Kaid Benfield Archive


Amazing community art & development projects (part 1 of 2: Houston)

Kaid Benfield

Posted November 7, 2008 at 11:53PM

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A heretofore unique success story of how art has catalyzed community development and identity is about to be unique no more, and that is a wonderful thing.  But first let me tell you, in words and pictures, about the amazing Project Row Houses in Houston:

  work begins on Project Row Houses (by: PRH)   Project Row Houses today (by: dorkula, creative commons license)

Rick Lowe, the project's visionary (in both senses) founder, began his pursuit of what some must have seen as only a whimsical dream when Project Row Houses was first established in 1993, on the site of 22 abandoned shotgun houses (circa 1930), across two blocks in Houston's Third Ward.  (Shotgun houses are narrow one-story dwellings without halls.)  Lowe led the rehabilitation of ten of the twenty-two row houses so that they could be dedicated to community art, photography, and literary projects, which are installed on a rotating six-month basis. When a new group of artists is commissioned, each is given a house to transform in ways that speak to the history and cultural issues relevant to the African-American community.

  memorial installation for musician and Katrina victim Eluard Burt (by: dorkula, creative commons license)  installation by Michael Kahlil Taylor (by: dorkula, creative commons license)

Michael Kimmelman wrote in the International Herald-Tribune two years ago that Lowe's brainchild "may be the most impressive and visionary public art project in the United States," and he won't get an argument from me.  Kimmelman reports that Lowe was inspired by John Biggers, the late African- American muralist who painted black neighborhoods of shotgun houses and showed them to be places of pride and community, not poverty and crime. "It hit me," Lowe told Kimmelman, "that we should find an area [in Houston] like the one that Biggers painted that was historically significant and bring it to life."  That is exactly what has happened.

Support for the project came from Holman's friends, the National Endowment for the Arts, Chevron, the Graham Foundation, and hundreds of volunteers.  Lowe reports that Project Row Houses simply turns over the dwellings to artists for a period of time and lets them follow their own muses in crafting community-relevant exhibitions.  Also within the Row House complex is the Dupree Sculpture Garden, which hosts a permanent exhibit.

  Dupree Sculpture Garden (by: dorkula, creative commons license)  alley at rear between two rows of PRH houses (by: b2tse, creative commons license)

Adjacent to the houses dedicated to art are seven more that were rehabilitated to become the home of The Young Mothers Residential Program, which provides transitional housing and services for young mothers and their children.  Since February of 1996, the YMRP has offered one year renewable contracts for young single mothers and their children, who are provided free housing while they work part time, further their education, and participate in twice weekly programs to help them acquire the skills necessary to become self-sufficient.   

In 2003, the Row House Community Development Corporation was formed as a sister organization to Project Row Houses, in order to develop additional housing for low-to-moderate income residents, along with public spaces and facilities to preserve and protect the historic character of the Third Ward.  One of their undertakings, the Hannah Project, began in December 2007, and includes the construction of sixteen new affordable homes, contained in eight white clapboard duplex structures, in the neighborhood.  Each duplex features deep front and rear porches that are a contemporary adaptation of the shotgun/bungalow architecture typical of the Row Houses and the Third Ward.

  PRH duplexes with Rice U. design (by: b2tse/Barry, creative commons license)  community pride (by: dorkula, creative commons license)

The Row House CDC previously built four similar duplexes with design help from the Rice University School of Architecture.  It is now working on a new Rehabilitation/Rent-to-Own Project, pursuant to which the CDC will acquire, renovate, and rent up to 38 additional homes at prices affordable to families earning approximately half of the Harris County median income.

Very, very cool.

Next: the Watts House Project, in Los Angeles.