Third Ward Renaissance: A call for renewal
Editor’s Note: This is part one of a three-part series involving the renovation of the Third Ward. This series will run every Thursday in print from Jan. 16 to 30. Parts two and three can be found here and here.
The Nook, one of UH’s newest campus additions, has satisfied the need of many UH students by providing a place that can facilitate both the rigorous needs of academia and the social needs of the everyday student. Its über-trendy warehouse structure, combined with its convenient on-campus location, has solidified The Nook as one of UH’s signature small businesses.
“We’re bringing the best of Houston to this side of town. Not just to UH, but to East Downtown,” said Jacob McClain, general manager of The Nook. “We’re lucky enough to be able to have our start on a college campus.”
The Nook also stimulates the city’s economy through exclusively purchasing its produce from Houston’s own local farmers’ markets, creating awareness throughout the entire UH community about the locally grown crops our city has to offer.
“The majority of our coffee, including the Cougar Blend, comes locally,” McClain said. “A lot of it comes from Katz Coffee. The majority of our beers and wines are local, too. All of our produce comes from Houston’s farmers’ markets. We really want to try to keep the circulation in Houston as best we can.”
It’s also created numerous jobs, suggesting that UH and Houston have more to gain than coffee and pastries from the newly launched lounge.
Though The Nook is arguably UH’s most buzzed-about new business, it certainly isn’t the only one we’ve got to boast about. The New UC will feature a McDonald’s, Starbucks, Chick-Fil-A and Panda Express. Basically, renovation breeds jobs, and it’s not a bad idea to apply this ideology to parts of Houston in desperate need of an economic revival.
Mention areas in need of an economic revival, and most Houstonians will immediately think of Houston’s historic Third Ward, which was originally founded as one of four original political segregation subdivisions and joined Houston’s ranks in 1841.
“The ward system was abolished in 1916,” said Houston Community College history and political science professor and Houston Historical Tours President Keith Rosen.
“Most people misuse the Third Ward terminology because, well, they’re ignorant, and they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Rosen said. “University of Houston has never existed within any ward. The ward system ended in 1916. University of Houston was founded in 1927.”
Former Rice University lecturer and architectural historian Stephen Fox once called the Third Ward the “elite neighborhood of late 19th-century Houston.” It’s 2013 now, and though the area houses much of Houston’s dynamic culture, its rich history has become aesthetically overshadowed by its crippling poverty.
The history of the Third Ward is rich indeed, and many of Houston’s roots lie deep within the area. Elwyn C. Lee, vice president for community relations and institutional access, spoke with me on these roots and on residents of the Third Ward.
“You could go up and down the block and see where numerous judges, elected officials, officers, so many officials (live or have lived) in the Third Ward,” Lee said. “There’s so many famous churches and organizations. … The meetings held that strategized how to deal with white power structure during the civil rights movement were actually held at the YMCA on Wheeler.”
“There’s the famous Judge Jefferson, probably the most respected black judge that we’ve ever had. He was a federal district judge … and a man of immense respect. He grew up in the Third Ward, went to church in the Third Ward.”
Lee is also a former resident of the Third Ward.
The Third Ward Redevelopment Council, in which Lee takes an active role, has been working for years to design a plan to renovate — or, as many say, “gentrify” — Houston’s historic former Third Ward area, including building a recreation center, a community center, a city park and town homes. Any drive down the politically inspired subdivision will show you what’s motivating such plans.
The Third Ward’s dignity has all but disappeared from the area. Empty housing lots overgrown with wild vegetation litter the area, a once-thriving sector for the economic middle-class. Wood and aluminum shotgun shanties line the dilapidated, pothole-ridden streets.
The word “gentrification,” which most believe refers to the forced displacement of people in the process of renovating a city, has been thrown around like a rag doll in conversations regarding the pros and cons of redistributing Houston’s population. However, as Rosen explained, the term itself is rooted in racist, derogatory undertones.
“The only time you hear the word gentrification used is when you have a neighborhood that was once affluent that’s now become primarily Hispanic and African-American and grown poorer. Gentrification is used to describe a neighborhood again becoming a primarily white, affluent neighborhood,” Rosen said.
Gentrification has nothing to do with the economics and everything to do with race. It’s widely misused when discussing plans to renovate the area, and it implies a racial issue with Third Ward renovation plans that simply doesn’t exist. The fiscally decaying area is taking up land that could otherwise bolster the city’s economic growth.
It’s a social pattern that begs the question of whether history should be preserved at the expense of a city’s overall progress. Quite frankly, there isn’t enough room in this column to touch every aspect of this multi-faceted issue: imminent domain, personal property rights and the broad economics of the situation. Socially speaking, history, not progress, should be sacrificed in the pursuit of a more sustainable community. History in itself is about making progress. If our city never progressed, Houston’s history would be limited to John and Augustus Allen’s landing on Buffalo Bayou in 1836 and not much else.
It’s not heartlessly Machiavellian, and it’s not callous — in fact, it’s been proven to be the best solution for bolstering the city’s economy, something that benefits nearly every Houstonian in one way or another.
The 2006 redevelopment of the Buffalo Bayou resulted in a more-than-fourfold increase in the area’s businesses, as the area’s retail sales increased from $10,467,000 to $57,281,000, according to the Houston Chronicle. The area’s number of businesses also leapt from 54 to 236. Of the park’s users polled by representatives of University of Texas at Arlington, who conducted the study, 99 percent said the area’s renovations improved their overall quality of life.
The restoration and redevelopment of the Third Ward is something most Houstonians see as a universally beneficial solution. The tricky part, though, is catering to the needs of the Third Ward’s longtime residents. Many residents of the Third Ward have been calling the area home for generations, and concepts like “renovation” and “redevelopment” seem to suggest displacement for them.
“Everybody’s for it until it comes after them,” Lee said.
It’s a weighty task to take on. Redeveloping an area, no matter how wealthy or impoverished, almost always causes a gargantuan shift in the economics of the area. In the sense of redeveloping the Third Ward, catering to the needs of both the current residents and Houston’s wealthy young professionals seems near impossible. Throw in the maintenance of the area’s history, and it’s clear just how formidable a task it is to propose a change.
Change, however, is at the heart of growth. To deny change is to deny growth, and to deny growth is to give Houston’s full potential a premature death.
“With progress comes growth. Anytime you stop growing, you stagnate,” Rosen said.
“If you think of a city as an organic object, with a birth, a growth and even a death, you have to maintain that growth. If you don’t, your city will die.”
Read part two of the series here.
Senior staff columnist Cara Smith is a communications junior and may be reached at [email protected]