Only the Strong Survive
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For three months I lived in the heart of the ghetto. Much of what I found there I expected: bitter poverty, crime, broken families, the dark underside of life. But I also found a community determined that life should win over death, hope over despair, pride over poverty. It’s true that in the ghetto only the strong survive—and I don’t mean just physical strength. I mean the strength that is in quick wits, friendship, family, religion, love, and hard work. Those two worlds—life at its worst and life at its best—exist side by side, beginning just outside my window.
Dawn in Houston’s Fifth Ward on an autumn morning. The dark sky softens, lightens, the air warms with the rising sun as the day begins to breathe. Women in white uniforms and men carrying black lunch boxes already crowd the bus stops along Lyons Avenue and Liberty Road. The first yellow cabs arrive at Lovick’s drugstore, delivering their drivers to coffee, pork chops, two over easy with country sausage, or rice and chili gravy, the favorite “bowl of soul.”
On the side street beneath my upstairs apartment behind Lovick’s, a group of black men—Grover, Cooley, Gene, Swainmaster, Ballerina, Littly Blue, Johnny—gather under the big oak, as they do every morning, passing the half-pint of Canadian Club, slapping skin, giving five-on-the-sly behind their backs, grabbing their sex, jumping back, bowing, breaking into an Ali shuffle, spinning, lighting Kools, passing the brown bag—a staccato street dance accompanied by steel coils of hard laughter. Scatalogical asphalt talk. Boasts. The talking blues of pain, protest, humor, tension. Spoken soul. They are street entertainers who have mastered sound, movement, timing, the oral word. It is the rhythm of vitality, of exuberance, of the urgency to feel. It is the rhythm of ghetto life I wake up to every morning along this side street lined with the choking underbrush of garbage and visited by puppy-size wharf rats up from Buffalo Bayou, the Fifth Ward’s southern boundary. The voices float up to my room like joyous, audible street vapors.
“Mine host, lay another C.C. on my man, here.”
“See those jive Army ads on the box? I don’t want to go noplace where you got to be fully dressed at five in the a.m.”
“I feel like a brand-new movie. Just need a place to show.”
“That woman really tied a knot on me man. She likes to buy things, and when I was bought out I was put out. Talk that talk, bro. You gots to be hip, slick, cool, and no fool with her, man.”
“Last night that Southern Pacific blew all night long. In the key of B-flat, the key of the blues, baby.”
“Who’s that gray dude, man?”
“He the writer or something living behind Lovick’s.”
“No, man, he FBI. Why else a white man come to Fifth Ward?
“Looks like just a blue-eyed cracker-ninny to me, man.”
They were talking about me.
The Making of a Ghetto
The Fifth Ward is different from New York’s Harlem or Boston’s Roxbury with their anonymous rows of tenements that soar skyward and mile upon mile of all-embracing poverty. There are pockets of affluence with well-kept homes, clean streets, trees and space—middle-class neighborhoods free of garbage and burned-out buildings. But not many. For ninety per cent of the area, poverty is the first fact of life, and physical ugliness is the most dominant visual impression.
The Fifth Ward is crowded and poor: population density in the area is 30.5 persons per residential acre compared with Houston’s overall density of 14.4; the average housing density is 9.14; Houston’s, 4.98. Thirty-four per cent of the citizens live below the poverty level compared with Houston’s 10 per cent. The median income is $5030: in Houston, $9876. The people are under-educated: only 25 per cent have high school degrees, while in Houston 52 per cent do. City services show important differences, too. Forty per cent of the blocks are drained by storm sewers; 39 per cent by open ditches; and 21 per cent have no drainage improvements at all.
How is a ghetto created? Harlem remains the classic case. In the beginning, it was a prosperous mixed neighborhood with large groups of Irish families living in the northern section and Jews living to the east. The late nineteenth century brought huge migrations of East European and Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms and, like immigrants everywhere, searching for better jobs and living conditions. Then came Italians, Germans, more Irish, and, after World War I, wave after wave of blacks from the South. Many of the Jews moved north to the Bronx or to Long Island, most of the rest scattered throughout the boroughs of New York City, but some remained as landlords. Blacks doubled and tripled the number of families in a building to pay the rent. The strain of over-population caused the buildings to deteriorate and ultimately created a vast slum.
The history of the Fifth Ward is much the same. Around the turn of the century, blacks were a decided minority among Houston’s immigrant residents, but after World War II migrations of blacks from the Deep South (mainly Louisiana), from rural Texas, and from the rapidly growing neighborhoods north and west of downtown Houston changed the area’s ethnic makeup. As in Harlem, the newly arrived blacks were isolated culturally, economically, and socially by racial discrimination and prejudice. Only manual and menial jobs were open to them. Their schools were inferior, their incomes remained low, and their neighborhood fell into what sociologists call “the cycle of poverty.”
“The cycle of poverty goes like this: if you’re poor, what you need is more money and that means a better job. But to get a better job you need better educational training. Of course, the better schools and facilities are in the better neighborhoods. But to get there you need mobility, which means more money, which you don’t have if you are poor.”—Donald Tryman, political science professor, Texas Southern University.
One of the many poets of Fifth Ward died last year. Since the forties, the ice cream man had walked the streets from Jensen to Lockwood, jingling his bell and calling out his verses to the children:
Two for a nickel, three for a dime
I would give you even more if you were mine
Hey, little girl, playin’ in the sand
Run tell your daddy here’s the ice cream man.
Street Corner Symphony
Entering the ghetto is a shock, as if I had entered a foreign country. There are no official boundary lines, but I know I have crossed a frontier. This new country has a different language, a different skin color, a different set of values, a different family structure, and its children play different games. It is a cryptic, closed society existing in the middle of Houston. There are more barbershops, pawnshops, churches, loose dogs, abandoned buildings, bars, broken windows. There are fewer sidewalks, streetlights, fire hydrants, culverts, curbs, parks, jewelers, museums, libraries, garbage trucks. But whether more or less, in the Fifth Ward it is all out in the open, on the street.
By 8:30 on this warm autumn morning, Donald Ray “Cootie” Hill, 44, is out on the corner of Gregg and Green, his “office,” five blocks south of Lyons Avenue on the northern edge of Kelly Village, a public housing project built in 1940. He has lived on the streets since 1962 when he arrived back home in Fifth Ward after three years of college at Tuskegee Institute and UCLA and several years as a bohemian in Greenwich Village, where he listened to Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, the Duke, Basie, and Trane, and where he picked up a heroin habit. He spent two hitches in the Army, the last during the 1961 Berlin crisis, when he learned to speak Spanish with Mexican Americans from Edinburg who were in his outfit.
A true Afro-American, Cootie’s grandfather was born in Ghana, and Cootie himself—tall, thin, very black—looks much more African than American. His looks help with one of his hustles (what he calls “to put the bump on a cat”), where he pretends he is just off the boat and needs some help. He is totally convincing as an African, West Indian, or South American. His eye misses nothing and nobody—not the local swish, a beautician named Robert who prefers to be called Rosalind, nor the panhandling wino, “Modo” (short for Quasimodo because of his slight humpback), who still drinks Italian Swiss Colony Black Port, much to the disgust of his colleagues, who stick with Thunderbird, known as “the Bird.” Cootie’s corner truly is his place of business, and he is very much the boss man.
In Fifth Ward status is determined less by what you have than by personal qualities of wit and style and by what you know of the power structure of the street—knowing the strategic corners, bars, stoops, hallways, windows; knowing who to trust, who is cool and uncool, who is the fighter and who the jiver; knowing how to avoid being picked up, whether for suspicion of theft, assault, or possession, or suspicion of suspicion.
Cootie is discussing his business. “Well, yes, man, I learned the streets right here in Fifth Ward. You see, street life is a series of independent events. The flow of time is measured by the appearance or disappearance of cash and people. Bread makes it all possible—keeping out of trouble, the parties, the women, all the highs that make it worthwhile. One of the fundamental laws of the ghetto is everybody has an angle. It’s up to you to analyze and move accordingly.
“Style is the thing, man. How you carry yourself, how you get with the nitty-gritty, how you wise up and be witty, how you show toleration, let people do their thing, showing respect but being cool and fearless. Black people got to deal with downtown and the ghetto. Whites can’t make it here. Too raw and tough. They have no soul—which to me means moving to basics without guise or disguise whether it’s food, music, or religion.”
