Comment of the Day: Ballad of the Fourth Ward

COMMENT OF THE DAY: BALLAD OF THE FOURTH WARD “Freedman’s town is not a historic district under the City’s historic preservation ordinance. In fact, it is an excellent example of why historic districts are needed. Freedman’s town was where freed slaves settled after emancipation. The land was crap due to the flooding from the bayous. The residents built roads out of brick made by hand and constructed utilities. They basically built a thriving community out of swampland with their own hands. The area decayed and turned into crack town in the 1980s. In the late 1980s, Residents and activists were able to put over 500 buildings on the national register of historic places. Today, less than 30 of those buildings remain. And the effort to preserve the shot gun shacks was based on the historic and cultural value of the buildings, not just for the architecture. Had Freedman’s town had the protection of the current historic ordinance and a fraction of the kind of tax assistance that goes to stadiums, grand parkways and Walmarts, a significant piece of American history could have been saved and become a national tourist destination along the lines of Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. . . .” [Old School, commenting on Daily Demolition Report: Dixie Chuck]

26 Comment

  • The only reason that the old stuff that’s left in Houston seems special is because it was to begin with. By and large, it was housing for upper-middle-class and upper-class Houstonians. It was built better than the stuff that got torn down.

    Some things aren’t worth preserving. Just as shit that sits too long in a toilet will make your house stink, so too shall the shit that lingers in our City. Flush it down; tear it down.

  • This was good, but “Mary Ksy Latourno types” was genius. :)

  • As someone who is familiar with Freedman’s Town, to see its “gentrification” is truly sad. What a loss to Houston.

  • TheNiche, what a horrible analogy!

  • Freedman’s Town was worth preserving for its historic and cultural significance. Maybe it could have been a tourist attraction. Instead, we have cheap and cheesy condos and townhouses with laminate floors that will be slums in a few years. Way to go Houston developers!

  • but preservation comes at a price, and we have yet to decide how to properly negotiate all the costs involved. i can certainly sympathize with the importance of freedmans town; however, i admittedly fail to see why barring further development of the area for future residents is more beneficial to the city than erecting a memorial or small building depcting what the area looked like in the past. we live in an era of digital preservation and i think this is a perfect way to implement that. we could allow the area to continue to develop in line with the cities and residents needs while retaining the historical accuracy and importance with a memorial/museum. digital preservation also allows the experience to occur anywhere, such as the classroom, etc. I have reservations about the idea of living in cities like Paris that take the route of meseumification as it drastically increases the cost of living in the inner city and creates reverse commutes as new commercial properties are opened on the outskirts of the city rather than centralised within the city (i know they have le defense area or whatever).

    a perfectly preserved freedmans town would be great for residents to drive through everyday and reflect on history, but you have to admit it’d be nothing more than a mere side trip for the vast majority of houstonians on their way to see xmas lights in river oaks or some similar event downtown.

  • I should note when I talk belligerently about digital preservation i’m thinking along the lines of such undertakings as the creation of a fully interactive historical model of LA used for the setting of LA Noire.

    We’re always talking about historical preservation, but I think it’s also important to preserve the ability for citizens to make the best use of the cities existing infrastructure and resources. Preserving swathes of near-town land precisely because we know it’s in high demand and primed for further development in the coming years seems a bit counterproductive to me.

    Freedmans town has not existed in a form that accurately reflects it’s origins, original community, or the trials and travails of initially settling the area that forms it’s importance in a very very long time. Why not set up a TIRZ in the area for future development to fund the relocation and rebuilding of a scale model freedmans town on the grand parkway that would allow a fuller and more beneficial teaching of the importance of the area and the people that settled it?

  • Freedman’s town was not shit. It was an important piece of Houston’s history that has been lost forever.
    There were a lot of row houses, but there were also churches, houses and store fronts that were architecturally on par with what is found in the 6th ward and Heights. There was a plan in the late 90s to preserve and re-develop a 40 block section of the old Freedman’s Town that could have resulted in a seemless integration of new development with restored historic structures. Just imagine project row houses meets 6th Ward meets Houston Heights in a small quadrant right off of downtown. But the developers were allowed to do what they wanted. And the free market delivered forgetable clusters of cheap town homes.
    Comparing Houston to Paris is just silly. Historic preservation in Houston has taken place on a few small slices of land in an enormous city with tons of land ripe for redevelopment. And the cost of living in place like Paris is high because everyone wants to live in a beautiful city and will pay a heavy premium for the privilege.

