Betting on the Nickel

Two disused buildings in Houston’s Fifth Ward—a theater and a hospital—have become bellwethers for changing a neighborhood without destroying its character

Six hundred and eighty-six homes, 101 businesses, 11 churches, five schools, and two hospitals—all demolished . In the late 1960s, the Texas Department of Transportation cleared 890 buildings at the heart of Houston’s black community in the Fifth Ward to make way for a single highway interchange that brings commuters into Downtown.

From Power Moves: Transportation, Politics, and Development in Houston by Kyle Shelton for University of Texas Press, 2017.

The DeLuxe Theater on Lyons Avenue survived the highway demolition, but with many of its clients displaced, the doors closed in 1969. Then, for six weeks in 1971, a slice of New York’s Museum Mile descended on Lyons for an exhibition sponsored by French emigres Dominique and John de Menil , and curated by black artist and art dealer Peter Bradley. Over a thousand people attended the opening, but, when it was all over, the art was not enough to overcome the highway. The theater closed once again in 1973 and remained that way for over 40 years. A landscape of vacancy took over the street just one mile northeast of one of the highest concentrations of Fortune 500 companies in the country.

Art collectors and philanthropists, the de Menils settled in Houston during World War II. They later founded the Menil Collection and other local art institutions.

From the first waves of people leaving plantations after the Civil War to the Great Fifth Ward Fire of 1912, from the heyday of the community in the 1950s to decades of decline, the story of Lyons Avenue could fill a Ken Burns series. Many children who lived through Fifth Ward’s most turbulent times are now in positions of power and are fighting for their community, including Kathy Flanagan Payton, who, as CEO of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, reopened the theater in 2015.

The DeLuxe Theater, located along Lyons Avenue, was first opened in 1941. After several renovations, the theater is now managed through a tri-party agreement between the City of Houston, the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, and Texas Southern University.
Located between Crawford Elementary School and the Eastex Freeway, “The Fruits of Fifth Ward” mural in the Fifth Ward was completed in 2006. It comprises more than 1,500 ceramic and glass tiles, and displays 21 notable former residents of the neighborhood.

Now—thanks in part to the Fabulous Fifth, a planning effort by the American Institute of Architects Communities by Design program—the DeLuxe is just one star in a constellation of buildings breathing new life into the two-mile corridor.

Starbucks Coffee selected the Fifth Ward for its 2012 corporate community outreach and partnering program, which brought in thousands of volunteers and a $1 million investment. The plan entails a 22-block effort down Lyons Avenue from Jensen to Lockwood.

As Houston prepares to receive over $1 billion in federal housing aid post-Hurricane Harvey, the Fifth Ward is poised to carry out a master plan in a city without traditional zoning. If Payton’s organization can follow through, it will show the country what the redevelopment of a black community looks like—redevelopment that doesn’t entail the loss of neighborhood culture, or the displacement of its longtime residents.

Today, the vibrancy that once characterized Fifth Ward—nicknamed “the Nickel”—can be hard to imagine. Ruth Simmons, the first black president of an Ivy League university and the current president of Prairie View A&M University, recalled her childhood in the 1950s in the Fifth Ward for Cite magazine:

Fifth Ward was a place where my sisters and I walked to school, lingered at area convenience stores and ice cream and candy shops, and joined other children in finding shortcuts for our incessant meanderings. … While I know now that it was one of the most economically deprived areas of Houston, as a child I saw Fifth Ward as a place to belong, a place with an identity, a place that inspired loyalty. For my family, refugees from East Texas sharecropping, it was a place promising hope.

When the moderne facade of the DeLuxe Theater was shiny and new, it was a bold gesture in defiance of Jim Crow. In the 1950s, dozens of black-owned businesses thrived on a mile-long stretch of Lyons Avenue, including tailors, barber shops, and grocers. Lyons was among the most celebrated streets in all of black America, which is to say among the most important, though underappreciated, cultural landscapes for all Americans.

But by the late ’60s, segregation began to abate, and many middle-class residents had access to neighborhoods with better city services and desegregated theaters, spelling the end for the DeLuxe. In 1971, Helen Fosdick, who worked for the de Menils on The DeLuxe Show, experienced a very different place than Simmons recalled: “The neighborhood looked deserted and the theater hadn’t been used in a long time.”

