Houston 101

Gentrification is Not A Good Thing for African American Communities

Marc Furi, artist in Round 47 at Project Row Houses, inside of his Monopoly themed row home. He says the gentrification of Third Ward has become much like the board game.
Marc Furi, artist in Round 47 at Project Row Houses, inside of his Monopoly themed row home. He says the gentrification of Third Ward has become much like the board game. Photo by G. Paris Johnson

click to enlarge
Marc Furi, artist in Round 47 at Project Row Houses, inside of his Monopoly themed row home. He says the gentrification of Third Ward has become much like the board game.
Photo by G. Paris Johnson

As a teacher in Third Ward, I see first hand how gentrification affects my students. I was totally prepared to write this article by "playing it safe" as to not step on the toes of the majority (read between the lines here), but as I listened to my students' conversations last week and replayed the recordings of my interviews, I decided to take a different approach.

My students are displaced from their homes, and as a result, they come to school and cannot function; they are emotionally distraught, and their school work is affected. Then as educators, we are charged with having to reach them—to tear down the brick wall they are erecting to guard themselves against the world of cruel faceless strangers that have caused their undoing. It hurts.

Every day, as an African-American and an educator, I wake up, and it's a struggle to be black.  We carry the burden of being forced to be a chameleon—what to say and what not to say. I often ask myself how can I make my community—this community better?

The common misconception is that gentrification is a 'good thing' and that those who are displaced as a result should be happy that someone on a "white horse" has come to save the day.  They should be grateful someone found their "drug-ridden" "poverty-stricken" community attractive enough to fix it up.

It took me a minute to piece this together because I had to listen to the interviews again to capture the raw, unfiltered emotions. If you're looking to experience gentrification in its most raw and pure form, you've got to check out the Project Row houses installation Round 47 organized by PRH curator Ryan N. Dennis. The exhibit is here until February 11, 2018 and Round 47 is located in the heart of Third Ward at 2521 Holman.

This group of talented artists offers a visual articulation ranging from sculpting, painting, cinemaphotography, choreography, and photography. Each installation captures the effects gentrification has on the residents of Third Ward.

"We make it work! We work with what we got. We are resilient. We can. We do. We are.", says photographer and cinematographer, Brian Ellison artist of the "We are Enough [Still]" installation.

Brian's perspective offers affirmations to those who have been traumatized, or who have slowly watched their community change from familiar neighbors to "strangers". His house serves to let the community know that "You are Enough". His short film, which plays in one of the rooms of his row house installation, tells a tale of a boys journey through Third Ward which showcases the beauty of this community. "It's an experience and I encourage everyone to come out to Third Ward and soak up the culture."

He makes it a point to marry his photography with his cinematography so that visitors can truly capture the essence—the soul of Third Ward and her residents. He notes, "Talking to the older gentlemen around here is like talking to one of my uncles at home—this is home for me." The feeling of being home to Brian was extremely important, as an African American man because it is at home where he truly feels safe and this is when his vision can truly come to life through his craft.

Brian's installation reminds us, African Americans, that "in spite of", 'You Are Enough'

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The outside view of Furi's row home installation. The signs are added to instensify and heighten the senses for the viewer.
Photo by G. Paris Johnson
Sofia Mekonnen, a native of Eritrea, draws from her traumatic experiences as a result of displacement and colonization in her country, which is aligned with what is happening in here Third Ward as a result of gentrification. Her installation features red fists, dipped in gold. Which as she says, "captures the history and resiliency of African American people before, during, and after gentrification."  She says, "The gold also represents the royalty that we come from that the media and post-slavery has stripped us of—especially through the media."

When asked why she chose the capture this through the fist, she replied,"It's symbolic and it most importantly, captures the transference of energy, strength, unity, and resistance of our people."Sofia took it upon herself to research the actual word "gentrification" after being commissioned by Project Row Houses.  Her remarks, "it is not the 'renovation of deteriorating urban neighborhoods by means of an influx of more affluent residents.

If anything [they] are taking communities and dismantling them. Gentrification is not the revitalization of a community, it is the displacement of a people in black communities and their culture." Which is quite the opposite of what Wikipedia offers as an explanation.  She has deep interests in the post-effects of gentrification and how it has affected people of Third Ward, especially African American people, she says, "...with gentrification ultimately being the displacement of [a] people, it affects minorities not only in Third Ward, but all over."

Why are they so quick to gentry communities that are predominantly African American? To that Sofia answers, "We have flavor, we are the bomb, we are American culture!". 

