Touring Project Row Houses: Lessons on Arts as Anti-Gentrification Urbanism in Houston’s Historically Black Third Ward

On this block sits a one-story shotgun house with a modest “A”-frame structure. Two parts comprise the home’s street facing façade: a window centers the right half, while the left half indents inwards towards a front door. White paint unites the entire house’s exterior; this paint also covers and accents the horizontal wood beams that adorn this house.

Nine other nearly identical replicas—more one-story white “A”-frames—surround this house. In this near uniformity lies a story about the inception of these homes, and their continued meaning making in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood.

These homes sit along Holman Street less that a quarter mile from a mammoth interstate intersection, and some two miles south of Houston’s Downtown. They are part of Project Row Houses. Founded in 1993 by artist Rick Lowe, Project Row Houses is, as described on its website, “a community platform that enriches lives through art with an emphasis on cultural identity and its impact on the urban landscape.”

I toured Project Row Houses (PRH) in late May 2018 as part of this year’s Association of Arts Administration Educators (AAAE) conference. What most impressed me: PRH’s unwavering commitment to centering the needs of its mostly African-American community and residents (the majority of whom are marginalized due to race, gender, and income) amidst gentrification threats.

The tour included a welcome from Executive Director Eureka Gilkey and a neighborhood tour by McKenzie Watson, Guest Services and Membership Coordinator. Days later, a plenary at AAAE featured an interview with founder Rick Lowe and Director of Strategic Partnerships Tamika Evans. Essential lessons from them close this post.

Much has been written about arts and gentrification. Notably, sociologist Sharon Zukin researched artists in 1980s New York City lofts in then-fringe neighborhoods and Richard Florida has written about the role of the creative economy in the neoliberal growth of cities. But in these discourses, there is often an unstated link between mostly white artists who move to and make work in mostly non-white urban margins, and the role of that racial difference in sparking gentrification.

More recently, the term “artwashing” was coined to describe “the work and presence of artists and creative workers is used to add a cursory sheen to a place’s transformation,” and to attend to race and racist processes of gentrification involving the art. [More on artwashing here and here.] Journalist Peter Moskowitz has also been more explicit about that link between white artists gentrifying non-white urban areas. He does so through redlining, writing in 2017:

Redlining not only depressed the economies of inner cities, it created an entirely new kind of people in the suburbs—the white middle and upper-middle classes. For the first time in American history, the majority of white people were living largely privatized lives in single-family homes, without many community spaces or diversity, a lifestyle that reinforced the ideal of the nuclear family, with a stay-at-home mom and a working father. When the children of that economic and cultural experiment we now call “white flight” looked around, and decided they didn’t like what they saw, they began moving back to cities. In the 1970s, New York, San Francisco, and every other major urban center began experiencing an influx of a new kind of white person—one raised with the aesthetic, economic, and spatial values of the suburbs.

[…] suburbanization unleashed on cities a deluge of artists who cared more about marketable aesthetics than about art that could create social change.

In the 1930s, the racist process of redlining (whereby government backed home loans provided top rates to whites, and abysmal rates and denials to blacks regardless of financial healthy) racially segregated Houston, as it did in a majority of sizable U.S. cities. [See the unparalleled Mapping Inequality for more.] Through redlining, white bankers and governmental officials marked a majority of Houston’s Third Ward (a mostly African-American neighborhood) in red, that is, as “hazardous”; a yellow mark meant “definite declining” and delimited the remainder of the area. They did so solely due to race, because the neighborhood was mostly black. In redlining, those banks and officials denied mortgages and/or gave black residents the worst mortgage rates solely based on race, and thus divested from black people and black spaces. They also, in lining white areas blue and green, subsidized white neighborhoods with the best mortgage rates and investments.

Texas Map & Blueprint Co. (1930): Street Map, City of Houston, Texas, circa 1930. http://hdl.handle.net/1911/91602.

Through Moskowitz, we can make an argument linking aesthetics and race (as I’ve written about before), about how dense, redlined, and non-white urban areas that were once economically devalued due to governmental racism became, in the late 20th century, attractive to white artists who grew up in green-lined (and thus white and economically valued) suburban areas. U.S. gentrification narratives often narrowly focus on white artists entering non-white neighborhoods. Linking redlining to gentrification—whereby the presence of white artists in non-white neighborhoods attracts neoliberal capital and in turn displaces existing residents of color—then, more robustly animates how aesthetic and racialized values have been differently attached to white and black bodies because of past and continued racialized urban investments, and frames work by existing residents to confront dehumanizing neighborhood change.

