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The bricks of Freedmen’s Town

Surely we can do something about this.

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 safehouses for the black community – or religious traditions of the Yoruba people of West Africa.

“This is an in-the-ground cultural resource,” Roberts said. “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.

[…]

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 the email to the Houston 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.

It always comes down to money, doesn’t it? There’s a lot more in the story about the historic preservation process and whether it’s being followed correctly, and you should read the whole thing. What it comes down to is that these bricks and these streets are a unique and very important piece of culture and history in a neighborhood that has lost so much of that culture and history to the demands of modern times. We really need to find a way to improve these streets without losing or damaging what they’re all about.

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2 Comments

  1. voter_worker says:

    The Chronicle article is long on the ongoing dispute about the process leading to where the projects stands now, and short on information pertaining to how much additional funding would be needed to retain the existing design with the maximum percentage attainable of original material. Without knowing the cost increase (or even if there would be any) it’s possible that factors other than cost are indeed in play.

    From the Chronicle: 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 the email to the Houston Chronicle.

    This is where design and aesthetics could have come into play. Someone in a position to make a decision might have re-directed the design process from a course of preservation to a course of functionality and “looking good”. Once such a determination was made, the design team could abandon design tracks that would have required the substantial effort of cataloging each and every brick and its exact location, and manufacturing a replica brick to replace those deemed unusable. I’m of course theorizing, and it’s possible that the information about the existing patterns and bricks was indeed obtained and organized, allowing a decision based on cost to be made. Maybe that part of the process is already known, but wasn’t reported in this article.

    Based on this article, it does appear that public input and participation in the design process is a missing element. Transmitting messages at midnight concerning an imminent event of interest to stakeholders is revealing of the level of public input desired by those in charge of the project.

  2. Steven Houston says:

    If they want the streets to remain as they were 100+ years ago, by all means accommodate them by leaving the streets alone altogether. I doubt the majority currently owning property in the area or living there care about the bricks just as I doubt federal law prohibits improvements by the city but there are too many other areas wanting/needing infrastructure improvements to allow this one to suck up more in resources to accommodate a handful of people.

    Alternatively, perhaps the side streets can be used without adding to the expense.

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