Bringing Down the House

Neighbors want to buy and fix it. A building inspector recommends saving it. And yet the Housing Authority insists on tearing down 5950 Enright. The story of a house -- and a city's demolition craze.

This was the boom time of urban renewal. Public money was available to stabilize cities, and the various tax credits and subsidies made creative, respectful redevelopment projects seem not only doable but worth doing. The Cabanne neighborhood, just beginning to slide, was caught and steadied. To the east, Enright would become a hotbed of crime, and property would continue to deteriorate in a rough parallel to the lives it contained. But residents of the 5900 block sum up its difference in a single eloquent sentence: "Fathers were still around." continued on next pageHOUSEcontinued from previous page

So the Housing Authority selected a deserving family and offered to fix up 5950 Enright for them, the first in a series of experiments with single-family houses for public assistance.

When Willie Mae Bankhead first saw her new home, back in 1965, it was "a mess. Hadn't been painted, everything was dirty and vines had grown up over the windows." She'd heard that "somebody died in the house." She didn't care. John and Willie Mae Bankhead had nine kids smooshed into a three-bedroom apartment on Hamilton. And now, the order had come to demolish their apartment building, which had been declared unsafe after a young girl fell to her death from the third story. The chance to live at 5950 Enright was a godsend. "And once they started fixin' on it," recalls Willie Mae, "it got prettier and prettier." Her favorite room was the dining room: "I'd never had one! And in the living room, there were these little shelves, I think they used to have glass doors.... "

Her youngest boy, Kenny Bankhead, was only 6 when they moved in. He doesn't remember the shelves, he remembers his family's picture being in the newspaper: the honorees in a happy public-housing experiment. And then he remembers somebody on the block cutting the freshly rewired electricity because they didn't want such a large family -- especially one on public assistance -- moving in. "I guess they figured, 'This is going to destroy the neighborhood,'" he remarks. "It was still a mixed street; we had Caucasians on both sides and in front of us. Some African-Americans had moved in, but I guess they were anti-sociable, felt we weren't the right people."

The Bankheads changed their minds: A big family, after all, meant somebody in every age bracket for the other kids to play with. And Willie Mae wasn't scared of whites; she even got to be friends with some of the doctors when she went to work at the now-defunct Faith Hospital, starting on North Kingshighway and then transferring to Faith West out at Olive and Mason. "Our house was always open," grins Kenny, "but my mother didn't like us hanging out on the front porch. We knew she'd be in by 4 o'clock, so somebody would yell, 'Miz Bankhead is gettin' off the bus,' and whoever your company was, you had to get rid of them."

She had to work: Her husband left them less than a year after they moved into the dream. Willie Mae should've seen it coming -- John didn't want to sign any of the papers to move into the house, didn't help her move at all. But then he'd come to stay, for a time. Until the nine, then 11 kids got to be too much for him.

So when she needed the yard cleaned up, Willie Mae had a party. "I just baked some cookies and made Kool-Aid, and the kids did all the work," she says merrily. Kenny, who's since become a preacher, is convinced "it wasn't nothing but the Lord blessed us." They managed those first months without electricity because light flooded their yard from the used-car lot across the alley. They absorbed Willie Mae's sister from Mississippi, and her six children, into their household for five years. The neighbor kids flocked to their house, too, and the parents stopped minding.

"We roller-skated in the basement, built clubhouses out of wood in the backyard, got together big bike rides and baseball games," muses Kenny. "Played catch-a-girl -- never caught one. But we captivated an audience." And then, he finishes grimly, "We growed up."

William Bankhead, the most quiet and "home-dwellin'" of the brothers, was picked off by a gunshot from a roof in 1982. About half-a-year later, John and Dennis Bankhead were both shot in the back of the head at a corner market near the old neighborhood. Payback's all Kenny can figure; he says they'd clashed with a teenager over an undelivered bag of marijuana the week before, giving him an angry shove. "I tried to retaliate, find the people," he adds, jaw clenched. "I started drinkin' heavier, too, trying to stop reminiscing about my brothers and the old days. And I couldn't."

One night he went to his mom's church and heard what he needed to hear. That was 14 years ago. Now he's 40, married, with kids of his own and an elder in his church, busy "gutting and reviving a home for battered women in Wellston."

After the Bankheads left in 1980, the house on Enright was vacant for two years. Then another Housing Authority recipient, Inez Cole, moved in, replaced two years later by Dorothy Hunt, who left in 1990.

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