  • Yes, but where were the preservationists when all those newly emancipated slaves were destroying a perfectly good wetland/swamp??? Imagine what an awesome tourist trap we could have created out of a giant swamp right close to downtown. Oh, the possibilities.

    Wait. Maybe some of you guys can go back in a time machine and stop the Allen Brothers from founding Houston in the first place. Holy crap!!! You could get into the Preservation Hall of Fame for something like that. Imagine all of Harris County as a giant coastal plain full of NOTHING. Wow. That would be awesome.

  • Because the City of Houston chose to force historic preservation down my throat against the will of the majority of my neighbors, I truly no longer give a shit whether anything is saved in this town. I do not care about preservation in the Heights, Montrose, and definitely not the hellhole that Freedmentown had become. Such is the price of government strong arming the citizenry. Mayor Parker and Old School won a battle in designating the Heights historic, but they lost the war. They turned thousands of preservation minded home owners against historic preservation, and they scared the residents of potentially historic neighborhoods away from ever allowing it in the future.


  • I’m cool with the preservation of historic sites, where important events occurred. I’m cool with preserving and encouraging the restoration of architectural landmarks, like churches, mansions, or storefronts. I can even get behind what an organization like Project Row Houses is doing, preserving an example of a way of life…in small increments.

    But a line has to be drawn somewhere, and although every neighborhood and every structure has sentimental value to someone, it is not realistic to want to preserve everything. It just isn’t. And make no mistake about it, the 4th Ward was no more “historic” than the 3rd or 5th, or really any other part of town. (People did what people do, and they did it in that location; that’s all!) Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the preservation of one tiny neighborhood doesn’t incite the preservation of additional neighborhoods. Its incrementalism.

    Also, Houston may have a lot of vacant land, but most of it isn’t desirable or well-located; if you tried to force builders and buyers of new homes into marginal parts of the inner city, where most of the vacant land is, a lot of them would either end up displaced to the suburbs…or into an older home, in which case they’re displacing the less affluent household that otherwise would’ve lived there.

    What you propose as public policy is extraordinarily short-sighted, a good way to stunt the tax base while simultaneously creating affordability problems for poor people.

  • Have you seen or been in the replacment housing in this area. It’s like expensive public housing.

  • The issue I have with historic zones is what date do you come up with that is *THE* special date to honor and save? My house is just over 100 years old (Westmoreland sub) as are many around me. But there are lots of “ugly” apartment buildings close by that were built in the 60s. Those are coming up on being 50+ years old. Is there going to be some effort to save them someday and to think they’re the best things ever? What about stuff in the 50s? 70s? 30s?
    I pray I live long enough where the thought of knocking down all these mid 60’s built class C apartments is considered a travesty :)

  • I’ve been in the galvalume-clad townhomes. They’re pretty nice, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never actually lived in something so luxuriant…but I’ve never lived in public housing, new or old.

  • “Not worth preserving…”

    The shotgun houses in Freedman’s Town were built from old growth cypress trees cut from the banks of Buffalo Bayou. They were made of timber frame construction from cypress heartwood. If you know anything about cypress heartwood, you know that it

    1. Lasts basically forever, being almost immune to water damage.
    2. Is no longer available, the native cypress forests whose centuries-old trees could alone yield such heartwood having all been timbered long ago.

    The exterior clapboards may have been weathered or needed new paint, but the frames beneath them might as well have been made of steel (except of course that steel grows brittle with age).

    Now consider what your typical new townhome or suburban McMansion is made of: light frame construction of second-growth shortleaf pine, i.e. cheap garbage wood that rots easy in disposable frames built to be torn down in 50 years. Compare this with timber frames built to last forever. Ever wonder how these things lasted 130+ years, before they succumbed not to the elements but a bulldozer?

    Also, would you rather have an architectural style (the “shotgun”) native to southeast Texas and southern Louisiana, or more endless faux classical? Houston is pretty poor in unique native architecture. Saving what little we have might be nice.

    To which of Houston’s housing stocks should we confer the term “shit”? Not this one, I think.

  • Bernard, since you’ve admitted in a prior post to having a few wrinkles, I think you should delegate your posting to someone younger and more worthy of attention. ;)

    Mike, you get a hearty round of applause.

