On August 16, the Houston Chronicle ran a story called De Menil Plans Artist Enclave in Acres Homes. The article profiles realtor Star Massing and a planned development of 14 artist live/work studios, originally called NoLo Studios, now called NoLo Studios at Acres Homes. The development is being designed and financed by Francois de Menil, the son of Menil Collection founders Jean and Dominique de Menil.
Three days after the Chronicle profile, John Pluecker, a Houston writer, translator and occasional performance artist who earned an undergraduate degree in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration at Yale and a masters degree in Spanish at the University of Houston, responded on Entropy Magazine, an online blog, with a 3,000-word op-ed titled This House is on Fire: Race, Houston Gentrification, and the de Menil Legacy, without interviewing Massing or de Menil, and, I strongly suspect, without speaking to any of the residents of Acres Homes.
Pluecker paints Francois de Menil as a white supremacist developer with no thought for the welfare of “black and brown” people. Citing the legacy of Jean and Dominique de Menil’s support for civil rights, Pluecker contrasts an image of the callous son with an image of the parents as radical civil rights leaders. Pluecker writes that the development is an “utter abandonment of every political and social goal to which the de Menils dedicated their lives.”
A week later a 2,600-word version of Pluecker’s piece appeared in the Houston Chronicle. Roughly half of those deleted words strongly confirm my impression that Pluecker’s response to this development is little more than moral self-aggrandizement. In my opinion his primary intention in the article is to exploit feelings of guilt and anger that surround economic inequality and its entanglement in the history of racism for the purpose of bolstering his bona fides as an “activist writer.” Blogs are often a depressing swamp of misinformation and hyperbole but the article’s appearance in the pages of the Houston Chronicle demands fact checking and careful analysis.
Acres Homes, a historically black neighborhood in Northwest Houston, is home to a mixture of vacant lots, multi-generational houses in various states of repair and more than a few houses that wouldn’t seem out of place in the wealthy neighborhoods of Memorial. If you drive due south down Antoine from Acres Homes you actually dead end in Memorial. It’s an interesting intersection, connecting two very different parts of Houston.
Because Acres Homes, known to many residents as “The 44” after the bus line that services the area, remained largely unincorporated into the city of Houston, it has suffered for many years from neglect and the decay that results from lack of basic services. But within the neighborhood, if you pay attention, you can see another set of economic stratifications.
The wealthiest residents live in the big gated houses. Those who have enough money are able to maintain their smaller homes, cultivate their yard and keep their roof in good repair. Other houses are maintained but show signs of disrepair. People do what they can with what they have. Still other houses are piled high with garbage and seem to barely stand. These belong to people who, for whatever reason, have lost control of their lives. In other words, it’s 5,000 acres of human society.
Pluecker’s article hinges on his claim that de Menil did not engage the residents in the planning of the development. Massing, the realtor for the de Menil properties, confirmed that meetings with neighborhood leadership were in the process of being scheduled on August 13, three days before the appearance of the original Chronicle profile. On August 31st, Francois de Menil “personally met with Pastor Carl Davis; Acres Homes Super Neighborhood Council President Tim White; Michael Yarbrough, Legislative Director for State Representative Jarvis Johnson; Kimberly Hatter, Executive Director of the Acres Home Chamber of Commerce and several others.”
Massing also says she personally walked the area and spoke with residents at their homes. Houston mayor Sylvester Turner and other wealthy landowners live in Acres Homes and you can be sure that no lots would be sold to anybody if Massing and de Menil were trying to skirt the community’s political system. Acres Homes is allowing development. Negotiations are taking place. Business is being done. What Pluecker fails to realize is that communities, however brown or impoverished, have formal and informal leadership in place.
The fact also remains that when there is a buyer, there is a seller. The pastor and resident who sold the 2½ acres on which the studios will stand acted of his own free will. Would Pluecker like to assert that the man doesn’t have a right to sell the land on his own terms? What about the other residents who have sold homes and land? A few years ago, an artist friend of mine looking for property made an offer for the full asking price of a plot of land for sale in Acres Homes. He was ignored.
By comparing the development to colonialism, as he does, Pluecker is suggesting that the residents of Acres Homes are powerless subjects. For someone so supportive of black people I’m surprised this is the case he wants to make. Would the residents of Acres Homes feel comfortable being described as powerless subjects?
After Pluecker’s article was linked on his Facebook page Massing commented that she would be happy to meet with him and give him more details on the project and her communication with residents and community leaders. He never reached out to Massing. Whatever the nature of the various community discussions, Pluecker’s claim that there was no consultation with the representatives and residents of Acres Homes is false. This is reason enough to doubt any and all of his claims. But I believe there is something more insidious going on with his repeated reduction of the community of Acres Homes to “black and brown” people and his characterization of the NoLo project as an act of “white supremacy.”
There is no doubt that some Acres Homes residents oppose development. But the fact remains that those property owners who are selling are doing so willingly. Pluecker, however, repeatedly paints them as people desperately in need of the saving grace of someone with, as he puts it “radical imagination.” Because the de Menils are safely dead and Francois does not meet his specifications I can only assume he imagines himself to be this white knight.
He writes that “We have to ask pointed questions: what are we doing to work against the loss of affordable housing? To work for access to education in the most impoverished sectors of our city? What are we doing to use arts and culture to create a more just city for all residents?”
