Allen Parkway Village site anchors a series of inner-city redevelopment projects spreading across a downtown that had always turned out its lights when offices closed at five. Beginning with Bayou Place, a publicly funded conversion of the old Albert Thomas Convention Center into the largest food court ever constructed outside of a shopping mall, the new projects include a multi-million dollar ballpark at old Union Station, new hotels, pricey loft apartments, and a few trendy restaurants. This narrow stream of urban revitalization flows in a leisurely southwesterly direction until it reaches the edge of downtown, dips under the Pierce Elevated expressway, and re-emerges in the Fourth Ward. There, trash-filled vacant lots and aging row houses give way to new apartment complexes, as the neighborhood, block by block, is being remade. The developers’ scheme to convert the Fourth Ward into an upscale housing tract for professionals is based on the simple economic fact that more than 90 percent of the Fourth Ward is controlled by a small number of absentee landlords who can package an entire neighborhood into a single deal whenever the price is right. The sticking point, however, has always been Allen Parkway Village and its concentration of low-income and mostly minority public housing residents. Over years they learned to use their influence with federal officials such as the late Mickey Leland, the Democratic , Congressman who represented downtown Houston to keep the Housing Authority of the City of Houston from doing what its directors and Houston’s developers consider its fundamental mission: demolishing public housing units. But finally, after a bruising, decades-long battle with Allen Parkway Village residents, community activists, and housing advocates,,Houston Mayor Bob Lanier and the Housing Authority prevailed. Lather, who last year was eased out of elected office by term limits, accumulated enough political goodwill at the White House to get the feds on board, and the last A.P.V. holdouts were finally evicted in the summer of 1996 in a dramatic confrontation that included neighborhood activists, federal mediators, S.W.A.T. teams, live satellite feeds, and a band of local anarchists. Once the people were out of the way, things began to work as Mayor Lanier and other city developers hoped they would. More than two-thirds of Allen Parkway Village was swiftly demolished, the remaining . apartments scheduled to be remodeled, enlarged, and then turned over to a private management firm. The quasi-public corporation overseeing ‘the Fourth Ward redevelopment appeared before city council to announce that it is scaling back previous plans to set aside a specific number of units for low-income residents. Out beyond Allen Parkway Village, eviction notices began to arrive, serving notice to the mostly elderly African-American residents who typically pay between $150 and $225 a month in rent that it was time for them to move on. And the waiting list for public housing in Houston currently includes 30,000 names. The only obstacle for developers was an archaeological survey required by federal regulation. Not only was Allen Parkway Village the heart of an African-American community founded by ex-slaves, it had once been a cemetery, and in the 1970s A.P.V. residents had heard first-hand accounts from retired laborers who told of finding bodies everywhere they dug when they worked on construction crews building the housing units. The Housing Authority responded by hiring a historical consultant: Janet Wagner, a landscape architect with ties to developers. Wagner ignored the advice of local AfricanAmerican historians, avoided doing any oral histories, and went to work in the city 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER graftwommodiwoommamoseMIMMINISUNIONMinp MAY 8, 1998