Public History graduate students Allison Sáenz and Karla A. Lira interviewed Fifth Ward resident, Keith Downey as part of the “Resilient Houston: Oral History Project.” This project is part of the UH Center for Public History’s preservation efforts to document Hurricane Harvey’s impact on various Houston communities. The oral history interview took place at Lyons Missionary Baptist Church. In this interview, Keith discussed living in the Fifth Ward and in New York, he compared the impact of Hurricane Sandy with Hurricane Harvey on his family and community, and post-Harvey efforts.
Notes for reader: Interviewer’s notes throughout are enclosed within parentheses to indicate body language and words not understood.
Start of transcript
KD: Feeder pattern community council.
KD: So, all seven schools feed into Kashmere High.
KA: Good, good, good.
KD: Yes, working together as a system.
TR: Remember how I told you all that something will always go wrong? This guy is not working so we have this one. We should be good to go, you all can start.
AS: Okay, sounds good.
AS: So, I’m going to do half the questions, and then my colleague Karla
KD: Sure, sure
AS: Will go on, so yeah, let’s go ahead and get started.
AS: Today is Thursday April 11, 2019 and this is Allison Saenz and Karla Lira
KD: Thank you for having me.
AS: Yes, yes, thank you for being with us and we are with the Center for Public History at the University of Houston and we are conducting this interview at Lyons Unity Missionary Baptist Church. So were excited to speak with you today.
KD: I am excited to be here.
AS: (Laughs) So let’s jump right to it. Very basic question to start off, can you state your name and birthday?
KD: Yes. My name is Keith Downey. D-O-W-N-E-Y. My birthday is September 10th 1961.
Ali: Perfect, thank you. So how long have you lived in Houston and where are you from originally?
KD: Well, I am originally from Houston, native Houstonian. I am from Fifth Ward. I grew up within walking distance of this location. I was here the first twelve years of my life and then I, uh, subsequently, I lost my grandmother at the age of twelve and went on to live in let’s get it right uh, Kashmere Garden, Rosewood, and also, Trinity Garden, and I graduated Kashmere High School back in 1980. So, I went on after I graduated I went on to Prairie View and University of Texas Arlington and if you didn’t know, in 1985 you could have a Rice Master’s, a Master’s degree from Rice University and you could not get a McDonald’s job. It was that bad.
KD: During the oil bust, I went to New York cause I have an aunt that lived there. And two weeks later I was working on West 27th Street. I worked for an architect, so I was basically working in within my degree. I worked for an architect. We did affordable housing in Harlem. Um, and also in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. Essex Street and New York went through a recession in the early 90s. Around ’93. And so, there were a lot of layoffs and what have you. So, I ended up working for a landscape architect on Park Avenue. In turn, they were working, had a contract with the parks department, New York City Parks and Recreations, and I ended up building parks in, uh, Brooklyn and parks in Queens, New York including the first playground for able-bodied handicapped children in the United States. Playground for all children and um. So, I was able to meet my wife who was a native New Yorker, Rashida. And I always had that Houston feel. I always wanted to know what was happening in Houston. Even though I lived every day, what’s in the news in Houston? You know, what have you, so what happened one day, I asked my wife, I said I want to move back to Houston. She quickly said, I thought I’d get pushback, didn’t get any. She said, “let’s go” and she had been on the job thirty-three years and four months, and she said, let’s go. And so, we packed up the kittens at the time, and moved to Houston. And when I got to Houston, I wanted to get involved in the community where I grew up. And so, I met a high school AP physics teacher Adiba Cowey (unintelligible) and he said, Mr. Downey, I, I can’t continue to teach children physics because they have so many socio-economic issues in North East, Houston. He said, “With you, knowing the community, would you put together a convene of stakeholders, where it’d be not just ministers, but, teachers, Houston Police Department, counselors, and parents. We did this back in 2015. On 2016, um, we started vetting wrap around service as, as a counsel that would help our students and so it has grown to now HISD he has the, software for that but they hear wrap around services, you hear community councils and all. Our community councils every month, principals share a report with the community. Every month of what’s going on our seven schools of our Kashmere Feeder Pattern, five elementary and one middle schools, and one high school. And it helped that you were from the community and went to the high school so you knew the need. You knew what was. Yes, times changed. So, in turn, what has happened overtime its afforded us to help the Feeder Pattern grow. It has also helped bring dialogue and communication, between schools. I had no clue living in New York that schools did not communicate with one another. They could be on the same street and one does not know what the other is doing. So, it’s a beautiful thing and so a senior member of the community came up to me and said, Mr. Downey, you’re very active in the community and what have you, would you being from Kashmere Gardens, would you like to be president of Kashmere Garden Super Neighborhood? And I said yes. I mean, I love to help seniors. All residents, no matter the ethnic persuasion, or what have you, because people are people. Man separates, God does not. He won’t say, “I’ll help these, but I’ll ignore those.” Didn’t say that, that’s what man does. And so, we have to help everyone and so, its uh, it’s a beautiful thing so I’ll be stepping down as chairman after being the founder, and um the chairman, from March 2015 until our last meeting is on April 27 and the person that will be succeeding me is actually, he is also from Kashmere and I just left him moments ago. You know, Mr. Kenneth Williams. So, it’s going to be great because it belongs to the community, as I said, HISD may have the software for the wrap around but the community council, the Kashmere Feeder Community Council belongs to the community. It is community based. Because people come in and out of positions, but you need that foundation piece in the community. It doesn’t, it shouldn’t depend on an organization or its funding stream or what have you, so that’s basically my background.
