By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Craig Malisow
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As a young boy 30 years ago, Jonathan Jackson would wake up Saturdays eagerly anticipating the day. He and his father had made a morning ritual of strolling down the streets of his Third Ward neighborhood -- an affluent community of doctors, lawyers and other black professionals -- to get their hair cut. They passed women's salons, corner cafes and produce peddlers to arrive at the heartbeat of the black male community: the barbershop on Almeda Road. The haircut would take only a few minutes, but it wasn't the primary reason for the visit. This shop was a gathering place, and the better part of Jackson's Saturday mornings were spent at the neighborhood barbershop, bonding naturally with his father.
Jackson didn't realize it then, but his community was a thriving business center, proud of its self-sufficient status. "I didn't see it, but I know from my father and uncle that Almeda had a lot of nightlife activity." In the era of segregation, this tree-lined district just south of downtown flourished. Even in the '60s and '70s, as families began departing for newly integrated suburban areas, times were still good for the black businesses.
Jackson felt confident about his community as he left for college in Alabama. But the bad news came in a later telephone call from his father. The '80s oil bust had deflated Houston's economy, taking the Third Ward and Almeda down with it. His father told him he might as well stay in Alabama, that there weren't any good business opportunities back in the Bayou City.
Jackson heeded the advice as long as he could. He found work in Atlanta, but after eight years away from home, he made his decision: It's not where you are, it's who you know, Jackson thought. In 1988 the young man arrived back in Houston, stunned by the sights along his old section of Almeda. The streets sported boarded-up storefronts and aging buildings. But what others dismissed as urban blight Jackson viewed as opportunities. He knew the vitality of bygone eras from his memories as a child -- and he knew these blocks could be revitalized.
Of all the deficiencies, one stood out for Jackson. There was no Saturday-morning socializing center, no traditional barbershop to bring together what was left of the neighborhood. He took the money he'd saved up and went to work.
Jackson's personal experiences with the area are supported by the hard statistics compiled from research by the Third Ward Redevelopment Council.
A 1998 council report pegged the population at 55,000 but noted that the exodus of shoppers and residents takes away an estimated $345 million annually from the Third Ward. Much of that money heads into the newer commercial cores of Meyerland, Sharpstown and even the Galleria and Rice Village.
It didn't used to be that way.
Almeda, a backbone of the ward, was once a primary route into downtown. It stretches from the South Loop east of the Astrodome, skirts the eastern edge of Hermann Park and ends on the north near the central campus of Houston Community College.
"There were a lot of major chains here in the '70s when Almeda was a main artery of getting into downtown," remembers Bart Lewis, owner of Almeda Tire and Battery. "It was like Westheimer over here." Stores such as Weingarten, Jack in the Box and Burger King dotted the streets.
The end of that era arrived after the broad concrete ribbon of State Highway 288, which now parallels Almeda to the east. While it gave rush-hour Houstonians a new freeway into and out of downtown from the south, 288 stole traffic from the business corridor and crippled its property values. Most of the chain outlets moved to other burgeoning areas. Independent businesses had to fight to hold on.
That struggle for survival followed an earlier one, when racial barriers finally gave way to new opportunities for blacks in other areas of the region. "When integration came, blacks kind of wandered off because they didn't have to stay in Third Ward if they didn't want to," says Troy Julian, owner of Soul Scissors barbershop and art gallery. "People began moving out to the suburbs."
The generation gap contributed to the economic shift. "A lot of businesses around here were owned by blacks, and they worked hard and put their kids through college," Jackson says. "The kids would get one or two degrees, and do you think they wanted to come back and work as a waitress in the family restaurant?"
Additionally, services offered in the Almeda corridor were geared toward a younger population. "We didn't have a lot of regular shops; we just had specialty stores," Jackson says. "The older people didn't need any specialty items -- they just needed to buy groceries."
Those weren't the only problems facing the pioneers revitalizing the inner-city area. One year after Jackson started his Cut and Shine barbershop in 1995, he returned to his Jeep one night after leaving a convenience store a few blocks up from his shop, and found five teenagers confronting him -- one of them pointing a gun at his face.