Cootie grew up in a family of three boys and two girls. His mother, who died in 1963, worked as a seamstress, and his father, who at 78 suffers only from bunions, worked 32 years for Brown & Root. His family had the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood. He roamed Fifth Ward on his bike with his dog, carefully avoiding Denver Harbor east of Lockwood Street, where poor whites made life dangerous for blacks, and Frenchtown, the neighborhood north of Liberty Road, where the lighter-skinned, clannish Cajuns from Louisiana wanted no African black messing around their caramel-colored daughters.
He learned music and the love of jazz from his late brother, Marvin Charles, who played violin. In the summers, Cootie swam in the swimming holes (there were no public pools in Fifth Ward, and the only pool for blacks was in Emancipation Park across town)—Sandy Mountain near Buck Street, Seven-Up near the bayou, and one near the wood-processing plant in Southern Pacific’s Englewood Yard, the source of the pervasive smell of creosote that permeates Fifth Ward.
“Charlie Parker brought me to New York. I had to hear him blow because I knew from his music he hadn’t long to live. With the joints and jazz came heroin. I rode the train to New York the summer after I graduated from high school. You see, besides whiskey, heroin has always been the drug for blacks. Once you are down, you need that euphoria, something for the spirits.
“LeRoi Jones wrote somewhere that it changes the black man’s normal separation from mainstream society into an advantage, and he’s right. Nonparticipation in a basically irrational world seems legitimate to me. I have never stolen or been busted. Never been hospitalized except to take the cure some years ago. Now dope is everywhere. Kids, housewives in River Oaks sniffing coke. Diet pills. Viet Nam vets trying to kill their pain. But heroin here in Fifth Ward is scarce. Mexican connection dried it up. Plenty of everything else, though.”
Ghetto time is different. It falls into two categories: workdays and weekends, and summer (hot) and winter (cold). “Dead time”—time with no money—is spent in school, at work, in prison (“doin’ Big Ben”). Time is “low” on Monday, “high” on Friday when the eagle flies. Unlike in more affluent areas, where time is measured in rational, future-directed hours and days, time in the ghetto is personal and focused on the present. Time is now. Watches are for pawning. The expression “catch you later,” or simply “later,” is exact enough.
All in the Family
By 10:30 a.m. Agnes Brooks, 75, has left her modest, comfortable home on Benson Street for her charity work half a block away at Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church, her church of fifty years. Once a week Mrs. Brooks and the other Legion of Mary Society ladies visit the sick in Fifth Ward, usually the elderly living alone. It was the church, she says, not herself or her late husband of 48 years, Osburn Brooks, that enabled her to raise a family of eleven children—five boys, six girls—in Fifth Ward, all avoiding jail, drug addiction, alcoholism, all except one earning college degrees, and all still living and working.
It is a formidable achievement to raise one child who escapes the many pitfalls of the ghetto, much less eleven, when every third teenager seems to be on the streets doing the junkie-nod among the whores and hustlers and old men clutching bottles of MD 20-20-. Around every corner there seems to be a joint, a bag of horse for $15, a bar where a young man searches for his manhood amid the screaming of the jukebox, the dancing, swaying, staggering, swaggering darkness of the crowds.
Mrs. Brooks fought the temptations of the ghetto streets every day and gave no quarter. It was a battle she did not intend to lose. “I had six children by 1937, and a public-health nurse told me to slow down, that my girls would be on the street because it was the Depression and that was easy money. I told her, ‘No, they won’t. Not as long as I’m alive. My father didn’t raise me to let my children become prostitutes.’ You don’t follow the crowd. You do right even if nobody else does. You treat white folks like anybody else. They’re folks, too. We had rules and discipline. But mainly I made sure my kids had no time for the streets. We all worked. If we were going to survive as a family, we had to, and I thank God and my church most of all.”
Osburn and Agnes Brooks moved to the small house on Benson and, as the family grew, they added on rather than move, so they could stay close to Mother of Mercy. All the kids began school at the church, the three oldest staying through all twelve grades, the rest graduating from Wheatley High School. Audrey, the oldest daughter, has retired from teaching in parochial and public schools. Osburn Junior got a PhD in theology and became a priest, teaching and working in Africa and New York. Osburn Senior remained a Baptist until 1972, two years before his death, when he requested that his religious affiliation be changed from Baptist to Catholic, answering his wife’s oldest prayer.
Osburn spent his life on the road, driving trucks for Cleveland Wholesale, Herrin Trucking, and Harris Transfer, so it was up to Agnes to keep things going. Until her children were in high school, she cooked all three meals a day for them. She earned extra money as a seamstress and as a housekeeper for the priest at Mother of Mercy. She made all the family’s clothes. Osburn’s job began at 5 a.m., and she always had his hot breakfast ready.
Since slavery, the black female has been the main source of family continuity. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the black man had to compete like everyone else for a wage. Poor whites, especially, didn’t like to lose. The “last to be hired, first to be fired” principle applied to black males made their employment the most vulnerable in the country. But black women could almost always find work in one of three places: a church, a white family’s home, or on the streets. Not until the twenties, when the first great female black blues singers opened up the world of entertainment, did the occupational landscape change.
Much has been said about the black American female-dominated family. But, as the books of Oscar Lewis and the plays of Sean O’Casey reveal, ghetto families in Mexico City, Puerto Rico, and Dublin are much the same. Where jobs are scarce, so are fathers. Is the unstable, “crumbling,” female-led black family in the U.S. better explained by its heritage of slavery, as the controversial Moynihan Report of 1965 concluded, or by the economic and social stresses caused by racism and exclusion from jobs and education?
One-fourth of American black families are broken up; one-third of American black children are fatherless. Certainly, divorce and separation remain the main causes of fatherless families, abetted by welfare laws that encourage fathers to leave their families. Often forgotten, however, are the alarming statistics regarding premature deaths in black males and the rate of illegitimate births among blacks, both of which help clarify the problem. After the age of twenty, one black man in ten will die before reaching forty, usually leaving children, as opposed to one white man in thirty. According to a 1973 survey, average black life expectancy in the U.S. is 65.9 years; white, 72.2. That means that 66 white males out of 100 will reach 65, and only 50 blacks. For females, 81 whites out of 100, compared to only 63 blacks, will reach age 62. It is simple enough: affluence can buy another decade of life.
The explanations behind the high rate of illegitimate black births are not complex. The Kinsey Report noted that 47 per cent of black females, compared to 42 per cent of white females, had premarital sex, but that 40 per cent of those blacks became pregnant as opposed to only 13 per cent of the whites. Not only are contraceptive devices more readily available to whites, so are the steps to take after pregnancy—abortion, forced marriage, or adoption. There are cultural differences also: having an illegitimate child in the ghetto is not a disgrace; it is in the more affluent parts of town. An illegitimate black child is less likely to ruin the mother’s chances for a “better marriage” or to destroy her social status.
Mrs. Brooks hasn’t heard of the Moynihan or Kinsey reports, and her children, although they grew up among the conditions described in these studies, have escaped their statistical categories. All eleven children are leading productive lives and making plans for a reunion with their mother next summer.
Like the children of the pioneers, ghetto children fashion toys from their landscape. Boys make cars by nailing together scrap lumber, using roller-skate wheels for tires, bottle caps for decoration, and a willow twig for a whip aerial. They take a sturdier, straighter willow branch and bend a bottle cap around the end for an arrow. Bows are made from oleander branches and twine, slingshots from half a broken bottle and a thick rubber band. Girls make flutes from bayou cane and dolls from bottles using ice twine for hair.
“Here’s the difference in all us peoples. ‘Colored people’ are those Uncle Toms who still think we on the plantations. ‘Negroes’ are those folks who don’t like the situation we live in but aren’t going to do anything about it. ‘Blacks’ are those of us who refuse to accept the way things are. Older folks are colored people; middle-aged folks are Negroes; and blacks are the young bloods like me.”—Franklin, eighteen, employed at Southern Pacific’s Englewood Yard.
Sticking to Business
Clifford Smith felt very good by lunchtime. Most of his C.F. Smith Electric Company trucks and electricians were out on jobs. A government fact-finding group had approached him concerning an interview about minority business opportunities in Texas. And someone from the mayor’s office had just called to ask if he would serve as one of the seven members—the first black—on the board that oversees the issuance of the city’s master electrician licenses. Yes, he would. As it often does, life had come full circle: Smith had been the first black in Houston to receive his license, back in 1945, the year he founded his company.
