I am a lifelong resident of Third Ward, Houston, Texas. My grandparents moved to the neighborhood in 1947, and my grandfather was the first economics professor at Texas Southern University. This legacy has always shaped my life in Third Ward as well as my artwork. The neighborhood has a rich history with landmarks including Texas Southern University, the Eldorado Ballroom, Project Row Houses, the Shape Community Center, Emancipation Park — the first park for African-Americans in Texas and the site of a multi-million city renovation — and Unity Bank — the first black-owned bank in Texas. There are currently five Houston Independent School District schools in the area, which spans 1,851 acres.
I feel indebted to the neighborhood for the amazing experiences and wisdom I have gained from its residents. Unfortunately as gentrification has taken hold of the area, it has revealed and intensified a disunity in the neighborhood, where many of its unique qualities are nearly extinct. As of 2014 the Third Ward had a population of 16, 218. Based on a 2014 City of Houston Demographic and Income Profile, Third Ward, had a per capita income of $12,341 and 3,486 rental units compared to 1,218 owner occupied units. In 2008, a Third Ward Redevelopment Council report concluded that area shoppers and residents spent $345 million outside of the Third Ward per year, highlighting a lack of business within the community and the lost spending potential of the residents.
There are no grocery stores and only fast food opportunities. Arts organizations in the area have become isolated, working in a sort of survival behavior. In many ways the residents practice the same behavior as they watch the neighborhood change and await more property tax increases and cultural dislocation as developers move in. I don’t believe there is any way to halt the current gentrification. Instead, I’m proposing a way to not only benefit from it but help shape its direction.The city of Houston has no zoning so keeping a unified neighborhood aesthetic is a difficult task. And with a large number of residents living in renter-occupied units any deed restrictions would be limited.
As an artist, I have a responsibility to the community. So far, my community outreach has taken the form of guerrilla street art, starting with a project that highlighted the area’s lack of grocery stores. Borrowing the logo and font from a well-known Texas chain, I placed a sign on the corner of Holman and Dowling Street that read, "Coming Soon, Whole Foods Third Ward.” The sign caused a frenzy of speculation and bewilderment. A popular local real-estate blog posted a photo of the sign and the comments ranged from delight to fear. Existing Whole Foods locations in Houston answered calls from disgruntled residents of other neighborhoods asking why Whole Foods wasn’t coming to their area. After a weekend of news cameras and buzz, the city was told to remove the sign by Whole Foods themselves. The sign helped create a feeling in the Third Ward that maybe it did deserve a grocery store or at least a place where vegetables could be purchased. It also convinced me that unifying the neighborhood through a widely viewed but simple intervention could get the attention of big business and help maintain the history of the community. Connecting my love of satire and my artistic abilities, the idea of the Emancipation Park Community Association was born.
Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s large percentage of renter occupied units makes a true civic club next to impossible. Instead, this pseudo civic-club would derive its power precisely from the numbers of those typically excluded from conventional civic clubs. It would pose as a real civic club as long as it remains beneficial to the neighborhood. In the same way that the Whole Foods sign managed to start a uniquely visible conversation that had previously happened among a dedicated few, this project hinges on the impact of the buzz that signs strategically placed around the neighborhood can drum up. The collection of signs will blanket the neighborhood with attention usually reserved for city elections.
Signs will read:
EPCA Gun Club Now Enrolling!
EPCA HATES EYESORES (Placed on abandoned buildings)
THIS IS AN EYESORE (Placed on abandoned buildings)
EPCA Yard of the Month
Please Don’t Make Me a Condo!
Does Anyone Know Where to Get a Tomato Near Here?
This Is Our Neighborhood & It’s Not For Sale ( An ode to a Rick Lowe sign made in the early 90’s fighting against gentrification)
Elders of the community, including Rick Lowe, co-founder of Project Row Houses; DeLoyd Parker, founder of the SHAPE Community Center and Theola Petteway, executive director of the OST/Alameda Corridors Redevelopment Authority, met with me in April 2015 and supported the various sign ideas calling out businesses and absentee landowners but suggested delaying until the renovated Emancipation Park was closer to reopening.
In the meantime, I have focused on the creation of the civic club, securing funding from the Idea Fund and the Houston Arts Alliance. The project was featured on Creative Time’s On Our Radar. But the funding hasn’t been enough to grow the idea to what it can be. With a more substantial grant, I can create something with a lasting impact that will be self-sustaining. It will be a tool for the community for years to come, evolving with its needs.
The first phase of this project is community beautification. Going door-to-door throughout Third Ward, which I’ve split into five sections, a team of volunteers will ask members of the community to put the EPCA signs in their yard and give them brochures focused on issues relevant to the community, such as access to produce or food of any kind, the lack of commercial businesses, the performance of local schools and the development of a unified effort to address those issues. The club can take up these issues but, in occupying a liminal space between official and unofficial, it can also rely on satire and guerrilla signage to advance conversations in a way the typical civic club could not.
Here is an outline of the steps the project will take knowing full well that the traditional civic club process may not come to fruition but the more official the civic club appears the more powerfully it will resonate in the community and the city.
Within the first month of the project, the association will host a kickoff event at a neighborhood landmark with refreshments, music and a short presentation. The event will both introduce the community to the association and help recruit volunteers to get it going. It will point residents toward next steps, including a website where they can find information about association initiatives, volunteer opportunities and share neighborhood memories and hopes. A Twitter feed can pull in photos and posts promoting the effort, using the hashtag #EPCALOVE.
With momentum building, the next months begin with an on-the-ground, door-to-door effort, flooding the neighborhood with information and signs. Based on other examples of successful civic club activities in Houston, we’ll start an “EPCA Yard of The Month” initiative complete with a sign, balloons and fanfare to accompany the honor. Each business located in the neighborhood will also receive stickers reading, “We Heart EPCA.”
The following months will move forward from the community building into actionable efforts. The EPCA, again using signs, will highlight abandoned buildings and their absentee landowners, garbage waiting for city pickup, and other neighborhood eyesores. A monthly meeting at the Third Ward Multi-Service Center to talk about what further community concerns are. This month will also feature the publication of the first quarterly, with important community news and dates.
After the first meeting, the group will meet with Katye Tipton, Director of the city of Houston Department of Neighborhoods to gain acknowledgement for the EPCA as a community association and establish a place at the table.
At the end of the year meeting, the association will host its annual State of the EPCA address to discuss the organization’s progress and goals.
As the group’s various ongoing projects — like the Yard of the Month, the website and quarterly — gain momentum, the organization will continue to look for opportunities to work strategically. We’ll draw on resources like the Vibrant Streets Toolkit, a step-by-step community organizing template first created for Washington, DC’s Office of Planning aimed at empowering underserved communities, to help guide our efforts.
In describing Henri Lefebvre’s revolutionary imagining of the urban landscape, geographer David Harvey said:
“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”
This is the task of the EPCA; to make and remake our home and ourselves through the exercise of a collective power.
The use of art to motivate change no matter how small has been proven to be an effective strategy and I will follow this concept to start a dialogue for the improvement and continued beautification of Third Ward.