AS: So, when did you move back to Houston from New York?
KD: February 2015.
AS: Okay, and so, I’m kind of curious as to, you keeping up with Houston, right, in terms of, despite being in New York.
AS: Maybe even your experiences over there, or by just keeping up with Houston, kind of how you saw tropical storms affect the city prior and then, ultimately, Hurricane Harvey but, maybe yeah, your own experience with that.
KD: Easy. That’s an easy one. Not only would I keep my ear to the ground in what’s going on in Houston, I would be, whenever the high school would as me, the Alumni Association of Kashmere Gardens, would ask me in New York, could you lend a hand to do whatever? I would do that, I didn’t let distance separate us. You know a lot of people have moved to Los Angeles and you don’t hear from them. No, I have always. My heart has been here, here in Houston. And so, you speak about storms and tropical storms. So, we had superstorm Sandy. So, I was there. Of course, living in New York during superstorm Sandy, but what the funny story on that is, I came here (Houston) as it was traveling up the East Coast cause it was, it was. Kashmere High School’s Homecoming that weekend, and I had my ticket. I got here as soon as I landed at Hobby. I changed my ticket because it started to travel up the coast at that point it was in Florida. They didn’t know if it was going to go straight up North or was it going to turn and go West. And I can changed my ticket, I think, twice and so I was here for that, that Saturday for the parade and I flew back that Saturday night, I flew in on Friday, flew back Saturday night, so it was a short visit. And I’ll never forget, I caught the last flight out of Bush, to get back to LaGuardia and when we the pilot announced, he said, “we’re going to thread a needle. We have Sandy to the right side. We have a front coming in from the left, and we are gonna have a bumpy ride.” Once we get past Alabama, and it was bumpy all the way and when we got to LaGuardia, they actually came in a direction they don’t normally come in and so, when they hit the pavement they slammed the plane on the pavement, and I asked myself, (unintelligible) I had to cross and it was like crazy and that was the last flight to come in to LaGuardia that night, about twelve midnight. And the next day they shut down the airport during Sandy, I couldn’t wait to get home cause my wife, she didn’t come with me. She was at home. We lost a window. Blew in, one of the windows blew in our home and, the flooding was severe in Manhattan. The flooding was super severe along the boardwalk in Queens they lost the whole boardwalk. A whole community burned down where a lot of firemen lived out on Rockaway. And so, it was sand and water that came into Brooklyn and it was with us for a while. The streets were flooded, we couldn’t get around. And New York is a crazy city. No matter how high the snow, I have seen twenty-six inches no matter how high the water, if the public transportation can get around, the rule of thumb is, you can get to work and get to school. Yes, you may not be able to move your car because it may be buried, but if you can get step and step into that (unintelligible) that water you can get, New York is a city that never sleeps. I’ve even gone to see Katz in a blizzard, you know, so it’s, I saw the struggles that local governments had in New York during Hurricane Sandy about getting funding. New Jersey, and the funny thing about that was the emphasis at that times was everything was put on New Jersey. Yes, they lost a lot, but New York lost a lot as well. I mean taking out a whole boardwalk, not just a section, but leaving it down to its out concrete (unintelligible) Umm, many homes being flooded and many, you know, homes in New York have basements, so they took in water. You know, communities burnt down, a lot of the resources were put into New Jersey. So, though I grew up here with tropical depression and all of this in Houston, you know it’s something else to see government response to a storm. So, it was an experience.
AS: So, what year was Sandy Hurricane?
KD: Sandy was around 2013, something like that.
As: Okay, and so then being here in Houston, then during Harvey.
KD: In 2015.
AS: Yeah, considering Harvey, what was different or how was the experience here during Hurricane Harvey, considering the difference between New York City and Houston?
