Willow Meadow Place: An International Residence by Phuc M. Huynh

10630 Beechnut St.
Houston, TX  77072

April 2004–To find a perfect residence is extremely hard in the United States . Let’s say you are a newcomer and do not know where to find a good dwelling because everyone is unfamiliar to you. For the sake of economy, it makes sense to begin your journey of searching for an apartment at places that offer cheaper rental cost. Driving along several streets, you might pass a sign saying “Move-in specials, no deposits, first month free.” Your immediate reaction is to jot down the phone number of that apartment complex and call in its leasing office to reserve a rental. But that may be where your troubles begin. This is the case of many people who have lived at the Willow Meadow Place Apartment Complex. Located right in the heart of Southwest Houston , Willow Meadow Place used to be a crowded residence where time did not exist although it might be the middle of the night. However, for the sake of security and personal safety, the face of Willow Meadow Place has changed, and the complex itself has become desolate.

Located at the corner of Beechnut Street and Wilcrest Drive , a really busy and bustling corner in Southwest Houston , thousands of cars and drivers pass by Willow Meadow Place every day. However, the place seems not be noticed by the passersby. The complex looks shabby. The cranky, unsteady and full-of-bends fences show the signs of wear and tear at the first glance. The sky blue paint on the apartment doors is faded into somewhat white-blue. The long-standing buildings also contribute to the old appearance of the complex. The building bricks near the ground are coated with mosses. They all prove the lack of care and maintenance. Even though the complex itself is really big, there is just a small sign posted on Beechnut Street to welcome its visitors and couples of lines providing leasing information. Even though the shabby appearance makes it uninviting, there is one thing distinctive about it. Unlike other apartment complexes where you have to enter into in order to figure out what they are like, here at Willow Meadow Place you can just stay around the entrance, you are still able to see what the inside is like. By just driving by, you will notice a big mailbox where a lot of people gather around at the dusk, gossip and exchange their experiences of the day.

My family and I resided there for about one year. As for me, I loved the place since it was the first residence of my family after we moved to Houston . Six years ago, the complex was so beautiful and friendly. Most of the apartments were occupied; therefore, the mosses had no place to grow. The fences and gates were not newly constructed, but they were steady in place and had no bends. The smell of fairly newly painted doors was like the mint of winter-green gum, giving me a feeling of freshness every time I returned to my apartment. Willow Meadow Place also provided me with many good friends. However, all of us had to follow our family moving out to different parts of the city because of security concerns. Since then, I have not returned to the place even just to pay a visit, until recent time.

It was 11:30 P.M. on Saturday. I was on the way home from work. The outside temperature dropped below 55oF. This was usual for the nights in late November in Houston . I was on Beechnut Street and immediately had my car stopped at Wilcrest due to the traffic light. There was little traffic on the street at that time. And for less than two minutes, I continued driving and approached Willow Meadow Place . A strange occurrence caught my attention. It was almost midnight, and everything in the complex seemed ghostlike in the quite, misty darkness – everything except the appearance of an Asian man whose age I guessed was more than sixty. He was wearing a worn jacket while carrying a thirty-gallon size trash bag in his hand. When I slowly steered my Toyota Corolla past the complex, I saw him opening the gate and entering the complex. I wondered why he had to walk out that late.

