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 asked them, 'Where are you going with this? I think you need a plan.' So we got together one Saturday morning, and I facilitated a session with them where they decided what they wanted to be as an organization."

They chose to be a planning and coordinating body, a nonprofit umbrella organization that would act as an informational clearing-house.

"There never was any place for information," explains board member Ernie Attwell, who's lived in the Third Ward off and on his whole life, "so we became the place to gather and disseminate information regarding development. I can't ask the right questions if I don't know."

Incorporated in late 1992, the Third Ward Redevelopment Council began raising $170,000 from banks, TSU and UH and several foundations to fund the master plan, which was put together by a team led by Burroughs' firm.

"The community has suffered for lack of a plan," says Jew Don Boney, who chairs the local United Black Front chapter. "If the University of Houston has a plan, and Midtown and Medical Center have a plan, it would be foolhardy for Third Ward residents not to have their own plan."

One thing longtime residents of the Third Ward share is a fierce sense of identity and pride of place, no matter what their economic station. They're quick to display their credentials by telling you how many years (or decades) they've lived and worked there, and what their particular neighborhood used to be like.

How things used to be is a constant topic for older residents, and it would be hard to deny that the last 30 years have been tumultuous for the Third Ward. The civil rights legislation and social programs of the mid-1960s ended legal segregation and brought federal money into the area, but they also helped to disperse what was once, by necessity, a tight-knit community.

"In a segregated society," Ernie Attwell says, "we had everybody, from the town drunk to the highest doctor, in the same area." But as integration opened previously closed doors for African-Americans, they moved southward, expanding the Third Ward; then they began to leave the area altogether. The Third Ward's population declined by more than half from 1970 to 1990, from 81,290 to 40,622.

The exodus was helped along by highway construction that gradually sliced its way into the area, displacing houses and uprooting neighborhoods. The expansion of what was then the Gulf Freeway in the late 1940s split the community in half; today, those blocks north of I-45 are not even considered part of the Third Ward. Highway 59 cut through on the north in the late 1960s and early '70s, followed by the construction of Highway 288 on the west during the late '70s and early '80s. When it was all done, the Third Ward was isolated on three sides, and more than a thousand homes had been torn down to make way for the freeways bringing commuters to the suburbs.

As the geography of the Third Ward has shifted, so has its sense of self. Today, the redevelopment council defines Greater Third Ward as stretching south from I-45 to Old Spanish Trail and from the Houston Belt & Terminal tracks on the east all the way to South Main to take in the Medical Center and Hermann Park. That swath encompasses 12 distinct neighborhoods, some more willing to consider themselves as part of the Third Ward than others.

Lines of income and class have further divided the area. The blighted north end of the Third Ward bears little resemblance to the central neighborhoods around TSU, which bear little resemblance to the more affluent sections to the south, yet all are considered part of the same community. The consciousness of the kind that Attwell says used to bind the whole community together in the '50s and '60s, regardless of location or occupation, is gone for good.

"People who live in neighborhoods don't think of themselves as being in a great collectivity from 45 to O.S.T.," observes the Reverend Bill Lawson of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. "There are a whole lot of subcommunities. The only people who have that view are the visionaries, the planners."

To the redevelopment council, the ability to draw on the resources of the Medical Center and the universities, as well as the more affluent neighborhoods in southeast Third Ward -- such as University Oaks and Riverside Terrace -- gives the Third Ward an edge that other inner-city areas lack. Those institutions and neighborhoods represent investment dollars and disposable income -- as well as the means to attract more of the same.

In terms of redevelopment, however, those areas may be the ones to attract investors, instead of the areas of Greater Third Ward most in need of "redevelopment."

"The stream of dollars tends to follow areas of activity," observes TWRC board member Attwell. "And there's no activity in north Third Ward. No people, no stores, no activity."

There's plenty of activity, however, around Hermann Park and the Medical Center -- areas not exactly screaming for redevelopment.

Robert Gilmore says that drawing the boundaries so big stretches resources too thin, thus giving developers a convenient excuse to avoid the really hard-pressed neighborhoods.

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