KD: Houston has an advantage it does not realize, though it’s very difficult to get you know, county and city to work. What has been in the past to work in harmony, um, in New York they would wait on federal, federal, federal. They didn’t have that, that joint effort of working together and working with communities. Here, I love the fact that a lot of departments and agencies send liaisons out to communities to find out the need. What I, what I say to, I said to the mayor, two days ago as I spoke the mayor and city council, you have grassroots leaders at your disposal. We want to help you sell, we want to help you market, but what we have to do is know the details. The grassroots leaders need to know upfront. The strongest part of a tree is not the prettiness people see as the best. It’s the roots. People talk about how pretty the tree but they are looking up, they are never looking at ground level. So, Houston has some advantages. We have a lot leaders. In North East Houston, a lot of advocates and what have you. And everybody has good intentions. Now, it may end up that something may go awry or what have you, but the initial intention is good. And trust those grassroots leaders, they have relationships with residents. I know the seniors meet at the multi-service centers every day. I call it, “Small Town USA.” Go to any McDonalds in any small town in Texas and find the seniors. And they gather there because they not only have to have a reason to wake up in the morning, but it’s a sense of belonging and everyone wants to belong to something. So, you have to trust those grassroots leaders. Because I get phone calls on a Sunday at 8:30 at night, “Mr. Downey, someone didn’t pick up my green garbage can.” What have you. And we put our numbers out there as leaders to do this. What happens, the person gets satisfaction that Sunday night. They won’t make that nine o’clock phone call to the city. So, what we have to also do help people, but empower them by educating them how to help yourself. Because that one person can’t do everything and so that’s, that’s very important, to teach people how to catch their own fish, after showing them how to catch fish. So, that’s, very important here but we have a key opportunity. I always tell people with Harvey, “don’t use it as a setback, use it as a fresh beginning.” We can help these communities; these underserved communities grow with resources they’ve never had before. But you have to reach out to the communities, understand when you are talking on one side of Houston about a climate action plan, transportation which I am member of the advisory committee. They’re talking about transportation for 2050. 2050. I’m talking about the person who lives on this street on the street trying to get to work on Friday morning, 2019. That’s two different conversations. Two different conversations. So, you have to understand not just how to have empathy, but understand it’s a, it’s a balance. So, we might have to tip it a little differently for a little while because you have resources, you building for two generations ahead in 2050. Because they won’t be here in 2050, the ones who are making the plans today. They’re doing it not for their children, they’ll be senior citizens by then. They’re building for their grandchildren. A person living on Lyons Avenue, they’re trying to get to work on Friday morning, so they’re living in today. That’s, that’s very key to understand that.
AS: So, can you take me back to Harvey and kind of when you realized it was going to be pretty severe?
KD: I love it. Uh, I had my right knee, total knee replacement a week before and, um, Harvey. I remember I had a community council meeting, Kashmere Feeder Pattern Community Council, that Thursday. I was asked by, uh, the conservator for TEA, “Mr Downey, can you just put off this meeting for this month in August because the storm is coming? Can we get people time to prepare?” Well that’s a no brainer, of course. You need more than 12 hours before Friday to prepare for a storm. I said of course, life and death is more important than this meeting, so the storm hit and people were, I said to my wife, I said “I feel helpless.” She said, “What do you mean? You stay off your knee.” And I said, but I feel helpless, the rains won’t stop. People need help, and I used Facebook, a lot, for positive messages. I never said anything negative. But I used it for positive messages. As I told the mayor, Facebook saved a lot of lives, he said, “you got that right.” During Hurricane Harvey, people, hmm, people, someone reached out to me saying, “Mr. Downey we have fifteen seniors in Verde Forest that need rescue, we’re taking in water, can you a message to someone? Then I realized, okay this is an instant network we can set up here and it just started happening. People started reaching out. “We have, uh, people on roofs in Kashmere Garden here, um, Fifth Ward needs help, what have you.” So, I could say overall, I say about thirty-forty people reached out, about their community cluster. What have you, seniors, I even had a guy reach out to me from California during the storm, his brother was in the hospital, the brother’s wife was in the hospital. I didn’t know him. Remember now, I don’t know these people. A lot of people I been friends on Facebook, you don’t know. I said okay, I said “wow, Lord, how do I make that happen?” So, I went on social media, put the call out. We found his brother in the hospital. Lived out there in Gulfton, the Gulfton community. His brother was in the hospital, they were able to communicate through me and let him know that his brother was okay, I had someone reach out to me from an office building Downtown Houston to say, “Mr. Downey” and this is Monday, “Mr. Downey, we’ve been in our office building since Saturday.” Now the GRB is right down there, but they said, “We’ve been in this building, we can’t get out. Okay remember they had flooded back on that Smith side, on the backside, so I said “wow.” So, I gave him some information to contact so and so Downtown and let’s get you over to the GRB. After the storm ceased on that Tuesday, I got a call from “The Mission Continues.