Words in Boxes

Nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Houston and Change

I've only lived in Houston for five years, but that's been long enough to notice big changes in the socioeconomic landscape inside the loop. When I arrived Midtown barely existed. Montrose was seedier. Even as the sprawl in Pearland and the Woodlands continue, it's great – both environmentally and culturally – that the middle and upper-middle class have decided to come back to the city's core.

Of course, another word for all this is “gentrification.”

While researching an article for My Table, I came across this article about the Third Ward's fight against gentrification. The Third Ward is located between downtown and the museum district. During segregation, it was practically an independent city inside of Houston, filled with black-owned businesses, churches and schools. Today it's still predominately black, although young professional whites and Hispanics are starting to move in.

State Representative Garnet Coleman is working to keep his neighborhood from changing:

Coleman is taking an unconventional and controversial approach to keeping the Third Ward affordable for longtime residents. Quietly, the board of a tax increment financing district that he partially controls has been buying up land in the Third Ward. Not only does Coleman want to keep the land away from developers. He also wants to saddle the property with restrictive deeds and covenants that would ensure that it could be used only for rental housing in perpetuity.

What's interesting about trying to preserve “character” is how tenuous it is. It's easy to mistake the way things are now for the way they've always been:

Fifty years ago, much of the area that Coleman now sees as his patrimony was a largely Jewish neighborhood. Only in the 1960s did the area become predominantly black.

Urban change does produce political and economic winners and losers, so while I think there's truth to the article's suggestion that Coleman is fighting gentrification because it “stands to dilute his African-American political base with affluent whites,” it's also cynical.

Well-functioning neighborhoods are living emotional creatures composed of an ever-changing collection of people moving in and moving out. Those people, if they stay long enough, truly bond with it. It's nebulousness only serves to make them fight harder against any possible change because they know that change is possible, even likely. If people didn't try to maintain neighborhoods, they wouldn't exist for very long.

I'm James Sulak, a software developer in Houston, Texas.

You can also find me on Twitter, or if you're curious, on my old-fashioned home page. If you want to contact me directly, you can e-mail comments@wordsinboxes.com.