Historic Freedmen’s Town Houses Could Become City Landmarks

Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | July 28, 2016

The Houston Housing Authority nominated 22 of its homes, renovated as part of a special initiative, for the city's protected landmark status. Photo by Leah Binkovitz

The Houston Housing Authority nominated 22 of its homes, renovated as part of a special initiative, for the city’s protected landmark status. Photo by Leah Binkovitz.

Lisa Jones runs to the front door of her house carrying a pot of wilted ivy. On her front porch, she looks it over for signs of green. Then, she hurries back inside and emerges with another pot, this one overflowing with a tangle of green plant limbs. “No, not my son’s plant,” she says over and over as she checks it for signs of life.

The plants are memorials to loved ones lost. And after a morning when they were stuck inside with an exterminator dispatched to handle the bed bugs that have been pestering Jones day and night, the plants are in a sorry state. But they’ll make it, she thinks, as she tenderly looks them over on the porch.

Jones has lived in the single-story, Greek revival house in the heart of Houston’s Fourth Ward for almost five years now. It’s just her in the one-bedroom home, but it suits her fine. Family photos and Bible verses decorate the walls, and a collection of rhinestone-covered hats hangs in the bedroom at the back of the house. From her porch, she looks over the brick streets. “It’s a nice area,” she says. “It’s really peaceful.” Children walk down the middle of the road, hurrying inside as the dark clouds of a hot summer storm approach. In the distance, the skyscrapers of downtown loom.

A place steeped in history

By the time the brick streets and neatly ordered historic homes of the Fourth Ward area — once home to one of the city’s earliest and most significant communities of formerly enslaved African-Americans — made it on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district in 1985, much of what’s known as Freedmen’s Town had already been lost to development. And even after that designation that placed more than 500 structures on the national listing, still more were lost. Today, fewer than 30 of the community’s original buildings remain. From their front porches, residents have watched brick and metal-sided townhomes rise up around them while painful legal battles and protests have played out over the years. (Article continues below map of Freedmen’s Town).

But there have been some victories along the way. The African American Library at the Gregory School opened in 2009 in what was the city’s first public school for African Americans. The city and the Fourth Ward Redevelopment Authority were able to preserve parts of the historic Bethel Missionary Baptist Church after it burned down in 2005 and re-open it as a public park. And the Houston Housing Authority rehabilitated 22 historic homes in the late 1990s and early 2000s as part of its Historical Rental Initiative, including the home Jones now stays in.

She knows a neighbor with wood floors, compared to her carpet. And another has an island in her kitchen. But, says Jones looking at her house, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

The cluster of Craftsman bungalows, Queen Anne cottages and other historic homes dating back to the early 20th century on Andrews, Gillette and Ruthven Streets could soon be city landmarks, pending approval from city council after a unanimous vote by the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission Thursday. They were nominated by the Houston Housing Authority. It would mark the first time Houston public housing has won that designation from the commission.

Preservation advocates say the honor would be more than ceremonial and that it underscores an overdue commitment to the area’s history.

Changing the preservation conversation

The push to link preservation and affordability is part of a growing national conversation. Private developers can take advantage of the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit, and there are state and local incentives as well. Together, these incentives help encourage builders to renovate older properties and either build or help fund affordable housing.

But housing agencies have also begun participating in the preservation push.

In addition to renovating the 22 homes, some of which were relocated to their current sites, Houston also renovated and expanded multi-family buildings and built 18 new homes in the area at the same time. Other housing agencies across the country have undertaken similar efforts, including a recent project  in Phoenix, Ariz. that helped save 40 acres of public housing built in 1954. The homes were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the city took advantage of federal dollars from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program, created in 2012 to help stop the deterioration and loss of thousands of aging public housing units.

“I think the housing authority, being a quasi-governmental body, has a responsibility to preserve the history of the community,” said Brian Gage, senior policy advisor for the Houston Housing Authority.

That wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s and 1990s, the housing authority and city wanted to tear down a nearby collection of multi-family public housing known as Allen Parkway Village. The properties were originally built in the 1940s as segregated, whites-only housing called San Felipe Courts that forced black families from their homes in what the city considered slum housing. Now that the housing had been integrated, talk of tearing it down seemed to be another attempt to remove black people from Fourth Ward, according to Zachary Montz, a lecturer at Sam Houston State University. Community members organized to fight the proposed demolition. In the end, hundreds of units were demolished but a total of 500 were either renovated or built new.