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about them. These are soldiers that have served this country, and they have five platoons around Houston, where they are helping out communities. There are quite a few of them, Independence Heights, Kashmere Gardens, Fifth Ward, what have you. “Mr. Downey, Kashmere was hard hit, where do you need our help?” If you remember even if you weren’t affected by Harvey, you were running out of groceries, at that point. They brought groceries from out in Katy out to Kashmere Gardens, they went door-to-door delivering groceries. They were able to reach some people that were elderly, handicap, what have you, with children. Um, that day, “Mr. Downey, can you find a place for us to set up?” O’Reilly’s parking lot on Lockwood down from Rand Street. They took in five truckloads of donations that morning. And so, where are you going to put them? How are you going to distribute them? I reached out to Mr. Kenneth Williams, and also Ms. Huey German Wilson, who we all knew each other Kashmere graduates. And she runs a pantry, at her church. She said, “Bring them to my church, Trinity Garden Church of Christ and so, long story short, we ran a pantry for three and a half weeks, and it became larger than our communities. They were also giving food to other churches to give to their congregations, but it became larger than Kashmere-Trinity Houston Gardens. We went out to Lakewood, Verde Forest, and North East Houston and handed out food door-to-door. We would get these different non-profits would reach out like Altar’s Relief and, “Mr. Downey, can you find a place where we can set up vegetarian meals. We have around 4,000 today?” I said, and this was like eight o’clock that morning. “Can you find a place by two or three this afternoon? I said. “Okay.” And it was, it was, what was it called? Well it was instant, but there’s a wording, a verbiage use for it, pop-ups. Yeah, I learned what the meaning of pop-ups were. There were pop-ups for a while. Different non-profit organizations some had resources and diapers and what have you and people were coming into Trinity Gardens Church of Christ from all over. Um, it was tough during the storm. We had about three, four feet of water in Kashmere Gardens because we sit right there on Hunting Bayou. Come to find out, one of the main arteries that came through, um, Kashmere Garden-Lockwood Drive, as I’ve show council member Amanda Edwards, a lot of people think the water goes away towards the Bayous. In Lockwood, it goes away from the Bayous, the elevation of the street. So, it was flooding inside, taking water inside the, instead of taking it outside the community. So, you know, it’s been something overtime. Um, we ended up through Ms. Huey German Wilson, we ended up setting the North East, we call it the North East Houston Redeveloping Council now. Trying to help our communities use this a fresh start for economic growth and there’s five directors like Mr. Warren Soto and Anita Frasier on that. But it’s, we’re help, we’re trying to, as I told the Mayor, you can’t keep using restoration. You have to have self-sufficiency inside of these underserved communities. To do that we’re going to have to change our mindsets from the giver and also from the receiver. Mindsets have to change because in a lot of cases, one donation leads to another donation. We have to help people get off the treadmill and be self-sufficient. So when they call, “Mr. Downey, can you help me with my green can?” I’m going to do this, but I am going to also teach you to take down this information. The next time this occurs, this is who you contact.
AS: So, what would you say then, looking back on Harvey, um, is the most significant moment for you?
KD: The most significant moment is when I saw how many abandoned homes there were in the community. People that like Houston Gardens, for example, the community over. The only way they were rescued was by waiting out or helicopter. The ah-ha moment was, to remember these people reached out to you during the storm. The same community that reached out to you, and to see when you could drive through it, and stop, and get out and see for yourself. Why they contacted you because they need help and they continued to need help. Even you know twenty-one months after going into two years. It’s very important because as we, as I told some other officials, a lot of people feel that I may have helped, um, Ms. Smith and you helped repair her home to a certain level of repair. You didn’t complete the job, or when I say complete the job, she still needs resources, but because she was served, let’s move on to the next one, No. You have to make sure she’s in a position where there’s no tripping hazards at the door, for example. That I have a senior now, she has a, she has a step-up, she has a cane. She has to step up, to step in to her house, they just put a ramp on the inside of her door but they left a tripping hazard on the outside of the door. She still has green molding on an exterior door of her home that no one sees. They didn’t put back her burglar bars. Okay. Because we’re trying to put her in a livable state, she still has needs. So, we have to understand, people still need help, you know. The crime is rampant in a lot of these underserved communities so we want our neighbors safe. Safety is a key.
AS: Yes, and so kind of to just end my part, part of the interview, the last question, how did the storm impact your family? You personally, I mean you talk, you mention, having a knee replacement surgery right before and, um, and you know, yet still being a communicator throughout this entire time. And working in the community. But, um, how your family or you yourself, um, were affected and endured?
KD: Well we were able to endure because of our faith, but as far as losing anything we lost more of course, the wind were blowing in, there was water and all. We had more damage cost up in New York during Sandy, than we had here in Houston. We’ve had even in Kashmere Gardens. All of the community was not flooded, but I would say sixty percent was. Studies have been done by U of H, Susan Rogers.