When John de Menil flew to New York to talk to Bradley about curating an exhibition of black artists, Bradley felt certain that no prominent black artists would want to be featured in a segregated show. So that July, Bradley sent out a call for the country’s first art show that intentionally brought together artists from all racial backgrounds. Mickey Leland, Fifth Ward native and community organizer, agreed to coordinate with the community and scout possible locations: Bradley selected the DeLuxe Theater.

The de Menils and Bradley hired Jones and Bynam Construction Company, a local black-owned construction firm, to lead the whirlwind three-week theater renovation. Archival images from the Menil Foundation show men and women in bell-bottoms and children in metallic shorts, many of them sporting afros, looking intently at the abstract art. The show was an idea ahead of its time, and a lingering call to action: The history of this place matters. It can be the future.

In the years after the show, the de Menils and community leaders tried to keep the DeLuxe in working order. But the theater closed its doors in 1973 and rapidly began to deteriorate again.

“I was Houston’s first baby in 1963, and my picture was in the paper,” said Kathy Payton, CEO of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation (CRC), about her New Year’s birth in St. Elizabeth Hospital on Lyons Avenue. The hospital was founded in 1947 in response to the community’s overwhelming need for OB-GYN and delivery services: At the time, there was just one bed for every 600 black citizens in Houston.

A decade later and a mile west of the hospital, what had been a bustling commercial hub at Lyons Avenue and Jensen Drive earned the ominous moniker “Pearl Harbor, the Times Square of the Bloody Fifth,” and the Houston Chronicle declared Lyons the baddest street in town.

In 1989, Reverend Harvey Clemons Jr. of Pleasant Hill Ministries, one of many churches located just off Lyons Avenue, founded the Fifth Ward CRC. The CRC, now one of the leading nonprofit community-based developers in Houston, educates homebuyers, helps them navigate loan assistance programs, contracts to build new housing, manages real estate, and organizes the community around a long-term master plan.

Mercedes Phillips and others participate in an aquatic session at the Julia C. Hester House Wellness Center.
Vines grow up the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, on the corner of Hershe and Solo streets. The church was established in the Fifth Ward in the years following the Civil War, and members have held services in this church since 1951.

Not long after it was founded, Payton began volunteering at the CRC; she joined the staff in 1994 and was named CEO in 2003. “He or she who controls the land can control what gets developed there,” Payton said. “We have social interests that other developers don’t prioritize.”

The CRC bought the DeLuxe in 1998, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the organization jumpstarted an ambitious plan: Payton and her team approached the city of Houston and Texas Southern University (TSU), a historically black college, with a triparty agreement to acquire the historic theater . Without having to navigate traditional planning structures, agreements like this can afford Houstonians more freedom to develop—but less clarity for the public. In 2014, the groups broke ground on a renovation by Smith & Company Architects, and in 2015, the DeLuxe opened its doors once more. TSU and the Fifth Ward CRC now share the complex.

Keith Bynam, the son of Sawyer Bynam, whose construction firm oversaw the 1971 renovation, was working for the city’s Housing and Community Development Department at the time.

The DeLuxe is roughly the centerpoint of the two-mile stretch of Lyons Avenue that’s thriving from redevelopment, even as it’s still marked by vacant land. By 2020, the CRC plans to complete the designation of the corridor as an African-American Cultural District and create a unified brand for it.

“When people used to come to the community for a tour, we’d be driving all over the place to show you the work we were doing,” Payton said. “Now we can just drive down Lyons Avenue.”

Payton detailed the progress toward The Fabulous Fifth vision that centers around the avenue, noting multiple completed projects . New developments are even springing up just outside of the stretch that CRC oversees: In July, local brewery Saint Arnold’s opened a new beer garden at the western terminus of Lyons that draws huge crowds of mostly millennials on weekend nights.

Highlights include the DeLuxe, Mickey Leland Preparatory Academy for Young Men, Jam Recreational Complex and Splash Pad, Legacy Community Health Clinic, the Parra Design Group offices, and Harris County Democratic Party headquarters.

At that end of Lyons is also the Hardy Yards development, a dense mix of market-rate and affordable housing partially funded with Hurricane Ike disaster recovery money. New bike paths are in the works and funded by the county under the leadership of Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who served as chief of staff for Congressman Mickey Leland. (You may get the sense that everything in Houston is connected, and it is: Leland is the same community organizer who worked with the de Menils on the DeLuxe Show.)

