Preserving Community: Houston’s Project Row Houses

by Julia Marchetti, 2019-2020 Division Fellow

A bastion of history and culture for the black community, Houston, Texas’ Third Ward is a neighborhood known for its vibrancy and activism. Not only is this neighborhood home to the 10-acre Emancipation Park, a site purchased by former slaves in 1872 in celebration of the end of slavery, but the Third Ward has also cultivated some of the first black-run radio stations and newspapers (such as KCOH, KYOK, The Defender, and the Forward Times). However, this neighborhood has recently experienced an influx of outside investment and development, generating fears of displacement and cultural erasure (1). One group seeking to preserve this community is Project Row Houses (2).

Established in 1993 by a group of visionary black artists, Project Row Houses began as a way to highlight the value and richness in a neighborhood that was typically noted for its disinvestment and social problems. Project Row Houses categorizes itself as an experiment operating at the intersection of art, preservation, and enrichment. Rick Lowe, a founder of the group and winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant, is transparent regarding his position: “I’m very aware that I’m an amateur in most of what I do. I’m not trained in community organizing. I’m not a social worker, an architect, a designer or an urban planner. So I always keep in mind that these are my weaknesses, and I partner with people who are more knowledgeable, especially in the areas where we’re working,” (3).

The founders of this project sought to challenge the stereotypes surrounding the black community and foster community leadership. One way they do this is by reclaiming the architectural style of the shotgun house, the dominant building type in the Third Ward. This style possesses a complex symbolism and layered history, since it originated in West Africa and was brought to the United States through the slave trade. The group strives to emulate the character of the shotgun house in the duplexes it builds and renovates. In addition to preserving the old, Project Row Houses creates new memories and functions through the creation of historically centered art installations related to the symbols, history, and vibrancy of the shotgun houses and neighborhood as a whole.

Rather than viewing social values as tangential to preservation, Project Row Houses focuses its work on the social fabric of the community, in addition to its physical preservation. Project Row Houses facilitates social-capital development through workforce development, small-business support, community markets, tutoring, as well as services for young mothers. And in its partnership with Rice Building Workshop, this group has also created a community development corporation to spearhead affordable housing efforts.

Project Row Houses utilizes a variety of strategies, rather than focusing their efforts purely on preservation or affordability alone. PRH Preservation Inc., a group born out of this organization in 2018, facilitates preservation through maintenance and repairs, protecting naturally occurring affordable housing in the process. Making use of the past in a constructive way, PRH Preservation’s main focus is on the future of the historic Third Ward neighborhood through intentional and strategic community development. PRH Preservation is intended to impact the neighborhood and its residents tangibly and meaningfully by preserving affordable housing throughout the community.

 

PRH offers a 2:2:2 Exchange artist residency for socially engaged artists with site-specific projects (Photo Courtesy of Project Row Houses).

The work being done in Houston by this organization gets to the root of APA’s Planning Home initiative. Through a multifaceted approach to preservation and community development, these leaders are helping the residents of The Third Ward to grow, thrive, and dream. They are not simply capitalizing on local assets, but learning from them. What can planners learn from this unique and meaningful way of embedding into a community? 

If you are in Houston for NPC20 be sure to check out Project Row Houses’ mobile tour from 11 a.m. - 1 p.m. CDT!


Notes

1. University of Houston, "Third Ward Initiative," University of Houston, 2019. https://www.uh.edu/third-ward/third-ward-map/

2. Project Row Houses, "About," Project Row Houses, 2019. https://projectrowhouses.org/about/mission-history

3. Rick Lowe, "Rick Lowe: Project Row Houses at 20," Creative Time Reports, 7 October 2013. http://creativetimereports.org/2013/10/07/rick-lowe-project-row-houses/