KD: Um, and she has a Kashmere Gardens briefing book that will tell you all about the history of the community, the past, the present, and the future. Um, and it shows where areas of Kashmere Gardens that was heavily impacted, and are still impacted to this day. Um, not just on the East side of the community, but also on the West side of the community. There could be two neighbors, like the lady I just spoke about, her neighborhood was not affected. She was in the house of the other side of, Ms. Smith was. You know, and a lot of our cases what, what we see, because a lot of things were exposed during Harvey and a lot of cases in Kashmere Garden, the street crown is higher than the driveway and the property. Water goes downhill as it’s in architecture, water will find its way. So, of course they flooded, so what we are trying to teach people also, you know the different alternatives. The county, the city, we’re trying to get them to understand these, these the funding stream is necessary to teach people. You can have rain gardens, you can have gutter liter systems that lead water away from property, you can have trenches that lead water to ditches. A lot of our, a lot of our culverts in these underserved communities are three quarters covered with grass and dirt, you only have one quarter open and that’s a dam. That’s actually a dam and it’s not leading water away. In these communities, you have to train yards. They’re acting as dams, they’re keeping water inside of these communities. Kashmere Gardens something happened in 1979 that it ended up making it worse and more so of a dam was when they, if you pull up old maps of Houston. 610-Loop in the 60s and 70s was already (unintelligible) the only section you have to get down on the surface of the 610-Loop that was not elevated was Kashmere Gardens. It started with Homestead all the way to Hardy Street. It is now known as Kelly, um, you had new car dealership, but more Chevrolet had different businesses and what have you, it’s just like these bypass towns and you go around College Station around highway, when they put that elevated portion of 610-Loop through Kashmere, it became a dam. It also made it a bypass community. People that would have to be on the surface to stop at the stores and stop at the businesses and all, well now it’s a bypass you have a hundred thousand plus cars every day if you add up both ways and they just bypass the community so those who were on the surface now have to come through the community. Maybe from other communities so it’s very important that you cut of the economics of that community by making them a bypass community. The dollar doesn’t come into the community like it did. You know, it doesn’t circulate, so of course those businesses that were on the surface at West Mount Kelly, went out of business. (unintelligible) Along the 610 portion through the community, they went away or went someone, somewhere else. So, it’s important to know, we had a hospital, Lockwood Hospital at the corner of (unintelligible) and uh, and uh, Lockwood Drive. There are still remnants of the sign that says “pharmacy.” What’s there now? A General Dollar. We lost three, no, we lost four libraries during Hurricane Harvey in North East Houston, Lake Wood, Scenic Woods, Amanda Dixon, and McCrane Kashmere Library. We only have one that’s back. That’s Scenic Woods. Um, we’re talking about North East Houston, has 270,000 residents. That’s larger than a lot of mid-sized cities. But it’s lacking resources so not only in Kashmere Gardens, you’re talking about North East Houston. I was with Congressman Beto. His office reached out to me, he wants to tour of Kashmere Garden Community North East Houston, can you give him a tour? I said, “of course.” So, we’re in my car. We turned in (unintelligible) and Lockwood and Kelly. We looking at LBJ Hospital, top level three trauma hospital in the country. I said tell me what’s missing, so he turned and he looked and looked. He said, “where is your pharmacy?” Y’all don’t have a CVS or Walgreens. I said we have a pharmacy and in the hospital but it closes at 4pm. He said, you’re missing key elements, key resource pieces, infrastructure pieces of the community. He said, “wow.” He said, “there’s a need, a serious need.” And he would go around Houston and Texas and different, the state senator came back to me and said, “Mr. Downey, what did you say to congressman Beto?” Cause he’s going around Texas saying what you told him. I said this, the storms hit these communities, these underserved communities long before Hurricane Harvey. Long before the storm, so we have to understand that we the conversations are not on the same level. When you have resources, you’re talking about future generations having resources, but the people living in the underserved communities need resources today.
AS: Mm. So, um, kind of as your speaking, I can’t help but think of service kind of being at the heart of what you are doing and you mention your faith, so could you elaborate on how your faith informs this work and how that helped your family endure Hurricane Harvey and what happened Post-Harvey (unintelligible).
KD: You know what, I would say through God of course, but what helps me to get up in the morning, I came from Fifth Ward, and for me what I mean by that is, my grandmother’s teachings. She always taught me, several, you know, key things that come back in your mind that somebody may have said, you don’t remember them all. She said always know that you’re doing the right thing. Make sure you’re doing the right thing, but always do what’s right no matter what. Care about people, care about people’s welfare. It’s not about you, it’s about those around you. And if those around you care about you, then you become part of their network too. And somebody is always watching what you do, way before social media. But I have to say something when I say social media, these communities to this day, have something very strong. Many of them don’t have hotspots and Wi-Fi challenged, but the word will get out to someone faster than the internet and you know I’ll say something to this day. Uh, to a senior, next think I know another senior is telling me about it, and whenever I say wow, and that, that that makes you smile because you know, it’s very important to understand, the needs of people, the needs of others. So, that growing up here in the Fifth Ward, it was a sense of neighborhood, a sense of people caring about one another, a sense of knowing who your neighbors were. You know I remember my grandmother you know going to, lady’s name across the street was Ms. Addy Mae and, um, on Worm Street. I grew up at Worm and Rock. And, I was known as Keithy Boy. M’kay and, um, don’t know where that came from and so you know, Ms. Deeny, her name was Deena Blackwell, “Ms. Deeny is looking for you, Keith,” and what have you and, um, she would keep me in church as far as on Sunday’s I would go every Sunday and a lot of times it was the three o’clock service, but it strengthen me to understand that it’s about caring about others. So, when I actually went to New York, the first time I went there in 1969, uh, my aunt was already involved with Operation Bread Basket, that was with Jessie Jackson, back in the day, before PUSH, and I would go to her meetings. I’d be the only kid sitting at the end of the conference table and when (unintelligible)around and they would be fussing and this by this, talking about the community, and I’d stop on day there visiting for the summer, as I’d go, and, I said, “why y’all fussing? Stop this, all y’all do is fuss, they stopped looked at me and they laughed. Well, come to find out one of those, one of those was a teenager by the name of Al Sharpton. She was his mentor, one of his mentors in the community, so she was well involved, and I attended my uh, uh, was part of my first protest with him as an eight-year-old. In New York, Brooklyn, New York. I’ll never forget on a Sunday, marching against police brutality. I also marched in the Eric Garner March in the Staten Island. Uh, that was in 2014. So, I’ve always had a sense of community, caring, of getting involved in it, it’s just part of my DNA. So, that’s, that has led me to what I do today.