Now a neighborhood of 15,000 residents, Houston’s Greater Third Ward currently has a population that is about 64% black. From 2000 to 2013, home values nearer downtown have risen over 176%, displacing many long-time residents. Project Row Houses centers historic and existing black residents, and humanizes those made most vulnerable by contemporary neoliberal development, and past redlining. From my tour, I learned that it does so in at least three ways.

First, PRH uses its resources to respond to the needs of the community, including confronting racial policies that have long dispossessed black residents in Houston. During her welcome, Executive Director Eureka Gilkey told us how PRH centers the question “How can we use our resources to respond to the needs of the community?”

Eureka Gilkey introducing Project Row Houses to our tour group

Some answers in the organization’s 25 year history include:

-Preserving housing stock. PRH started one of the first affordable housing programs in the neighborhood and more recently purchased 20 units from a slumlord, renovating them to become safe and quality places to live.

-Bringing back small businesses along Emancipation Avenue, which runs by Emancipation Park. Emancipation Park is the oldest park in Houston and in Texas. Bought in 1872 by former slaves who pooled together $1,000, the park celebrates Juneteenth, the day commemorating the emancipation of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865 (two years after the Emancipation Proclamation). In the 20th century, Emancipation Avenue had myriad of black-owned businesses that acted as a refuge for black residents denied entry into mainstream businesses elsewhere in Houston. In the past few decades, real estate prices have jumped from $5/sq. ft to $100 sq. ft. PRH has helped to anchor small businesses including NuWaters Co-Op, a food market.

-Working with University of Houston and Texas Southern University, universities located in the greater Third Ward, to hire residents who live in their zip codes.

-Using the majority of their annual budget of $2.6 million (which is mostly foundation funded) to sustain these structures.

Ultimately Gilkey emphasized how the work of Project Row Houses recognizes the complex the racial and classed effects of gentrification, and fights against how long-time residents have been displaced without recourse and resource. She detailed city policy issues, including the fact that if you are a renter in Houston, you cannot be part of your neighborhood’s civic organization and are threatened by same day eviction. However due to PRH’s community-engaged work, by 2018 some 22% of land in the neighborhood was owned by non-profit and churches, organizations that do not adhere to capitalist development plans.

Second, PRH invests spatially in its community. During our tour, McKenzie Watson revealed how the structures that define Project Row Houses – the row houses, but also homes for single mothers — all invest spatially in the marginalized community. Here are some of PRH’s spatial work:

Young Mothers Residential Program“The purpose of YMRP is to empower low-income single mothers and their children in achieving independent, self-sufficient lives. YMRP has supported roughly 100 mothers and their families, some of whom have gone on to earn doctorates, law degrees and become community leaders and entrepreneurs.”

Murals across from the Young Mothers Residential Program homes

Row House CDC: “Project Row Houses and Rice Building Workshop collaborated to create a series of row house-inspired duplexes to provide affordable housing for people in the community. In 2003, Row House CDC was created to act as a sister organization of PRH to manage the Affordable Housing Program.”

Cookie Love’s Wash n Fold, a laudromat for PRH residents named after a neighborhood resident

Small Business Incubation: “PRH’s Incubation Program provides space, time and/or mentorship to artists and creative entrepreneurs working in the early stages of project development. The incubation program affords creative entrepreneurs the opportunity of operating within a close-knit community of artists and activists in addition to operating on a neighborhood level with members of the Third Ward community and beyond.” Many businesses are begun by former PRH residents.

Inside Crumbville, TX, a vegan bakery owned by Ella Russell (center) incubated by Project Row Houses

Inside NuWaters Co-Op with a member-owner

Inside NuWaters Co-op

Many incubated businesses are near Eldorado Ballroom, owned and renovated by PRH, the historic home where 20th century black audiences, denied from white-only theaters, were able to see traveling black musicians.

-Space for Art: From Public Art, to Residencies, to low-cost studio space, PRH is spatially thread by and led by art.

A stretch of row houses on Bastrop St used for art installations including radio broadcasts

“Neighborhood Fantasies” exhibit

Third, PRH animates an artistic thinking about its mostly black neighborhood. The AAAE plenary featured Rick Lowe (founder) and Tamika Evans (Director of Strategic Partnerships) in conversation with Sixto Wagan (Director of the Center for Art and Social Engagement at the University of Houston). Rick Lowe detailed the inception of Project Row Houses; how high school students visited his studio and questioned the greater goal of his work. As he detailed in 2006:

I was doing big, billboard-size paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues, and one of the students told me that, sure, the work reflected what was going on in his community, but it wasn’t what the community needed. If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.

