Art empowers and preserves Houston community

February 25, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
Two decades ago, Houston’s Third Ward was struggling with crime, drugs and abandoned homes. Back then, Rick Lowe was one of many artists who bought and transformed area row houses into spaces for work, exhibition and as art itself, bringing both beauty and stability to the community. Now there are concerns that gentrification threatens to push out longtime residents. Jeffrey Brown reports.

GWEN IFILL: As we reported last night, the nation is in the midst of dramatic demographic change. One key shift: Many African- Americans are leaving the city for the suburbs. But some urban communities are trying to get them back.

Jeffrey Brown recently traveled to Houston to see how one group there is fighting to preserve its history through art.

JEFFREY BROWN: On a recent Saturday, neighbors from Houston’s Third Ward came out to celebrate the life of the Flower Man. Cleveland Turner, who died at age 78, was a beloved folk artist who turned found objects into art and made his own home a kind of gallery.

Rick Lowe was one of the speakers.

RICK LOWE, Project Row Houses: The thing that makes it not so sad is that this neighborhood is full of people that are creatively expressing themselves in different ways. And we see them. They walk through our doors all the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: The doors are those of Project Row Houses, an effort to rejuvenate and energize a neighborhood and its people through art, economic development, and social services.

Last year, Lowe, who raises funding from foundations, corporations, and individuals, was recognized for his efforts with the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant. Lowe told me it began in the 1990s, when he was working as a traditional painter and sculptor.

RICK LOWE: I had a group of high school students at my studio. And this student came to me, and he said, that’s not what we need. He said, if you’re an artist, why can’t you create a solution?

JEFFREY BROWN: The historic Third Ward, just south of downtown Houston, is a mixed-income, predominantly African-American era, dating back to end of the Civil War. It was where the city’s first sit-in protest took place during the civil rights era.

But, by the early 1990s, it was riddled with abandoned homes, crime, and drugs. Lowe, then in his early 30s, joined with fellow artists to buy and renovate 22 of these small shotgun-style homes, originally built in the 1930s. He based the work, now his artwork, on the ideas of German artist Joseph Beuys.

RICK LOWE: He had coined the term social sculpture. And he defined it as the way that we shape and mold the world around us. And so that’s what kind of what got me inspired to think of these little shotgun houses as being the basis or the foundation for social sculpture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of the houses were use for art itself, as workspaces and for exhibitions. They still are.

And during our visit, we saw work by established artists, including Julia Brown, who had created a video showing from different perspectives the life of a single mother and her children.

JULIA BROWN, Artist: I think that’s an opportunity to just get a really intimate kind of look at what someone’s life is look. And the space that you’re looking at is literally on the other side of this wall.

JEFFREY BROWN: The other side of the wall in homes also part of Project Row Houses, where another side of the work goes on, providing shelter to single mothers and children.

Some of the houses are for temporary use, helping young women get on their feet. Others, designed by the Rice University Building Workshop, working with Rick Lowe, offer more permanent subsidized housing.

NIKALA ASANTE: Oh, wow. You turned it into a bird.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s where we met Nikala Asante, who told us of a difficult childhood, having to work two jobs as a teenager and leaving school, before turning her life around with the help of Project Row Houses.

NIKALA ASANTE: I really was attracted to the program because it focused on budgeting. It focused on parenting skills. And so it wasn’t just a place to stay. It would also develop me to become a better mother and to become a better than important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Asante has graduated from college, published a book of poetry, now works at the University of Houston, and has an enthusiasm that seems boundless.

NIKALA ASANTE: People always give Third Ward a bad rap. Like, even now, when I tell people I live in Third Ward, they say, oh, it’s dangerous there. I don’t want to drive there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?  Even now, they say that to you?

NIKALA ASANTE: Yes. Even now, they say that. And I say, no, I live in an artist community. They’re like, oh, OK, I want to come see it.

ASSATA RICHARDS, Young Mothers Residential Program: I was working in abject poverty, making about $700 a month for me and my son.

JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps the program’s biggest success story is the woman who now runs it, Assata Richards.

ASSATA RICHARDS: And I came into this organization, and this organization said, set the highest, grandest dream for yourself and we will support you. And so by ’99, I graduated from the University of Houston and went on to Penn State to get a Ph.D.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richards taught sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, but decided she wanted to come back to mentor young women here.

ASSATA RICHARDS: We do more than give housing. We give a community to young mothers. So, our concept is that believing that investing in young mothers and their children is an investment in the future of the neighborhood. What I believe is art and creativity has the potential to transform the lives of individuals and lives of a community.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now there’s a new focus, economic development. Project Row Houses has created a business incubator, providing space and support, for example, for a food co-op, to address the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in the neighborhood and for a round-the-clock live Web radio station, All Real Radio, in one of its row houses.

Its founder, a longtime Houston deejay, who goes by the name Zin, says this is yet another way to empower and unite those in the community.

ZIN, All Real Radio: Radio can give them that voice. Radio can give the person who didn’t have that spotlight the opportunity to be spotlighted. So I think it offers the community a voice, a vision, an opportunity. You know, it’s from business to art to, you know, social activism. I think it fits in all of those categories.

JEFFREY BROWN: So many categories, indeed, for Project Row Houses, from social services to low-income housing to business development.

The obvious question for artist Rick Lowe, why is this art?

RICK LOWE: Why it’s art is because there’s a symbolic value that is evident in this project that is beyond normal social service projects or redevelopment projects and so on and so forth.

I mean, you know, it comes in the same shape, but it completely departs when you start talking about its intention.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the intention of an artist?

RICK LOWE: Is to look at what it means to be in a house, you know, and to create something that is symbolic to get people to talk about. What does it mean to be in a house?  What is the value of a house?

JEFFREY BROWN: Call it what you will. Many other cities are now calling Rick Lowe to come see what he might do with them.

Meanwhile, here in the Third Ward, there’s still plenty of work to do. Old houses sit abandoned on some streets. There’s also new building everywhere, including a $33 million renovation project at nearby Emancipation Park. It’s a sign of gentrification, as condos are built and rents and property taxes rise.

Lowe’s biggest fear now is that the character of this place will change and longtime residents will be pushed out.

RICK LOWE: As we embrace the awareness of the historic value of this neighborhood, I think it gives us some ground to continue to stay in this development process.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was no preventing the razing of the Flower Man’s home. Mold tests revealed that it couldn’t be saved.

But Rick Lowe’s organization owns this plot as well, and he told us it will be put to good use to preserve the legacy of the folk artist and his neighborhood.

Reporting from Houston’s Third Ward, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.