AS: Thank you, I’m going to go ahead and pass it along to Karla.
KD: Sure, sure.
KL: Can you take us through a day after Harvey, you know, what was the day like? What were days like after you know?
KD: Sure, sure. I get a phone call at 8am, or a little after 8. I did not know how my days were going to, going to fall. As far as, hour after hour, and this went on for a while. Either I was getting a call from a resident in need, or I was getting a call from a service provider or non-profit, “Mr. Downey, we have, uh, cases of diapers, we have this.” I had someone come in from California with 40,000 meals 40,000 meals of Jambalaya mix. M’kay, they drove it all the way from California. They went to Trinity Garden Church of Christ and said that (unintelligible) 123 boxes or something like that, and we were able to give them out, many communities. Um, and what it was, it was the package of seasoning rice, lentils, it was all vegetarian. Um, each bag, I think there were eighty-eight bags in each box and each bag fed six. Okay. So, um, we were able to help many people, but you know, on a day-to-day basis, so I would get this call from a resident in need. One day, I got a call saying, “Mr. Downey, the city is talking about opening up a neighborhood restoration center in Kashmere Garden. If you remember when that program first started, the only one was in Kashmere Garden. For about four months. Let’s say the resident called me and said, “Mr. Downey, I need to get over to the multi-service center with that program.” I’ll meet you there. I’ll walk you through it. I’ll sit down with you, with FEMA if you don’t mind, or I can get a call saying, “Mr. Downey can you come by my home and take a look at my home? I believe I have flooding that came in through my floorboards.” We would also be able to go to long-term recovery meetings soon after. Who was there would be, Habitat for Humanity for example, Avenue CDC, Fifth Ward CRC. Many of these organizations, uh, that provided you know the rebuilding. What’s re-recovery, now we as forming North East development council at the time, we didn’t do the building but we could address some of that need. So, we did receive a grant through the Greater Houston Foundation for Unmet Needs. We were able to serve 150 families, and the amount of money for that was $325,000. So, we bought many a bed, many a refrigerator. But it wasn’t just, for us it was in fact for five different zip codes. Um, so, um, a typical day it can change from day to day, but it would go from that morning after 8, our day would end it got dark, it was in the dark. I would say nine o’clock, eight o’clock that night. Because serving dinners door-to-door and it would get dark early as it was getting later in the year. Um, so we ended, I ended up in many different communities. I never ended up where I started that day and that went on for a while. Plus, we had the pantry that went on for three and a half weeks, right after the storm ended so, it’s been a marathon, not a sprint, and it still is a marathon. But a lot of people have received help, quite a few off of from the federal funding so far, but what we are trying to ensure going forward is self-sustainability. We are trying to make sure that these ditches are cleared by the city. We’re trying to make sure that the Bayou is wide enough and deep enough by the county. So, it’s very important that we also understand that it’s about Pleasantville, that it’s about Fifth Ward, it’s about Kashmere Gardens, Trinity Garden, North East Houston, Lakewood, and Verde Forest. We’re all interconnected, with one another so it’s about neighbor helping neighbor.
KL: Can you expand a little bit on the role that these nonprofits, and these, uh, charities, and religious institutions had on after the storm. So, you named a couple, what are some other, nonprofits that were helping?
