Revitalizing Our Inner-City Neighborhood — Without Gentrification
I didn’t want to simply have a nice house in a bad neighborhood
I bought a little house a couple of years ago. It sits on a mostly quiet street in a mostly Black subdivision, with a good amount of Latinos. The larger area of Houston, of which my subdivision is a part, is called Sunnyside, and it has a reputation for being a tough neighborhood.
I was born and raised not far away, in an area called South Park. Like most people from such neighborhoods, I grew up dreaming of one day being able to buy a big house in the suburbs, and park a European sedan next to a big SUV in the garage.
I’d had an adult life full of speed bumps and false starts. So by the time I was finally able to clean up my credit enough and save a little money to buy a house, I had long since woken up from dreams of suburbia, and escaping the kind of neighborhoods that were responsible for my very existence.
Predictably, most of my friends (including those who were from the same kind of neighborhood) thought I was crazy for buying a house in Sunnyside. I was convinced of my own genius. I had a plan to have a plan.
I wanted a house in the kind of neighborhood where I’d grown up because looking back on my own childhood, I didn’t remember some dangerous war zone where you couldn’t even walk down the street without being shot or robbed. There had been tough times and tough people for sure, but most were hard-working people hoping to make a better life and laugh a little along the way.
I didn’t think these were lesser people. These were people who never quit. They were people who managed, generation after generation, to raise good kids and make a life for themselves in spite of playing with a deck of cards that was often stacked against them. I believed in these people, and I believed in the communities they called home.
I remember the laughter of children who had not yet realized that they were poor. I remember what it was like to watch a father take his wife into his tired arms and dance with her in a cracked driveway as they played something slow on the car radio.
Beautiful young girls would put on shorts and lotion their legs down, and take walks through the neighborhood streets in groups, and drive schoolboys crazy with the discovery of themselves. This was what I wanted the world to see.
To us, the hood wasn’t some generic area with a new name painted over the old one, with newly constructed lofts, a trendy coffee shop, and a yoga studio around the corner. To us, it was home. It was a part of us. It was the garden from which we had all grown.
I believed that Black children shouldn’t have to live every moment of their lives in the minority, congratulated for having gained entry into someone else’s world. I wanted to see those communities reborn, as those places where they were not called upon to give up something of themselves to make neighbors and classmates comfortable with their presence.
I thought that if developers all over the country could change the trajectory of inner-city neighborhoods for the sake of attracting suburbanites to the convenience of city living, those same communities could be transformed for and by the people who already lived there.
I’d seen the scars left on the hearts of children who grew up in suburban neighborhoods so filled with everyone and everything that was not like them, that even in a room full of people, they’d always been alone.
I wanted to give them something that was home, show people that success doesn’t require the abandonment of your own community. I didn’t want to simply have a nice house in a bad neighborhood. I wanted to infect my community with something that was both good and contagious. I wanted to start a movement.
The Trash Man Cometh
The biggest problem in the area wasn’t crime; it was littering. I thought that people had gotten so used to seeing trash on their streets, that mentally it had started to seem like the trash belonged there. And if the trash belonged there, it affected the way you thought of the people who lived there, what their worth was.
My first idea to deal with the littering problem was to clean an area at the entrance to the subdivision that was on a very short street, about a third or half of the length of a normal block in the rest of the neighborhood. Since there were no houses actually facing this street, people seemed to feel free to throw fast food bags or beer bottles out of the windows of their cars as they passed by.
There was no home owner’s association, and in a neighborhood inhabited by long term residents who had never had to adhere to anyone’s rules on what color their house could be painted, or what kind of mailbox they had to use, an HOA can be a hard sell. There were also some rental houses in the neighborhood, and landlords would be reluctant to sign on to anything they viewed as cutting into the profits.
For a few weekends, I drove down and filled trash bags with all of the trash that had been thrown there in hopes that some of my neighbors would be inspired to join me. Though several people did stop their cars to thank me, not one ever actually offered to help, not even the guy who lived across the street or the lady whose house was next door to it.
Waiting for a Sign
Truthfully, I was really disappointed that not even one person came out to help. But old habits are resilient things. They die reluctantly. I’d thought about “No littering” signs, but people hardly even noticed the signs the city put out on major boulevards in the area.
The city’s signs were fairly tall and warned about possible fines for those caught littering or dumping. Then I started to think that maybe it wasn’t signs in general that were ineffective, but the particular kind or style of signs the city used.
People could just look in their rearview mirrors to check for cops, before throwing trash out of their windows. Pedestrians only had to look over their shoulders.
I started to think about signs that would speak directly to the residents who trashed the same neighborhood they lived in. What if, instead of threatening fines, we had signs that called people out for what their littering does to their own community?
I thought maybe I was on to something. I believed that the reason people who threw trash in the most popular areas for littering in the neighborhood, did so because it was a vacant lot or the essentially unoccupied half block at the entrance, and there was nobody there to call them out about what they were doing. A good sign would be like the whole neighborhood was there to call them out.
My only problem was money. I’d just bought a house, and money was tight. I couldn’t afford to buy signs for the whole neighborhood. Also, I’d only met a couple of people in the neighborhood by then, so the odds of me being able to go door to door and get a bunch of suspicious strangers to donate to the cause were probably pretty slim.
I looked online for discount yard signs. I did find some companies that made them, but the price for the number of signs needed would still add up, plus simple, flimsy yard signs would likely disappear in short order. I’d need a double order to cover replacements. I had a good idea, but no means to execute it.
