As kids, we’re often told that if we can’t say anything nice, we shouldn’t say anything at all. We’re also told, as we transition into adulthood, that conflicts should be resolved in a calm, respectful manner. These two guidelines are a good roadmap for a conflict-free existence. There’s only one problem – it takes two to tango, as they say, and just because you’re perfectly willing to abide by these rules doesn’t mean everyone else is.
Certain people prefer to live outside the bounds of “polite society.” Maybe they think the rules simply don’t apply to them, or maybe they’re unable to not speak their minds when they feel it’s warranted. Either way, these people barrel through life like an out-of-control freight train, flattening everything in their path. Just ask these two parents, who were holding a birthday photoshoot for their one-year-old, only to be blindsided by a very angry local.
An uninvited guest
It was a Saturday afternoon in February when Kelyn Alyssa and Isaiah Allen, two young parents from Houston, Texas, visited a public esplanade with their one-year-old daughter. They weren’t just there to enjoy the area’s gentle trees. Their daughter would be celebrating her first birthday soon, and being the doting parents that they are, they decided to hold a professional photoshoot for her, complete with foil balloons.
They weren’t the only group snapping photos along North Boulevard, in Houston’s Broadacres community, so you can just imagine their surprise when the birthday photoshoot was crashed by a very angry uninvited guest.
A birthday photoshoot
Kelyn and Isaiah, like many parents these days, wanted the first birthday of Anja, their baby girl, to be an occasion she’ll be able to look back on fondly later in life. To make sure that happens, they hired a professional photographer to capture some precious moments. They traveled to the city’s North Boulevard, located in the upscale Broadacres community.
Its long walkway, shaded by trees on both sides, is an extremely popular hotspot for photographers. Kelyn and Isaiah were no different, and set Anja down as they unfurled a pink blanket, with balloons completing the set, one of them in the shape of a large 1. There was no indication such a perfect day could go wrong, but it did – badly.
Crashing the party
The screeching tires of a blue Jaguar convertible could be heard all over the serene boulevard. In short order, Isaiah and Kelyn realized they were for them, as a barefooted woman carrying a small Pomeranian dog emerged from the vehicle and started shouting at them. The very first thing she allegedly told them, in fact, was, “You are trampling the grass that WE pay for.”
As soon as the woman, later identified as Houston socialite Franci Neely, emerged, she made a beeline for the parents and Anja. At this point, she released her dog, who wasn’t on a leash, and he came just a little too close to the baby girl who was sitting peacefully on the path.
Too close for comfort
Fearing for Anja’s safety, Kelyn claims that she calmly asked the woman to get her dog away. Neely refused, however, and kept raving about them being on private property and that she could do what she wanted with her dog. Crouching down to shield the baby, Kelyn asked again that Neely take him away. Isaiah took out his phone at this point, and started filming the situation.
Neely, meanwhile, stomped towards the props and started aggressively removing them from the path. This scared the baby, who started bawling. While Isaiah and the photographer tried to stop her, Kelyn told Neely she was upsetting her child. She would soon be turning her attention to people rather than objects, however.
“Shame on you,” Kelyn repeatedly told Neely, who seemed to be walking away towards her dog, who had wandered off in the meantime. Isaiah yelled after her that she should tell the people taking photographs just up ahead that they should leave as well. When Kelyn accused her of bringing her dog there to bite her child, however, things went off the rails.
“You know that’s a lie,” Neely said, accusing the mother of being “crazy.” When Isaiah told Neely that she herself was crazy, she turned towards him and swatted at him – or his phone. Walking back to get her dog, she grabbed him and said, “Here’s the big biter” before swatting at Isaiah again.
Feeling singled out
Speaking about the incident later, Isaiah and Kelyn both felt they were being singled out for some reason. At the very same time Anja’s first birthday shoot was going on, at least two other unrelated shoots were being staged in the very same stretch of North Boulevard.
The mixed-race couple had a working theory as to why Neely chose to accost them specifically. Kelyn is from Port of Spain, the capital of the Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago, and they believed Neely chose them because of their race.
A privileged background
So who exactly is Franci Neely? The well-known socialite was married to Jim Crane, owner of the Houston Astros baseball team. After 21 years of marriage, however, they divorced, reportedly leaving Neely with a $30 million settlement.
While they were together, the two were patrons of the arts, supporting institutions like Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Before spending the majority of her time as a philanthropist, she was a business litigator for two decades. For her 60th birthday, she was serenaded by The B-52’s. A far cry from the working class couple of Kelyn and Isaiah…
A street in dispute
The altercation between Neely and the couple was actually part of a much broader problem. The real conflict, in fact, exists between the city of Houston itself and the Broadacres Homeowners Association, and rages over ownership of the esplanade.
While Houston has iterated that its sidewalks were public property, the homeowners association has been fighting tooth and nail to have it recognized as its private property. The association president defended Neely, saying residents are nearing their breaking point after people went into residents’ gardens and stood on their front steps.
