Houston, Texas: Project Row Houses Uses Art To Preserve Architecture, Culture, and Community in a Low-Income Neighborhood
The culture and history of Houston’s Third Ward reflects the neighborhood’s strong African-American presence, which dates back to the early 19th century. Initially split evenly between whites and African-Americans, the Third Ward became a predominantly middle-class African-American community in the 1930s but was beset by disinvestment as the cocaine epidemic ravaged the community in the 1980s. In 1993, 7 African-American artists and neighbors in the northern Third Ward saved 22 shotgun-style row houses from demolition, hoping to use the houses as a catalyst for social transformation. Inspired by the work of John Biggers, whose paintings portrayed the shotgun row house as a community asset and art form, and Joseph Beuys, a German artist who extended the role of art as an expression of social themes, the Third Ward artists founded Project Row Houses (PRH), a nonprofit organization with a mission to preserve the history, culture, and traditional buildings of the northern Third Ward through art and affordable rental housing. For the past 28 years, PRH has partnered with local organizations to extend its housing preservation goals to community development.
The Shotgun Row House as the Affordable Housing Vessel
The basic ingredient of PRH’s revitalization efforts is the shotgun house. A small house with a floorplan that offers an unobstructed view from the front door through the back door, the shotgun house was imported from West Africa via the slave trade and adopted by working-class African-Americans, who built these houses in the Third Ward. PRH created a satellite organization, PRH Preservation, to preserve and manage the original structures reserved for artists and manage PRH’s Young Mothers Residential Program, which offers affordable housing, case management, and childcare for mothers and their children.
In addition, PRH has collaborated with Rice University’s Rice Building Workshop to develop prototypes of low-cost shotgun-style housing. The single-family units include the XS House, a 500-square-foot building budgeted at $25,000, and the ZeRow House, a prototype for sustainable affordable housing that uses solar panels to generate all the energy needed during the day. The Modpod, previously referred to as Inhouse Outhouse, is a pre-existing PRH shotgun house retrofitted with a module containing a prefabricated kitchen, office, bathroom, and mechanical systems to serve the entire house.
In 2003, PRH formed the Row House Community Development Corporation (RHCDC) to build affordable housing and create public spaces and facilities that preserve the history of the northern Third Ward. Rice Building Workshop designed the duplexes, which were constructed in four phases between 2004 and 2013. The 2-story duplexes, with stacked apartments, provide 54 units for households typically earning between 30 and 70 percent of the area median income. Residents are expected to be active community members by committing to 22 hours of community service annually, attending residents council activities, and participating in public art projects.
PRH Supports Culture and Creativity
PRH conducts several programs to foster a culturally and creatively rich environment that benefits both residents of the affordable houses and artists in the community. PRH celebrates the neighborhood’s African-American art and culture through the Public Art Program, which sponsors artists to engage with northern Third Ward residents through art installations and performances in PRH houses and public spaces. Twice a year, PRH invites local and national artists to exhibit their work in a gallery occupying seven houses. The exhibits typically highlight a social issue within the African-American community, such as last year’s theme of black maternal mortality.
The Strategic Art Plan draws on artists’ talents to enhance the well-being of PRH residents. "Beautiful, Still" by Colby Deal is a photographic series showcasing the positive psychological and physical environment of the Third Ward, imagery that is often lost in mainstream depictions of low-income African-American neighborhoods. The photographs, located throughout the neighborhood, include a mural in the Eldorado Ballroom, a Third Ward landmark originally owned by an African-American businesswoman. Before the pandemic, the Strategic Art Plan also organized “Third Ward Fresh | One Seed, One Block,” several public events to address health food scarcity with the help of musicians and painters. Third Ward Fresh offered residents cooking lessons, and One Seed, One Block distributed vegetable seeds and art supplies to decorate pots, while attendees enjoyed live entertainment by local Zydeco bands.
Anchor Partnerships Guide Neighborhood Development
Understanding that revitalizing the northern Third Ward requires more than housing improvements, PRH partnered with other Houston anchor institutions to rejuvenate Emancipation Avenue, a once-vibrant economic cluster of African-American businesses and patrons. In 2015, PRH spearheaded the Emancipation Economic Development Council (EEDC), a partnership of businesses, organizations, and residents of the northern Third Ward with the goal of ensuring equitable development of the corridor. EEDC provides resources to business owners such as façade improvement and small business training. The council is also affiliated with PRH’s Financial Opportunity Center, which offers finance, career coaching, and entrepreneurship classes to residents.
PRH has acquired seven parcels on one block of Emancipation Avenue, a street that leads to Emancipation Park, which was purchased by freed slaves in 1872 and has been the traditional site of Juneteenth celebrations in the city. One of the lots is being used as a community garden, and another lot is occupied by the Eldorado Building, whose historic ballroom is available for special events. To determine potential uses for the other five lots, PRH has investigated how residents perceive changes in the built environment. RHCDC’s neighborhood development project manager, Libby Viera-Bland, explored this theme using her background in urban planning, community mapping exercises, and oral history and learned that some residents perceive new construction in the neighborhood as a sign that they will be displaced. RHCDC has responded to residents’ concerns and is planning for a mixed-use building on Emancipation Avenue with residences above ground-floor retail space that could potentially house a grocery store.