HOUSTON (AP) - In the small neighborhood called Freedmen’s Town on the west edge of downtown, there are two cherished narrow brick roads riddled with bumps, cracks and concrete patches from decades of use.
Most in the Fourth Ward community know the lore - that freed slaves and descendants first laid the bricks on the streets 100 years ago.
Now most agree the roads need repairs, but residents and preservationists worry a recently approved city plan to remove the bricks to fix piping underneath will ruin the original streets, a key element of Freedmen’s Town designation as a National Historic District. Some activists also say the process to approve the project violated federal laws intended to preserve national historic districts.
“I’m appalled that the mayor wants to disturb those bricks like that,” resident Terrance Williams said.
More than 100 years ago, Fourth Ward residents paid $1 per brick to have the streets paved in front of their houses, said Catherine Roberts, co-founder of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum in Freedmen’s Town, and a major force for the area’s conservation. Not only are the bricks themselves significant, but the patterns they form tell a story. The designs at some intersections can be traced back to African crossroads - which pointed the way to safe houses for the black community - or religious traditions of the Yoruba people of West Africa.
“This is an in-the-ground cultural resource,” Roberts told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1l7g7D9 ). “You don’t take them out.”
Their inability to stop construction has made the community feel powerless - a community once considered the heartbeat of black Houston. Doctors, lawyers, dentists and ministers populated the area until the 1920s, when the Third and Fifth wards became more popular.
Little by little, residents moved out, and by 1980 the area of 17,000 had dwindled to 4,400. Its 530 historic buildings listed in 1984 have been reduced to fewer than 30.
After decades of discussion and planning to install new utilities in the neighborhood, City Council approved a $5 million plan this month to repipe portions of Andrews and Wilson streets. Work is scheduled to start by early August, said Mike Cordova, project manager for the city.
Water and sewer pipes will be replaced, and then the salvageable bricks - estimated to be just one-third of those there now - will be cleaned and put back, but likely not in their original designs.
Texas Department of Transportation architect Mario Sanchez said the bricks will be regrouped at intersections rather than in their original locations. “It was determined infeasible to re-install them in their original locations, specifically because there would be a lack of continuity based on the number of salvageable bricks,” Sanchez wrote in an email to the Chronicle.
That’s heartbreaking news to residents and historians, who believed that years ago they had reached a solution on upgrading the Freedmen’s Town streets. They pleaded with the city to tunnel underneath the bricks instead of moving them, and in 2007 former Mayor Bill White reached an agreement with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to do just that.
In a letter sent to the Chronicle from Jackson Lee to White, the congresswoman discusses the agreed-upon plan: using a combination of trenching and tunneling to put the water and sewer lines beneath the sidewalks instead of under the bricks, leaving them undisturbed.
City officials now say the streets are too narrow for tunneling, and construction costs could quadruple.
“It just wasn’t a practical way to move forward,” said council member Ellen Cohen, whose district includes Freedmen’s Town.
Michael Nixon, a cultural resources lawyer and consultant, is trying to put the brakes on the revised plan. Nixon heard about the local restoration plan from another preservationist, and after visiting Freedmen’s Town, decided to conduct a yearlong study into the project.
Because the streets are in a National Historic District and it’s a federally funded project, the plans must go through a review process to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act.
The Texas Department of Transportation, Houston’s Public Works Department and Texas Historical Commission must all be involved, as well as community members.
Nixon said the project violates sections No. 106 and No. 110 of the preservation act because the various groups did not communicate during each step of the process to make decisions together. He is raising the concern with the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
“They’ve put their ability to get federal funding in jeopardy,” Nixon said. “This is a big deal. This is a serious matter.”
Nixon said TxDOT “short-circuited” recent discussions with the Texas Historical Commission, creating a ripple effect of miscommunication with other agencies involved.
In a 2013 letter obtained by Nixon through the Freedom of Information Act, a TxDOT architect sought approval from the Texas Historic Commission for changes to construction plans. This approval is required for federally funded projects like Freedmen’s Town.
TxDOT’s Sanchez wrote in the letter that TxDOT was using the document as a marker of resuming discussions of the project with the historical commission - discussions required by law.
The letter outlined major changes in engineering plans, including regrouping the bricks in select areas instead of returning them to their original places.
Sanchez wrote there would be “no adverse effect” on the bricks, and asked the historic commission to approve the new plans, which it did. The project went forward.
Historical commission officials said they were unsure if anyone in their office received notification of the major engineering changes. They said different employees were involved in various stages of the yearslong project.
This letter, however, was not enough to qualify as the “dynamic discussion” between everyone involved that the law requires, Nixon said.
And the public was not made aware of the changed construction plan until the decision was already made by TxDOT and the historic commission to remove the bricks, Nixon said.
Activists were emailed at midnight that a plan without their recommendations was being voted on by City Council at 9 a.m. June 11, Roberts said.
Roberts said they couldn’t attend the meeting to protest the plan because of the short notice.
Department of Public Works spokesman Alvin Wright said community members had not expressed objections to the recent construction plans. He said the city was unaware of how it could be violating the National Historic Preservation Act, but officials would vet any claims presented to them.
Community members vowed to continue their preservation effort.
“Those streets mean so much to us,” said Darrell Patterson, president of the Freedmen’s Town Association. “It’s ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and people should be proud of that.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com
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