On the Corner: Examining Zones of Culture and Community

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There may be a connection between Houston's (lack of) zoning laws and the way that the past, present, and future inform each other throughout its landscape. There are many "zones" throughout this city dedicated to celebrating its history and nurturing its creative spirit, and they sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere.

Are such "zones" ever in danger of disappearing? Or is their amorphous and mysterious nature somehow key to the survival of a neighborhood, its culture and community?

On Saturday, April 2nd at Labotanica (2316 Elgin), the visual, poetic and aural iconography of two legendary zones, New York's Harlem and Houston's own Third Ward will engage in a dialogue via painter Tierney Malone and writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. This salon, entitled On The Corner Of Third Ward And Harlem and presented by Objectif Magazine, includes a reading from Ms. Rhodes-Pitts' book Harlem is Nowhere, a screening of Malone's video short "Third Ward Is My Harlem," and a conversation between Rhodes-Pitts and Malone. There will also be a book signing, live music by Baron LaCroix, and a brief reading from Harlem Renaissance magazine Fire!! By Meta-Four Houston.

Harlem is Nowhere documents Rhodes-Pitts' relocation from Texas to Harlem, a neighborhood known as both a "mecca and metaphor" even to those with only a surface knowledge of New York's history and black culture. Rhodes-Pitts writes as both an inhabitant and observer of Harlem's neighborhoods, combining historical research with shared stories from lifetime residents to navigate the mythical and concrete landscape of a vibrant community.

Born in Los Angeles, visual artist Tierney Malone is well known in Houston's art community. His 2009 exhibition at Diverseworks, "Third Ward Is My Harlem," was in part inspired by his relocation from Alabama to Houston's Third Ward and that neighborhood's status - especially during the years of segregation - as an economic and cultural center for African-Americans. His paintings, mixed media works and installations, draw upon album cover, food label, and movie poster art from the 1940s and '50s with very particular (and peculiar) references to Southern and New York-based musicians, recording studios, and venues. Through the interplay of painterly abstraction with the oracular power of words and images, Malone taps into a larger more broadly encompassing "zone" of communal memory and myth.

The programming at the appropriately named Labotanica, located just below the historic Eldorado Ballroom, stretches the definition of "multidisciplinary art" to include community planning, audience participatory drawing, and concerts for women in improvised music. For Labotanica's director Ayanna Jolivet McCloud, framing a discussion of the Third Ward with words like "revitalization" and "gentrification" is less interesting than considering how the legacy of a neighborhood's culture continues to thrive "often in the shadows;" to be "born, reborn, and sustained throughout the years."

Objectif Magazine Co-Editor-in-Chief Mo Roberts wonders if the name "Third Ward" will survive as other neighborhoods, once considered as part of the Third Ward, are designated to become "The Museum District" or "Midtown." There is the possibility that this renaming could create "...distortion in the collective memory of the inhabitants of (a) place undergoing change." Can distortion lead to the disappearance of a community?

With both the Third Ward and Harlem still enjoying the shared status as "a hot bed of black creativity and intellectual life," its likely history will be preserved for the benefit of those who welcome some perspective on the geographic and cultural changes they are witnessing.

On The Corner Of Third Ward And Harlem takes place April 2, 2011, 2pm to 4pm, at Labotanica, 2316 Elgin. Admission is $5.

Special thanks to Ayanna Jolivet McCloud and Mo Roberts for taking time to answer questions for this article.

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