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?

That's the same question Don Cashaw would ask. Cashaw runs Building Better Neighborhoods, a nonprofit thread of the Community Cloth Cooperative, which tries to improve neighborhoods through outreach to children and cleanup and sanitation projects.

"Just say there was a couple lucky enough to survive crack and are working at minimum wage jobs," he says. "You're gonna tell me that these people, who have no idea about credit, you're gonna loan them money to purchase property and build a house?"

Bubbling under the surface is concern that redevelopment will mean gentrification, that low-income residents will be forced to move out and replaced with more affluent residents from elsewhere.

"Given a mixture of lower, middle and upper incomes, maybe we can find the right mix and they can be helped by resources that other classes bring to the table," says Larry Hawkins. "It's a delicate issue. How do you let folks blend in?"

The solution, he says, may be in reducing the size of lower-income housing projects and strategically spreading them through the community.

"I think that in the areas where there is the most opportunity to build affordable housing, the prospects of gentrification are pretty slim," planner Roberta Burroughs says. "In the middle neighborhoods there may be the most danger. But people in those neighborhoods have expressed really strong resistance to any form of high density housing. They're not interested in townhomes, they're not interested in upscale apartments."

Soon, copies of the 168-page Third Ward Community Master Plan, weighing in at 1.08 pounds, will be mass-printed and distributed to the board members, donors, and to community development corporations and civic clubs in the area. Then it'll be made available to anyone who wants a copy.

The Third Ward Redevelopment Council has high expectations for the next year. It will continue to raise money and begin drafting specific proposals to put its plan in action. A full-time staff of two will be hired with $89,000 in state funding that state Representative Garnet Coleman has secured for the TWRC.

Don Cashaw and others complain that there wasn't much effort to include rank-and-file residents in the creation of the master plan. But organizers say they undertook an intensive effort to do just that, including the convening of 15 town meetings which drew an average of 30 to 40 people each. Several newsletters were distributed to 5,000 people, and the TWRC has been placing brochures about the organization's work and soliciting new members throughout Third Ward's meeting places -- post offices, community centers and the like.

Still, it's unlikely that many of the 35,000 residents of Third Ward know anything of the organization or the plan.

"Obviously there's not enough grassroots involvement," says the Shape Center's Deloyd Parker. "There has been an effort to get grassroots involvement, because I consider myself grassroots. But there has to be a new strategy. I need to have more town hall meetings. More door-to-door. The effort is there, but I'm still not satisfied, because the class that's involved dictates where things go. If there's not a balance of grassroots involvement, there won't be the interest of the grassroots."

Down on the streets for which the redevelopment plan is being formulated, 70-year-old Brownie Brown, who's lived in the Third Ward for a dozen years, surveys her corner at Nagle and Elgin and finds it "leaves a lot to be desired." Her home is a modest wood-frame affair with two swings resting over the porch, directly across the street from Ryan Middle School. On a recent Sunday, she is a figure of repose, watching the Astros playing the Giants, wondering what it would be like to see the Baseball Hall of Fame, trying to stay cool.

Brown is a native of the Fifth Ward and no stranger to the changes that can be wrought on a community by outside forces: the house she was born in was among those demolished to make way for the Eastex Freeway as it was built through northeast Houston.

She's heard about the coming redevelopment of the Third Ward, but it's unlikely Brownie Brown will be picking up a copy of the Third Ward Community Master Plan. The numbers she's concerned about aren't demographic breakdowns, but the cost of black-eyed peas at the neighborhood store -- $1.09 per pound -- versus the 69 cents she could pay at a distant supermarket, if she were able to get to one.

As you might expect, she, too is skeptical of the possibility that the plan will make any significant difference in her life. She says she's seen many efforts fail in the past. "Out of all that has been started," she says, "nobody's seen anything. They'll meet for a whole year and hash out the same thing, and we don't see anything new."

Banker Austin Coleman, however, hopes to prove the skeptics like Brownie Brown wrong.

"Once we get builders and developers in there, those things will manifest themselves," Coleman assures. "It's not a talking game; it's a doing game."

That it is.

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