Rain can't wash away "The Beauty Box."
A day after an unexpected noon deluge, the rug is a little soggy, but the rest of the pieces in "The Beauty Box," an outdoor public installation, have dried. "The Beauty Box" is the brainchild of local mixed-media artist Robert Hodge, who, with partner Philip Pyle, a sculptor and digital artist, has converted the open-air space into a replica of a living room, like "your grandmother's living room or dining room," said Hodge.
The front door, located on Dowling Street, opens into a cozy home setting. A wooden dining table with two antique chairs upholstered in deep burgundy fabric greets you first. A golden clock glows against red wallpaper. On the floor sits a 1970s Quasar television; above it, pictures of anonymous family members. On the top shelf of a wooden case sits a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta; farther down, a portrait of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Jackie. About halfway through, that red wallpaper changes to blue, with a white couch seated between the two. A lamp glows. A chair sits. A mirror reflects.
A Houston native and Third Ward resident, Hodge chose to create "The Beauty Box" as a way to connect with the community's rich past. Starting in the 1930s, Third Ward became the pre-eminent neighborhood for affluent and aspiring African-Americans. After the oil bust of the 1980s, however, the economy of the area declined, families moved out and a culture of drugs and homelessness moved in. Thriving businesses and homes turned into drug-ridden lots infested with looting and crime.
"The Beauty Box" was another of those Third Ward eyesores, then an empty lot filled with weeds and weed, emblematic of a neighborhood in decline and used, according to Hodge, "as a public restroom." Equally horrifying is the lot's centimeter-close location next to a children's playground.
Starting July 5, it took the pair approximately six weeks to acquire the pieces for "The Beauty Box" from thrift and dollar stores. Grants from the Arts Alliance, The Idea Fund and Everything Records, Hodge and Pyle's artist collective, funded the purchase of needed items. Before they started decorating, the pair spent three days clearing the lot, mowing overgrown grass, tossing out used needles, and removing human and animal feces.
"The Beauty Box" is Hodge and Pyle's first move in restoring Third Ward to its former glory, similar to the efforts of Project Row Houses, a program that redevelops and refurbishes old shotgun homes, making them available to single mothers and fledgling young professionals.
These efforts seem to be working. Younger residents are moving in. Townhouses are being built. New businesses are springing up; places like the Eat Gallery and The Doshi House are gastro-cultural hubs attracting customers and generating money for the community. A new METRO rail line waits to be erected. Not to mention the area's close proximity to downtown, making it attractive to corporate professionals seeking a short commute, and to Texas Southern University and the University of Houston, providing an incentive for academics who want to study nearby.
There is still the problem of those vacant lots, though.
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Maintaining "The Beauty Box" proves to be as much of a challenge as creating it was: About once a week, Hodge and Pyle find and remove stored drugs or replace stolen furniture. A few days ago, robbers stole a rug that was bolted to the floor of the installation. The only proof of the rug's existence is holes in the ground where the bolts used to be.
Hodge and Pyle clean the installation regularly, faithfully, hoping "The Beauty Box" will inspire a reversion to the Third Ward of yesteryear, a time when "painting your house, picking up trash, not drinking a 40 and then throwing it on the ground" was the norm.
"I want this to mean a sense of pride," says Hodge.
"The Beauty Box" will be open to the public until the end of September. There will be a number of free concerts and lectures. On August 23 and 30, there will be a concert featuring opera singer Lisa Harris. Visit thirdwardbeautybox.tumblr.com for more information.