“I remember sending my dad downtown to get the papers because he was light-skinned enough to pass for white,” Smith said, sitting in his office with fresh coffee. “When I walked in the inspection office, the first thing the lady said to me was, ‘What you want boy?’ I thought, ‘Oh, God, here it goes.’ But I got to the board for my papers, and they were very nice, and when the lady saw my experience she changed her tune. Just like that. I made one of the highest grades on the exam, and until she died she was my best friend in city hall.”
Successfully passing the city’s master electrician licensing exam was far removed from Smith’s first job, the best-paying newspaper route in Fifth Ward. Smiling, Smith said, “I threw to all the houses of prostitution and speakeasies west of Lyons and Jensen. Most money and best credit in the ghetto. I remember the revenue officers busting up whiskey outside the Italian grocery at Gregg and Green. Say, do you know Cootie Hill? That’s his corner. Then came Carry Nation. There was a saloon that used her name on the corner of Wood and Willow. She came one day and said, ‘I told you to take my name off that sign two years ago, and now I’m here to do it for you.’ She did, too, with her hatchet and a load of rocks.”
Smith believed a business that whites would respect and patronize could survive and prosper in Fifth Ward. He knew you couldn’t be just competent and professional. You had to make no mistakes and “keep up with the times,” his favorite axiom. Businessmen, like some he knew, couldn’t keep their accounts in a ten-cent notebook. You couldn’t close up because of hangovers or fishing days or ball games. Also, you had to get involved in the white man’s world. Smith’s service on the Harris County Grand Jury and his work with the Boy Scouts and as chairman of the Service Committee for Cancer Patients’ Aid at M.D. Anderson Hospital have helped his business almost as much as his competence as an electrician.
He has trouble understanding the vandalism, the trash, and the lack of self-respect he has seen and lived with in Fifth Ward. But he isn’t moving. Smith still uses his old Quonset huts and office next to his home on Buck Street. He and his wife, Hortense, complain about the trash and the streets not being paved and guttered, but they raised their two daughters, both now married, amid the overflowing ditches and potholed streets. Back in Wheatley High, playing trombone in the orchestra with his friends Arnett Cobb and the Jacquet brothers, Illinois and Russell, Smith thought only of getting out. Not now. Fifth Ward has been good to him and it is home.
Texas tried harder than any other state to keep blacks from voting in Democratic party primary elections, beginning in 1924 with a statute that declared blacks ineligible to vote in the party’s primary. This law provoked a series of lawsuits that ultimately brought about the collapse of the “white primary,” the South’s favorite disfranchisement weapon. The final chapter was decided in 1944 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the famous Smith v. Allwright case. The man who filed the suit that opened politics to blacks in Texas was Lonnie Smith, a dentist from the Fifth Ward. Smith was a hero to a young girl growing up in Fifth Ward who would use his legal victory to win her own political battles. Her name was Barbara Jordan.
Government agencies and politicians make admirable efforts to change the destiny of Fifth Ward. The year-old $1 million Fifth Ward Multi-Service Center, a handsome building near IH 10, harbors nine agencies—housing counseling, health clinic, day care, juvenile probation, employment, etc—and provides a mixture of advice and service (library books, meals for senior citizens) to area residents. For many in Fifth Ward, the 36-year old Julia C. Hester House is as much an institution as Wheatley High. A United Fund agency that offers community services and youth activities, Hester House attracts young and old, and all age groups feel comfortable in its well-worn, familiar atmosphere, like the rumpus room in a close friend’s home.
The parents of former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and the grandmother of Mickey Leland, Jordan’s successor in Washington, still live in Fifth Ward. Both Leland and Jordan grew up in the ghetto and have worked hard to aid their constituents, who are weak and friendless in the halls of power, and to alert the great and powerful to the special tyrannies that rule their home. “White politicians don’t believe poverty like this exists. I have to bring them down here and onto the streets before they understand,” says Leland.
The government agency with the widest experience in Fifth Ward is the Texas Department of Human Resources, formerly the Texas Department of Welfare. The TDHR regulates the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, food stamps, Medicaid, and the social services such as day care and the Work Incentive Program. The day each month the welfare checks arrive in Fifth Ward is known as “Mother’s Day.”
I turned west on Lyons Avenue from Gregg Street, after saying good morning to the legless man who sold pencils and newspapers in the shade of Ralston’s drugstore. Across the street was Orlando’s Grocery, run by one of the few remaining Italian families in Fifth Ward and located in the building where ex-mayor “Honest John” Browne once lived. Not far ahead was the Sweeper, wearing, despite the hot day, his usual three shirts, multiple pairs of socks, toboggan cap, and long overcoat, and frenziedly sweeping the one section of sidewalk he deemed needed cleaning. The only whites I saw all day, aside from the police, were on the construction crew building an addition to the fifty-year-old E.O. Smith Junior High.
Like Seventh and T in Washington, D.C., 125th Street in Harlem, Springfield Avenue in Newark, South Street in Philadelphia, Tremont in Boston, or 47th Street in Chicago, Lyons Avenue is “Soul Street” in Houston, the main road of this urban plantation. Originally it was named Odin Avenue for John Mary Odin, the first Catholic bishop of the diocese. The Lyons family owned saloons and grocery stores along Odin Avenue during the twenties, and in 1927 Odin was changed to Lyons in honor of saloon magnate John Lyons. It was a portent of things to come.
Complaints about living conditions along Lyons Avenue and in Fifth Ward—insufficient police and fire protection, poor drainage, inadequate lighting, no sanitation services—extend back over a hundred years. In 1875, Fifth Ward residents threatened to secede from Houston if utilities were not upgraded and streets paved. Another secession threat in 1883 brought the construction of an iron drawbridge over Buffalo Bayou at the foot of San Jacinto Street to improve transportation. In the 1890s Lyons was paved in brick two blocks past Mayor Browne’s house. Electric streetcars ran there until 1952, and for a while, in the late fifties, buses with steel wheels followed the tracks.
Why has Lyons deteriorated to its current war zone appearance? Some people blame the vivisection of the Fifth Ward by freeways, and the elimination of the Lyons Avenue exit on the Eastex Freeway, which cut off some business customers. Others, like Clifford Smith, say merchants haven’t tried to keep up appearances and haven’t done as much as they should to attract white investment. Certainly, the black flight during the past ten to fifteen years away from this poorest urban neighborhood, north to Kashmere and Trinity Gardens and south to South Park and Sunnyside, has hurt.
“What happened,” said Constance Houston Thompson, a retired schoolteacher and a Fifth Ward resident since the twenties, “was that in the early sixties at the beginning of the civil rights struggle, the whites got scared and took their money and credit with them. The city neglects the area terribly and no new businesses move in. I’m afraid to walk down Lyons near Jensen myself.”
Ghetto businesses have always been geared toward personal services: barbershops, cleaners, liquor stores, garages, cafes, bars, pawnshops, and, of course, funeral parlors—Fifth Ward has thirteen. Few businesses produce either high payrolls or hoods for the city. Only one financial institution, the Standard Savings Association, owned by one of Texas’ richest blacks, Mack Hanna of Houston, is located in Fifth Ward. Nine years ago the Moncrief-Lenoir Manufacturing Company, makers of metal products, spent $10 million buying up twenty acres at the west end of Lyons Avenue, planning one of the largest urban renewal projects in the country at that time. Today, the land parcels are still vacant.
Grinding poverty is written large across the buildings at Lyons and Jensen. HOPE Development’s improbably buoyant social-service activities are housed on one corner in a drab, anonymous building; heavily barred Standard Shoes, a veteran resident, sits across the street; Arthur Dunbar’s pawnshop stands catercorner from HOPE, and, on the northwest corner, a boarded-up lounge features on its Jensen side a sassy mural of a black girl with legs spread, reclining amid palm trees.
Radiating east from Jensen and Lyons are the Reverend Charles Jackson’s son’s clothing store, the Busy Bee barbershop, and Lillie’s Shoes for Women. West of the intersection, whores, winos, bums, cardplayers, and drunks sit on stoops, chairs, stools, trash cans and haunches, watching the street. There is usually a domino game in progress. In the alley, behind the shabby storefronts of the pool halls and bars is a wooden corral built from scrap by two-by-fours. Inside are a chair and sofa and a soiled stack of magazines. There are charred logs and ashes from a campfire. This is the al fresco wino lounge-and-bedroom where many will eventually sleep, when the liquor is gone and the debauchery is over.
