Alex Nizini woke up surrounded by paramedics. He had passed out from not eating for almost four weeks. That and standing outside for city hall for hours wearing a sign that proclaims injustice and a colorful umbrella hat for protection.
He’s on his fourth hat. They wear out quickly.
“It starts scratching your head with these metal pieces and it’s not fun because you wear it all day long for many days in a row,” he said.
Nizini doesn’t look so good. He’s spent more than 25 days on hunger strike protesting in front of city hall. He tells any passerby who will listen that Houston is corrupt. That it needs to change. That minorities are in danger.
The man is determined. He refuses to eat until the city council does something about what he perceives as injustice.
“Obviously, everybody in the city of Houston hopes I’ll just walk away, but I won’t!” Nizini said. “I’m prepared to die for this country’s civil rights and economic freedoms.”
You don’t usually see a potentially fatal hunger strike over city affairs. What makes a man this dedicated to changing local government?
Municipal incompetence over parking. Plain and simple. The problems all began with an argument over where he could park.
Nizini’s story is insane. Here’s how an argument over a No Parking sign escalated into a man starving himself to death outside city hall.
The Original Problem
It all began with the house. Nizini and his wife Yelena bought a nice place on Ferndale Street. It’s a comfy road shaded by trees that runs between Westheimer and West Alabama. Cars pass by occasionally.
Nizini, a former real estate agent, owns a home without a driveway or garage. No problem, right? Just park on the street.
But there was a sign. That damn sign. “No Parking 7-9am.”
That applied to everybody on his block of Ferndale, even him. Even though he lacked a garage and could only park on the street. That left either parking two blocks away or moving his car before 7 a.m. every day.
Nizini disliked the sign. It made parking inconvenient. He couldn’t find a buyer for the house. Renovations would be expensive.
The city was serious about the sign, too. His mother’s car got towed when she parked in front of his house at 7:30 a.m. to have tea with him. She paid $250 to get it back from the lot.
So Nizini did what most homeowners would do. He asked the city nicely to come and fix it (this was in 2011). The government would send an inspector and check the flow of traffic on Ferndale. If there were too many cars trying to squeeze past parked vehicles, the No Parking signs would stay.
This is where things get confusing. Nizini claims an inspector improperly judged the traffic on his street.
“When this investigator shows up here at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and in 15 minutes concludes that, ‘Yes, I in fact remeasured the traffic 7-9 and it is in fact heavy and your signs are gonna stay in place,’ I knew something was wrong,” Nizini said.
Verifying this assertion is impossible, as the Department of Public Works & Engineering claims the records were lost. This also makes it difficult for Nizini to dispute the basis for having the No Parking signs on his street. He was stuck.
The City’s Response
If you ask Nizini, the government has horribly mistreated him. In my interview with him, he railed against “incompetence” and “neglect.” He claims the process of trying to change the sign on his street has shown him how our government is unfriendly to property owners.
The truth is more pedestrian. I talked to some people in the city government who revealed that they’d done more for Nizini than he let on.
He asked his council member Ellen Cohen for help with another sign that extended the no-parking time.
“I was able to help Mr. Nizini obtain a restoration of the previous conditions,” Cohen said in a statement forwarded to me by her office. “Mr. Nizini was unhappy with achievement as he had hoped to remove all parking restrictions entirely.”
Council Member Michael Kubosh took notice of Nizini’s issues as well. He came out to Nizini’s street and investigated the situation. His office did not respond to request for comment in time for publication.
A letter to Mayor Annise Parker’s office also yielded an investigation from the Department of Public Works & Engineering, the same people who’d put the sign there in the first place.
“I’m prepared to die for this country’s civil rights and economic freedoms.”
“I looked into the various restrictions that had been put up over the years, and I determined that there were curbside issues in place,” said Deputy Director Jeffrey Weatherford. “We removed the one [sign] that should not have been there and replaced them with ones that were proper.”
Weatherford advised Nizini in a letter to gather his neighbors for a petition to get the No Parking signs on his block removed.
The problem with that idea is Nizini refuses to do it.
“Petitioning the city to remove these signs that were illegitimately installed in the first place is pointless,” he said.
The original petition to place the signs there was disposed of. Weatherford claims Nizini’s neighbors gathered a petition to get the signs placed there.
Nizini thinks the original petition never happened, so he shouldn’t have to get a petition to remove the same signs.
Nizini also refuses to sue the city. “I chose not to pursue that path,” he said. “Not that I don’t need the money, that I don’t have the extra time. I just dont’ want this mumbo-jumbo to be part of my life.”
The only option he left himself was public protest.
Why He’s Out There
At this point, Nizini claims it’s not about his own parking. He’s gone too far.
“I would not stop protesting, I would not stop fighting,” he said. “It is for the city of Houston, for citizens of this town.”
Fighting the city for three years has turned his parking dispute into a crusade for what he perceives as justice. Hence standing outside city hall protesting five days a week.
Most people wouldn’t do this, but then Nizini’s not like most people.
“I don’t want to have anything to do with him,” said one neighbor who wished to stay anonymous. “He scares me. He’s an angry man.”
If Nizini is angry, he certainly has cause. Previous news coverage has been unfavorable. KPRC talked to Nizini and wrote one of the laziest stories I’ve ever seen. They didn’t bother explaining that he was starving himself to death for more than a parking space. They didn’t even spell his name right.
He’s too intense at times. His website looks like a manifesto written by somebody arrested by the FBI for buying 20 tons of fertilizer. In between calling everyone in the city council “incompetent” and “idiotic,” he told me the mayor’s office manipulated Channel 2 and 11 into “rigging the story and downplaying [my] whole issue down to a stupid little parking beef.”
He does seem harsh, but then this is a guy who has slogged through the system for years trying to get rid of a simple sign. Is it so surprising he’s frustrated?
“They’re not trying to be compassionate, and they’re not trying to be understanding,” Nizini said. “[City officials] follow the guidelines, and that’s the biggest problem.”
Will He Stop?
If letting this protester park in front of his own house isn’t the endgame, what is? What would it take to get this guy to end the hunger strike? Nizini is vague, saying he reevaluates his position daily.
Mainly, he wants someone in power to acknowledge the problem. To say that yes, the system could use some work.
“I think that if they would come back to me and say, ‘You know, Mr. Nizini, we recognize that any government is not perfect and government every now and then can make errors… and we would like to pause and reflect on the situation,’” Nizini said.
“That would be a good first step, I think.”
Why it’s a highlight:
This is an odd story. The guy, the topic, everything. However, I like it because I took the time to tell the story of someone who’d been ignored and misrepresented by damn near everyone. The sourcing’s also pretty good.