photography

The Idea of Home: Houston

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This work was produced during an Aftermath Project/[EXPOSURE]/Yates High School workshop in the Third Ward of Houston, Texas, run by the wonderfully insightful Sara Terry and Jeff Jacobson.  It’s still a work in progress, so any and all feedback is greatly appreciated!

The Idea of Home
Elizabeth Herman

The day before I left for Houston, my conception of home changed dramatically; my parents and I found ourselves saying goodbye to our family dog of 14 years, the one who I had said was my brother when people asked me, an only child, if I had any siblings.  The one who I remember seeing shaking, curled up in a ball at the back of his crate the night we picked him up at the airport, the same night I turned back to my parents as we were leaving the house and said, things will never be the same, will they? The one who always seemed to be perpetually smiling.

Each of us can think of a time when they felt the ground shift beneath their feet, watched as the familiar and comfortable slipped away.  Sometimes, such changes are part of personal choices made, of a need to explore and experience things new and unknown. To attempt to find one’s own space before sharing it with others.

Yet other times, it is not.  Sometimes the decision is not yours, and homes and spaces built carefully over decades fall into the hands of those oblivious to their past.  Over the past decade, residents of the Third Ward have seen changes take place beyond their front porches, but not beyond the boundaries of what they call home.

***

Forced change is not new to the residents of the Third Ward.  A historic black district triangulated by three major highways, its current demographic is largely the result of rising land prices in other parts of Houston.  During the early 1900s, developers began purchasing and developing land in the Fourth Ward, the original center of Houston’s Black community.  As housing prices continued to rise, Fourth Ward residents were forced to look elsewhere to make their homes. Subsequently, the 1920s saw the Third Ward surpass the Fourth Ward as the center of Houston’s Black population.

The residents, just a few generations removed from slavery, found themselves in a community plagued by underdevelopment and significantly deficient in investment in infrastructure.  And, since location determines economic and social opportunities, including schooling and employment, the fact that this largely underdeveloped, Black community remained apart from the more affluent residents and areas of town – and trapped in a cycle of poverty – is unfortunately of little surprise.

Yet, out of this forced segregation emerged a sense of ownership and community.  Marvin Neal, a lifelong resident of the Third Ward, speaks of his family thriving in the heart of the neighborhood in the early 1950s.  “This house is the first house that my Mom and Dad purchased.  They paid $13,000 for this house.” Neal’s recounted childhood stories speckled with tales of exceptional civil rights leaders, artists, and teachers with whom he shared these streets.  “There was a lot of people in this area who have done great things,” Neal says, “I feel blessed to have grown up in the Third Ward.”

This sentiment of greatness reverberates throughout the neighborhood; the legacy of Houston’s civil rights movement, born in the Third Ward, is still strongly felt.  Texas Southern University  (TSU), the third largest historically Black university in the U.S., stood as a bastion of the resistance, with the first sit-in in Houston, as well as subsequent demonstrations organized by TSU students. In addition, the South Central YMCA, the S.H.A.P.E. (Self Help for African People through Education) Center, and three leading Black-owned Houston newspapers and radio stations within the Third Ward’s limits continue to this day to struggle for equal opportunities for Houston’s Black community.

Now, yet again, as the result of a number of political and economic pressures, residents of the Third Ward are finding their lives and homes slipping from beneath their feet.  The community’s proximity to the city center makes it an appealing location for development.  Vacant lots to be bought cheaply and transformed into gleaming condo complexes pose an appealing possibility for developers.

Consequently, its demographic has begun to shift again.  An influx of new, affluent residents following the shiny, freshly developed plots has turned the Third Ward into a patchwork, with spotless properties bookended by well-loved and well lived-in family homes. Robert Bullard, author of Invisible Houston, describes the Third Ward as “a neighborhood of contrasts, ranging from dilapidated ‘shotgun’ row houses to well-manicured, tree-lined estates.”

The threats to the community’s identity, however, have not gone without a response from its current residents. As Bullard says, there is now intense “competition between incumbent residents and new ‘urban pioneers’ for the area’s limited stock of housing“ and Third Ward residents are not acquiescing anytime soon. Numerous organizations have emerged to preserve the integrity of the Third Ward through revitalizing its streets and businesses, with an increased and sustained effort to combat the degradation of the neighborhood’s integrity. Community-based organizations like Project Row Houses, which transforms deteriorating housing into spaces for creation in the form of artist studios, have cropped up across the district and signs reading “My Home Is Not For Sale” dot the neighborhood.

Behind these developments are the residents themselves, people who make their houses into homes, this neighborhood into their own.  Neal considers a day in which his home – the one he has lived in his whole life – might be taken away, bought up by ever-expanding developments.  Despite this threat, he speaks of how his sense of community and home extends beyond these changes, how that’s what keeps him pushing for his neighborhood.  “They can tear the physical structure down,” Neal says, “but what happened in this house with me growing up, a bulldozer can’t tear that down.”

***

I have not been home since that day after Dexter passed. I still have not felt how my home has changed, how this vital part of its spirit is now absent. I spend these days imagining it, thinking of it, anticipating what it might feel like while photographing here in the Third Ward.

While seeing how this community is changing, listening to the stories of those who may have seen their neighborhoods shift overnight, their neighbors or themselves forced from their homes in the name of development.  As we grapple with this idea – of what one of the most fundamental parts of our lives means, and what it means when it begins to change – I wonder, how does the memory of a home that once was linger, how does it shape the spaces we inhabit currently?  How can we keep those memories of the past and weave them into our lives at present?  And how is a home created and shared by an entire community?

These photographs are my conversation with these questions, as well as with others that have emerged while walking the streets of Third Ward, speaking to its residents and being welcomed into this community.  It is an ongoing search, an endless one, one that we all know well – yet hardly ever know where it will lead next.

 (Elizabeth Herman)

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