Will Garner IV with New Centuri Properties stands near one of the company’s renovation projects in the Fifth Ward. Garner’s family is from the neighborhood and this particular location, the Myrtle Villas Townhomes, is named after his grandmother.
Chris Peralta and Elbis Peralta from Eli’s Plumbing work along Lyons Avenue. The company has worked in the Fifth Ward for about 10 years.

Half a mile west of Lockwood Drive, the eastern bookend of the Lyons Avenue redevelopment area, is the former St. Elizabeth Hospital, where Payton was born. It’s slated to be transformed into a 110-unit mixed-income housing development. Of all the upcoming projects, Payton is most excited about that one. “To tear down a structure that played such a key role to our well-being would be an injustice,” she said.

Yet some in the Fifth Ward oppose the St. Elizabeth development, fearing that the construction of low-income housing will further concentrate poverty in the neighborhood. After a housing development with subsidized units planned for a wealthy west Houston area was shelved by the city, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took Houston to task for disproportionately placing its low-income housing in low-income areas . During a heated City Council meeting in May of this year, a handful of residents asked the city to withdraw its support for low-income housing tax credits for the St. Elizabeth redevelopment.

HUD sent a letter to the city of Houston in January 2017, claiming Mayor Sylvester Turner’s rejection of a housing project with a mix of market-rate and subsidized units “violates the federal Civil Rights Act by giving too much weight to ‘racially motivated opposition’ from neighborhood residents when deciding where to locate a key form of low-income housing.”

“Why does it make sense to put a low-income housing project in a place with such dismal statistics?” asked resident Erica Hubbard at the meeting, describing “pill mills and prostitution” near the site and noting that the neighborhood high school struggles with low test scores.

of the Fifth Ward lives below the poverty line

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who grew up in a historically black neighborhood called Acres Homes, politely but firmly pushed back:

If we are not careful, this area will be gentrified, just like in what used to be Fourth Ward, Freedmen’s Town, which is now largely Midtown. We need affordable housing everywhere. … Neither do I believe that in order for people to rise up the ladder of success in this country that they have to leave areas like the Fifth Ward, the Nickel; or Acres Homes, the ‘Fo-Fo’; or Sunnyside. As long as I am mayor, we are not going to exclude areas that have been underserved and under-resourced for decades from receiving affordable housing, workforce housing, you name it, for people in those communities. I’m not telling anybody they have to abandon Fifth Ward to go somewhere else to be part of the American dream. I still live in one of those communities. I’m not leaving my neighborhood. I’m not going to abandon it.

The results of the dispute were mixed: Though the city backed the application to use low-income housing tax credits to help fund the redevelopment of St. Elizabeth, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs denied the request for a 9 percent tax credit on a technicality. The project is expected to proceed with a lower 4 percent credit.

An employee of Saint Arnold’s Brewing Company pours from one of the 28 taps. The company opened its new complex on July 23, 2018, and brews 12 year-round beers and 17 specialty and limited release beers.
A group of friends gathers inside one of the six painted alcoves inside the Saint Arnold Brewing Company’s new cathedral-inspired beer complex. Each alcove is hand painted by a local artist in the Houston area.

In contrast to the public-private partnership that’s infused new life into the DeLuxe Theater, the struggle over the St. Elizabeth project reveals how affordable housing is a harder lift with Houston’s piecemeal approach to planning and red-state-blue-city power struggles.

Without traditional zoning and comprehensive urban planning, the city lacks the basic tools to manage change. Well known as the only major U.S. city to lack traditional zoning , Houston does have (many) regulations for parking and setbacks—and for the minimum distance between a strip club and a school—but land-use controls are generally weak. On top of that, because the city has no meaningful comprehensive plan, infrastructure, especially highways, have become the de facto planning tool .

The city’s attempts to pass comprehensive zoning laws by referendum have failed five times: in 1929, 1937, 1948, 1962, and 1993.

The most infamous example of infrastructure-led development is, perhaps, Frank Sharp’s donation of private land for the construction of the Southwest Freeway to serve what would become the massive Sharpstown suburb in the 1950s—part of a corrupt mix of public and private interests that accelerated the collapse of the Texas Democratic party in the 1970s.