Kicking a Miller’s beer bottle out of the way, I strolled past the True Level Lodge, where gospel singing rings out from the second story on Sunday nights, and past the old Lyons Theatre, not so long ago one of three busy theaters on Lyons, along with the Roxy and the De Luxe. The Lyons is now the Latter Day Deliverance Revival Center, following the Harlem pattern of converting movie theaters to storefront churches. I was heading toward Pearl Harbor.
You know what?
When you go down to Houston
You’ll learn you some bad news,
You better stay off—Lyons Avenue.
‘Cause you go there, you go there green
Somewhere on Jensen, the last time you be seen.
You know how it is.
Boy, you know how it is.
You know what?
If you ever walk around on Houston’s streets
You like to be real wise
And stay off of Lyons Avenue street
And don’t go down on Jensen nowhere
Because you’re living on luck and a prayer.
You know things happen to us sometimes,
To the best of us and to the worst of us and all this kinda stuff
But you’re asking for it,
Anytime you hit on Blood Alley, Lyons Avenue
Just off Jensen, it ain’t hard to find
All you have to do is go around there and you’ll find cats almost dying,
It ain’t hard to find.*
—“Stay Off Lyons Avenue,” Juke Boy Bonner, former resident of Fifth Ward, 1932-1978.
Once the most dangerous of Houston’s 25,000 intersections, Lyons and Jensen is the crossroads of Pearl Harbor, so named because the blood spilled in the vicinity is comparable to the amount spilled at its namesake December 7, 1941. The saying goes, “There’s cats down there that can’t sleep nights ‘less they killed someone.” Pearl Harbor, Bloody Fifth, Blood Alley. Juke Boy knew them all on this warm September night. He played and sang at the old Club 44 down in Pearl Harbor, his guitar and Jimmy Reed harmonica wail pouring out of the door into the street:
Life is a nightmare, least that’s the way it seems
Full of ups and downs with a valley of shattered dreams.*
Out of the night the people came, pulled toward the black dirge of the blues, down Lyons through the neon, clutching brown bags, heads silhouetted in darkness, their cat eyes like slices of gold caught in the pickup lights of white men looking to buy love from the black sisters on the block.
It’s hard to love one who’s doggin’ you around
And you’re best friend’s stabbing you in the back
And the people are tryin’ to keep you down.*
Dancers were bathed in a single orbit of light, no shadows, no brightness, a hundred midnight mojos working as Juke Boy sang rhythm ‘n’ blues of shabby rooms, hungry nights, bad liquor, lost women, the Man, needle holes, alcohol-soaked brains, eternal blackness.
Looks like life is a nightmare. Say, that’s the way it seems
Lots of ups and downs and valleys filled with skimpy dreams.*
There were dagger-words, and minds exploded—agony ripped loose by woman scent and the mojo, hearts bloody-razored by challenge and threat. Not a tablespoon of slack as the flash of blades cut flesh in a dance of pain. Butcher knives, pocketknives, steak knives, curved-bladed roofing knives eight inches long with a hooked tip for ripping shingles, boning knives that cut like a laser, skinning knives, switchblades. Ambulances line up like taxis.
So full of ups and downs, Oh Lord,
And so many shattered dreams.*
The Life Savers
Fifth Ward’s Fire Station No. 19 leads the other thirty Houston stations in fire and ambulance calls (3892 and 3237 a year, respectively). It ranks number one in sick calls (1035); shootings (179) cuttings (178); obstetrics, usually emergency births (144); beatings (124); false alarms (30); and dead on arrivals (44). Corpses, however, aren’t transported in city ambulances. That calls for a Code 1050 to notify the county morgue. Only the still-living get to ride in the fire department ambulance, usually to the charity hospital, Ben Taub.
The most frequent visitors to Ben Taub’s emergency room are the two emergency medical technicians (EMTs) from station 19, who often make ten speeding, siren-wailing trips during the busiest shift, 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 the next morning. It is a frightening, heart-pounding, sometimes extremely dangerous fifteen and a half hours. While riding ambulance 1119 for two weekends, I learned it isn’t unusual for the EMTs to face death themselves.
“I popped a cap on him [shot him], white man. He a bad nigger and I want him graveyard dead. Get away from heah,” the man shouted, waving a pistol in our direction. We backed off and he got his wish. The week before, a Viet Nam veteran had rushed the two EMTs with a double-bladed ax, thinking they were Vietcong.
Death is the EMT’s mortal enemy. They curse, threaten, bully, challenge, and shake a fist at its presence. This dialogue was between the victim of a shotgun blast and an EMT:
“Oh, God, I’m dying, I’m dying! Momma, dear Momma! Oh, God!”
“Hey, man, I don’t allow that talk in my ambulance. What’s your name, man? Manny? Manny, I have made up my mind you are going to live at least until we get to Ben Taub. Hey, Manny, don’t go to sleep. I’ll knock the shit from you! Hang in there. Grip that stretcher, man! Squeeze that stretcher! You are not going to die.”
EMTs begin as firemen, then receive 240 hours of advanced first-aid courses graduating to a 600-hour paramedic course at the University of Texas School of Allied Health Sciences. But nothing in any class prepares them for walking down dark hallways searching for a shooting victim, not knowing the killer’s whereabouts; or controlling crowds shouting racial obscenities; or stopping a hysterical wife bent on stabbing her husband. And no one ever becomes accustomed to dead or injured children.
Paramedic Glen Morris, a Fifth Ward resident, made the second EMT ambulance run in the city, an obstetrics case delivered successfully to Jeff Davis Hospital, out of station 19 in April 1971. The carnage, death, injuries, sickness, and inhumanity are finally exacting a toll on Morris. He is one of the best, a black man who is an expert paramedic, psychologist, driver, and shucker-jiver. He is tough and compassionate and has had enough of station 19.
“When I get off I play my jazz to unwind and forget. But after seven years, I’m tired, and, you know, people just keep killing each other. And it’s tough on me because I know I’m doing good out here. Most guys are crying to get out of Fifth Ward after a year. I don’t blame them. The Fifth Ward is intense and real, but after so long it’s too real for me. Some months we make over three hundred runs, and I need a station with about a third of that load. River Oaks, maybe.” We talked and laughed about the enormous differences in the two neighborhoods, how the only category in which River Oaks outranked Fifth Ward was “citizen complaints.” Then the phone rang. Shooting. A block north in front of the Hobo Flats Lounge. At 2:30 a.m., it was Friday night’s ninth call.
Two minutes later, the ambulance jerked out of station 19, whirling and screaming light and sound. When we arrived a small group was standing over a black man stretched across the broken sidewalk, his head lying in the weeds. More people slowly walked across the street from the bar. The assailant had run north, across the Southern Pacific tracks. Oscar Perkins, 38, had been shot three times: a small pencil-width bullet hole in his head, another in his throat, still another on his left side. Blood dripped slowly down his face onto a clean brown and white sweater. The crowd was calm and stood as if watching a play.
“That was cold-blooded, man. Brother didn’t lighten up at all. That was sure cold.”
“That’s O.C., man, my cousin. He didn’t do nothin’ to that man, The blood kept shootin’. Sure wanted O.C. dead. Keep breathin’, O.C.”
“They gonna abulancetize him now. Took them long enough to get that half block. What took you so long, brother? Man, that was cold.”
Glen and his partner, Richard Scott, worked quickly, ignoring the gibes. Perkins was conscious and quiet. He shook his head when Glen asked who shot him. Four police cars arrived almost at once. Officers briefly questioned the two EMTs as the crowd vanished into the darkness.
Code Three, a life-or-death run, full tilt with lights and siren. Scotty drove. Glen jammed two huge fourteen-gauge needles into Perkins’ arms to start the flow of Ringer’s lactate, a fluid replacement. He hooked up the positive and negative leads of the Telecare EKG machine to monitor his heartbeat. He talked to the doctors at Ben Taub through headphones and described the patient’s condition. He wrote down the vital signs—pulse, respiration, blood pressure—and the victim’s name and age on the stretcher sheet near his head. Perkins’ left forehead near the bullet wound had swollen to the size of a plum. The blood from the side wound had soaked through the bandage and the institutional-green stretcher sheet and splashed on the floor like raindrops. Perkins’ eyes glazed over, and Glen leaned over him. “Don’t go to sleep on me, man. Stay with me. We’re almost home.”
