“Oh hey, it looks they’re working on it today,” Rick said as we rounded the corner on which stood another white, shotgun-style row house. This one was different, though only slightly. One large rectangular piece of the exterior wall extended a foot away, and the space between the popped-out piece and the original side of the house was a bright orange. Rick parked the car and we walked in.
I’m sorry – how rude of me. I’ve jumped into the story before even setting the scene.
Time: January 5, 2013, 4:15 PM
Place: Houston, TX
What you need to know before the scene begins: I have decided to write my History of Art thesis on Project Row Houses (PRH). In 1995, a group of people led by the artist Rick Lowe took ownership of a row of abandoned shotgun houses in the Third Ward, a low-income neighborhood in Houston. The eight renovated houses became spaces for artists to do residences and exhibit their work, with fresh artists coming through every six months. PRH is not only an art space however. They have expanded into an official community development corporation and have housing for young, single mothers, built affordable housing, and help incubate new businesses in the neighborhood. Over the past 15 years this project has become both a place for people to visit and a place for people to live their lives. PRH is socially engaged art that has had a steady heartbeat, which is precisely what drew me to it. With student research funding from HCAH, I flew down to Houston to experience PRH beyond the books I was reading and films I had been watching about it up until then. I met up with Rick Lowe and we embarked on the grand tour of the expanse that PRH has become.
So…where was I? Right. Rick parked the car and we walked in. Though the outside of the house looked old, inside was a brand new kitchen. Two architecture students from Rice University were busy with drills, though stopped long enough to chat for a few minutes. This house is a more recent acquisition of PRH, and the Rice students had designed a bathroom and kitchen unit which was pre-fabricated off-site and then trucked over and inserted into the side of the house. The original architecture was preserved, with only the small exterior hint of orange siding as an indication of the modernity which lay inside. This is part of PRH’s mission: to preserve a neighborhood from the rapid gentrification which has consumed Houston. And it is not just about the houses, it is about the basic essence of community.
When we left that house, we drove around another block and passed a PRH community center where a child’s birthday party was taking place. Down the street, Rick rolled down his window and yelled out to a family who was unpacking groceries from the car, checking in about a mutual friend who also lived in the community. What strange world had I suddenly found myself in?
Make no mistake – this is a confined world. While PRH’s reach has grown substantially in terms of the property they now own, drive a few blocks in any direction and you see the dramatic poverty that affects this area. Abandoned houses lie in ruin, invaded by any number of weed species, and trash is scattered on street corners. Rick points out one group of houses which are barely discernible among a jungle of plants and says “That’s what the row houses looked like before we started working on them.” With no historical understanding of the area, as a new visitor I could never have imagined the original state of PRH. Now, I can begin to grasp exactly how large the impact of eight cleaned houses on a block is.
I know you are probably wondering what an art history student is doing thinking about housing and community development, but this began as an art project. The continued presence and highly-valued place that artistic practice holds at PRH is essential to building community. If people see artists creating, in a house that sits around the corner from where they live, then they too can see they have the agency to make their own art. The pieces that were up when I visited ranged from a mapping project by an artist collective from the UK to “Question Bridge” by Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Bayeté Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair which looks at black male identity in the United States. The houses which hold the work are open for any one to enter, with no ticket required or security guards looking over your shoulder.
Our own individual experiences shape what we know. I entered PRH with only the experience I had gleaned from books, videos, articles, and brief queries. But I also carried my experience with more traditional art institutions, living with community, and interest in socially conscious art. My physical presence and interaction with PRH has left me with a brain full of ideas, questions, and thoughts to pursue. Never mind the fact that everything from my visit will now have to be synthesized with theory and organized in a coherent manner with appropriate images and a clean bibliography – I’m excited. I have been to PRH. I have seen words put into action and I am elated, inspired, and looking forward to a semester of working closely with this project.