KD: Well you had many nonprofits and they still helping to this day. Uh, you have Habitat, West Street Recovery, uh Fifth Ward, CRC, you have others like Avenue just to name a few, All Hands and Hearts. Um, it’s just an it’s just a plethora of, nonprofits that are out there and with their funding, you know, each one, there may be some interlocking in the same zip codes and what have you, but no one organization can do everything. You know, so there’s a lot of hand offs and what we also have discovered is very important to build that network. Because I need to know when you all have spent up to your limit that your able to spend on Ms. Smith’s home, I need to know that there is hand off that needs to take place. Of course, people say, well, the case manager, the fact of the matter is, as community leaders, we have to know this. We have to know that she’s been waiting on a phone call for two weeks. You know, in a lot of cases a lot longer than that, but in some cases well, shorter, but also reaching out to Ms. Sheila Jackson Lee Representative of uh, Sheila Jackson Lee has helped us tremendously. State Representative Borris Miles, Representative Herald Douglass, Senfronia Thompson, they’ve helped us tremendously and what we’re also trying to get people to understand the changing mindsets. So, right after the storm, it was your neighbor helping you. How do you help your neighbor going forth, now? For example, if there’s a storm next week in Houston, let’s say it’s not hurricane season but let’s say one hits next Wednesday. Where are the evacuation spots? Evaculs, it’s called Evaculs, Evaculs spots, Evacuspots, uh, like in New Orleans. Where’s the location in these communities where the city will know there’s a hundred people over? Because we’ve told them to gather there. Or is this going to be door-to-door pick up again? Where waves are being pushed into people’s homes from high water vehicles that will flood them more as it was in some of these cases, like Lakewood. So, you know that education piece is key. Are you letting them know that they have resources that are continuous? Or is it what I call “one ofs.” Add up all the fifty-two weeks out of the year, at the end of the year add up and do your own part. How many lives have transformed? How many communities were made stronger? But you did have events every weekend. So, you have, you have to do more than just give people, uh, something physical, give them something mental, as well.
KL: So, it’s been, you know almost near two years, um, since Harvey, now what do you think the storms lasting impact has been on you and your family, and on Kashmere Gardens?
KD: Well I found out through the, for example, my super neighborhood meetings, people are becoming more engaged in what’s going on. I’m having seniors come to the Kashmere Garden’s super neighborhood meetings who have never been to a civic meeting before. This has happened in the last two months, this has happened with three people, three seniors and a lot of people said, “I don’t know, I don’t know about the meetings out in my community.” But Harvey has drawn on a lot of people to realize that you know, that these meetings take place and it’s not meeting to meet, you don’t have that kind time, but make sure that they learn something in each meeting, I do not hold a meeting without people being able to go home with something they didn’t come in the door with. And that’s information. That’s someone to reach out to in case of need. For, you know, particular things. Um, it’s, it’s key that we, we mentally make people stronger to realize, I can call for myself. And share that with your neighbor, I call that the “Downey Rule,” take two of everything. One for you, one for your neighbor because your neighbor might have wanted to come and didn’t know. They had to work, maybe they had to pick up a grandchild. Share that with them, share the knowledge with your churches. One way in our community to reach people is through their churches. These churches have to do is talk about things that’s going on in their communities. Go where the ears are. We’re telling the city of Houston, do a better, be better at marketing your programs. Be better at building. As I said to the mayor and the city council the other day, start building relationships. Because people reach out to people they see, these are the people they trust. So.
KL: Does Kashmere Gardens face a unique long-term challenge different than other communities let’s say, the Third Ward?
KD: It’s one of your poorer communities in Houston, average income around $26,000. Um, well a great percentage, not the greatest, but quite a few people, many have not gone past high school level education. We’re asking for affordable housing, but not affordable housing in, in the perspect, mixed income housing, all people are not poor. All people are not rich. And all people don’t, me-, have you know, a minimal, a medium income. So, we have so many resources that are missing in our community just like I mentioned with Congressman Beto driving him around. Um, we’ve lost quite a bit in our community, pieces of infrastructure, now North of 610-Loop in Kashmere Garden, the difference between Kashmere and Trinity Garden, Kashmere had pieces of infrastructure, we still do have a few, but it had infrastructure North of the 610-Loop, there was never infrastructure. The further North and East you go, the larger the properties become, in a lot of cases. And that’s why people move there, was because of lot sizes, so you know we need those, when people say resources, they’re thinking about they need something that, maybe small, potatoes to them but the need is great we have Lockwood Drive that comes out of Trinity Garden at Tidwell, it goes down to U of H. That’s a major artery, major artery with no quality produce store. In, Kashmere Garden to get quality, we have Fiesta, whatever, on the corner of Kelly. But quality foods, to buy quality produce, you have to go eight miles North to Wilson Road or six miles West to Taylor Street. The need is there and, you know, if you were to take a look at transportation, is an issue in our community. What’s funny is this. So, Metro has the red, the blue, and the green lines. Look at the statistics for the blue line. Tidwell/45 comes right out of Lakewood. Mason and Tidwell go straight West, I think, past I-45. Of the twenty-one