Inside the emergency room, people were lined up at the admittance window like customers at a grocery-store checkout counter. Cut, crying, bleeding, moaning. Glen and Scotty wheeled Perkins into a shock room. Doctors and nurses swarmed over him, stripping off his natty herringbone pants, blood-soaked sweater, small gold neck chain, brown loafers, and socks. From the shock table, Perkins wrote his name and telephone number on the back of an envelope in response to a nurse’s question. Thanks to the EMTs and the emergency room, it was not O.C.’s destiny to become Houston’s 405th homicide victim in 1978 this November Friday night.
A housing survey by a citizen’s group in Fifth Ward produced these findings. One-third of the complaints were exterior defects: broken doors, holes in outside walls, sagging porches, broken chimneys. One-third were interior violations that could hardly be attributed to tenants: bad wiring, decaying plumbing, defective heating hook-ups, rat and roach infestation. And one-third of the violations were probably caused by tenant: broken windows, trash in the yard. The results pointed more to the negligence of the city and the landlord than to the tenant.
Blue has it made. He has left behind his boyhood home, a Fifth Ward shot-gun house, over near the Southern Pacific yard, for a quiet midtown apartment at $250 a month for one bedroom. The white cop who first busted him years ago called the shot-guns “breeding huts.” Blue hasn’t forgotten that phrase or the house with its newspaper windows and urine stench. It was up on bricks like all the others, and the only good memory he has from Schweikhardt Street is of creeping under the house in the damp darkness with his gingerbread-colored girl friend and exploring her body.
What pleases Blue these days are his shoes—twenty pairs, mostly Guccis and ‘gators, shined and sitting in neat rows in his closet eight floors up in midtown. Blacks have a thing about shoes, Blue thinks. Comes from having bunions. Bunions come from having to stand up all day walking, working, waiting in lines, lifting, parking cars. Bunions were an affliction of the Negro race, like high blood pressure after forty for eating too much salt.
Blue is a hustler and dope dealer, one of the best in each trade, who has never forgotten his roots. No matter where he travels—down to New Orleans for the Ali-Spinks fight, for instance—when asked his home, he always answers: “Fifth Ward, my man.” Every brother knows the Bloody Fifth. So he comes back almost every night to see friends and be close to business, parking his new white El Dorado near Broussard’s Restaurant across from Kelly Village and walking over to the concrete pavilion known as “the Block” to greet the young bloods jiving and hustling cameras, watches, rings, almost anything, out of grocery bags on the back seats of more modest cars parked around the cul-de-sac. Looking at the younger kids, he sees himself fifteen years ago, still traveling hard on the asphalt, shooting craps behind the basketball goal, trying to perfect his hustle. He was sure there was a game tonight and there was.
He perfected his soul walk long ago: heel first, leg dropping and bending slowly in a gentle, rhythmic, graceful stride. One arm swinging across the body, the other tucked inside the pocket of his Cassini mohair suit pants. Nothing hurried. Very cool. Blue looked like the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a man he much admired. He had once attended Jackson’s “Operation Breadbasket” meetings at the Capital Theatre in Chicago on Saturday mornings and had been spellbound by Jackson’s famous introduction:
“I am,” and the audience would answer, “somebody.”
I may be poor but I am somebody.
I may be unemployed but I am somebody.
I may be on welfare but I am somebody.
I may be down and out but I am somebody.
I am black and beautiful and I am somebody.
On and on. The technique was as old as West African call-and-response chants, and Blue never failed to respond. Every American black was first an African and every American black was once a slave, the only immigrants who didn’t come to American voluntarily and the only ones imported specifically for hard, mean rural labor. That’s why the chants and the blues meant something. How did Al Hibbler once define a “soul” singer? One who was raised in old-time religion, one who had been hurt by a woman, and one who knew what slavery was all about.
It was a woman’s hurt that put Blue on the streets seventeen years ago. She broke his heart, gave him a heavy bale to tote, for sure too heavy to carry around the halls of Wheatley. So one day he walked out and never came back. He knew the streets were vicious unless you had a hustle. He had seen the casualties, wasted lives with lost hopes reflected in their eyes, sitting down in Pearl Harbor or sleeping in Pig’s Pool Hall until the Pig kicked them out. You had to get it together, not become a disgrace to the race. You had to remember Malcolm.
Blue started by hustling pool at Pig’s, playing pros like Cannonball and Scratch for hours, watching the big games, copping moves, learning about discipline under pressure. From pool, most young hustlers graduate to “boosting,” reselling hot merchandise like the amateurs on the Block. The money isn’t bad. You buy the goods from shoplifters or addicts for 20 per cent of the selling price, resell it at 40 to 60 per cent, and turn a 100 per cent profit. But to make big money requires a lot of goods, too much time, and a considerable risk of getting caught with the stuff. Girls are better, dope better still.
There are three kinds of girls a pimp controls: working girls who bring in portions of their paychecks; shoplifters; and whores. Moving up the ladder of pimp success is like graduating from Italian Swiss Colony Black Port to Canadian Club to Chivas Regal, and from a used T-bird to a Deuce-and-a-quarter (a Buick 225) to a “Hog”: the Cadillac Eldorado. Most pimps begin with the working girls and end with the streetwalkers, where the money is. That was Blue’s progression.
Blue had his rules. He was frosty, cool, always kept a lid on his emotions. He never slept with his girls and used violence only when necessary, which was fairly often. Most important, he worked at always having the right thing ready to say when challenged. He kept his game tight.
“There are only three ways for a black man in America to make a lot of money,” mused Blue, as we cruised Jensen checking on his “bus stop” girls. “Singing rock ‘n’ roll, playing basketball, or selling dope. I don’t mess with hard drugs much. Just a lot of good weed. My partner is an old dude in east Fifth Ward you would think was a plumber. Man brings down a hundred thou a year and saves most of it for his kids.
“I don’t agree with the usual hustler love for lots of flash. You got to look prosperous, but that pimp hat, dashboard fuzz, ring-on-each-finger jive just brings attention from the police. Every hustler I know hates to work, and I do too. I will not “do eight” for the Man. Never. Man around here used to say, ‘You see me with a pick and a shovel, you get one, too, ‘cause I just struck gold.’ Right on. My ladies and reefer pay for everything. Now I’m looking for a crib and a respectable, light-skinned colored girl, a house north of here but not too far from Bloody Fifth. So that I can stay in touch spiritually, dig?”
From the earliest days, Houston has had wards. The city charter of 1839 divided the city into five wards (a sixth, created after Reconstruction, in 1874, was discontinued) using the corner of Main and Congress as the keystone. The city government was made up of aldermen elected from each ward. By April 1, 1906, when the first city commission took office, Houston had long outgrown its original five-mile township site, so the wards were abolished but the cultural boundaries remained.
Hope Springs Eternal
Standing at Lyon and Jensen after lunch, I heard poetry coming from the second floor of the old Woolworth Dimestore Building. It was a strong female voice that had a singing quality, the music of spoken incantation. The melody and the meaning she gave her lines told of self-pride and unbreakable endurance. Poetry in Pearl Harbor? The incongruity seemed ludicrous.
The voice came from a woman to whom the years had given an extraordinary beauty and eternal vitality. Here in the cockpit of the most ravaged sector of Fifth Ward, Barbara Marshall, age 45, came each day to teach potential dropout kids the beauty of words and the magic of theater. Her work as a teacher and as director of the city’s Urban Theatre was part of HOPE (Human Organizational Political and Economic) Development, Inc., the most grass roots-level of Fifth Ward’s social agencies.
HOPE was the city’s second antipoverty agency, begun in the long hot summer of 1967 with a $27,000 grant and the energies of the Reverend Earl Allen, a Methodist minister who had been with the Harris County Community Action Association. During the next few years, HOPE became a force in the black community, publishing the Voice of Hope newspaper, providing job-training programs, legal aid, employment help, and classes for children from poor families. HOPE flourished in the early seventies, housed in three buildings along Lyons Avenue. Its Black Arts Center became the focus of black cultural activities in Houston: plays in the Roxy Theatre; workshops for drama, art, music, and poetry at the headquarters; and a gallery and museum at the De Luxe Theatre, which housed the Menil Foundation’s Tribal Art of Africa collection.