What do you think gentrification means to "them"? "It's a game.", says Marc Furi—one of the artists and native resident to the Tre.  Marc passes his vision to his audience through his installation in the form of a Monopoly board.  As he explains his take on how gentrification is relative to the age-old family board game—it all seemed to fall into place. Marc recalls marking the day he knew his neighborhood was changing slowly when he saw a white jogger—he knew then that gentrification was slowly finding its way into his community.

As a homeowner in the Third Ward community, Marc knows first hand how buying property in an area that is considered "prime real estate" and then "improving it" affects everyone—much like in the game of Monopoly, only gentrification is not a game to him or his neighbors; its real. 

The "For Sale" signs outside of his row house installation are there to, "Give people that anxiety.  You know that anxiety you get when a house in your neighborhood goes up for sale, you wonder who will be your neighbors? What will happen to the property? What's going to happen to my property value.", Marc says.

He is taking this a step further with his branding of his artistry, featuring "I Love 3W" T-shirts, mugs, and hats. His plan he says, "Even when the installation is over, I want people to have something to remind them of our projects." True to the Houston's Third Ward culture, Marc managed to capture what was the "Free Parking" space on the board now reads, "Mayne Hold Up"—with elbows of course.

Nikita Hodge offers more of a solution to gentrifying Third Ward—one that would promote the history of the once thriving predominantly black community, which featured black-owned businesses.  Nikita, a tax accountant by trade, plans on using her platform to provide foundational support for black-owned businesses and businesses owned by women.

Nikita is the proud owner and operator of "TreChic".  The name she says has a "hint of its Third Ward roots", and allows for the curious patron to see what lies in her trendy boutique. "My goal is for this area to be a black-owned community. My stance is that a predominantly black-owned community should have predominantly black-owned businesses with owners [who] share the same values as its customers."

Her reasoning, she says, "There is no reason Third Ward shouldn't have a thriving shopping district like Highland Village or the Heights."

Her take on gentrification is not necessarily a 'bad one', but, she says, "It can serve as a wake-up call, and if we don't take action to reclaim and revitalize Third Ward, someone else will and they will do it in a manner that no longer serves or welcomes us."

All too often, the people forget that gentrification has a psychological and physiological effect on the residents—the point where the subconscious and the conscious meet, where dance, cinematography, and visual artistry collide, you meet the installation that managed to capture the raw emotions of two brave souls who managed to courageously tell their personal experience with the gentrification of Third Ward and the trauma they were left to make sense of.

Guy Harrison, Choreographer; Anthony Suber, Live Installation Creator; and Danielle Fanfair and Marlon Hall, both Cinematographers, all collaborated together to create a space that validates the trauma that the others and myself mention.  "There is a space where the subconscious and conscious meet...and that is what we were able to capture with the live installation and video.  Harrison was able to interpret this space, the pain, and memory into a dance. 

This group of artists captured the stories of Ms.Deborah Floyd, native Third Ward resident who was displaced by gentrification more than once as a paying tenant. Ms. Floyd, much like countless others, received no notice and was forced out of the home she shared with her son. Ms. Floyd chooses to resist with her presence.

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Sofia Mekonnen, proud artist of the "For Us" installation.
Photo by G. Paris Johnson
Michelle Barnes, who is the Executive Director of The Community Artists’ Collective, a non-profit arts organization in Third Ward, her story is all too familiar—after being guaranteed ownership of the organization’s building, the property was locked, secretly sold and demolished with the organization’s equipment and artwork inside.

The pain of not being able to gather their things behind the padlocked doors and then having to stand by and watch their homes each filled with their belongings crumble to the ground after being demolished, and for what—the best price?

On the floor, there are triangles which are symbolic of Ms. Barnes' struggle. Michelle Barnes was a quilter, and all of her things, valuables, all of her quilting materials—all of the things she carried, gone in minutes. They captured her most vulnerable state, her rawest form—they captured her.

You have to experience this—you have to be in the culture—in the neighborhood.  You have to experience the art with your senses to appreciate its beauty in order to truly understand each narrative. You have to experience Third Ward.

Third Ward is not a drug infested ghetto that so many choose to refer to it as—it's home, it's beautiful, and most importantly—it's black.

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G. Paris Johnson is a freelance writer at the Houston Press, a graduate of Texas Southern University, and a native Houstonian— who enjoys foreign films, friends and family, and venturing around the city finding hidden gems with her husband.