A serious issue
Neely herself believed this issue was not a laughing matter. The homeowners association invests a lot of money to maintain the trees, grass, and walkways, she claimed.
But a high volume of commercial photography that has invaded their neighborhood is damaging the property that they’re maintaining out of their own pocket, not to mention interfering with people who just want to take peaceful walks there. While the city has confirmed the homeowners association pays to maintain the grass on the esplanade, it sticks to its position – it’s everyone’s property.
Seeking a man-on-the-street account of the ongoing controversy surrounding the esplanade, a local news team interviewed several Houston residents on the matter. “We’re all paying taxes,” photographer Debbie Psifidis said. “My clients are paying taxes.”
She believed the walkway belonged to them as much as it did anyone. Another local, Elizabeth Wong, said that while there’s almost always a family or a couple snapping photos there, it “never seems chaotic.” Resident Taylor Morrison agreed, saying, “They’re frequent, but I wouldn’t say that there’s more than one at a time.”
Her side of the story
Eventually, Neely released her first official statement on the altercation. “I am very sorry that I got upset,” she opened with a conciliatory tone before going on the offensive. She claimed three groups were shooting simultaneously on North Boulevard that day.
While two of them were respectful the third – Kelyn and Isaiah’s birthday photoshoot – was not. She accused them of obstructing the walkway and said, “It’s hard to remain composed when confronted by shouted threats of lawsuits and false, inflammatory accusations.”
A sort-of apology
Later, Neely released a video in which she spoke in broad terms about how sorry she was. It would be hard to call it an apology to Kelyn or Isaiah, however, since she never mentions any of them by name.
“To my family, friends, neighbors, and fellow Houstonians,” she said, “I ask for forgiveness and understanding.” Her voice cracking, Neely iterated her love for Houston, and asked for everyone to come together to heal. “I extend my hand in friendship,” she concluded, although without mentioning to whom.
Not even the first time
Her two statements, apologizing for and explaining her behavior, should be taken in the context of what seems to be repeated behavior. After the incident with Kelyn and Isaiah was made public, another video was unearthed.
Supposedly filmed around the same time, and taking place again on North Boulevard, the six-second video showed Neely approaching the man filming her. “You don’t have permission to do that, sir,” she says, “and I’d appreciate you quitting.” She then – you guessed it – swats at his phone.
A bit hypocritical
Regardless of who you might think is morally in the right in either video, it should be noted that Isaiah’s video of the incident definitely shows someone breaking the law – and it isn’t them!
While Texas doesn’t have any state laws specifically ordering dog owners to have their dogs on a leash when outside, Houston absolutely does. The city’s municipal code says dogs aren’t allowed to be “at large” outside the direct physical control of their owners. Neely’s dog, it would seem, definitely fell into that category.
Police weighs in
That slight transgression aside, Kelyn and Isaiah did file a complaint with the Houston Police Department for Neely’s alleged assault of them. A spokesperson for the police confirmed that a complaint had been filed, and an investigation was underway.
To date, however, no arrest has been made and no charges have been filed. Analysis of the cause of the police’s apparent inaction will be left up for debate. Suffice it to say, however, that the two separate incidents caught on film merit a closer look at Neely’s conduct.
In the end, this is a classic case of she said-they said. On the one hand, it could be claimed that Neely is a quintessential example of a very rich person with a very bad case of entitlement. She thinks she owns the world, and everyone in it.
On the other, it could be said such “gotcha” videos of people in vulnerable, agitated positions can make anyone look bad. What it comes down to, as always, is basic courtesy, and both sides could have showed a bit more of it.
Not a caricature
So who is Franci Neely really? Is she the patron of arts who supports museums and founded the University of Texas’ Center for Women in Law, or is she the kind of person who habitually physically accosts people taking photos? The answer is likely that she’s both.
Real people, contrary to what some Hollywood movies would have us believe, have many divergent and sometimes contradictory interests, instincts, and impulses. Neely can be a well-respected philanthropist, but have a fiery temper at the same time.
Extending a hand
Mary Digiovanni, a professional photographer from Columbus, Texas, watched the video and was appalled by Neely’s behavior. Watching it broke her heart, she claimed. She was so moved by their plight that she reached out and contacted the family, offering them a photoshoot of any kind.
Family photos, Easter photos or anything else – free of charge. “I just wanted to reach out to them and let them know there are still nice people in the area,” she said, adding it doesn’t take much to show some compassion.
It appears that after Neely became famous – for all the wrong reasons – people started coming out of the woodwork with past incidents. Yet a third video emerged, of a woman who resembles and sounds like Neely.
Even though she did not confirm it was her, the incident was filmed in North Boulevard. The woman was once again berating people for taking photos on the esplanade. This time it was high school students snapping some prom photos, and she told them they were on private property.
