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its editorial page to recount the story of the long struggle over the fate of the Fourth Ward, then urged readers to give ignorance a chance: “Houstonians can only pray that nothing very interesting, or further complicating, is found.” When Espey Huston reported it had found no graves after two weeks of excavations, the sigh of relief in boardrooms across the city was almost audible. “APV Archaeological Dig Finds Dirt, But Little Else,” read the headline over the Chronicle’s story, and the Housing Authority even released its own videotape, documenting and celebrating the fact that nothing important had been uncovered. Then workers started digging ditches, and the bodies started turning up in places Espey Huston had avoided because the Housing Authority and its consultants insisted no graves could exist there. “It was very much expected,” Housing Authority spokesman Joy Fitzgerald told the press. “We expected this could happen.” Perhaps they did; the Authority acted quickly and asked Federal District Judge David Hittner to declare the graves “a public nuisance.” Hittner, a Reagan appointee to the federal bench, complied with the request and even extended his ruling to any graves that might be discovered in future excavations. It was a prescient ruling. Within two weeks of Hittner’ s decision, the Authority announced that the number of the burial shafts uncovered on the site exceeded 350, a number later revised upward to 430. And it’s likely to be revised again. Lenwood Johnson, an Allen Parkway resident who led the decades-long fight against demolition of the housing project, says he has information that there were as many as 3,000 graves on the site, and that a third probably still contain intact remains. The rising body count has made the public uncomfortable with the spectacle, and it could be that political support for the unseemly disposal of human remains is beginning to erode. Recently, Mayor Lee Brown visited the site. “What I see here is inexcusable,” Brown said to reporters. Then he stopped construction until the entire area is examined for additional graves. But thus far, his only supporter on the council is Annise Parker, a first-term, atlarge council member who for years has criticized the city’s redevelopment plans for the Fourth Ward. Parker said she believes the Housing Authority is just doing its job, but added that she is “astonished” that its initial survey turned up no evidence of graves. Kenneth Brown is not astonished. The University of Houston archaeologist described Espey Huston’s methodology as inappropriate for the Allen Parkway site or perhaps any site. “It was a disgustingly bad piece of archaeology,” Brown said. Brown, whose recent projects include the study of the remains of early African-American settlements in nearby Brazoria County, said that the use of backhoes to discover unmarked graves might work in rural areas, where the soil is likely to have remained undisturbed over the years. But, he said, it is inappropriate for heavily used urban sites. And because they destroy the context in which the artifact is found, backhoes shouldn’t be used to search for artifacts. “We’re flushing away an incredible amount of information at that site,” Brown said. Having literally dug itself into a hole, the Housing Authority is focused on damage control. At a public meeting at a downtown church, city housing officials walked into a meeting room packed with local politicians, federal troubleshooters, outraged preservationists, and a visibly disturbed mayor, who started’ his remarks with the statement, “This never, never should have happened.” Also present was a group of Fourth Ward residents, who lacked the cell phones and power ties that were standard issue for most in the audience. The housing officials, like condo salesmen making their pitch to potential time-sharers, launched into a high-tech presentation of development plans, only be repeatedly interrupted by audience members demanding that someone address the problem of the graves. When the hissing became so widespread that an official had to cut short his sales pitch, police officers quietly moved from the back of the room to positions around the doors. A representative of Espey Huston even gave a talk on “cultural resource management,” aware that he had serious coveryour-ass chores to perform. His highly technical discussion, complete with mind-numbing charts and indecipherable diagrams, explained how his company was able to excavate numerous trenches in an abandoned cemetery without uncovering a single grave a rather remarkable archaeological feat that might be compared to find ing a needle while missing the haystack. The public comments portion of the meeting quickly heated up, and someone even suggested that the city fire Espey Huston and award the contract to the $5.50-an-hour construction worker who found the first grave. Stephen Fox, an architectural historian at Rice University, called the conduct of the Housing Authority, the city of Houston, and H.U.D. scandalous. “Your contempt for the preservation of history and community, and now your disrespect for the dead, is disgraceful,” he told the stone-faced bureaucrats. A speaker from the Black United Front electrified the crowd with his statement: “After all the fighting over A.P.V. and the Fourth Ward, our ancestors have stood up.” And a number of current Fourth Ward residents took their turns at the microphone, including one woman busy fighting a just-received eviction notice: “You’re already messing with the living. Do you have to mess with the dead too?” She rattled off a long list of health problems she insists are related to her eviction. And she ended with a threat. “When I die, I’m coming back to haunt you all.” On the same day, at what used to be Allen Parkway Village, three community activists were holding a sparsely attended press conference at the chainlink fence marking the boundary of the construction site. Gesturing towards the rows of cheap plastic flags that stretch across the clearing, Lenwood Johnson delivers his message to the handful of journalists who show up. “These are the people who built Houston, ex-slaves, Irish laborers, Hispanic workers, Confederate veterans. All we ask from our public officials is that the voices of these ancestors will be heard through their descendants.” Across the parkway, a steady stream of joggers and brisk walkers emerges from downtown, taking advantage of the recently refurbished biking paths along Buffalo Bayou for a quick lunchtime workout. None stops or listens or even seems to notice the gathering across the street. Life is short, time is money, and the work back at the office never stops piling up. If they lived in the Fourth Ward, they would be home now. Houston writer Paul Jennings lives about four miles from the site of the New City Cemetery. 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MAY 8, 1998