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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Opinion

Gentrification of Third Ward juxtaposes high scale mansions against ramshackle houses


David Delgado//The Daily Cougar

David Delgado//The Daily Cougar

About a mile east of Elgin Street is a road called Almeda. It’s west of Main Street, South of Congress Street, and in the heart of what’s come to typify Houston’s Third Ward. Most people call it the ghetto. Our ghetto. Shotgun houses sit adjacent to the road. They’re parallel to liquor stores, barbershops and gas stations, with fish fries seeming to sprout every couple of yards. A handful of schools lie sunken in its borders, flanked by a prep school on the outskirts. Less than a few hundred yards away, a pair of universities represent the ward’s educational hubs, and only so many of its members are privy to them. Most aren’t. But past the tenement houses, shacks, stoops, and stop signs, and you’ll find yourself perched on Almeda. Travel too far up the road, and you’re suddenly somewhere else.

This Somewhere Else is also the Third Ward, but at first glance it’s another planet entirely. There are mansions. The porch fronts on this end are polished and pastel. The faces in the windows could be black, but they could also be Hispanic, white, Asian, or otherwise. It’s another neighborhood within the neighborhood. It’s one that’s slowly seeping over.

The ward’s western half is steadily being purchased by outside companies, investors, and families looking to renovate. Since the property values have plummeted, this isn’t particularly difficult. The townhouses are offsetting the trap houses. With METRO’s emergence every other block or so, these are investments that’ll pay themselves back over time, following an influx of commuters who’ll surely become customers. If they like what they see, these customers might bring more customers, and areas that didn’t look like much of anything could become inner city hotspots. All of a sudden, the ward’s rekindled its reputation. All of a sudden, they’ve got a lot to choose from.

Naturally, some people are taking issue with this. Gentrification is a loaded gun, and it’s been pointed in urban areas this whole country over. Whether it’s Harlem, Atlanta, Washington D.C., or Brooklyn, the incoming buyers are deemed invaders and alienators looking to sneak the floorboards from underneath unwitting residents.

More often than not, these undernourished areas are predominantly black, which means the makeup of said opposition usually isn’t that different. Once the race card’s been introduced, you also run into the culture charges; now buyers, who are generally affluent, and even more generally not black, are looking to rob the area of its heritage. You drain the history from an area, and you also drain the flavor. Eventually, for all intents and purposes, its color is next on the docket. That’s what some people are purporting.

The area’s weathered culture bombs before. The Fourth Ward and Freedmen’s town initially served as Houston’s darker hubs, and early settlement grew rapidly after the Civil War. Former slaves flocked the area, constructing livelihoods as mechanics, masons, and omnibus drivers. The area’s white population took the influx as an omen, and by selling the outskirts to the inflowing populous, it’s demographic flipped over the course of several decades. It worked for a while. Then the construction continued. And the commuting increases. And the introduction of hotels, hotspots, and Union Squares instigated the even further changes in the area. The hotels became flophouses. The service areas were abandoned. Money fled to other wards, the money spenders followed, and over the course of several decades, residents found themselves in a pit. For a long time, it remained untouched.

Representative Garnet Coleman made a case for keeping it that way. He represents the Third Ward, and riding through the neighborhood, he’s cited touchstones like Emancipation Park, established in 1918, and “a legacy of a time when black residents needed a place of their own to enjoy the outdoors.” In a discussion with NPR, he’s called the influx an attempt to displace people by price.

“I’m an egalitarian like everybody else,” Coleman said, “and talking about the racial aspect of this, or saying this is born of race, is not something I feel absolutely comfortable with. Don’t come into the community, renovate your house and then act like the people that have been living there forever have no standing. If somebody’s going to move into the Third Ward — I don’t care who you are — just become a part of it.”

That’s an admirable stance. The area stood for difference, and at no point should this difference be disregarded. Cash flow shouldn’t circumvent retention.

But, even with this retention in mind, attempts to rob the area of any change at all are ridiculous. The point of renovation is, after all, to renovate, and while certain concessions will be made, this is an area in desperate need of renovation.

It’ll be difficult to accomplish without uprooting the undernourished, but difficult and impossible aren’t synonyms by any means. They’re parallels, but not absolutes. It’s another trial for a ward that’s seen many trials, one that it will have to overcome to make it out of the rut. Their only way out is back in.

Senior staff columnist Bryan Washington is an English junior and may be reached at [email protected]

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