by Bryan Washington
Last summer, Houston’s METRORail opened a six-and-a-half-mile route through the city’s Third Ward. It came after years and years of delays, and a federal investigation into the alleged purchase of prototype train cars built in Spain. As with number of the city’s Good Ideas, if you held your breath waiting for it, you’d probably end up dead. When I lived on the block, the half-built station platforms implied as much as Michelangelo’s prisoners — almost artful in their not-doneness, looking only a little bit half-assed. But the city held its breath, and the neighborhood waited. Now the train cuts through Elgin and Alabama Streets, and Macgregor Way, a sort of punchline for an area already wincing from gentrification.
Depending on how far you take the Purple Line up Scott Street, you can watch a condensed history of the one-time epicenter of black life in Houston, go by. As you ride toward the East End, you can see the gradual decline, and where drugs hit the neighborhood the hardest. There are remnants of the Ward’s past as a hotbed for blues, mansions shadowing streets with tough reputations, and an abundance of churches. Before long, you’ll take a smooth left toward downtown and the Theater District, into the affluent Fifth Ward, its skyscrapers barely visible from the poorest parts of the Third.
Most Americans have heard of the Third Ward, if only tangentially. If you’ve been blessed by Beyoncé, you’ve heard both her and Jay-Z namecheck the Third Ward. If you’ve listened to Lightning Hopkins, you’ve been brushed by the Third. Ditto if you follow the Texans, or if you watch college football. But of the six wards that make up Houston proper, the Third may have the least known but most interesting history. Former slaves purchased the land from whites in the late nineteenth century, and now there’s a light rail running through it. That is a notion of progress as close to science fiction as anything we’ll get.
The Third Ward hasn’t always been predominately black; its original residents arrived as far back as the Civil War, when whites lived in the northern end, while the black population stayed south, below Truxillo Street. The emancipated showed up in droves, sometimes on foot, for the maintenance jobs that no one else wanted. Blacks bought homes from white people on credit, mostly at convoluted rates. By the late 1890s, over a quarter of the homes in the area were black-owned, and in 1926, the city established Yates High School, its second black high school in Houston’s city limits. Throw in a little white flight, and you had one of the few parts of Houston black people could honestly call their own.
In the mid-twentieth century, the Third became a home for a number of thriving, black-owned, businesses. Along Dowling Street alone, there was Tyler Barber College, the Watchtower Insurance Company, the Huckaby Funeral Home, and the Teal Portrait Studio. There were several movie theaters, a famous department store and pawn shop (Wolf’s, still open), and an amateur boxing club. One longtime resident called the strip in its heyday “Black Vegas.” Etta James, Ray Charles, Count Basie, and Nat King Cole all performed at the El Dorado Ballroom, before it closed in the nineteen-seventies, when the Third was on the decline.
In the past decade, the black population in the Third has gone down by more than ten percent, while the number of whites has doubled, and the Latino and Asian populations are slowly rising. A number of white-owned businesses have opened up, like public-event centers and new restaurants in what is still considered a prominent food desert. There’s been a resurgence in the real-estate market too, with houses bought up by a mix of preservationists and white folks who just to be a little closer to downtown. Today, if you drive down Almeda Road, it’s not uncommon to see a white man and a black woman arm-in-arm. Just hanging out, walking. It’s something you wouldn’t have caught not too long ago, unless you were in more progressive Montrose a few miles up the road, with its thrift stores and gay bars and coffee shops.
It’s difficult to describe the metamorphosis of Houston’s Third Ward in relation to the other five, because it’s impossible to apprehend the city as a singular entity; most of Houston is a mixed bag. Between the lofts lining Midtown and the Mexican revitalization of East End, and all of potholed Alief, and the hipsterized Heights, and Bellaire and Clear Lake and River Oaks and Chinatown and Aldine and Northshore and Spring and Rice — it’s just a bunch of hubs, at least inside the Loop. People are picking up on the marketability of this new culture of fusion in the Third Ward, and the question is no longer whether the changes to the neighborhood are good or bad (they’re both), but who gets to claim the narrative.
