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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Opinion

Houston’s identity threatened by gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods


Houston, with its ample land and lax culture, became home to some of the most prominent Black neighborhoods in the country. | File photo

At the turn of the 20th century, as nearly everyone in America was on the move due to the forces of industrialization, an expanding country and the fallout from Reconstruction, Black Americans set out to create communities for themselves where they could live, work and prosper.

Houston, with its ample land and lax culture, became home to some of the most prominent Black neighborhoods in the country.

The Third Ward was established as one of the six historic wards and has grown to become one of the largest and most diverse Black neighborhoods in the city. Independence Heights became the first African American municipality in Texas after residents migrated there in the early 1900s for new opportunities. Acres Homes was formed during World War I as Black residents sought out the land for farming and easy access to downtown.

As Houston expands at a blistering pace, these historically Black neighborhoods have experienced the effects of gentrification firsthand. New residents flood into the areas because of cheap land prices, an abundance of space and proximity to centers of work and recreation.

The loss of these neighborhoods would be a blow to the city’s reputation as one of the most diverse in the nation, and the erasure of these communities would be a shame. Houston’s character is so deeply dependent on the contributions made by its Black residents both past and present.

Leon Preston II, a pastor at Yale Street Baptist Church in Independence Heights, said the loss of that community, which is rapidly disappearing, would cause irreparable damage to the city.

“When we lose this community, Houston loses a limb, a limb that was traditionally there, a limb that was vitally important, a limb that made the city what it was,” he said.

Historically Black neighborhoods are as vital to the city as limbs are to the body. When development targets an area for revitalization, little attention is paid to residents who lose property or are displaced.

A study by the Kinder Institute at Rice University said residents in the Third Ward pushing back against gentrification in the historic Freedmen’s Town see the issue “as a matter of social justice.” The effects of gentrification aren’t just about diversity for the sake of appearance. There’s a cost to the city losing its Black opportunity base with “black businesses and communities diminished by highway construction in the urban renewal era, desegregation and sustained underinvestment,” according to the study.

The city needs to be investing in historically Black neighborhoods through the creation of affordable housing and tax incentives instead of allowing the private sector to further inequality by pushing longtime residents out in favor of business contributions or profit opportunities.

Mayor Sylvester Turner is the product of one of this city’s historically Black neighborhoods — Acres Home. His tenure as mayor is a testament to the kind of results this city can get when its Black residents are given opportunities and investment.

As Houston is on the cusp of becoming the nation’s third largest, my hope is this city doesn’t forget its roots.

Drew Jones is a print journalism senior and can be reached at [email protected]

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