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Freedmen’s Town’s Brick Preservationists Take Fight To City Hall

Ongoing fight over historic brick streets could end in litigation.


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Members of the Freedmen's Town Preservation Coalition — from left: Dorris Ellis, publisher of The Houston Sun; Gladys House with the Freedmen's Town Association; and Eric Skonberg, engineering consultant — hold a media availability at the Rutherford Yates Museum.

The disagreement over how to deal with the historic bricks in the Fourth Ward has gone on for over a decade. But it got hot again when the City Council voted last month to move forward with replacing old water and sewage pipes.

Now a coalition is lobbying City Council to rescind their vote and use a method they say has worked well in other places: use tunnels to get to the old pipes and put new infrastructure underneath sidewalks.

"We are, like, at the edge of the wall, but the wall has not been knocked down yet," said Dorris Ellis, publisher of the Houston Sun, a community newspaper based in the Third Ward. "And we're trying to get the city to look at an alternate way of placing the infrastructure."

Ellis is also the president of the newly formed Freedmen's Town Preservation Coalition, a group of residents and organizations that are fighting against the city's plans to open the neighborhood's historic brick streets for utility repairs.

Catherine Roberts is the president of the Rutherford Yates Museum, which is also part of the coalition. She said someone from the coalition is going to every City Council meeting.

"We're hoping that they will be open to new information and switch their vote and then work with us to save this district," she said. "I mean, we have a preservation mayor. This is a great example of a real preservation job, not a half-baked one where you move houses, which is a violation too, but one that's really going to create a major tourism destination for Houston."

Catherine Roberts, president of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum, has long fought for the preservation of the historic brick streets in Freedmen's Town.

Eric Skonberg is an engineering consultant with knowledge in trenchless engineering – basically putting pipes underground without digging a trench. He has consulted the Yates Museum in the bricks issue since 2007, when the city was also considering doing repairs.

"It's basically to put pits down the street," he said. "You drill a hole between the two pits and you install the pipe, instead of digging a trench as you go. It's a very accepted technology. The city of Houston has used a lot of trenchless methods over the years. And I don't understand why they're not pursuing it here."

Mayor Annise Parker has said the method the coalition is lobbying for is too expensive. But she has promised that the bricks will be put back where they were after the repairs are done.

Keith Wade, chair of the city's Fourth Ward/Freedmen's Town task force, has said the city will replace any bricks that might get damaged.

But that is unacceptable for the members of the Freedmen's Town Conservation Coalition. They pledge to continue to reach out to the public and try to convince council members to change their vote.

However, time is running out. The start of construction is scheduled to start next month.

Catherine Roberts said a lawsuit will be considered as a last resort.

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