In my mind, that apartment complex was not a safe place to walk. My father was mugged twice right in that apartment complex by black men when we were still living there. It was about seven o’clock in the evening, and my father went to the trash container in the back of the complex to throw away some food wastes. When he just approached the corner, halfway to the trash container, two black men attacked him. They punched him down and put a revolver on his forehead. One of them started searching in his Wrangler jean pockets and took away his wallet which had one hundred dollar bill, some changes and his driver’s license. After both muggers ran away, my father went back to my apartment with his pale face. He was too scared to immediately report to Houston Police Department what had happened to him, but a couple of hours later. The second time he was mugged was when he returned home from work at night o’clock right at the parking lot. The muggers did not deprive of him anything this time because he did not carry any cash with him. However, they punched his left eye so strongly that he had to call EMS to take him to the hospital immediately. My father was not the only victim of the robberies at Willow Meadow Place . The muggers also targeted Vietnamese people who seemed to be the main targets for the robberies. At times, old black and Hispanic men and women also fell victims of the violence. For years, Willow Meadow Place was known to be a Vietnamese village because once you entered that complex, you would catch Vietnamese people walking or doing something in every building block. Things started changing when others moved in including blacks and Hispanics. This move-in gradually made Willow Meadow Place a diversified apartment complex. Unfortunately, the robbery rate started rising following that move-in trend. Willow Meadow Place was then known to be an insecure place because the diversity made the complex more complicated.

Situated in the Alief subdivision of Imperial Point, Willow Meadow Place was known in Vietnamese as Bich Gia Nghia Village . The name of the village was translated roughly as “The Four Walls of Mutual Assistance.” It had an important meaning to Vietnamese residents here because “within these four walls, I would do anything for you, and you would do anything for me,” one of them explained. In this multiethnic apartment complex, about 750 Vietnamese residents had created vestiges of the village system of their homeland. At the time my family moved in, the Vietnamese population at the complex had doubled as the result of 153 new refugee families. Daily tutoring is a valued component of life at Willow Meadow Place . In a vacant apartment, the village leader scheduled the tutoring, four levels of English classes and a variety of other programs offered to residents. The Vietnamese immigrants at Willow Meadow Place found strength in working together. And together, they gathered to hear their share of stories about family difficulties or problems with their social lives. And together, the group tackled language barriers. And together, they wanted to learn English because each word learned was a step closer to a new life and new possibilities, a step away from the deaf-and-mute feeling.

Concerns about robberies and security had changed the face of Willow Meadow Place . The complex became more vacant as Vietnamese people started moving out. My family followed that trend because the violence happened to my father twice. After that time, we were no longer in contact with the complex and had no information about it. That accounted for my concern when I saw that old Asian man walking in the complex at midnight. Anyway, such a concern just flashed in my mind and then quickly faded. However, the same sight came upon my eyes again the next day when I was driving home from work and passing Willow Meadow Place . I began doubting him and asked myself if I should follow him to figure out what he was actually doing at midnight in a pretty cold weather like that. Finally, I decided, no, and went straight home.

I did not work on weekdays, so I did not see him the following five days. Such a scene was really strange to me because it had not ever caught my eyes in the past. I guessed he had been doing that for a long time, but I did not notice him. Next Saturday, I took the same route and caught him again. This time I decided to follow him. After he opened the gate and entered the complex, I quickly drove my car in and parked my car in front of the leasing office. I saw him approach the trash container, climb on its side, open his trash bag, and start disturbing the container with a wooden stick that he picked up right on the ground. In a moment, I heard the clank of cans emitting from the trash container. I came to understand that he was picking up the used cans. I stopped my car for a while and left the complex until he left for another trash container located further inside. On the way home, my mind seemed to be obsessed by what I had just seen. In fact, image of that man gave me an emotion and a deep thought about the life of people like him. I had ever thought that I was unlucky because I had to work that late. But when I saw him at almost midnight, I knew that at least I was luckier than one person. Society forgot him, left him out of its game. I asked myself unanswered question, “How many more people like him had to walk in this cold weather to pick up “pennies” thrown away by the others? Was it fair to them?” A sad feeling was provoked in me, and I did not say a word after getting home.

