Good Grief: Losing and Finding Ourselves on Juneteenth

It is Juneteenth 2017, and the new Emancipation Park has been reopened and officially rededicated to its community. This is a bittersweet moment for many of us who have called Third Ward home all of our lives. What appears to be a symbol of hope or progress is more like a final curtain call for our forced relocation. Inner-city Houston is no different from predominately Black neighborhoods across America. The occupants of the last few decades are expected to pack up and head for cheaper pastures as gentrifiers move in and cause property taxes to skyrocket. Two blocks away from the shiny new park, at 2610 Elgin St., is Baylor College of Medicine at Ryan Middle School, formerly known as James D. Ryan Middle School and home to the second colored high school in Houston. Since removing the Third Ward students in favor of gentrifiers, Ryan has received state-of-the-art updates, including a security system to keep the neighborhood out. One block over from the school is Riverside Hospital, the first colored hospital in Houston; its windows are boarded up, and vegetation has begun to overtake the property. This has become a common pattern in our neighborhood as well as Fifth Ward, Sunny Side, Acres Homes, Trinity Gardens, etc. Our history is being taken away, rebranded, and whitewashed to make the incoming residents feel more comfortable. Our inevitable displacement used to terrify me to no end. I had no clue what we were supposed to do in order to preserve what was left of a place that the last three generations of my family called home. I thought that there was no historical playbook that could show us how to save our history and thusly, ourselves, but I was so very wrong. Nationwide gentrification has happened before, and it was very similar to the system we are presently observing and/or fighting. In fact, there is plenty of material available on the gentrifying done by predominately white colleges and universities alone. So what does this mean? What does early 20th century gentrification have to do with Emancipation Park, and the solemnness Black Houstonians are feeling as they receive a message no one else seems to hear or see? Well, to put it simply, Emancipation Park was born from gentrification. It wasn’t done purposefully, but damn it, when the smoke settled, it was the forced relocation of Fourth Ward residents that got us an incredible park that we still love, despite the fact that we know it is no longer ours. It is this thought that gives me hope at a time of hopelessness. The park stands as evidence of what Black people do best: turn nothing into something, and proof that we can do it again.

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger informed the masses that Black Texans were finally free. The very next year, Juneteenth was born, and in 1872, former slaves in Houston, including the Reverend Jack Yates (whose namesake is next on the gentrification chopping block), gathered funds and purchased a small plot of land for the sole purpose of commemorating their freedom. (Can you even fathom what it took for a group of ex-slaves to gather $800 in 1872 and purchase public property?) The four acres they purchased were to be reserved for the annual observation of Juneteenth, but as developers began to eye the predominately Black Fourth Ward, the park became more and more central to Black Houston’s soon-to-be splintered community. In 1929, the National Urban League discovered a deliberate, city-wide effort to deny services to Black neighborhoods, Fourth Ward in particular.[1] “In that same year, the official report of the City Planning Commission recommended strict segregation zoning of Blacks into the Second, Fourth, and Fifth Wards. While this proposal was not accepted, it was implemented on a de facto basis through deed and housing restrictions. With the coming of integration, many Freedmen’s Town (Fourth Ward) residents began to move toward Texas Southern University, in the Third Ward, and other areas of the city, such as Studewood, South Park, Riverside Terrace, Kashmere Gardens, and Acres Homes.”[2]

Present day residents of Third Ward are all too familiar with this process of pushing Black people out through negligence. Thanks to integration and Nixonian policies, our neighborhood entered a steady decline in terms of appearance and access around the 70s; throw in the war on drugs, and you have a formidable combination of push factors that caused waves of Black flight. The ““benign” neglect” worked alongside another federal policy known as “redlining,” to drive property values down and attract more low-income housing. A few decades later, as the country hit a recession, former members of the middle class sought out cheap property to build homes and businesses and they found what they were looking for in the inner-city.

The impact of our new neighbors was felt almost immediately, and the aforementioned closing of local institutions has all but signaled the complete and total loss of the communities we were forced into and transformed into political, social, and economic hubs. But herein lies the beauty in the tragedy that is modern gentrification; it is a textbook example of looking back to look forward. As we see more and more community leaders devise plans on how to fight gentrification, I posit that it should be our aim to find ways land on our feet. Black Houstonians in particular have begun to occupy certain areas on the outskirts of the city, some in well developed suburbs, and others among the ruins of 20th century white flight. This might be looked upon as nihilistic or pessimistic, but we are in far too late a stage of gentrification to not at least have plans for our new neighborhoods as well as our old ones. The renovations made to Emancipation Park will stand as testament to our forefather’s perseverance in the face of gentrification (Assuming they keep the name, but we saw what happened to James D. Ryan).

It is time to look ahead to what can be built, what can be sustained and what can be preserved, but the somberness that hangs in the air should not be ignored. We should grieve what we have lost and will continue to lose, but as we say goodbye to EP, Third Ward, Fifth Ward, etc. we should welcome the new opportunities that lie ahead. Those of you familiar with the landscape of Black Twitter should have, at some point come across Black Millennials hell bent on saving Black neighborhoods by “Buying Back The Block.” While their efforts should not be chided, they will hopefully be redirected as they too go through the five stages and round the corner to acceptance. As you walk into the new community and aquatic centers at Emancipation Park, as you take your kids to the brand new playground or outdoor theatre, all designed by NMAAHC architect Philip Freelon, don’t just take it in. Be inspired. Look at what freedmen and women provided 145 years ago for your celebration of this very day. Know in your heart, that you can contribute to something just as great, and know that this may be the end for our inner city occupation, but it is far from the end of Black Houston culture. It survived slavery, reconstruction, industrialization, the oil boom, the great depression, and modern 20th century urban policies. 21st century displacement is not solely the end of an era, but a foundation for a new one, just like Emancipation Park. Happy Juneteenth.

After thought: At some point I’m going to talk about why turning all old, historic buildings/sites into protected landmarks actually hurries gentrification and hurts poor, Black residents, but not right now.

[1] Cary D. Wintz, “FOURTH WARD, HOUSTON,” Handbook
 of Texas Online
(http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hpf01), accessed December 07, 2015. Uploaded on June 12, 2010.
 Modified on September 17, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical
 Association.

[2] Cary D. Wintz, “FOURTH WARD, HOUSTON,” Handbook of Texas Online