Third Ward Rising

One of Houston's most venerable communities is set for redevelopment. Before that happens, though, perhaps one question needs to be answered: Whose community?

The directors of the Third Ward Redevelopment Council are gathering, as they do most every month, in a fourth-floor lounge at Texas Southern University's student center. They meet early in the morning -- it's 7:30 on this day in June -- and their view overlooking the Third Ward, with the sun coming up and pastel orange light streaming in, is inspiring.

From this height and angle, the Third Ward appears to be one continuous sea of leafy green stretching in three directions. To the right, the lights of Robertson Stadium on the University of Houston campus rise into the air like the silhouettes of giant palm trees. Straight ahead and slightly to the left looms the cool, glassy facade of downtown.

But down below the tree line, the view of the Third Ward, or at least the Third Ward as defined by the redevelopment council, is not so uniform -- or, in some parts, as inspiring.

Go directly to the west, into the heart of the Third Ward, and you'll find blocks of sturdy, well-tended brick houses, home to the area's diminished but still-viable base of middle-class and working-class homeowners and renters. Keep going and you'll hit Dowling Street, running north to Interstate 45 and beyond. Once the prosperous business heart of the Third Ward, Dowling is still home to many thriving enterprises -- Drexler's barbecue restaurant is most notable to the rest of the city -- but its blocks are punctuated by an unsettling profusion of empty, overgrown lots and dilapidated structures.

To the north, a look below the tree line reveals rows of shotgun shacks, worn frame houses and fraying apartments, almost all owned by absentee landlords. At this time of year, residents try to escape the baking summer heat of their un-air-conditioned homes by taking refuge on their small porches or by hanging out with friends near the street. Those streets, more than any other in the Third Ward, call to mind the word "ghetto," Houston-style. The residents are afflicted by the whole catalog of familiar urban ills -- crime, generations of welfare-dependent families, few jobs, fewer prospects. What little advertising there is beckons seductively to consumers of cigarettes and malt liquor.

"Drugs, filth, you name it," says Donald Cashaw, who works in the area, "we got it."

Indeed, that's one of the many unique things about the Third Ward: You name it, it's got it. One of the original four "wards" designated as political subdivisions for the city more than 20 years before the Civil War, the Third Ward may be the most variegated community in Houston -- certainly, at least, the Third Ward as defined by the redevelopment council.

The view is much different to the south of TSU, where you'll find the large houses and broad lawns of Riverside Terrace and North and South MacGregor, home to many of Houston's African-American movers and shakers. To the southwest, across Highway 288, lie Hermann Park, the museum district and the towers of the Texas Medical Center, Houston's largest employment center -- not the first places that come to mind when you say "Third Ward," but which the redevelopment council includes as part of the community. To the east, across Cullen, is UH, and then the Houston Belt & Terminal railroad right of way, which the council uses as the community's eastern boundary.

And all throughout the community -- north, south, east and west -- are churches, large and small, that anchor the neighborhoods and still attract congregants who've moved to Missouri City or other outlying suburbs.

As a dozen board members of the Third Ward Redevelopment Council file in for their meeting, no one pauses to take in the vista stretching before them. There's no time for such idle musing. The directors are finishing a mission that's consumed them for more than a year -- crafting a vision for the future of the Third Ward.

That mission is now accomplished. It's at this point that the much-discussed, long-awaited "redevelopment" of the Third Ward may become more problematic.

Almost everyone with an interest in bringing new people, new businesses and new housing to the Third Ward agrees that it's good to have a vision, but not everybody in the Third Ward has quite the same vision. For there is more than one Third Ward, and whichever Third Ward you see depends on where you stand. But the Third Ward Redevelopment Council is betting that the connections among all the people and institutions of the Third Ward run deep. In a city whose elected officials, from the mayor on down, seem to have reached a consensus on the need for a redevelopment of the inner city, but where the steps toward that goal have been small and not without pain, especially for low-income renters, the council's bet may be Houston's hope.

"If we can't do it in Third Ward, we're not going to do it in Houston," says KYOK radio show host and longtime community activist Jew Don Boney. "If we don't do it in Houston, we've failed to do it in the fourth largest city in America."

When Austin Coleman views the Third Ward, he does so from the perspective of NationsBank's gothic-spired downtown skyscraper. To Coleman, who's vice president for community investment at NationsBank, the work done by the Third Ward Redevelopment Council represents a solid, achievable opportunity to change the community for the better.

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