Under Turner’s predecessor, Mayor Annise Parker, the city adopted Plan Houston, the city’s first purported comprehensive plan, which would have been a major step forward. But the plan lacked teeth and didn’t set any major policy changes that would support its ultimate goals. After his election in 2015, without officially rejecting or shelving Plan Houston, Turner launched a different program, called Complete Communities, that focuses public and private resources on five neighborhoods whose populations are predominantly black and brown. Fifth Ward is likely to be included if the Complete Communities program expands.

Turner has asked both public and private organizations to focus on housing, art, libraries, health, job training, bike paths, and other initiatives where there is a window of opportunity to redevelop without displacement.

The messy process of aligning all the players—city departments, tax-increment zones, management districts, state and county transportation funds, federal housing programs, private development, nonprofits, and foundations—is pretty much inscrutable to everyone except those paid to make sense of it. One legal expert calls this “the Houston way.”

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey brought 33 trillion gallons of water—and additional planning complications. While it was an “equal-opportunity” storm, low-income and nonwhite neighborhoods are struggling more to recover. Much of Fifth Ward escaped major flooding, especially the area around Lyons Avenue. As the city looks to rebuild, the vacant lots and buildings outside the floodplain in the district, including St. Elizabeth, are getting renewed attention.

The Julia C. Hester House provides class both youth and senior gardening class, where individuals learn how to plant and grow their own food.
Horticulturist George McAfee Jr. removes a plant from the Julia C. Hester House’s garden.

According to Tom McCasland, the city of Houston director of housing and community development, Houston is expected to receive $1.15 billion in federal HUD money by the end of 2018—more money than the city’s housing department has netted in its entire history, though less than many in the city had hoped .

Because land prices and construction costs are cheaper in Houston than other major cities, the relief dollars could go a long way.

On one hand, the uncommonly weak land use controls and absence of comprehensive planning could work to Houston’s advantage. The city has received its HUD funds with relatively few strings attached, including a waiver that allows the money to be spent on new construction, not just on fixing existing houses and apartment buildings. Without restrictions on how tall buildings can be or rules on changing the use of a building, say, from a hospital to housing, Houston—paradoxically—now has the chance to carry out a massive and comprehensive transformation if decision-makers can implement the Complete Communities vision they were working on before the storm.

On the other hand, scaling up “the Houston way” will be tricky. “The problem is not having enough money, it is scaling up so that it can be spent effectively,” said McCasland.

While Houston has a huge opportunity to rebuild Fifth Ward with the infusion of Harvey relief funds, a very public history of wasted funds —paired with an ongoing distrust of developers and state-backed NIMBYism—places a heavy burden on leaders like Kathy Payton. The challenge is as much about making the numbers work as it is personal.

About one-third of the $1.15 billion in HUD money will go to repairing, reconstructing, or developing new rental homes, both single- and multifamily, like the site of the former St. Elizabeth Hospital.

The loss of public trust—due to scandals that mayors Turner and McCasland inherited—is a problem for the city. A 2017 Houston Chronicle investigation found that, of the $130 million in local taxes collected over the preceding decade, the city had little to show in built projects. Nearly $50 million was spent on administrative costs, federal fines, and keeping projects going that had lost state and federal grants.

The adaptive reuse of the St. Elizabeth hospital building and the DeLuxe Theater represents far more than just housing and retail. It represents the hard-fought dignity of a community in the face of Jim Crow, decades-long disinvestment, and mass incarceration.

In November, the national conference of Preserving Communities of Color, a movement for the preservation of places that “embody the African American experience of place in America,” will be held on Lyons Avenue at the theater that drew the art world in 1971 to one of the first integrated exhibitions in the United States.

And while two structures, half a mile apart, can’t make up for the demolition of 890 buildings half a century ago, the DeLuxe Theater and St. Elizabeth—whatever may come of it—will serve as beacons for transformation. That transformation may be radical in the way it remembers and respects its past rather than erasing it.

Raj Mankad is Editor of Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston, a publication of the Rice Design Alliance at Rice University.

Irene Vázquez is a sophomore at Yale University, where she serves as creative director of WORD: Performance Poetry at Yale as well as a staff columnist for Broad Recognition, Yale’s feminist publication. You can find more of her work at her website, or on Twitter @capaciousmood.


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