I decided to pay a visit to the apartment complex during the daytime to see how it would be now. After having my car parked in the lot where I used to park it, I hastily walked to the building located in the back of the complex. Physical things seem not to be changed. The apartment where my family and I lived in before is still there; however, a Hispanic family now occupies it. The doors are still painted blue. The trees are still sitting by the stairs, making a big shade ideal for those who like chatting with friends. Though the place and the objects seem to be intact, human activities are not as same as what they used to be. It is daytime, but no one there hangs or walks around. The scene is getting so quiet, giving me a feeling of having left something behind. It makes me feel like I was attached to it somewhere. The sky was overcast, but I could still hear the birds singing while hiding themselves on tops of the trees. A couple of squirrels were chasing each other while looking for food. They were running back and forth as if nobody were present there even though I was standing by the stairs and keeping my eyes on them. In a couple of minutes, I left for the nearby building. I caught no one in my eyes but a Vietnamese man who was fixing his Honda Accord. Rumpled and bleary-eyed, perhaps due to lack of sleep last night, he was sitting transfixed by the car with his eyes glued to it. I proceeded to him to find out if he would know something about the old man who I saw pick up used cans in trash containers. Before I said anything to him, he stood up and smiled at me. He gave me a feeling of friendliness and made me feel like I was actually welcome there. After a few words gossiping with him, I asked him about the old man I saw at night. He responded me in Vietnamese, “Sorry for not being able to help you. I don’t really know that man. My family and I moved in six months ago. And we are in the habit of not loitering outside at night because, you know, security is not very good.” Through his words, I acknowledge that security is still the main concern for residents at Willow Meadow Place . “So, you didn’t hear about security at this apartment complex before you moved in?” I asked him in Vietnamese. He let me know that he chose to move in because the price is cheaper there, and he thought that security at other places were not good as well.

After saying good-bye to him, I walked quickly to the building block neighboring the exit onto Wilcrest Drive . Passing by the waiting area where I now saw two more benches were added, I recalled the moment when everybody in this complex running out for life as the roof of this waiting shack caught on fire six years ago. It is now renovated with the entire roof removed. Instead, they grow a tree with the very big shade, giving the freshness to the area.

I took a seat on the bench for about thirty minutes. More human activities now came upon my eyes. A Southwestern Bell car passed by followed by four cars of the residents. Those cars were really noisy, but anyway they broke the strange quietness of the whole complex. Not so long after those cars passing by, the voice of a girl calling my attention, “Mom, please wait for me! I forget my wallet.” Looking on my right, I saw her mom was waiting for her while she was running upstairs to her apartment for her wallet. Her mom was wearing a blue Old Navy Dress while the girl had a new pink Banana Republic V-neck shirt on. They both disappeared in a moment. After their going, an Alief I.S.D. school bus arrived and dropped off their high school students. Among them, there were only three Asian boys and one girl leaving the bus. It came upon my mind that most of Vietnamese families had moved out of this apartment complex already, and they would not like to set their feet back here for security reasons. Willow Meadow Place is not as full of animation as it was in the past.

Several days following my visit to Willow Meadow Place , I got back to work. And on the way home, I still saw that old man. I was very unsatisfied because I could not figure out who he was after my visit to the complex. And nothing is going smoothly as I thought. Following the week of Christmas Day, I no longer saw him. I do not know for some unknown reason that this fact made me feel as if I were missing something behind every time I passed by Willow Meadow Place without seeing him open the gate and enter the complex. Since then, I went home in a fairly sad mood. I felt pity for him because his life was clearly not as happy and fortune as the others. I related what I had seen on the street to my father. One thing that amazed me was that he and my father have been friends since my family was still residing at Willow Meadow Place . After listening to the story, my father just smiled and told me about the life of that man. He lived alone in the apartment next to Willow Meadow Place and worked in the nearby Phillips gas station. He picked up used cans as his extra earning. He went back to Vietnam after Christmas Day and planned not to re-enter the United States . He had been saving enough money and wished to live the rest of his life in Vietnam . Well, I still felt pity for him. Willow Meadow Place now loses a midnight visitor. But his image will exist in my mind as long as Willow Meadow Place is still present in Southwest Houston.



Alief School District



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