Unsurprisingly, the story was carried by multiple news outlets, both in America and around the world in places like Australia. Unlike similarly viral news stories, however, it lacked a true and clear villain.
After all, Neely could undoubtedly have been nicer and more polite, but she may have been pushed to the brink by commercial photographers invading her neighborhood in droves. The crowd of people commenting on the story, then, was consequently divided. Many rooted for Kelyn and Isaiah, of course, but some stuck up for the beleaguered Neely.
She won’t be charged
Several weeks after the incident, a decision on the assault charge was finally made. Harris County police and Houston prosecutors concluded their investigation into the incident, but what they found would bitterly disappoint Kelyn and Isaiah.
Charges for a class A assault again the couple’s body would not – and could not – be pursued, the county announced, after evaluating the evidence. As for the lesser charge of class C assault, stemming from Neely hitting their phones, the county said a lack of evidence prevented indicting Neely.
A ‘dehumanizing’ decision
It would probably come as no surprise that the couple did not take the news of the investigation being dropped well. “This is absolutely ridiculous,” Kelyn described the county’s decision, calling it “dehumanizing.”
The family’s attorney, Lanease Fuller, added that she firmly believed that had the tables been turned, and the situation reversed, dropping all charges wouldn’t be what the county decided to do. With criminal charges being off the table, the couple still had one recourse – a civil suit.
Staging a civil suit
True to their word, the couple did indeed file a civil suit against Franci Neely in a Houston court. The suit recounted the suffering the family has allegedly been put through since the incident.
The family, the suit said, was “caused to suffer injuries, and to endure anxiety, sleepless nights, and depression.” As for baby Anja, Isaiah said that she was still “very jumpy around out pets” and that she now feared loud noises. There was no dollar amount initially associated with the lawsuit.
Sticking to her guns
Neely, it appeared, was unmoved by the family’s decision to take her to court. She said that since the incident was publicized so widely, she received “malicious hate mail” and was forced to leave her house for periods of time in fear of her own safety.
Still defiant, she stated that she refused to be terrorized or harassed into giving money to people who appeared determined to “pursue a spiteful agenda.” Lawsuits, she added, would not solve their conflict. The best thing to do was for everyone involved to just move on.
Just bad memories to look back on
While Neely had a clear interest in moving on, it was far less easy for Isaiah and Kelyn. The photoshoot marked the first professional shots taken of Anja since she was born. Instead of looking back at the photos fondly, Kelyn said, she hated the fact that she couldn’t see them without being reminded of Neely and what she did.
Isaiah added that they had no idea who Neely was at the time, and it didn’t matter. “The golden rule is you should treat others how you want (them) to treat you,” he stated.
A royal wannabe
We’ve mentioned before Neely’s ties to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. In fact, Neely is the museum’s chairwoman, and has organized various charity galas and balls to raise money for the institution. One such gala evening was The Courtly Ball in October, 2018.
A table at the Royal Family-inspired event could be yours for only $12,500. The ball ended up raising $2 million, but never forgot to pay its respects. Neely, along with two other local dignitaries, arrived at the ball by horse-drawn carriage and were announced by trumpets.
The bitter irony
While it’s hard to reconcile these two sides of Neely – the one that raises millions for a museum while shouting at people she doesn’t know to clear the street – that’s not the story here.
The bigger story is the irony of a woman who clearly does so much for charity and who seems to genuinely care about these things behave in such a manner to the “regular people” who visit the museum she supports. It makes us wonder whether her philanthropy isn’t just a way of establishing her status…
The prerogatives of the wealthy
Speaking of the status of the rich and famous, Neely is clearly a well-known figure in Houston. Just a cursory internet search will yield no end of results. While many of them now have to do with the incident with Isaiah and Kelyn, many others are about her wealth and philanthropy.
When Harris County police decided to close its investigation, was it truly because Neely was innocent of any wrongdoing? Or was it because no one wanted to tackle someone as rich and powerful as her? We may never know.
What if they switched places?
Instead, let’s try a little thought experiment. Imagine, if you will, that the roles in the altercation were reversed. Let’s say Neely was holding a photoshoot of some kind – maybe for her dog – and Isaiah or Kelyn happened to wander by and berate her for her alleged misuse of public property.
It’s fascinating to try and imagine how an incident like that might have played out, both in real-time and later, with the authorities being asked to get involved. Perhaps the investigation would not have been so hastily closed…
Going back to normal?
All hypotheticals aside, if Isaiah or Kelyn don’t manage to get their civil suit off the ground, the matter will be over and done with for good. Each of them will then have to go back to their respective lives.
The Allens will go back to working regular jobs and raising baby Anja, while Neely will go back to her life of luxury. It’s not hard to figure out who will have an easier time of it, hobnobbing with Houston’s gilteratti, and who’ll be left to pick up the pieces.