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Public Works Commission

I for one am happy to be anti-drowning

I’m almost irrationally furious about this.

Wednesday’s event by the Bayou City Initiative was billed “Flood Resiliency and the State of City Infrastructure.” So, it was no surprise to see featured speaker Carol Haddock, head of Houston Public Works, get asked what the city department in charge of drainage and roads has done to prepare itself for the next storm.

Haddock started by saying the department had provided swimming lessons to its staff.

“I’m proud of that,” she said later.

There was more to the answer Haddock provided, including information on ditch clearing and updates to major projects before three successive years of deadly flooding and some projects still to come. Those details just came after the bit about teaching dump truck drivers how to swim.

“Why in the world would that be the first thing out of her mouth?” mayoral candidate Bill King said. “At first I thought it was a joke, but then it was clear she was serious. It was so bizarre.”

King, who often takes to Twitter, did just that, twice, lambasting Haddock.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” he tweeted. “Would love to see who got the contact (sic) to conduct the swimming lessons.”

[…]

After the flooding related to Hurricane Harvey, public works staff were asked how the city’s response could be improved, something Haddock said typically is asked after any major event.

Because the department has big trucks, and big trucks can travel in water deeper than conventional cars and trucks, some public works workers are called into service as first responders — either driving police and fire workers into flooded areas or closing off roads.

Many told Haddock and other public works officials they could not swim, but they wanted to help out in floods.

Haddock hooked up interested employees with a Saturday swim lesson at a city pool, taught by parks department instructors and firefighters. The lesson included basic swimming skills, how to secure a rope and proper use of objects to help someone in high water.

The public works employees did it on their day off, Haddock noted.

Yes, Bill King, coddled rich guy who wants to be Mayor, talked shit on Twitter about city employees who asked for swimming lessons so they could do more to help with rescue operations during floods. Bill King, pampered swell who doesn’t want for anything, sneered at people whose first instinct in a disaster is to think of others. Bill King, living a life of leisure on the wealth of a golden retirement portfolio, looked down his nose at working folks who gave up their Saturday so they could be a bigger part of the solution during the next Harvey. As that embedded cartoon says, “Christ, what an asshole”.

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.

Kirby storm drain construction update

Times are tough all over for retailers. They’re especially tough when the street you’re on is all torn up.

The four-phase project to install new storm drainage along Kirby Drive started in 2004. The latest round peeled back the asphalt at the intersection with Tangley in April and is inching its way toward Bissonnet. City officials expect the phase to be complete by next August.

Shops and strip malls along Kirby have become temporary islands until asphalt isthmuses appear wherever the road is peeled up and put back in place.

On a recent Wednesday, a neon sign glowed “Open” in the window of a Subway franchise, its empty parking lot surrounded by a moat of torn pavement. Farther south, Shipley’s is accessible, but the Starbucks across the street isn’t. To get there, you’d have to make a left turn three blocks later and then double back on the side road where, earlier that day, a truck got tangled in electrical lines and knocked out power to an office building.

At Cova, a high-end wine shop, owner Monsterville Horton IV watched the confluence of three Cats gouging out the intersection of Kirby and Quenby, where traffic alternately stopped and lurched forward.

I just want to interrupt here to say that “Monsterville Horton IV” is easily the best name I’ve ever heard in my life. No wonder he’s Monsterville IV – I’d want to pass that name onto my son as well. Oh, I think “Monsterville Horton” would make a great band name, too.

Still, business owners who remember Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 don’t take issue with the reason for the construction.

“It’s going to save us a lot of hassle and headache,” said Aubrey Mendonca, who owns the Perimeter Gallery, an arts and framing store on Rice Boulevard. “I’m one of the highest-elevated stores in the Village, and I had a foot of water from Allison.”

Mendonca doesn’t fault city engineers for the pace of construction: They’re going as fast as they can, he says.

Public works spokesman Alvin Wright says the city has done what it could to accommodate commerce, including promising to halt construction between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“That’s one of the biggest seasons for the Village,” Mendonca said. “They’ve kept us in mind.”

And he doesn’t think construction alone will be fatal to any Rice Village businesses.

“We did see a few businesses fold because of the economy, but I don’t think it’s a danger of the construction.”

I have to say, I agree that the pace of the construction has been as quick as you could reasonably expect. You can literally see the progress if you drive through the area with any regularity. And in an odd way, I think the traffic on Kirby isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. At least, that’s the case headed southbound; the line of traffic to get through the light at Sunset headed northbound is much longer. I think there’s a Yogi Berra-ish “nobody goes there any more, it’s too crowded” effect at play here – I try to take Shepherd/Greenbriar (where there’s now construction blocking a lane of traffic just south of Sunset) or Buffalo Speedway when I can – which surely contributes to the merchants’ lack of business. But it is moving along, and perhaps these businesses’ experience can provide a little hope for those whose shops are along the coming light rail routes. If this is survivable, in this economy, anything is.

Anyway. The status of Kirby Drive, both here and north of the Southwest Freeway, was a subject of discussion in my interview with Council Member Anne Clutterbuck, as all of this is in District C. Give it a listen if you haven’t already.