  • Those who were involved in the efforts to save Freedmens Town/Fourth Ward know that the city had no interest in preserving anything and all of the city councilmembers as well as state and federal elected officials turned their heads. No doubt as a result of “campaign contributions.” That included our mayor whose interst in historic preservation is quite hypocritical when it comes to Freedmens Town/Fourth Ward. One house in particular was demolished almost as soon as the inspectors put the condemned sign on the front porch. The day after someone hooked up a chain to a post on that front porch and drove off and took part of the front porch with them. That was one of the houses the state historical commission was attempting to work with with the city and Houston Renaissance to save. So much for the state historical commission. Which should have taken the matter to the Attorney General’s Office which was already looking into the “shenanigans” in Freedmens Town/Fourth Ward. Instead, it just sat there the way everyone else did. Saying and doing absolutely nothing.

  • @ Cody – anent the “ugly” ’60s construction – I have a set of the Popular Mechanics Home Handyman encyclopedia from around that era (or a bit before), with all sorts of hints about how to reskin those ugly paneled doors with luan veneer to make them look “modern,” etc., because at that time all that terribly dark and ornate stuff from fifty years earlier was considered an eyesore. Sound familiar?

  • The reason that the 4th Ward shotguns were “shit”, in my view, is that the marketplace decreed them as such. If they were valuable and well-liked, people would’ve bid up the price and competed to live in them. If the building materials were so fantastic, then there would’ve been an active salvage market on the parts. To my knowledge, that did not occur.

    Sure, what replaced these homes will have a shorter physical shelf life…but as demonstrated by the demolition of these sturdy homes, the economic shelf life is the deciding factor.

    As I stated previously, “People did what people do, and they did it in that location; that’s all!” By building townhomes destined to become shit, people are doing what people do, and they’re doing it in that location; that’s all. Thereby, history is made…and I don’t care.

  • It all comes down to subsidies, the going rate for capital, and valuation tricks. It has nothing to do with the innate value of anything. These homes came down the day enough cheap money filled someone’s balance sheet to justify it happening.

  • “The reason that the 4th Ward shotguns were “shit”, in my view, is that the marketplace decreed them as such.”

    The marketplace never declared slavery as shit, therefore, using the same syllogistic sequence of reasoning, TheNiche, thinks it should of survived. Thus negating the future existence of Freedman’s town and accomplishing precisely the type of shit conclusion your began with before constructing a post facto line of reasoning to support it. If only you had a time machine, maybe–just maybe–you would find your market niche.

  • @anon22: I may seem like an unlikely candidate to say this, but you’re absolutely right. And that is why, the day that there was enough cheap money to justify my restoring a beautiful old brick warehouse to the east of downtown with a barrel roof, bow trusses, and over 450 panes of glass, I did exactly that!

    Cheap money cuts both ways, but there has to be an end user for the space that wants it and is willing to pay for it. I knew who my market was, but I’m not sure who would’ve been willing to pay for restored shotgun shacks.

  • @m: Slavery as practiced in the United States was a coercive exploitation of human labor, and it was actively enforced by the government. The elimination of slavery and the extension of human rights and freedoms (including property rights) was a furtherance of my belief system.

    I believe that humans should have a right to the enjoyment of the fruits of their labor, and it makes no difference to me whether freed slaves used their meager property rights to destroy a cypress swamp ecosystem to build shotgun shacks or whether a gay mixed-race couple use their resources to destroy a shotgun shack to build a three-story palace of soft pine and fiberboard.

  • “Slavery as practiced in the United States was a coercive exploitation of human labor, and it was actively enforced by the government. The elimination of slavery and the extension of human rights and freedoms (including property rights) was a furtherance of my belief system.”

    Actually, many in the government had long been against it and eventually didn’t support it by majority, and that prompted a Civil War from a bunch of coward planter class that believed in the slavery and used the market place and the economic liberty as ideological justifications, while hiding behind states rights and economic liberties, as a transparent ploy.

    But that strain still clearly exists, as does its transparency as a pseudo-libertarian ethos easily seen by anyone who knows economic systems don’t exist separate from governmental systems, so any degree of “freedom” for anyone to build a house or a developer to tear them down is given in varying degrees by governance, including “complete” liberty do do what one wants. The world is not a dichotomous variable.

  • @m: Let me just be clear. The protections of rights, justice, and equality under the law for all individual people are a necessary component of the free market system. A market for labor in which individuals are forcibly and lawfully coerced is not a free market.

    I do not believe in rights or justice for private property, whether we’re talking about livestock or inanimate objects, including old buildings. (And it makes no difference to me that others might have counted slaves as private property or non-human in a different time and place. I am not they.)

    Your earlier criticism is unfounded and confused.

  • Bernard, since you’ve admitted in a prior post to having a few wrinkles…

    Grey hair? Yes.
    Wrinkles? Hell no.