Third Ward Renaissance: A return to dignity
Vice President for Community Relations and Institutional Access Elwyn C. Lee sat across from me in his crowded, cozy office. His arms were crossed, and his eyes were fixed on the ceiling corner behind me, looking at something I knew I couldn’t see. I had just asked Lee to share with me what it was like for him, as an African-American child, to have grown up in the Third Ward.
“My world as a child was as far as my feet could take me,” he answered softly. “That was all that I ever knew. Racism, discrimination — I didn’t understand those things as a boy. I never saw them. We experienced it every day, sure, but we lived in a black community … All black. There was one white man who worked at a corner store near my family’s house, and I would see him sometimes when I passed by. That was it.”
Despite having grown up in the Third Ward nearly 60 years ago, Lee’s experience doesn’t sound all that different from a child’s experience growing up in the area today. During Lee’s childhood, Houston’s Third Ward was a tightly knit nucleus of culture and communal ties. Lacking access to a car or public transportation, the Third Ward quickly became the center point of Lee’s personal universe.
Today, the Third Ward is still a largely black community of nearly 13,000, according to the Houston Chronicle, and many of the Ward’s current residents still lack critical access to public transportation. Adolescents who would otherwise be kept busy in a part-time job, through a community organization or otherwise exploring Houston’s sprawling metropolis fall victim to the Ward’s more felonious, easily accessible temptations.
Today, the fabric of the Ward’s youth seems to be built on the illicit. Last year, a study conducted by NeighborhoodScout.com ranked two neighborhoods located within the Ward among the nation’s 25 most dangerous neighborhoods. Add an increasing amount of redevelopment in the area, and it soon becomes evident that an area struggling to cling to its roots faces more challenges than meets the eye.
Deloris Johnson, 74, is a lifetime resident of the Ward. She’s been there to see it all. Johnson grew up during segregation, attended Jack Yates High School under William F. Holland’s renowned administration and has been actively involved in the Ward’s community throughout her impactful life. Two of Johnson’s former Jack Yates classmates, Thelma Gould, 73, and Napoleon Johnson, 73, also spoke with me over the phone.
Deloris had shared with them the opportunity to bring a voice to the Ward, and both Gould and Napoleon felt it was prudent that they share their often unseen, unasked-for perspectives of the place they call home.
They’ve been there to see it all, and spoke with a vehement passion about how the seemingly positive renovations have affected the community as a whole.
“(They have) dissolved our people,” Deloris answered gravely, her voice catching in her throat. “Our people have been forced into other areas. Our community has been left devastated … as you see every day. It’s an erosion of the community.”
I asked them if they’ve seen any positive additions to the community through these houses and businesses. Without missing a beat, Deloris answered with a sense of urgency.
“I have seen positive additions to the community, but … during our time, we have seen a dying community,” Deloris said. “We have seen a lot of the people who were very prominent during segregation, very elegant people who were entrepreneurs, and people who had just had… I don’t know what to call it, but—”
Gould helped her find her footing.
“It was a strong sense of community,” she interrupted.
“Right. It was unity,” replied Johnson. “There was a unity there, then, because we were working together. We knew many of the people in the community.
“Now, with the influx of people of all nationalities moving in, many times you don’t have … the wanting to take pride in the community. On the East Coast, they don’t have time for their neighbors; they don’t know their neighbors.
“That wasn’t the case for us here, when we were growing up.”
It’s a tough balance to strike. According to Deloris and Gould’s testimonies, the addition of businesses and residential communities that cater to upper-echelon earners erodes the Ward’s historically-based dignity. On the other hand, without small businesses that stimulate the area’s economy and keep adolescents off the streets, it’s no wonder residents see little future outside of what little today’s Ward has to offer.
UH history professor Debbie Harwell is the managing editor of Houston Historical Magazine and has been heavily involved in research regarding the history of the Third Ward and the greater Houston area. She took the time to speak with me on some sustainable, long-lasting solutions for the growth of the Third Ward.
“If you do something that helps people get jobs or that gets them training or an education or skills … Those kinds of things help prevent the crime in the first place,” Harwell said. “If you want to do something about the crime … Put your money in something that really helps people. Development is important, but so are things that will help people in the neighborhood.”
Harwell added, “It can’t just be a one-pronged attack. They’re both important.”
The Ward is a rightful home to all its residents, no matter their struggles within society. Displacing those today who were displaced once before would be to regress in the name of progress, and Houston should demand better for one of the city’s most historically significant communities.
Napoleon shared with me the increasing divergence between the Ward’s socioeconomic groups.
“You can’t miss the condos and the other expensive units going up right next to pockets of poverty,” Napoleon said impassionedly. “You have row houses, you have homeless people … We’ve seen growth that has forced poor people out.”
“You can see a $300,000 condo next to a vacant house,” Napoleon added. “There’s a contrast. There’s a dichotomy of rich and poor.”
When it comes to the natural progress of an area, dichotomy is inevitable. The new will always stand in contrast with the old. However, the mentality that new is necessarily better than old will undoubtedly alienate the current Ward’s populace from any new families or young professionals who wish to call the area home, too.
Houston should value an investment in businesses that will ultimately bolster and enrich the lives of the Ward’s current residents, as well as the Ward’s future families. Historical sites should be maintained through being renovated into museums and public exhibits, generating interest in the Third Ward from people who haven’t spent their whole lives in the Third Ward.
An investment in centers that have non-fiscal returns — community centers, churches and recreation centers — shouldn’t be seen as less valuable. Businesses that generate jobs, though, are an absolute requirement for a sustainably improved Ward.
There’s a MetroRail being built that’ll run through the Ward, and that’s certainly a sign of hope — a sign that more and more of the Ward’s current residents will have access to the public transportation necessary for a member of the workforce.
During my conversation with Deloris, I asked her what she thinks should ultimately happen within the Third Ward.
“I think that the Third Ward needs its dignity back, because it’s shredded now. It’s worn, it’s torn and it’s shredded.”
As Deloris and Gould said, the Third Ward’s sense of community came from a sense of unity. It came from a collective desire to build up and sustain a united, dynamic community. Through a cohesive blending of history and progress, this sense of unity can once again be attained.
“Our community has been left devastated,” Deloris said. “It’s been an erosion of the community, and it needs to be brought back.”
Senior staff columnist Cara Smith is a communications junior and may be reached at [email protected]