blue bus lines, the most bordings are on the Tidwell/45 in all of Houston. But it comes once an hour or once every forty-five minutes or so. It has, in January 2018, it has 4,100 boardings per day. Look at the number in January 2019, it’s up to 4,500 per day. That’s a 18.45 percent increase. You need more buses, you need door-to-door pick-up commuter buses. That’s like, I’m told, out in Acres Homes. Pick up those seniors take them to the drug store, bring them, from Kashmere Garden down to the CVS and Walgreens that are right here, and then take them back home or wherever they want to go. I’m not talking about Metrolift, I’m talking about a door-to-door pick up. If you look at, when you get a chance, to look at GPS of Lakewood, you can be a mile and a quarter away from the bus hub at Mason and Tidwell, but you live in Lakewood, how do you get to the hub if you’re in a wheelchair, if you’re disabled? That’s a key. Resident to pick up and take them where they need to go. The need is there. I’ve already said the population of North East Houston and so the resources are not just needed in Kashmere Gardens, they are needed throughout North East Houston. And Harvey exposed the inequities of these communities. People knew that people were lacking resources, but they exposed not to the inhabitants, it exposed it to others of just how bad it was. I was interviewed by a political and the photographer pulled me to the side and looked out the window on Highway 59 and he said, “Mr. Downey, I’ve been in Birmingham, I’ve been around the world, I’ve been wherever. I have never seen it this bad.” And this was at Trinity Garden. He said, “I have never seen it this bad.” This resident, her three children were in the public school that day. They didn’t know that when they got out of school, their mother had received a thirty minute, a message from FEMA on a text, you’re being evicted today. You have thirty minutes to get out. You go to school, you have a roof over your head, you come out of school and your homeless. That’s not the way you treat people. You wouldn’t treat an animal like that. That’s the realities. Now everyone is not treated like that, but you shouldn’t treat anyone like that. So, we were able to step in and try to help them get the kids to school. You know take them grocery shopping so they can have something. They had a hotplate in a motel room, a whole bed. You’re witnessing these different layers. So, what it taught me was there are many worlds out there. We don’t know all the worlds and all the levels of survival. There’s a, what’s that saying? “Necessity knows no law.” People will have to survive, (unintelligible) got to survive. We’re all in survival mode, but at different levels. So, have empathy and help as many people as you can. No matter what the need is. That’s why I don’t mind getting the phone calls at 8:30 on a Sunday night, I wish I didn’t (laughs). But I do, you know so, so it’s about helping people
KL: Throughout your Harvard, Harvey experience, what was the most impactful moment for you? What was the turning point? What was the shocking point of the whole Hurricane experience?
KD: That Kashmere received three or four feet of water. That so many residents were displaced from their homes. That I could play a part in helping them because no one knew Harvey was coming. I was coming back to Houston, not knowing Harvey was in the future, you know, no one did and so I think it’s a getting a chance to hit the restart button for many of our residents. That’s very important.
KL: What else do you want people to understand about Harvey and the Fifth Ward?
KD: Well when you say Fifth Ward, Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens, Trinity Gardens, Lakewood, Verde Forest, Pleasantville, underserved communities. What we want people to understand is, I’ll use what a reporter said, “How can you take me to this lady’s house, who lost everything and she has stage four cancer and she says to me, “How can I help you?”‘ I want people to understand there’s a lot of love out here. They don’t write in newspapers about love. They write about incidents that happened to people, usually bad. We have to understand, that in these communities we must work together. No big I’s, little You’s. Help build each other up, work as a system. Work as neighbors should work, helping one another on the blocks. Helping one of our seniors who went through seven different organizations to help rebuild her home. Help them navigate this because they didn’t ask for this either, they didn’t ask for being displaced out of their home. You know, they didn’t ask for having to wait so long for resources. Many will say, “I never thought I would need help.” And what we’ve found a lot of people came forth later. Well why did they wait so long? Because they thought they were independent. But as someone said I heard yesterday, “no matter how rich you thought you were, you weren’t as rich as you thought you were.” Harvey proved that. So, we have to understand (hand gestures) take it from here and bring it more to here and that’s going to go a long way. So yes, some of the resources may have to come here to bring this up but don’t say those poor people, those poor people are still over here. Help build them up, have more than just empathy, come out to their communities, take a look at the needs, talk to the people. As the, not the, what do you call it, the minister of water works literally from the Netherlands who was here, 60 Minutes brought him out and I talked to him. He spoke at Rice University and said to the city of Houston, “I’ve just seen some communities today like Kashmere, Trinity, Fifth Ward that need help due to the storm, if you don’t bring everybody along, you’re not bringing yourself along either.” So, it’s very important. So, that’s what I’d like to leave you with. Okay.
KL: Alright, we’re good. Well thank you so much.
KD: Thank you!
KL: For your interview.
KL: We value these words.
AS: Thank you for your time.
KD: I appreciate it.
AS: Wonderful hearing your stories.
KD: Thank you!
AS: And your experiences as a community leader, an honor, honestly, to sit down here
KD: Well it’s an honor to be here with you!
AS: Thank you
KD: Thank you, of course. Thank you so much, I appreciate you. Alright, alright.
AS: Have a great evening.
KD: Than —
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