To someone like me, who has spent fifteen of her eighteen years in the Houston area living outside the city limit, the Fifth Ward is a drive-by zone; a place you zoom past on the way to somewhere else along Interstate 10. It’s words in a headline in the newspaper – about poverty or about crime, usually. That’s when someone like me – a thoroughly embedded suburbanite – takes notice of the Fifth Ward. Bad news in the Fifth Ward sends ripples out well beyond it, but the ripples usually aren’t that disruptive to people out here, not by the time they travel this far.
Still, when Liberty Institute tweeted a video about a lawsuit it was filing on behalf of two Fifth Ward churches, it was only the hashtag #SaveFifthWard that got my attention. I promoted the video and the story to my small following, tagged a few people in my Houston political circles, and watched to see where the story would go. I was happy to see the story picked up by Legal Insurrection and Hot Air, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt the need to go see it for myself.
The section of the Fifth Ward where the churches stand is bisected by railroad tracks that run north to south. The line is placed so close to residential properties that you imagine homes shaking and residents waking to screaming whistles as goods speed from the port to the wider commercial world beyond. Where I live, the nearest train horn is probably fifteen miles away in Sugar Land.
It’s hot, but there are a few people out in the noon heat: a man walking two dogs (sans leashes) down a quiet street, a lady on her cell phone outside one of the churches, a wheelchair-bound man in the shaded park on the corner, a silent middle-aged man on the opposite corner, just standing and looking west. Silent until I greet him, and ask him if he is familiar with the lawsuit and the city’s efforts to take the churches’ land. ‘No,’ he says ‘I ain’t hear ‘bout that.’
On another corner, down the street a bit in a shaded but empty lot, an older man sits on a couch in front of some chairs he wants to sell. Behind him is an old red car, trunk and doors open, parked diagonally in the shade of the lot. Only one other man seems to be around on his corner, pedaling up on a bike to chat with him for a few minutes. When I pass by again on my way out, the sofa and chairs remain, but the man and the bicyclist are gone. I’m reminded that a sofa on the corner in my neighborhood would be salvaged within minutes as a discard, or written down as an infraction by the HOA code enforcement committee.
This is nothing like the places I know.
There was a grocery in this neighborhood, but it’s gone now. I don’t know when it closed. A couple of blocks away sits the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation.
There are parks here. Creative ones too, ones that make good use of space. A charter school (‘The Answer is YES!’) is a block away as well, one that has served the area for quite a few years, but that doesn’t make the papers with the same frequency as the other features of the Fifth Ward.
Many of the houses look ill-worn, but given their age and the income level of their residents, that’s not a surprise. On one block you find older wooden houses, ones that you expect to be condemned, with lights inside, and people. And just a minute’s drive down the road stand several well-constructed, newer-looking brick homes; well-kept and nearly indistinguishable from some in the newer suburbs. Just a few miles west in the Heights, they say, a marvelous transformation of urban renewal has preserved the character and uniqueness of that neighborhood. This part of the Fifth Ward, though, looks more prepared for bulldozers and low-rises than anything else.
I don’t know. That may be what is needed in the Fifth Ward – a fresh start. I couldn’t begin to know how to fix all the cosmetic flaws I discovered in an afternoon’s drive down the streets, much less understand the nature of the structures – both physical and community-wise – that make this section of Fifth Ward a battleground in a courtroom today. What I know is that there are two churches that hold onto a fraction of the property in the area, two long-standing churches that have a tradition of improving both property AND people in the community, and that the Houston Housing Authority wants to confiscate those parcels and pass them on to builders to be developed for low-income housing.
It doesn’t smell right to me. And now that I’ve been to see for myself, I can’t just look away. I don’t know how to help, but I do intend to try.
I did eventually find a condemned house, by the way. It was in my own neighborhood when I was shooting video to compare with the Fifth Ward.