Due to space limits, my Sunday column had to be sliced and diced. Here’s the original full version:
On Thursday, I was standing in a hotel ballroom, looking at rows of maps, with their nice, neat lines and clear boundaries.
A day earlier, I was standing in the Time Check neighborhood as a cold rain fell. Somehow, on the ground, the lines look a lot less neat, the boundaries are much less clear. For anyone who gets a warm feeling from all the optimistic announcements and big promises of government cash, it’s a chilly dose of reality.
I climbed into a Toyota with Rick Davis and Chuck Wieneke. Davis has been bending my ear about city issues since I first sat down at my desk last year. His house on Eighth Street NW, behind Guppies on the Go, was flooded in June. It’s stripped to the studs inside and sits empty. “My wife doesn’t want to come back here,” says Davis, who grew up in this neighborhood.
Wieneke is a city council member who represents this side of town, where he also grew up. Our driving tour was a mixture of bygone memories of the past and anxiety about the future. As we cruise down Ellis Boulevard, Davis remarks that he navigated the same street in his boat during the flood. The water was more than 9 feet deep.
“This was the best pizza in town,” Rick says, pointing to The Flamingo restaurant and bar, beaten up, muddy and down for the count. Back in the day, Rick says he and his buddies would pull in and buy beer out the back window.
“They had the best margaritas, too,” Wieneke chimes in from the back seat.
I hear about breakfast at Willie’s and how Wieneke’s mom worked at The Log Cabin long ago and how Davis used to ride his bike to Hubbard Ice and scrounge for dropped quarters and how he delivered 160 newspapers. Did you know they used to sell snow cones at Ellis Park and catch big bullheads in Robbins Lake? I do now.
But memories melt into anxiety as we drive down Fourth Street NW in the heart of Time Check. If the City Council’s flood map becomes reality, we’re rolling down the center of a new levee. The “wet side” is to our right, the “dry side” is on our left. But on every side are slumping, battered houses that no one will ever call home again.
The ones to the right will be bought out. The ones on the left and within a few shattered blocks beyond may be purchased, too, but how many? It’s that multimillion dollar question that’s making so many folks lose sleep. This is where the map no longer looks so clean and neat.
It’s hard to argue with Davis when he contends that the city should be more “aggressive,” perhaps moving the levee inland a few more blocks to create an even larger green buffer zone, with more sure buyouts. Close in, on the so-called dry side, only about one in 10 or one in 20 houses show even small signs of recovery. Granted, it’s a weekday at midday, and a lot of folks are still frozen in cruel limbo while they wait for government to make decisions. But clearly, many are not coming back.
“I don’t want people living in these houses again,” Wieneke says as we stand at a boarded-up house owned by Davis’ father on the corner of Fifth Street NW and N Avenue. But as much as he’d like to, Wieneke can’t yet make any promises.
Sure, it’s possible that developers will swoop in on the dry side of the new levee and revive or reinvent this neighborhood. I hope it happens. The plans I saw in the ballroom are impressive.
But as you stand in the eerie quiet, and look down empty streets, and at lifeless homes, you can understand how some people who loved this neighborhood with every fiber in their being are now willing to let it go, if it means getting on with their lives. Helping them get there should be absolute priority one right now, and clear-eyed compassion shouldn’t stop at some neat line on a map.
We’ve had false starts and restarts and delayed starts and now Jumpstart. How long do these folks have to wait for a fresh start?