At the plenary Rick Lowe also made us think about the relationship between art and the community, even admist neoliberal displacement, saying “in a market economy, we exercise our role in the market as well,” “you loose things when you scale up,” “as an artist, you make something and you think about it,” and “having an expansive mindset integral to the whole thing.” Lowe suggested framing residents as artists, as those with expansive and creative mindsets, is integral to the work that Project Row Houses does.

Sixto Wagan, Tamika Evans, and Rick Lowe at the 2018 AAAE Plenary

Tamika Evans, director of Strategic Partnerships, also expansively revealed how through centering arts, “PRH had the capacity to dream” and to “empower people and engage community through direct action.” She also incisively queried, “What does it mean to be a in a community with another human being?”

By thinking artistically, by working artistically in its neighborhoods, Project Row Houses makes an expansive space for its community and confronts the spatial dehumanization of black people. Especially in urban processes like redlining and gentrification, black people aren’t given multitudes of meaning. They are just marked in redlines as “hazardous” or through development as “to be displaced.” By contrast, Project Row Houses has allowed for multitudes of meaning to be re-attached to black residents from animating Emancipation Park, to housing single mothers, to making space for black businesses, financial aptitude, and of course, art.

Unless otherwise noted all images are by Jasmine Mahmoud. 

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‘Priced Out,’ ‘Erased,’ and ‘Eminent Domain’: Voices from Portland, Kansas City, and Saint Louis — Part One

“We found that the city had used whatever tactic … to take [our] home. The blight study led to condemnation. Condemnation opens the door for eminent domain. By the time we were aware that our properties had been audited, eminent domain was just inevitable. … Because our memories, our homes, our neighborhood, the people that we are, the people that we saw every day, mattered not to the city. The city used us as a way to bring economic development and all they saw were dollar signs. They couldn’t care less about the fact that we had people in the neighborhood that were upwards of 75 and 80 years old, who had never lived in any other home in their adult life.”

-Sheila Rendon, displaced St. Louis Place resident

Ameena Powell (standing), and Sheila Rendon (seated at far right), panelists at the “We Lived Here!” panel, October 7, 2017 at the Griot Museum in St. Louis, MO

Earlier this month, I moderated “The Politics of Gentrification and Displacement, from Portland, Oregon, to St. Louis, Missouri,” a panel at the St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF). The panel screened two films. The first, Displaced and Erased (2016), is a short feature (which you can watch here) about the mid-20th century displacement of a thriving black community from what is now downtown Clayton, MO. Where there used to be black homes, churches, and schools, there are now four-star business hotels, restaurants, and parking garages that cater to mostly white clientele. These changes came because officials in Clayton, the St. Louis County suburb adjacent to St. Louis City, systematically implemented policies to displace black people, by erasing black homes and gathering spaces. Emma Riley, a white filmmaker who was born and raised in Clayton, directed and produced the film after learning about the displacement from her black high school teachers.

The second film Priced Out (2017) documents early 21st century gentrification and displacement in Albina, Portland, a once thriving black area of Northeast Portland that endured 20th century practices of redlining and divestment, and later late 20th century and early 21st century investment and displacement/gentrification. The documentary film follows Nikki Williams, described on film’s website as “a black single mother who once embraced the idea of gentrification. A decade and a half later she found herself torn between feelings of grief for her community and the economic opportunities that come from rising home prices.” The film’s director Cornelius Swart first met Williams in the late 1990s while making NorthEast Passage (2002), a documentary film that chronicled how Williams worked to clean up her neighborhood from drug dealers and abandoned buildings; at the time Williams celebrated gentrification as a process to further “clean up” her neighborhood. Priced Out chronicles Williams over a decade later when, according to the website for the film, “she realized she was one of the last black people on her street. While Nikki wanted to see the neighborhood fixed up, she never thought ‘they would kick everybody out, fix it up, and tell everyone they can’t come back.’ The catch is, Nikki is a homeowner, now caught between the loss of her community and the opportunity to sell her home and achieve economic freedom for the first time in her life.”

Scenes from Priced Out: Nikki Williams in 2013, when she realized that the black community in her neighborhood had been “obliterated” by gentrification. Image from pricedoutmovie.com.

