DATELINE TEXAS Oh, Pioneers! BY PAUL JENNINGS “Unelected undemocratic and unresponsive” That’s one activists take on the Housing Authority of the City of Houston, which recently announced plans to relocate hundreds of graves discovered on the site of the Allen Parkway Village housing project near downtown Houston. Despite strong community sentiment that the graves should remain where they are, H.A.C.H. has never wavered from its an nounced intention to remove the bodies and continue with its planned redevelopment of the A.P.V. site. The long-embattled demolition of A.P.V. is a keystone in developers’ plans now in full swing to convert the historically African-American Fourth Ward neighborhood into an upscale housing tract for inner-city professionals. The most recent controversy erupted after it was discovered that the A.P.V. site occupied a portion of an abandoned cemetery for indigent Houstonians, many of whose descendants still live in the surrounding neighborhood. H.A.C.H. has proposed transferring the remains to the other side of the A.P.V. site, a location that planners had originally configured as a park in anticipation of the eventual widening of a neighboring freeway. The H.A.C.H. proposal thus only postpones the ultimate disposition of the graves, which will almost certainly have to be moved again. But Executive Director Joy Fitzgerald insists that moving the bodies is only way the Authority can keep its redevelopment plans on schedule and thus guarantee a $10.3 million tax credit to the consortium of private lenders who are providing the project financing in return. When the graves were first discovered, H.A.C.H.’s initial response was to obtain a court order declaring the bodies a “public nuisance,” and to draw up plans for transferring the remains to unmarked plots in a privately owned cemetery. But public outcry over what has come to be called “Ancestors Cemetery” forced H.A.C.H. to scrap its original proposal and set up a series of highly charged public meetings, some held with less than twenty-four hours’ notice to the community. At the meetings, organizations ranging from neighborhood associations and Allen Parkway Village Gravesites cemetery preservationists to local groups of veterans pleaded with the Housing Authority to leave the graves undisturbed. The public hearings concluded May 12, at a rancorous morning meeting at Mount Horeb Missionary Baptist Church. Rival groups of local ministers took turns denouncing each other, offering up tearful prayers to the Almighty, and wrestling for the microphone. Audience members chanted, “Don’t sell your soul,” and “Tell the truth,” each time a pro-H.A.C.H. preacher tried to speak. The Authority officials in attendance did little to disguise their boredom, as they read names from the speakers’ sign-in list, answered the occasional question, and kept a close eye on the clock. Among those urging the crowd to get with the program was a prominent minister who recalled attending a gathering of Fourth Ward landlords in 1977 in the hopes of addressing pressing community issues. Instead, he listened as the assembled property owners vowed not to “hammer another nail or paint another board” until A.P.V. D. F. Brown was demolished, and the entire area redeveloped. “Seeing the handwriting on the wall,” as he put it, the minister returned to his congregation with a new mission: investing church funds in Fourth Ward real estate before prices went up. The preacher turned to the protesters in the audience and delivered a blunt lesson in Houston political reality: “You can argue all you want, but you don’t own nothing in the Fourth Ward.” Audience members responded with a new chant: “Stop stealing!” Housing authority officials seemed unfazed by the uproar, content to let the different factions duke it out among themselves. While the preachers bickered within, from outside the church came the rumble of bulldozers negotiating the narrow streets of the Fourth Ward. Block after block of purposefully dilapidated row houses are steadily giving way to upmarket apartment complexes, many featuring floor-to-ceiling windows that mimic the glass-covered office towers on the other side of the freeway. One new block of townhomes sports a sign THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5 JUNE 5, 1998
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