Gentrifying Third Ward, TX

July 2014

I began to notice a change in the physical geography of Third Ward around 2006. The initial stage of urban development was announced via signage. They read: ‘Cash for Houses, Any Condition,’ ‘We Buy Houses, Avoid Foreclosure,’ and ‘We Buy Houses, Cash’. It was apparent then that change was coming. What I could not foresee years ago was how rapid and how stark the change would be. A year later I stopped being a day-to-day resident of Houston and Third Ward. As a recent graduate of the University of Houston, I headed east to New Orleans, Louisiana chasing love and seeking employment. Since that time I have lived in New Mexico, Kentucky, and North Carolina – all the while visiting Houston twice a year, supplanting myself – albeit briefly – back into my old neighborhood. Upon my last few trips to Houston the changes in Third Ward’s residential landscape and its racial demography were glaringly obvious. During walks throughout da Tré – for, in my opinion, it is one of the best ways to experience the community’s past, present, and future geographies – I was struck by its embodied and structural changes.

When home, no matter where my treks begin or end, I seem to always walk past, through, or around Emancipation Park – a park with many uses. Youth – predominately Black and Latino – frequent the space to play basketball on its uneven court, to chase one another around the small playground, and to play soccer and football in its field. During the summer months families gather to grill food in celebration of someone’s birthday or a day off from work and school. Atlanta-based rappers, Waka Flocka and Ludacris have even met there, with Bun B, to film a video for the single, “Candy Paint & Gold Teeth”. Other members of the community frequent this social space. Third Ward’s homeless and otherwise transient population often convene at Emancipation Park to fellowship, drink, and to get a night’s rest on the tops of tables and benches. But during my last visit, Emancipation Park was an expanse of dirt – pitted and piled – in the process of giving way to a new social landscape.

And all around, where dilapidated, yet inhabited, shotgun-style houses once struggled to remain upright, exorbitantly priced townhomes stand erect, littering an ever-growing panoptic landscape. Where an inkling of ‘virgin’ land remains real estate speculators prepare it for foundation. The community is forewarned of impending development via small white billboards with black print that profess, ‘Notice of Variance Request’ and ‘Notice of Public Hearing’. These signs, to borrow a phrase from Otabenga Jones & Associates, are “so prevalent as to be ubiquitous”. The townhomes, the increasing presence of police and the circulating white bodies of recently arrived neighbors give new meaning to my walks. They not only show how the neighborhood has changed (and continues to do so), the presence of these structures and bodies-in-motion work to codify spaces as white.

Thus now, my peaceful sojourns, my roving Blackness, have become a practice in defiance of this racial compartmentalization of the neighborhood. This week, during strolls along Emancipation Park, I encountered two white women walking dogs and one white man jogging, shirtless. One of the dog walkers could not help herself. She was as keenly aware of my presence as I was hers – though she was a full block beyond my reach, beyond the threat of me. As nonchalantly as possible, she reversed her gaze, to see how close my long legs and my casual strides had advanced my person upon their – she and her dog’s – position. How is it that I am a now feared in a space I consider my own?