Both films poignantly depict how the particular processes that displace and erase marginalized communities–and in these cases processes that displace black people and black neighborhoods–contribute to logics that naturalize gentrification. Priced Out also particularly shows the how the aesthetics and young, white demographics of gentrifying coffee shops (and I’m thinking about the recent controversy in Denver with its “happily gentrifying” coffee shop) and apartments act as violent signifiers to long-term, often non-white residents—who often also being displaced by huge rent hikes—that they are no longer welcome in their neighborhood.

While moderating, I gave genealogy of the word gentrification. As many readers of this blog know, in 1964, British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term gentrification to describe what she observed in the London neighborhood of Islington. She wrote:

The social status of many residential areas is being ‘uplifted’ as the middle class—or the ‘gentry’—moved into working-class space, taking up residence, opening businesses, and lobbying for infrastructure improvements.

One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class. Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed

Even her description included a warning about the process. She also wrote:

There has been a great deal of displacement. All those who cannot hold their own—the small enterprises, the lower ranks of people, the odd men out—are being pushed away.

Since Glass coined the term, gentrification has been used by scholars to capture a set of processes that produce a pernicious type of neighborhood change. In his 1996 book, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the revanchist City, Marxist geographer Neil Smith defines it as a “process … by which poor and working-class neighborhoods in the inner city are refurbished via an influx of private capital and middle-class homebuyers and renters—neighborhoods that had previously experienced disinvestment and a middle-class exodus” (30).

Gentrification as a process is almost always associated with racialization and displacement. As such, it follows broader genealogies of geographic and urban change in the United States that relied upon policy to produce those racialzied changes. These include the westward settling of the frontier, which relied upon legislation to mark Native American lands as an empty in states like Oregon, which, as Priced Out documented, also used policy, specifically black exclusion laws, to prevent black settlers. This includes redlining efforts that not only racially segregated neighborhoods, but that also produced wealth for white homeowners, and dispossession for black residents. And this includes displacement of black people and destruction of often black neighborhoods: not just downtown Clayton, but also in St. Louis Mill Creek Valley in the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe in the 1970s, Laclede Town in the 1980s, and most recently St. Louis Place where in 2017, 212 black homeowners were displaced for the new NGA site.

For those living in Albina, Portland in the 1990s and 2000s or downtown Clayton in the 1960s, or St. Louis Place in the last decade, gentrification is not just an academic term that captures a process; it is also describes lived, often nefarious experience of disorienting neighborhood change. Michelle Lewis, a protagonist in Swart’s film, says gentrification is “pain, loss, and grief.”

While moderating, I asked our panelists (Priced Out director Cornelius Swart, as well as Peter Benson and Kedron Thomas, both professors of anthropology at Washington University): what can we do? What can we do to prevent displacement and produce more equitable cities? Actions by activists captured in Priced Out suggested some solutions: ending no fault evictions (which are currently legal in Oregon), implementing rent control, enforcing affordable housing provisions in tax incentives (often ignored by developers), and giving those displaced a first “right to return” to newer developments. Cornelius Swart also floated the idea that displaced residents, especially those displaced by city practices meant solely to extract profit, should sue the city.

I felt much more hopeless a month earlier while an attendee at “We Lived Here!” An October 2017 panel at the installation Eminent Domain/Displaced at the Griot Museum in St. Louis (more on this in a following post), “We Lived Here!: A Community Panel” featured residents from St. Louis and Kansas City displaced by practices of eminent domain including Ameena Powell, Sheila Rendon, Charlesetta Taylor, Ruth Marie Johnson Edmonds, Vivian Gibson, and Patricia Lee. All residents on the panel were black women; some had been displaced multiple times from both Mill Creek Valley, the thriving black community in St. Louis demolished in the early 1950s, and more recently in 2017 from St. Louis Place, the mostly black neighborhood in North St. Louis City, of which city officials seized 97 acres by eminent domain for the National Geospatial Agency (NGA).

Eminent domain often connotes the state acquiring private property for public use to build parks or transportation. But the panel implicitly queried these ostensible benefits by asking: what does it mean when eminent domain—ostensibly meant for public good—is to used to displace black communities and bring profit to only a few stakeholders? (Panel moderator Maggie Garb, Professor of History at Washington University, recently wrote a salient post about the history and practices of eminent domain.) The stories offered at “We Lived Here!” revealed a pernicious, ugly side to eminent domain, especially when directed towards black residents who, despite efforts to engage with local officials, were left ignored, displaced, and erased. At the very least, one thing we can do is document their voices and stories. So in the reminder I include excerpts from two of the panelists of “We Lived Here!”

