Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Project Row Houses: Not On Our Holiday Itinerary

We finally contracted the Christmas spirit, at least enough to get us up and about and putting our dollars in circulation. This spending and buying made us happy, and we vowed to let nothing shatter the illusion---not the cloud ceiling that seems to have been hanging just above our eyes for days, or the asshole-to-elbow traffic, or the stark realization that almost everyone we saw in a particular crowded commercial establishment was engaged in conversation on his or her cell phone.

Then we slipped up and read an editorial in the Houston Chronicle. Our Christmas cheer vanished.

The work in question was another in the editorial writers’ attempts to foist cultural enlightenment on readers, this time through the suggestion that this season would be an especially good time for outlanders to visit the Project Row Houses thing-a-ma-bob in the Third Ward. The suggestion was occasioned by the news earlier this month that “Third Ward, and the whole city, got an early Christmas gift” (we’re not the only hack working a tortured Christmas angle) when the Houston City Council approved a $975,000 "zero interest performance-based loan" to the non-profit Project Row Houses for the addition of 16 low-income rental units.

As the editorial explained, quoting a city housing official, a no-interest performance-based loan requires no repayment “if the nonprofits who [sic] get them care for their properties and use them as expected.”

So “gift” certainly is the correct terminology here.

The editorial came hard on the heels of a very approving profile of Project Row Houses in the Sunday New York Times, which called it possibly “the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country" and was generous in its depiction of Rick Lowe, the “lanky, amiable, remarkably youthful-looking 45-year-old artist” who founded the project.

Now we don’t have enough personal knowledge of Project Row Houses to judge whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. We probably should just assume, based on all the laudatory media coverage it’s received over the past decade or so, that Project Row Houses’ melding of “art” and neighborhood revitalization is as wonderful as advertised.

It all comes cloaked in a rhetorical finery that makes it almost impossible to question, anyway, without sounding like a mean-spirited crank.

Except … we know from long experience that when any person or institution gets the uniformly favorable and unquestioning treatment from the media---especially in Houston---he, she or it is nowhere near all that he, she or it is cracked up to be. This is an iron-clad rule, to which there are no exceptions. (We’d cite Enron as Exhibit A, but, hell, that’s ancient history.)

And somehow, in its giddy celebration of Project Row Houses’ big score at City Hall, the Chronicle failed to note a somewhat discouraging word about the project that was buried back in the newspaper a month ago. That was the “news” that Project Row House’s longtime financial director, Lajuanda Malone, had pleaded guilty to felony theft of more than $200,000 from the nonprofit and was tagged, as the paper put it in an uncharacteristically raffish turn of phrase, with “10 years in the state penitentiary” (is there not more than one?).

This was a very odd story. It appeared more than a month after Ms. Malone copped her plea---thus qualifying it not as “news” but as “olds,” as the jesters at blogHouston call such late-breaking items---and it was tamped back in the “Arts” page of the paper’s Sunday Zest section. Furthermore, as they say in law school, it was written not by a real reporter but by the paper’s art critic, in an unusual style that wouldn’t pass muster in a high-school journalism class. The story did offer some juicy bits that were screaming for a fleshing-out:

Prosecutor Lester Blizzard, chief of major fraud division in the District Attorney's office, said the actual amount was closer to $300,000, taken over a period of about five years. Malone was issued a credit card in Project Row Houses' name, Blizzard said.

"She proceeded to run up personal expenses for luxury items, things like vacations and tickets to (San Antonio) Spurs games.

(We notice that Malone is still listed as financial administrator on the Project Row Houses’ Web site, along with a link to her email address.)

We can only assume that this story was previously broken or covered by other media and the Chronicle was playing catch-up and burying the story. Otherwise, there’d be no excuse for it not to be on page one.

“Closer to $300,000” is a major theft and breach of the public trust, particularly for a non-profit that, according to its IRS filings, took in revenue of between $1.07 million and $925,000 annually from 2001 through 2003.

The New York Times reporter did take note of the unfortunate incident, sort of, in this chummy aside:
I said I had read that a woman, a former finance administrator for Project Row Houses, recently pleaded guilty to stealing more than $200,000 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. [A former Project Row Houses resident] paused, then said: “I remember a different woman taking something when she left. We were creating a set of value systems, a community, and sometimes people take from their community anyway. The amazing thing was that Rick never got mad. I would say, ‘It’s so wrong!’ And he just said, ‘Yeah, it happens; that’s part of working with people.’ ”
Now we wonder what happened with that “different woman.” And whether there was any discussion by city council of Lajuanda Malone’s theft and the apparent lack of oversight at Project Row Houses before the terms of this “loan” were approved (surely there was, and we just were not apprised of it).

What really got us about this story was the non-explanation offered by the apparently not-so-amiable Lowe, who told the Chronicle’s compliant art critic:
"It's a legal matter, and I'm not going to discuss it … We have a new executive director and new leadership. (This issue) is behind us. We are moving and rolling and in good shape."
Yeah, man, you’re an artist, a visionary. You can’t be bothered with explaining a serious theft from a non-profit that subsists on the kindness of taxpayers and charitable foundations.

That’s for suckers.

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