September 07, 2004
The six wards of Houston

Decent article on the six historic Wards of Houston, which were municipal government areas from the late 19th century. Unfortunately, the hardcopy Lifestyle cover, which included a map of the wards and famous places within them, doesn't seem to appear online. It therefore may not mean all that much to you when I say that I first lived in the Second Ward, moved to the Sixth Ward, and now reside in the First Ward. But at least now I know this for myself.

Couple of points of interest:

The city's form of government changed in 1906, but nearly 100 years later the wards remain a cultural touchstone, especially in the areas that have remained primarily residential areas from the beginning the Second Ward, the Third Ward and the Fifth Ward.

And so signs proclaiming "Third Ward is our home, and it's not for sale" began sprouting last spring, signaling a grass-roots uprising against developers angling to turn a chunk of the near southeast side into just another plot of town houses and strip malls. The neighborhoods may be modest, residents say, but their roots are worth fighting for.

"Everybody likes to feel they have a past," says local historian Ann Wilson. "I think it's good. I like to see it remembered."

Much easier said than done in Houston, where the "preservation" laws have essentially no teeth. Check out this Press article from 2001:

The preservation ordinance went on the books in 1995, but not before city planners turned the law into a running joke by giving property owners two ways to dodge it. First, while the Houston Archeological & Historical Commission, the 12-member panel that administers the law, has the power to deny a demolition permit, the property owner can simply wait 90 days, then legally tear down the structure anyway. A more expedient way around the ordinance is to apply for a "certificate of non-designation" from the city planning department. The non-designation, which is routinely granted if the building hasn't already been given landmark status, allows the property owner to proceed with demolition without first appearing before the historical commission.

The inherent weakness of the ordinance has made it impossible to enforce. Not a single citation has ever been issued, not a nickel in fines has ever been levied. Meanwhile, a number of antiquated homes with distinguished-sounding names -- Allen-Paul, Ross Sterling, Brosius-Alexander, DeGeorge -- have been razed, to say nothing of how thoroughly Freedmen's Town, a 40-block neighborhood built and settled by former slaves, has been scraped clean.

From the moment the ordinance was passed, preservation advocates, including the historical commission itself, realized that it was powerless to save the city's architectural and cultural heritage. Three years ago they began revising the law, a process that will culminate later this spring, when City Council considers a series of amendments to the ordinance.

But as it stands now, the proposed new ordinance offers only a slight improvement over the existing one. For example, the 90-day demolition delay has been extended to a proposed 180 days. And the new ordinance still would allow property owners to avoid a hearing before the historical commission by securing a certificate of non-designation from city planners.

Back to the Chron story, here's the effect on one historic part of town:

The Fourth Ward is trickier territory. It was the hub of African-American life after the Civil War as freed slaves settled in the area there known as Freedmen's Town. Many of the historical landmarks have been razed in the name of progress replaced with town houses, apartments, restaurants and the area has been rechristened Midtown.

Marcia Johnson, chairwoman of the Fourth Ward Redevelopment Corp., can only sigh. Founded in the late 1990s, the organization is concerned with preserving the area's historical vibrancy, but many people claim it is too late.

"So much has been destroyed," Johnson says.

[Patricia Smith Prather, executive director of the Texas Trailblazer Preservation Association] is more blunt.

"The developers have literally stolen the Fourth Ward," she says. "It's gone. There's no high school there. There's no library there."

You can read more about how that happened here and here. Let's just say I'm very glad to be in a part of town where the neighborhood association is strong enough and proactive enough to keep the worst of the soulless and rapacious developers out.

On a side note, I'm pretty sure that the Freedmen's area extends into the Sixth Ward. I base that observation on the Freedmen's Town signs I've seen on Weat Dallas just outside of downtown, which is the area I used to live in.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 07, 2004 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack

Heaven forbid those evil developers knock down the shanties in, say, Freedmen's district, and replace them with modern structures that meet basic plumbing and electrical codes. The horror!

Posted by: kevin whited on September 8, 2004 8:19 AM

Kevin: Like you know about indoor plumbing and electrical codes up in Pawhuskatucky. hahahahaha

Posted by: Leo Strauss on September 8, 2004 4:29 PM

too bad you didn't mention anything about the First Ward. Do you have any info. on it?

Posted by: giselle on October 7, 2004 8:13 PM

Death to the ugly three story condos! It's not an issue of meeting electrical and plumbing codes- it's an issue of destroying the cultural identity of a part of Houston's history. If you're into track homes, live off of Grand Parkway!

Posted by: PattyCake on October 11, 2004 9:50 PM

Saving the Architectural history of houston is a loosing battle. Articles regarding new developments in the city often note that the spokesperson for the developer was a former employee of the City. How can there ever be any control over development of the city when the City officers have the expectation of eventually working for the companie they are supposed to supervise. The big loosers are the residents of the city who are forced to move when their property taxes go out of sight when the first few "Lofts" are sold in their neighborhood. It seems I saw promises of affordable housing included in the redevelopment plans. I noticed in the Chronicle today that "Affordable" means a house that can sell for as much as $140,000. How many of the present residents of these neighborhoods can afford a home at that price and the property taxes that go with it.

Posted by: Tim Stephenson on August 5, 2005 11:02 AM