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?

"I think it's one of the finest efforts I have ever seen pulled together in the city in the 20 years I've been working in the neighborhoods," says Coleman, who sits on the board of the Third Ward Redevelopment Council.

After its year of meetings, planning, brainstorming, more planning, networking and even more planning -- all carried out with an efficiency that has attracted little attention outside the community -- the council is on the verge of producing the Third Ward Community Master Plan, the first phase of its project to redevelop the Third Ward.

Part inventory and part strategy book, the plan is long on pertinent data about the Third Ward -- demographics, land use, housing types, transportation, public services and employment -- but shorter on concrete recommendations. That is supposed to come later. The goal of the master plan is to unite available resources behind a unified vision of change, one that generally calls for attracting new businesses, providing more jobs and better services to current residents and bringing in new people to work, play, invest and -- most important of all -- to live in the Third Ward.

It's an effort that has attracted support from an impressive array of institutions with links to the community. Among the 49 board members and 30 regular members of the Third Ward Redevelopment Council are representatives of NationsBank, Texas Commerce, TSU and UH, the Medical Center, the Houston school district, Riverside General Hospital, Houston Community College and the NAACP, plus civic clubs, churches, nonprofit service organizations, community centers and community development corporations.

But that assemblage of big institutional power has drawn skepticism, even suspicion, from some of the grassroots activists of the Third Ward, who wonder -- and not without justification, given Houston's not-so-distant history -- whether redevelopment will benefit the entire community, or just its more affluent parts, and whether the resources to back the vision will be available to those who are most in need. They probably won't find comfort in looking to other close-in areas of the city, where recent "redevelopment" sometimes seems to be a euphemism for "relocate the poor people."

Without a vigorous effort to include the poor and disaffected in the project, "You don't have no plan, just a scheme, which is irrelevant to the residents of Third Ward, particularly those who are in most need," says Robert Gilmore, a third-generation Third Warder and former drug addict who's now the program manager at Ryan Middle School.

Gilmore's not alone is his skepticism. Madgelean Bush views the community from Sampson Street in north Third Ward, where the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center stands out like a small beacon of hope for the surrounding down-at-the-heels neighborhood. Bush has been a Third Ward resident for 54 years; she's headed the MLK Center for 27 of them. She's also a member of the redevelopment board -- although somewhat tenuously.

"This is the first time I've seen so many black folks with expertise working on something together, and they haven't accomplished anything," Bush says. "On paper, there are so many programs for black folks. In reality there are none."

Deloyd Parker is another longtime Third Ward fixture through his directorship of the Shape Community Center. He, too, is on the council's board, but he discusses its work as if he were an outsider. Parker understands, as few others do, the skepticism the redevelopment effort is generating at the street level, and the need to move beyond it.

"TWRC has good intentions, they have quality people," Parker says. "But if we don't get up off our butts and get people more involved, the cry will be, 'The community has been shafted.' We shouldn't have to wait until that becomes our reality. We can head that off now. We are at the table on this one, or so it appears. Whether we have anything on our table remains to be seen."

Indeed it does. The Third Ward has seen its share of redevelopment projects -- the Model Cities Neighborhood program of the late 1960s, the Third Ward Reconstruction Finance Corporation in the 1980s -- come and go, so many residents are understandably hesitant to embrace the latest effort. To the Third Ward Redevelopment Council, completion of the master plan is a huge, tangible success. To many in the community -- at least those who are aware of the plan -- the success is only on paper.

"Next year will be a real telltale year," acknowledges board member Sylvia Brooks, who also heads the Houston Area Urban League. "How do we make it go?"

That's a pivotal question for this somewhat nebulous organization -- which is essentially a collective of planners, not implementers, and whose leadership of mostly black professionals will be trying to empower a largely isolated and neglected black lower class.

The council grew out of meetings several years ago among community leaders to discuss a master plan for Texas Southern. Guest speakers were brought in, one of whom was Roberta Burroughs, an urban planner who grew up in the Third Ward. Burroughs helped widen the group's scope from TSU to the surrounding neighborhoods.

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