Hard times came after 1973. John deMenil, HOPE’s most important patron, died that year; grant monies dried up; financial entanglements within HOPE took a toll. But with new director Harvey King, an ex-schoolteacher from Refugio, and Barbara Marshall, HOPE is revitalizing its programs. Late last September came $164,000 under the Emergency School Aid Act. The National Endowment for the Arts in October announced a grant of $15,000. Marshall will use it for continued support of the theater training program, which has been out of money since last June’s freedom festival. Bringing culture to the ghetto, making residents aware of their heritage, giving teenagers a chance, perhaps, to escape by developing their acting abilities and knowledge are slow and expensive tasks—but things are happening, and at a most unlikely address.
“In the Fifth Ward,” says Barbara Marshall, “you could go from terror to happiness in thirty minutes. As a little girl walking down Lyons, you could be chased by a dirty drunk shouting the most evil things and, in the next minute, escape into a church and hear heavenly gospel singing with the preacher bringing you ice cream. A black poet once wrote, ‘You climb into the streets like you do the ass end of a lion.’ That’s Lyons and Jensen.”
She grew up quickly. She was orphaned as a young girl, when her mother died at 30 and her father at 33 of tuberculosis. Fifth Ward, then as now, was a rip-roaring place—tough, brutal, savage, yet full of life. From the beginning all her world was a stage despite, or perhaps because of, growing up in the shotgun houses of aunts and grandmothers south of Pearl Harbor amid the squalor bred by poverty.
“The worst whipping my father gave me was when he caught me dancing with my girl friends in the corner grocery for Hershey Kisses. I loved to perform even then, when I was five or six, and he had told me about shaking my behind in public. He taught me about the streets, about strangers, sex, my body, that life out there was very uncertain.”
She remembers the neighborhood violence, men filled with whiskey and rage, cutting and fighting. One incident was prophetic. A neighbor, drunk and half crazy, beat his wife out in the front yard and raised their small baby over his head, as if to dash it to the ground. Last year, in the Equinox Theatre presentation of for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, Barbara Marshall played the powerful Lady in Red whose husband, Beau Willie, does just that, (“i stood by beau in the window / with naomi reaching for me / & kwame screamin mommy mommy from the fifth story / but i cd only whisper / & he dropped em”).
Until she entered Texas Southern University, Barbara lived with several families in foster homes, her nine brothers and sisters scattered around Houston. She sang in the church, acted (mostly tragic roles) at Wheatley, majored in drama at TSU, and received a graduate speech pathology degree from Northwestern University. She returned to become Houston’s first black public school speech pathologist.
“Besides the violence, mostly I remember Fifth Ward as also a giving place, people without much helping each other, merchants selling more for less, neighbors sticking together during the inevitable crises. It’s still that way if you look hard enough. Despite society, or certainly the law, not offering much help or protection, people here remain decent and full of hope.”
Valuable Real Estate
In the green years of hope and youth for Fifth Ward, the land to the south near Buffalo Bayou was the best. Known as “the Bottom,” then as now, there were plum and peach orchards, two dairies, a cotton farm, and baptisms on Sunday right where the cattle forded after traveling down what is now Gregg Street. It was choice real estate and it sat almost like an island, watching the dirtier and dustier streets and houses coming up closer, lapping it like the sea.
Then it was inundated, as the poorer people were pushed south toward the bayou. The shabby shotgun houses with outdoor toilets and rags for window glass were stacked together like rows of dominoes. It became the most common area for “burnouts,” grudge fires to avenge an insult. In the Bottom were the biggest rats, meanest dogs, worst stench, and deepest mud in Fifth Ward, all this in a shroud of constant steam and smoke from burning rice-hull piles stacked by the nearby Comet Rice Company. It was like a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell; and it was literally a dump.
The city dump moved to the north bank of the bayou in the twenties, providing food, clothing, toys—in short, survival—for many of the Bottom residents. The center of Fifth Ward activity was just north, about where IH 10 and the Eastex Freeway now intersect, a place known everywhere as the “Big Tree.” Here was the end of the Lyons Avenue streetcar line. Near the huge oak was a hotel, a fish market, one of the first Danburg stores in Houston, shoe stores, and a barbershop. Gamblers shot craps in Danburg’s horse trough until the police arrived, then fled, leaving only small change that was scooped up by the children.
Most of the worst poverty is gone. In 1947, Brown & Root construction company bought first 79 acres, then 54 more, along the bayou for their world-wide headquarters. The dump has long since been relocated. Other large industries, like TESCO, moved to the area. During Mayor Louie Welch’s administration (1964-1974), many streets were paved, curbed, and guttered, and a few vest-pocket parks were carved out of the semi-industrial neighborhood. For Houston’s civic leaders, Fifth Ward isn’t a neighborhood; it is valuable real estate.
“Fifth Ward is typical of low-income areas in virtually every city in American and the world. You know, King Solomon rode around his kingdom where the poor lived and spoke of them as the ‘the slothful.’ The Houston Chamber of Commerce does not look at a single area of town and say what should take place. If there are any properties offered for sale in Fifth Ward, they will be presented to our clients. Land values are high in Fifth Ward because it’s so close to downtown. I’m confident that it will not be developed residentially. Light industry will be the fate of Fifth Ward in the future.”—Louie Welch, former mayor of Houston and president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce.
In an informal poll I took to discover the heroes of the Fifth Ward, four names were mentioned consistently: Muhammad Ali for his strength and brashness; Martin Luther King, Jr., for showing up the white man for what he was by coming to him as a Christian, nonviolent man and dying for it; Malcolm X, for his brain and because he was a true product of the ghetto and the streets; and Barbara Jordan, because she is a national heroine, a woman, and has escaped Fifth Ward. Malcolm X and Jordan ranked highest among people eighteen and under.
As Fifth Ward is a city within the city of Houston, so is Frenchtown a unique city within Fifth Ward: different language, different skin color, different food and music, different mores. It was settled by Creole blacks driven out of Louisiana by poverty and the two-month spring flood of 1927. It is heavily Catholic, clannish, and semi-highfalutin. It has a reason to be, and Mack McCormick, a music historian who lives in Houston, is the man who discovered it. “I can think of only two other neighborhoods in the United States that developed a unique music form. In New Orleans with jazz, and neighborhoods in New York with salsa. From Frenchtown came zydeco music, the marriage of Texas blues and Louisiana creole. Zydeco is gumbo-French for snap bean, and you’ll notice at a zydeco dance that many will slap their wrists like they were on the porch with a bag of beans. The difference is in the style of singing and in the selection of songs, rather than the instruments. What you end up with is Louisiana dance music tingled with blues.
In Frenchtown is one of Houston’s most exclusive social clubs. Eli Valien, of Valien’s TV Repair, is president of the Creole Knights, eleven members of the original Frenchtown families. They meet, usually at J.B.’s Showcase, once a year for a dinner dance to talk over old times with the Provos, Batistes, Vagerons, and Thibodeauxs. Occasionally, Frenchtown and Houston’s best zydeco accordionist, L.C. Donato, will come over from Vada’s Lounge with his band, the Drifters, to make music.
Frenchtown also has the most beautiful women, the best weekend barbecue outlet (Floyd Willis’, on the corner of Brewster and Josephine), and the best road-ditch crawfish in Fifth Ward. Nowhere else can you get boudain sausage and find it spelled seven different ways on the windows. The Boudain Man takeout is not far away. “Get them while they hot, just got them out of the pot,” says the sign that also publicizes “hog head cheese.”
But Frenchtown is dying. The daughters are intermarrying with other blacks and moving away, the old folks are passing on, and there is a new migration, again from the east. Mexican Americans are moving west out of Denver Harbor and buying the houses on Des Chaumes and Josephine and Delia streets. The skin color is exactly the same.
I was awakened in the middle of the night by the rattling of the shaky iron stairway that separated my apartment from Lovick’s drugstore. My bedroom window looked out on the tar roof of Lovick’s with its skylight and onto the intersection of Staples and Liberty Road, one of the top four junkie hangout corners in Fifth Ward. On the other side of the locked door at the head of the stairs was my rooftop patio, a brown and yellow couch with busted springs and a rusting barrel barbecue pit. From here, I usually ended the day with a beer, watching the street life change from its after-school to its after-work stage.