One Giant Step for the Hood
And then one day, as I was trying to come up with a way to get it done with not much money, it dawned on me. If the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, maybe the journey of cleaning up the hood could start with a single sign.
While there was really no way I could afford to buy signs for the whole subdivision, I could probably afford to get one really good sign made for the half-block at the entrance. That was the area in the neighborhood that got the most littering on a daily bases, and literally everyone who lived or visited would see a good-sized sign if I could put one there.
I knew it would have to be a big enough sign that it would be impossible to ignore. One of my best friends is an architect who used to paint portraits for extra money when he was in school, so I asked him if he knew anyone who made signs. The guy he introduced me to was also a community activist, and he was excited to be involved with my plan.
The guy came over to my house on a Saturday morning, in an old cargo van with a mural that he’d painted on the sides, and I helped him with the construction of the physical sign that ended up measuring six foot in length. It read: “PLEASE DON’T THROW TRASH ON OUR STREETS. LOOK WHAT YOU’RE DOING TO YOUR OWN COMMUNITY!”
We let the paint dry overnight, and the next morning we loaded it into the back of the sign maker’s van, with some of it hanging out of the opened back doors, and drove to the entrance of the subdivision. With post hole diggers, we dug two holes for the legs of the sign and filled them with quick-drying concrete. We propped the sign up to keep it in place while the concrete dried.
While we were working, people stopped their cars to read the sign. Everyone seemed really happy to see it. A few even got out and walked over to introduce themselves. I exchanged numbers with them and told them where I lived.
I talked to them about the other areas in the subdivision where people threw trash in front of vacant lots. And I made sure to tell them that I just couldn’t afford to do it all by myself. “I hope other good people in the community, like yourself, will be willing to help out,” I told one guy who lived adjacent to where we’d put the sign up.
The next morning I drove back over to where the sign stood to make sure the concrete had set. It looked good, and I couldn’t help smiling to myself. I walked across the street to make sure it could still be easily seen and read from a distance.
It was beautiful. It made me feel like I had just erected a monument. I stood there, with my arms folded over my chest, and I spent a good half hour just smiling at the sign, hoping it would change the world.
Then I went to my car and took trash bags and a rake out, and started picking up all of the trash that was already there so that the community could have a fresh start with the new sign. I decided that I should wait a week to see how effective the sign was so far.
During the next week, I worked on my own property. I replaced the mailbox with something nicer and even stylish that I found on sale at a home improvement store. My brother came over to help me dig a flower bed and plant a young tree in the front yard.
My thinking was that no one wants to feel that the house next door or across the street makes their own house look like a dump. I calculated that even though there were plenty of things I wanted to do inside the house, like painting and upgrading the kitchen sink and faucet, most of my neighbors would likely not see the inside any time soon, so the maximum effect on the community itself would be achieved by starting from the outside.
At the garden center, I asked for a medium-sized tree that would bloom with flowers in the spring. We poured mulch around the base of the tree and in the flower bed that we dug to outline the walkway up to my front door. I installed a motion-sensing light above the garage door.
Every day that I was outside working on this or that project, some neighbor blew their horn as they passed by or came out to ask what I was up to. I didn’t know at what point jealousy or the entirely human or American instinct to keep up with the Jacksons would kick in, but I knew that if I kept going, eventually it would.
A Sign of the Times
I wasn’t naive; I knew that my sign wouldn’t stop all littering immediately, like a tightened faucet. But if it caused a noticeable reduction on the small street, I believed that the littering would keep decreasing as time went by.
At the end of that first week, I drove over to where the sign stood. I parked on the side of the street and got out with my trash bag and my yard rake. There were a few balled up bags and a couple of empty bottles, but it seemed like a lot less trash than what was the norm.
I picked up what trash there was, making sure that the area right around the sign itself was spotless. I felt alright. This just might work, I thought to myself.
Through the experience of constructing and putting the sign up, I was able to meet a fair amount of my neighbors that I might have never met otherwise. Whenever I did meet them I made sure to point out how much more could be done if more of us helped out. I wasn’t going to let them off the hook.
Over the following months, the littering on that little street was almost eliminated. Such a simple idea had done a lot for the community. Driving into the neighborhood, that one little street had been cringeworthy. If you had a friend with you, it made you want to disappear. It had made you feel that no matter how nice your own house was, you lived in a dump. But now it feels like you are coming home.
I spent a little over two hundred dollars to get the sign made, and it just cost me a little bit of work to clean up around the area. I still go down once a week to clean, but it only takes ten or fifteen minutes. It used to take a good hour.
I even saw an elderly lady pull her car over and get out to pick up a couple of cans one day. The movement is spreading. There are currently new houses being built on three of the vacant lots left in the neighborhood, and I’ll be glad to see them sold to hopeful neighbors who are excited to help keep the hood beautiful.
Our small subdivision is not the whole of the area, but it is proof that we don’t have to accept that nothing can be done or that the only people who can actually change the hood for the better are the ones who want to take it away from us.
There are still some things that we will need to get the assistance of the city government for, like tearing down dilapidated buildings or houses. The pandemic does not help with trying to get these things done, but we are making sure to call and email regularly so the mayor and city council know that we will not be silenced.
We can see the sun beginning to shine over the horizon. There is hope in our futures. There are children growing up here who will not end up feeling that the neighborhood they call home, is somewhere from which they will need to escape. This is our home, and each of these children belongs to our village. We will make sure that their dreams are not extinguished here. We will make sure that their wings still possess the secrets of flight.