Despite its conservative tendencies, Houston has been majority-minority for some time. It’s one of the most diverse cities in the country in one of the fastest-growing metro areas. But as mixed as Houston proper is, it is also one of the most country’s most economically segregated cities. While this might be the standard in a number of sprawling metropolises, it is even more pronounced within the bayou city’s limits, because it is the only major American city without zoning ordinances, magnifying class dichotomies to the fullest extent. A Mexican dishwasher living on Fannin, an Indian housewife from Uptown, and the middle-class engineer dropping in from Westpark may never cross paths, even if they all set foot in the exact same restaurant.
While the Third Ward’s expansion could be the natural development of a city, it is also in some ways the erasure of a culture, or at least a period in time. A neighborhood built in the throes of the Civil War, and the first one owned by free people of color in Houston, will no longer belong to the residents who built it, but to those who came after, with all the money. Those who historically didn’t have a place to call their own could find themselves displaced once again.
As the rest of Houston comes to terms with the rapidly gentrifying Third Ward, many have taken a pass at attempting to rebrand it for a less convinced audience. They’ll note the surge in new (i.e., Not Black) businesses setting up in the area, the pop-ups and food trucks. They’ll talk about the shotgun houses and the Geto Boys and Paul Wall as if they’re just references or waymarkers. The history, if it’s mentioned at all, is usually only a pretext.
Last year, I worked at a magazine that fashioned itself as a microcosm of Houston — its expansion and warmth — and just how much “fun” the city could be. There was a vested interest in highlighting the Ward’s arts, particularly in a part of town the casual Houstonian may have thought of as artless (though Toni Morrison taught at Texas Southern University for a stint). One day, I sat in one corner, dutifully engaged in something mindless, while one of the editors interviewed a woman from the Third over the phone. He wanted to know about the restoration of the neighborhood’s shotgun housing, an independent effort from Project Row Houses that had been in the works since the nineties. He asked about its inspiration, and the newfound attention from moneyed connoisseurs, and whether or not she saw the project as sustainable.
It would be an understatement to call it a rough conversation. What began as a routine pattern of questions and answers escalated into a shouting match, until a room that was normally abuzz had dimmed to a murmur (I could hear someone pouring water downstairs, and a woman laughing too loudly below us). There were whispers from those sitting nearby, to apologize, to reschedule the call. Or at least hang up. But he kept right on shouting, and just when things seemed to calm down, not a minute passed before they were arguing again.
When the call finally ended, the editor said the woman had been patronizing. She hadn’t taken him seriously. She’d asked if he’d even heard of the Third Ward, if he knew where it was. She had asked if he knew this, that, and the other thing about the neighborhood. He said that she spoke like she was better than him, like he was someone who didn’t know these things, and he couldn’t for the life of him understand why.
There are a number of things the further gentrification of the Third Ward could bring, not all of them bad. Longtime residents could be priced out, their trials erased. But they could also be supported by affordable housing and grocery stores. Schools could be refurbished, and roads could be buffed. With the light rail now running through it, the Third could be on its way back up. The most recent influx of commerce is just another chapter in the neighborhood’s story — one that will remain convoluted, tumultuous, and misunderstood, but one that’s still ongoing. Just two days ago, a deputy constable was shot in the back four times after a traffic stop near T.S.U., his life spared by his bulletproof vest.
The best gauge for the Third Ward’s future could be a ride on the Purple Line: it takes you out of the desert, into the oasis of the city. Stick around long enough, and you’ll see enough of downtown to seduce you, with all its coffee shops and lofts and sushi eaten by open windows. You’ll catch enough to take stock of what’s possible in a place, what can be done if we take a little time. And then, once you’ve had your fill, you just hop back on the train, take it all the way back, and then you are home.
Photo: Photo: Joe Wolf