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.

"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.

"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.

"Folks have investment on their mind, luring businesses in," he contends, "not an investment in the people in the community."

Austin Coleman disagrees.
"It's not a plan of the big and the powerful, but a plan of the people who live in the neighborhood," he says. "Everything in the plan is what folks in the neighborhood talked about and said they needed."

A smattering of projects are already under way in the Third Ward, and several developers and business ventures stand poised to commit to the community. One recently completed project is the Neighborhood Recovery Community Development Corporation's Nubia Square Apartments on Southmore. The 191-unit complex, which houses low- to moderate-income families, began leasing last November and has an occupancy rate of better than 90 percent.

Another development in full swing is Project Row Houses, the renovation of 22 houses into homes for local and national artists-in-residence and, eventually, a daycare center and a home for single mothers. There's also the San Jacinto Gardens Apartments renovation project, which after years of delays should be completely rehabilitated by the end of August.

Bank of America and Texas Commerce Bank have opened new branches in the Third Ward in the last year and a half, a welcome development to residents who once had to travel far outside their neighborhoods to make their deposits and withdrawals, and other financial institutions may soon follow. Negotiations are under way to bring a major grocery chain into the Third Ward -- there is none now -- as well as a possible shopping center development near Ennis and Blodgett. Paul Charles, executive director of the Neighborhood Recovery Community Development Corporation, is negotiating to start a joint retail center project with the MacGregor Community Development Corporation called the Renaissance Cooperative, possibly to be located at Scott and Old Spanish Trail. He says the project could break ground as early as next year.

All this comes amid the explosion of new townhouse and apartment construction in other inner-Loop areas, fueled by the growing desire of suburban Houstonians to migrate back to near-downtown areas. That demand for new housing could make the Third Ward, with its large stock of poor-quality housing that will be too costly to renovate, ripe for a "mass interest in residential development" by the end of the decade, predicts Gerald Womack, the president of Womack Development and Investment.

Womack's company has already contributed to the Third Ward's economic resurgence, having recently rehabbed a complex at Southmore and Ennis that had been a haven for crack dealers and turned it into housing for senior citizens.

The domino effect is what's hoped for: as a few investors brave the waters and stay afloat, more will likely jump in. It could take around $1 billion over 25 years to carry out a complete redevelopment of the community. TWRC board members don't put price tags on the overall effort, but they are confident funds can be found.

"It's not our role to give estimates to projects," says board member Paula Fredericks, a CPA. "Our role is a clearing-house. All you can do is set out options."

Public funding will be available, although the mood of Congress suggests it won't be flowing quite as freely in the future as it might have in the past. Eight of 12 census tracts in the Third Ward, for instance, recently were designated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as an "Enhanced Enterprise Community," meaning it and other targeted areas in Houston will share $25 million from HUD, to be used for economic redevelopment.

Austin Coleman says the work of the Third Ward Redevelopment Council was one of the main reasons the area was granted the designation. To be eligible, he says, "you had to have individuals working to improve their communities."

But much of the redevelopment effort, if it comes to pass, will have to be borne by the private sector, and that's why people like Coleman will be germane to its success.

One tool for leverage is the Community Reinvestment Act, which was imposed in the late 1970s to keep banks from discriminating against the poor and minorities. But the act has only been vigorously enforced by banking regulators in the past few years, and the guidelines about exactly what financial institutions are supposed to be doing are ambiguous.

"Lot of banks just don't understand the communities," says Larry Hawkins, president and CEO of Unity National Bank, an African-American owned institution. "They will throw a lot of money at one project that they like, not really caring whether the community as a whole endorses or cares about the project."

Still, banks stand to capitalize on the estimated $256 million of disposable income in the Third Ward, and Hawkins says he expects more financing for smaller, well-planned investments.

"Once somebody realizes that an area is profitable for them," says state Representative Garnet Coleman, "that's when the good news spreads."

Not surprisingly, there are some in the Third Ward who don't expect the banks to deliver enough to make a difference. "I'd like to build in Third Ward," Robert Gilmore says, "but I don't have access to the land. So what assistance are you giving people like me?"

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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