Peeking out my window, I saw—not four feet away—a boy about sixteen, dressed in dark pants, black T-shirt, and black cap, moving up the stairs with the certainty of a leopard. He jumped up on the railing, holding onto my apartment roof, and studied the leap he would have to make over the slat-board fence Mrs. Lovick had built along the roof edge to keep out young men in black outfits. He waited and listened. Then he crouched, jumped, straddled, swung his leg over, and landed on the roof. I was watching a burglary in progress, statistics coming alive, perhaps the first steps toward a career spent in prison, a large part of the pathology of the Fifth Ward unfolding before me.
The incentive certainly was there. Lovick’s did a good, steady business from 6a.m. until midnight. One call almost did all—the place sold meals, liquor, stationary, soap powder, and, of course, prescriptions from Moses Bismark Lovick’s pharmacy. Bismark Lovick was a hard working man. During the day, he ran a new pharmacy on Dairy-Ashford Road, eighteen miles away in the white enclaves of far West Houston, then drove his Mazda station wagon back to manage Fifth Ward Lovick’s until midnight.
Crouched low on one knee, the figure on the roof was trying to open the lock on the skylight window with a ball-peen hammer. He moved over to the shed that housed the air conditioner, but it gave no access to the store below. Downstairs, there was noise on the Staples side of Lovick’s, the sound of humming and sweeping. It was the drugstore cleanup man, dressed in his usual blue suit coat and humming the usual meandering, vague-sounding spiritual. The rooftop figure froze. He crouch-sprinted across the roof and dropped over the far side. The old man reached his favorite “I Cannot Get There by Myself” chorus and emptied his cardboard box of beer bottles and trash into the trash bin.
On one Fifth Ward block of lower-middle-class houses, the following burglary prevention devices were noticed: “Beware—Dangerous Dog” signs; burglar bars; barbed wire around a front porch; two-by-four planks nailed across a window; high, spiked fences; three-inch iron bands wrapped around window-unit air conditioners; floodlights.
“If you are running in Fifth Ward, you better be running laps.”—John, 16, pool player and street-corner teenager.
When we met at the Block after work one evening and I asked his name, he got off the car hood, hitched up his copper Sansabelt trousers, and said, “They call me Silky Slim.” He was not contributing to the unemployment rate among black teenagers—nearly 40 per cent—but had a job downtown with a moving company. Also, Silky Slim was his only nickname, which is unusual in the ghetto. Some young bloods have four: from parents, school, friends, and the street. Although he worked, Silky’s beat was the street, where he had had most of his experiences as a young man, free from adults, where he and his peers could set the rules and rituals. Hanging out with Silky, you developed a heightened sense of the value of the instinctive life.
“Niggers always had to shuck ’n’ jive to get along and keep a little dignity. Indians showed us what happens when you get tough with the white man. Ain’t none of them left. So as a kid you had a ‘rap,’ something to create a favorable impression and still have cool. You got your rap from ‘playin’ the dozens.’ That’s when you and your buddy had an insult contest, most of the time talking nasty about your mother. You know, ‘You momma so ugly sleep had to throw a sheet over her to get close.’ That’s the only nice one I can think of. Then he would come back at you. To win, you had to ‘cap his rap,’ come out with the baddest insult, and you had to keep cool no matter how bad his was.
“I learned about life on the street, what to wear, givin’ skin, a few hustles, and all about women and cops. I learned about waitin’ for things to happen because sooner or later they do. On the street you don’t have to Uncle Tom like you do at work and you get away from those Ivy League niggers that are always in the discos. With the brothers on the street is the only time I feel like a man.”
Be True to Your School
When the young of Fifth Ward are young no more, they will remember Wheatley High School. It serves as a major link and an agreeable meeting ground between generations, a rallying cry, and most of all, a tangible symbol of pride. What other high school in Texas can boast among its graduates two national politicians, one vice-presidential nominee (former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and Congressman Mickey Leland); two great jazz musicians (Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet); a world heavyweight boxing champion (George Foreman); two nationally known musical groups (Archie Bell and the Drells and the Jazz Crusaders); a law school dean (TSU’s Dr. Otis King); a Guggenheim fellow (dentist Dr. Marion Ford); pro basketball players (Dwight Jones and Tex Harrison); and pro football players (James Young and Godwin Turk).
Phillis Wheatley was a slave girl captured in Senegal when she was eight, brought to Boston in 1761, and bought by a wealthy tailor, John Wheatley, as a personal servant for his wife. Her first poem was published when she was seventeen, “A Poem by Phillis, a Negro Girl in Boston, on the Death of the Reverend George Whitefield.” Freed at age twenty, she went to London, where enjoyed great success as the “Negro Poetess.” In 1773, her poems were collcted in a book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
One late afternoon, when the 1197 black, 125 Mexican American, and 8 white students had finished their classes and gone for the day, principal Charles Herald poured a cup of coffee and talked about the remarkable institution he heads. “For many, Fifth Ward is Wheatley High School. We have a very active alumni chapter in Los Angeles of over two hundred members. They gave Mickey Leland a special award last fall. And this is true all over the country, blacks who have moved from Fifth Ward still cling closely to Wheatley.
“Integration hurt us. Our best teachers and students went elsewhere, and, while we still have gifted individuals, our overall test scores are down. Still, about fifty per cent of our graduates attempt college,” said Herald. He’s right. The school’s average reading score in 1977 was in the bottom eleventh percentile, down a point from 1976. This meant that Wheatley students read worse than 89 per cent of the nation’s high school students. Low academic achievement is the main reason Houston Independent School District officials last year proposed to make Wheatley a model inner-city school with new educational programs, higher teacher salaries, and smaller classes.
“The seventies have brought peace and quiet, at least,” continued Herald. “No more television cameras to incite the students, as we had during the civil rights struggle in the sixties. We have the normal discipline and truancy problems of any high school and fewer pregnancies. A lot of dope around, I’m afraid, and the street always takes a toll. Hell, the street is fun. It was when I went to Wheatley. It’s not so fun when you get older.” Outside, kids were smoking cigarettes on the curb, dribbling a basketball down Market Street, striking out for a thousand different destinations, as they would when they left Wheatley for the last time. But they will be back, back to cheer the Wildcats, back for a homecoming dance or a speech by Congressman Leland, back to bask in the pride of the purple and white.
If tenants of the Fifth Ward shotgun houses fall behind with their $17.50-a-week rent, landlords go through the red-tape motions of sending bills and making telephone calls. If this proves unsatisfactory, many simply remove a tenant’s front door, leaving the house vulnerable to attack from everything.
The east end of Fifth Ward is dominated by Southern Pacific’s 23-year-old, 4½ mile-long, 359-acre Englewood Radar Yard, the largest train yard in the South. On its 113 miles of track, 60 trains a day—between 5000 and 6000 freight cars—are moved, pushed, shuffled to make up freight trains heading across the country. The Mexican Americans living in east Fifth Ward call the area el Creosote because of the smell emanating from SP’s wood-preservation plant. Here in Englewood Yard, the railroad will treat and ship 1.7 million crossties a year, valued at $22.1 million.
Rock of Ages
From the beginning, it was the black man’s religion that helped make bearable his most unendurable life in America. The primary function of the “praise houses” and “hush harbors” on Sunday was to develop a will to survive the other six days. In the church, blacks were able to break out of their isolation, cultivate a bond with other plantation slaves, aspire to leadership, and find personal affirmation and self-esteem. Here, a field hand or washwoman could exercise power like the white man did in politics. In every other social arena—family, job, business, government, school, home—the black man and woman were dependent on and controlled by the white man. Only in church—this still most segregated institution—were they truly free.
From the beginning, blacks were drawn toward the Baptist religion and its preachers’ fiery and emotional message of salvation and hope and the prospect of escape from earthly woes. The parables and songs about the oppression of the Jews and the Promised Land rang true. The total immersion of baptism was only a Christian reenactment of West African river ceremonies. So, from these one-room, whitewashed churches, built of Southern pine, sitting in the forest at the end of some red dirt road, came the beginnings of the black middle class, of black colleges and schools, of black acting, music, and political leadership.
Through the years, one thing did not change about the black and his church. The preacher remained the dominant figure, as he had since the first conversion of a voodoo priest to a Baptist pastor. He was usually “called” to his ministry through a personal experience that indicated God had chosen him as a leader. It helped when God chose a man who had a deep, powerful voice, who could sing like the angels, and who had an intimate knowledge of the Bible. Most important, he had to communicate with rather than to his congregation—to preach, not instruct. He had to transmit feeling, emotion, and authenticity about the most fundamental concerns (salvation, sex, prison, loneliness, money, illness, death).