The answers to these questions are mysterious to Pluecker because he seemingly has little knowledge of city government and its tribal structures, has not taught in the lone education center that services Acres Homes, and appears to have a profound misunderstanding of the purpose of arts and culture. Many of the residents around NoLo Studios are over 65 years old. Homestead exemptions and the over-65 property tax exemption reduce the allowable property tax increases on homeowners in addition to the current 10% annual property value increase cap.
After the over-65 exemption was removed from the house my wife and I purchased near Acres Homes, our taxes increased by $200 a month. In the last year, the market value of my house has increased 75%. In a recent interview on KPFT, Mayor Turner alluded to the possibility of initiating additional property tax incentives for low-income residents as a way of mitigating displacement in a city whose population and housing demands are exploding. Time will tell if this is feasible or even truly intended. I hope I’m within the income cap. As I told a realtor acquaintance recently, as a homeowner, I’m not looking forward to ten years of hanging on by fingernails and toenails.
One of the former students who manage the Lone Star Victory Center campus in Acres Homes around the corner from my house, where I’ve taught art history to charter school kids and working-class adults for the past two semesters, told me that after a long property fight with one of the local churches, the residents of Acres Homes were finally successful in constructing the campus. It seems the residents of Acres Homes have been working for access to education for quite some time.
The Menil-backed project is Pluecker’s only target but it isn’t the only construction in the area. If Pluecker had driven through the neighborhood with his eyes open he would have seen that development is coming to Acres Homes, Menil name or not. Annie’s Place, a project by developer Heidi Eagleton, is also underway. A short way down Tidwell at Rosslyn there is a large, concrete-laden development. The south side of Tidwell is already very dense. He zeroes in on the Menil project because he knows that targeting the other developments wouldn’t gain him this kind of traction. The Menil marquee is a way to call attention to himself as a writer in the Houston art community. And it’s worked.
Houston is on track to surpass Chicago as the third-largest city in the United States within a decade or so. The only real question is how that growth will play out. From all accounts and from the renderings, the NoLo studios seem more conscientious than most of the development I’ve seen in my 15 years in Houston. The estimated cost of units, between $300,000 and $450,000, is in part to pay for the lack of density and clear sight lines the project proposes to maintain. In Massing’s Facebook thread Francois de Menil notes that the ground floor price is in the low $270s. Lowering the cost of the studios would require more units to be built. The cost is also in place to pay for extensive sewage and road infrastructure. But all home construction, including Section 8 housing, must fall within a budget and generate a profit.
Much of the discussion on the various social media threads centers on the lack of affordability of these studios to artists. While it is true that many artists, including myself, cannot afford such a mortgage, Pluecker might be surprised to know that there are actually quite a few mid-career Houston-area artists who’ve worked much of their lives and would indeed be able to afford such a mortgage. I know at least a dozen who fit that bill.
Pluecker writes, “There are a lot of specific changes that could be made in regards to this one development… .” While Pluecker offers no examples himself, Massing has reached out to investors to purchase one of NoLo’s buildings and donate the monthly rent to an arts organization in order to establish an artist-in-residency program. An artist residency in Northwest Houston next door to the Lone Star Victory campus has a great deal of potential. Again, whatever misgivings I share with the general public about Houston’s rapid development, Pluecker is painting a distorted picture of this particular situation.
Finally, half of those 400 words that went missing from his Entropy post when it moved to the Chronicle are perhaps the most telling in terms of what I see as his real intentions in attacking the project. Toward the end of the original version of his article, Pluecker writes a long paragraph that virtually renders his own entire point moot. He writes, in part:
“Without a doubt, residents of Acres Homes and other Black and Brown residents of other neighborhoods are already at the forefront of this conversation. If you don’t know about their work, make an effort to reach out, to listen to the stories, learn about the work and the demands being made. These communities are already agents. They are creating master plans and leading organizing campaigns through groups like Fe y Justicia Workers Center, Texas Organizing Project, Right2Justice and United We Dream. They are establishing coalitions and CDCs… Hopefully, organizers, urban planners, activists and others will make concrete asks, suggestions and demands both of the Menil and of local developers and organization.”
This paragraph, which is perhaps the most honest series of words in his article, frankly admits that the residents and representatives are already having a conversation of which he is clearly not a part, but this section is missing in the Chronicle version. Actual references to the Acres Homes’ community involvement are erased, while his byline remains intact.
Also missing from the Chronicle version of his op-ed is the following original sentence:
“…the Houston Chronicle article (and developers) talk about Acres Homes as an empty space with no residents, only pretty trees, chickens, horses and lots of room.”
The Chronicle version reads:
“…the project’s developers depict Acres Homes as an empty space: only pretty trees, chickens, horses and lots of room.”
Clearly Pluecker’s moral outrage did not prohibit him from removing his criticism of Houston’s paper of record so that his byline could appear within its pages. In the article Pluecker asks “how ‘we’ can do better.” He might do well to ask how he can do better.
Correction 9/18/2016: The original version of this article has been edited to reflect that meetings with community leaders were in the process of being scheduled before, but did not occur until after, the Pluecker article appeared in Entropy and the Houston Chronicle.