Sheila Rendon, St. Louis (displaced from the St. Louis Place neighborhood in 2017)

My home was taken for the NGA Project. We fought hard. We understood probably in the 1970s, there was a move against our neighborhood. We saw businesses leaving, we saw institutions closing, we saw offers being made to homeowners to buy their living costs to leave the neighborhood. Within about 1998, there was the last of the residents here and there was an active move from several businesses to buy up our neighborhood. But we still wanted to reach out to these entities thinking that there was a development coming that would include us.

We understood in roughly about 2007 that the neighborhood was being taken, finally taken. Not developed. My house was built in 1865, and the blight study read that our property was outdated, an eyesore, unsafe, unsanitary. Which none of those things were true.

We found that the city had used whatever tactic in order to take your home. The blight study led to condemnation. Condemnation opens the door for eminent domain. By the time we were aware that our properties had been audited, eminent domain was just inevitable. … Because our memories, our homes, our neighborhood, the people that we are, the people that we saw every day, mattered not to the city. The city used us as a way to bring economic development and all they saw were dollar signs. They couldn’t care less about the fact that we had people in the neighborhood that were upwards of 75 and 80 years old, who had never lived in any other home in their adult life. They couldn’t care less about the fact that my children were in high school … they started since they were in kindergarten.

So to the fight that is Mill Creek, St Louis Place, and others in the future, will be from the very beginning. When there is talk about the development of your communities, you have to be there from day one. Because development is not always for you, sometimes it’s against you, and the very last tool that they will use is eminent domain. So do not fear it, it’s not something that you should fear, it’s something that you fight. And you fight to the very, very end. My husband and I were the very last people in our community and we fought. My husband starved himself for 30 days on a public forum from the transition from winter to spring, sleeping in tents, the struggle was real.

One thing I will leave you guys with, with the idea that, Mill Creek Valley happened and St Louis Place happened, is that it can happen to you and if you are not diligent, and you do not go to the meetings, if you do not confront your elected officials, it will happen to you. And you will be on the stage as we are today talking about what happened to our neighborhood. Don’t let that happen to you.

Ameena Powell, Kansas City, MO (displaced from the Wendell-Phillips neighborhood in 2013)

Who was Wendell Phillips? Wendell Phillips was a white man, who was a court attorney, he was a writer, a poet, and he left a good law practice on the east coast, and he gave up that practice to become an abolitionist for slavery. And so that’s how our neighborhood got the name Wendell-Philips. Some of the famous people that lived in our neighborhood…. There was movie called the Great Debaters. It’s about a gentleman named Melvin Tolson and how he took the debate team all the way to national championships. … He grew up in the neighborhood. He graduated from Lincoln High School, which is still one of the top performing high schools in the country. Virgil Thomas [wa]s a Harvard graduate of music and … a composer. … Charlie Parker, the famous saxophonist, grew up in our neighborhood.

About the community, like a lot of the people say about Mill Creek, this is a neighborhood where people lived and they stayed. So my grandmother bought her house in 1943, she had all her children out of that house. Her children now live in that house and they’re now in their 70s and 60s. And that house will be knocked [down] as well. So we’ve got 72 years of history, at least 72 years of history, in that one house.

I bought my house in 2007. I was thirty years old. I paid $10,000 for that house. It was a fixer upper but I was proud to own a fixer upper. I came back from holiday and said, “This is where I want to spend the rest of my life.” So I paid for the property, and it was probably the most exciting day of my life.

I got the notice in about 2011 that we were going to be displaced. Unlike a lot of the things that have happened to the people here, there was no planning for any of this. In our city, we have a city planning commission, and development has to go through the city planning commission before it can be implemented. So there has to be: these notices have to be posted. They weren’t. This is October 2013, we got our notices and were sued in court, well before this.

Chapter 5.23 requires you to give notice to a homeowner before you partake or undertake an eminent domain action. And that just didn’t happen. … The powers that be will get their way regardless of how illegal, nefarious or … criminal it can be. They will get what they want and so in 2013 … the city, after I lost my appeal in court, the city decided, whoops, this is them. So when I filed my appeal in court, they wanted to go ahead and tear down the buildings. Now this house [next to Powell’s] had been vacant for months and they were supposed to be tearing down the houses in order of the sale. … But they tore mine down so they could have an argument in court to say that the building is torn down, you don’t really have anything to fight for. So that is my experience with eminent domain.

At the very least we–those of us invested in building equitable neighborhoods and protecting those made vulnerable by destructive urbanization–can collect their voices and stories.