Third-Ward Rebound

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."

" "Blockbusting' began in the late '70s, and homeowners and business owners began relocating to places like Missouri City," explains Kent Hadnot, executive director of the development council.

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.

They demanded that he drive them to his house. Knowing his wife and children were there, Jackson convinced them instead to accompany him to the shop, where they took several hundred dollars and his Jeep. Police found the car weeks later -- and Jackson scouted out one of the young bandits. He says he armed himself and chased the 17-year-old robber into a house, ready to kill him if necessary. But a woman stopped him on the porch.

During the holdup, "When I looked into those boys' eyes, I didn't see a soul, I saw death," he says. As he lay in bed that evening, his anger subsided when he realized how lucky he was in life -- and when he realized he needed to be giving back more to the community that had supported him.

While much remains to be done, the Third Ward has rewarded many of the early entrepreneurs. Within a few years of the arrival of Cut and Shine, the Almeda corridor from Blodgett to Old Spanish Trail has seen a lot of businesses come up and stay up.

"A lot of us came back, and it was a situation where whites could potentially buy us out," Julian says. "And we've maintained our strength with the support of the community."

Even Jahmeela Lewis, owner of hair salon Strictly Roots, felt there was a comeback on the way. "I just wanted to get a spot next to Reggae Hut because they were hot, and they sent a lot of business my way. But now I think that in the next five to ten years, this is going to be a major street, and all of this is going to be built up," Lewis says. "I'm just glad I got my piece of the pie now."

Coupled with hair salons and small shops are cafeterias, a health food store, a cleaners, a new $1 million mortuary, the legendary KCOH-AM radio station and more. A new designer boutique is on the way. With Almeda sitting directly in the shadow of downtown, and new developments such as Enron Field and the planned basketball arena, director Hadnot believes that there's just a natural spillover and that the "Third Ward will experience a full-scale revitalization in the next five years."

The redevelopment council offers contacts and other aid to entrepreneurs. The Old Spanish Trail/Almeda TIRZ provides business incentives and uses the rising property tax values to help fund community improvements such as beautification projects, street repaving and sidewalks. "We wanted to see Third Ward going in the right direction," says Hadnot. "We saw it as a mecca for black professionals where people could ideally live where they work and vice versa."

Meanwhile, the invasion of youthful black businesspeople has turned the community into a reflection of the younger people. Services from delis to art galleries mirror its working middle class. "And if there's a working-class community, then they're going to be buying things. That's why I came back," Jackson explains.

As an early real estate investor, he wasn't sure when the neighborhood rebound would occur. But a building he purchased then at $3 per square foot is now worth $17 per square foot. His holdings include a medical clinic, several undeveloped properties and his most recent acquisition, a recording studio.

However, Jackson counts his biggest success as the simple barbershop, where neighbors filter in for informal chats and updates on the development of the community. Single mothers sometimes drop off their boys for a few hours for male bonding, and some of the boys do chores for a little spending money. But it is mostly a matter of male mentoring from a man who cherishes his own memories of Saturday mornings on Almeda with his dad.

Jackson, echoing the lesson of life in the new Third Ward, explains it easily: "What goes around comes around."

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