Because he was the figure in the black community, possessing both soul and responsibility, the preacher lived by different rules. If he held the church together, he was permitted to almost anything—a nicer house, a better car, finer clothes. Most important was that he look respectable and prosperous not only in the black community but also among the whites downtown.
Imagining the Reverend Charles Jackson without his brown silk suit and silk shirt with initials on the cuff and pocket, his silk tie, blue-suede shoes with translucent aqua-tint heels, and dark orange Mercedes sedan is like trying to picture Karl Marx without a beard. Jackson is the pastor of the Fifth Ward’s largest church, the 5600-member Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist, and today he is buying cement for his new sanctuary. All of the estimated $2.6 million construction costs are “coming from the collection plate,” says Jackson.
The new church is part of the “Pleasant Grove Way.” “I call it the ‘Pleasant Grove ions,’” explained Jackson in his office. “First will be the church for inspiration, the playgrounds and swimming pool will be for recreation, the hospital for medication, and the senior citizens’ home for relaxation. But they will all spin, like ions, around the church, because all business, all wisdom, all solving and answering of any problem comes from God through the Church.
“We’re building it ourselves because Fifth Ward is a red-lined area. Businesses can’t get insurance or credit or mortgages because folks downtown have drawn a red line around Fifth Ward and refused money to anyone inside the line. So we are doing it from offerings.
“It is important to go first class in the ghetto. Anyone can drive big cars. Pimps, dope addicts, whores, gamblers, the average man can drive a Cadillac or Mercedes. But it is important that people in this ghetto see that me, a tenth-grade dropout, can build a two-million-dollar church, wear fine clothes, drive a fancy car. You got to get the man’s mind off poverty so he thinks, if that fool, Jackson, can do it, so can I.”
When Jackson dropped out of school for the street he also left Pleasant Grove, where his uncle was pastor. “I hit Lyons Avenue and learned about life. I did it all down there. Then I wised up and decided to make something of my life, so I worked up to running a Texaco station over on Eastex freeway for seven years. God taught me business sense and how to deal with whites at that Texaco. Then, sitting on the back of a dump truck, I got a call from Jesus to come back to Pleasant Grove and help people in Fifth Ward. That was ten years ago. We now have a day-care center, three acres instead of just a church, fenced playgrounds to keep the children off the streets, and a future. When I go fishing, I hope to catch a whale, not a minnow.”
Acquiring the three acres got Jackson embroiled in controversy. About fifty residents claimed that he had their gas and water turned off and served eviction papers with only 24 hours’ notice. Jackson denied it, saying the residents had known for months they were going to have to move and were not paying their bills. “The church had been paying their bills for months because we owned the land. Finally, we had to stop. They weren’t fit for human dwelling and should have been torn down years ago,” said Jackson.
On Sunday, Pleasant Grove is packed, with people standing outside to listen. The huge choir sways back and forth, filling the sanctuary with husky-throated voices, the music drenched with feeling, bringing the congregation along with clapping hands. Jackson begins, moving as deftly as James Brown from one side of the stage to the other, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite prayer: “Lord, we ain’t what we ought to be, and we ain’t what we want to be, we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God we ain’t what we used to be.”
Like King, Jesse Jackson, and Adam Clayton Powell, Charles Jackson is a spellbinder. He changes approaches effortlessly, intertwining the logical portions of his sermon with more emotional, old-time religion.
“For Jesus says, ‘I’m going to cry like a woman in travailing,’ a pregnant woman, a woman in labor, like a woman delivering a child. I know I’m right! Now, what was He talking about? He didn’t say He was pregnant, but He was going to cry out like a pregnant woman. Now, let me tell you, the ministry has the same system that a pregnant woman has. You don’t have any business hollerin’, talkin’ about the Lord, hollerin’ and preachin’ and teachin’, if you haven’t got something on the inside. I know I’m right! Somebody around here sayin’, ‘He hollers too much.’ Yes, I holler. I got something on the inside, praise the Lord!
“Now you gotta pray with me that the Lord will help me to explain what I’m tryin’ to say. And not only that, but when a woman gets pregnant, her eating habits change. She has to change her diet when she got with child. Same with a preacher. You can’t lead folks out of darkness into light, eating the same foods you did before you were regenerated. My reading habits got to change to the work of God. Those Playboy magazines, I got to put ’em up. I know I’m right! You can’t get no sermon out of a Dick Tracy funny book or True Confessions magazine. And look, you can’t teach your Sunday school class watching soap operas all week.
“That pregnant woman go to walk carefully and act carefully, she’s cautious of things she does. Same way with the ministry. Why? Because I’m carrying something and I gotta deliver it! I must deliver it! I know I’m right! You gonna help me today? I have one other point to make, and then I’m gonna close, and that is joy to a pregnant woman. Although she may cry out with her labor pains, although she might be hard to get along with, although she might have to walk and be careful, when she hears the cry from that baby, that cry, she’s happy, she’s joyful. You gotta cry out like a pregnant woman, you oughta cry like a travailing woman, cry…holler it out!
“Cry it out that He died till that moon dripped down blood. Cry it out that He died one Friday and was led up to Calvary, but early, early Sunday morning He got up. Didn’t He get up? And went back to heaven. Do you ever feel Him put prancing in your feet, joy bells in your heart, tears in your eyes, happiness in your soul? Cry it out if He did! We come here Sunday after Sunday and we get no better. The talent you have, the gift you have, God gave it to you and He wants you to stand and cry like a travailing woman. He wants to give you something that you can carry so you can deliver somebody from the dungeon of life to the ceiling of life. Thank you, Jesus!”
The End of the Line
There are two things to remember about the ghetto. One, evil often triumphs over good. Two in spite of that, most of its residents retain a goodness that proves indestructible. No matter how ill the world treats them, they remain good in the deepest sense—charitable, honest, forgiving, compassionate—not gloomy and full of foreboding like Job but buoyant and full of hope, like the astonishing products of Wheatley High School.
Poverty is what ulcerates life in the Fifth Ward. It is the sure path to humiliation, resignation, and bitterness; it settles like a locust on the warm, generous spirit of the people, eating away their hope and love of life, darkening their vision. The cyclical plague of the welfare check. Few jobs. Drugs. Alcohol. Crime. The conventional racism, expressed in outright exclusion and overt brutalities, such as lynchings and beatings, has disappeared only to be replaced by a new racism that still largely excludes blacks until they meet polite, well-mannered white standards.
After midnight, only the siren wail of the ambulance and the whistle moan from the Southern Pacific freight train split the night of Fifth Ward. The street dance has quieted to a slow strut; whores still walk Jensen Drive, their pimps patiently waiting nearby to collect the proceeds. Deep in Pearl Harbor, near Tamborello’s grocery, an old wino leans on a building with both arms, heaves and bows and retches. He straightens up and bows again as his vomit flows down the wall.
The residential streets are as silent and deserted as in other Houston neighborhoods. But there are differences: cars parked in front yards, nosed into shotgun houses; groups of bone-thin road dogs, rooting and pawing trash piles; still-smoking barbecue pits; refrigerators in a vacant lot between modest homes looking in the moonlight like tossed ivory dominoes. At the end of the block, freight cars move slowly past the pendulumlike red eye of the railroad signal. Pulpwood cars, flatcars, tank cars. Great Northern, Burlington Northern, Cotton Belt, Pacific Fruit Express, all passing symbols of great industry leaving the ghetto.
If the Fifth Ward is at once the most vicious quarter of Texas, a brutal, alcohol-sodden, desperately poor jungle where killing is done with no compunction, rape with no seduction, and a man’s pocket is picked seconds before he swings into eternity, it is also an area that is larger than life. Here people live with immense gusto and appetite for life, bearing the blows of fortune with stoic fortitude. Most spend their lives, amid the crime and poverty, working hard for not much, hoping for the best—a decent income, a good and loving wife, a sober husband, the respect of neighbors.
After my three-month stay, I felt that Fifth Ward’s most haunting quality was the frequency of lurking disaster that awaited all men and women there, the certainty that no life, no matter how virtuous, would escape the pain, misery, and degradation caused by poverty, racism, and prejudice. And until the politicians and financiers sitting two miles away in downtown Houston smell self-interest in the winds blowing from Fifth Ward, this will not change.