Gage said Houston, with its reputation for tearing down its history, was actually one of the first cities to receive federal housing dollars to rehabilitate its public housing under HUD’s HOPE VI program. That program, now called Choice Neighborhoods, helped fund the renovation of portions of Allen Parkway Village as well as the 22 historic homes up for landmark status and a handful of other renovations and in-fill construction.

A ‘bold statement’

Betty Hicks lives in one of those homes. She moved to Fourth Ward from the Texas country when she was a teenager 50 years ago. Most of what she remembers has been torn down. “It was a lot of old houses,” she said of the area back then. But her home, on a quiet corner just a few blocks from where her father stayed, is a reminder of the past. Now 68, Hicks has lived there for almost nine years. Her children come to visit her, but other than that, it’s just her. (Explore the neighborhood. Article continues below)


Despite growing up around here, Hicks said the history was mostly new to her. She remembers a lot of conversation about the brick streets. “They wanted to pick them up and wash them,” she said, referring to the ongoing controversy about how to best preserve the bricks laid by the formerly enslaved residents who helped build Freedmen’s Town. But she didn’t know the home she lives in was nominated to become a city landmark, and she isn’t terribly sentimental about the past. After all, she’s already spent decades watching the neighborhood around her transform.

But the landmark designation could add a layer of protection and could help ensure the buildings aren’t lost.

“It’s a fairly bold statement,” said Beth Wiedower, senior field officer in the Houston office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The properties are already protected as affordable housing for years to come, and the Housing Authority has no plans to put them on the market. But the designation would mean that the housing authority, or any future owner, has to get approval from the local historical commission  for changes to the buildings.

“The statement it makes is that not only do these houses have value historically but the people in them [do too],” said Wiedower. “Everyone deserves the opportunity to live in a place that has meaning and character and history.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner lauded the nomination in a statement, saying, “They are reflective of a significant neighborhood’s history. Many historic homes have been lost in Freedmen’s Town and the HHA’s effort to preserve the properties that remain is admirable.”

Wiewdower, who is working with the county on ways to preserve the Astrodome, is hopeful that the homes and the decision to nominate them are part of a shift in thinking in Houston. “Freedmen’s Town breaks my heart, no question, but I think we are learning from it,” she said.

She also expects to see even more private investment in preservation after the state legislature approved a change that would allow developers to combine state and federal tax credits for qualified rehabilitation projects. Most of those projects will likely be for commercial real estate, but she said her organization is committed to advocating for preservation working in concert with affordability.

She recalled the “George Washington phase” of the historic preservation movement in the 1930s and 1940s, when preservationists focused on “memorializing the places where famous white men lived.” And some argue that preservation hurts affordability, when historic districts, for example, limit density and thus availability of housing. But Wiedower said there is a role for preservation to play, even if it hasn’t historically.

Combining movements

Image via Leah Binkovitz.

Image via Leah Binkovitz.

“I think it’s especially pertinent today,” she said. “We’re having some real honest conversations about does preservation equal gentrification, does it have to equal gentrification, and the answer is no.”

The timing is also ripe for public housing agencies, explained Gage. “Many of the affordable contracts that HUD has in Houston are up for their expiring terms,” he said. “There’s a threat of loss of a significant portion of affordable housing stock.”

And as the city and business community increasingly turn to preservation, other historic neighborhoods are hoping to protect themselves against the rash of townhomes that now covers much of Fourth Ward.

Standing on the porch of her historic house, Jones says she knows about some of the history of the community around her. She remembers talk of the bricks, as well, and knows why Freedmen’s Town bears its name. But for her the affordability, and the ability to stay, is as important as the preservation. Since her son’s death, the ivy she’s nurtured in his memory has spread itself across the walls of her house. In that way, he lives here with her.

In her rush to save the plant from the exterminator’s activities, Jones unpinned the ivy’s tendrils from the wall, pulling out dozens of thumbtacks. Relieved that it looks like the ivy will live, she begins contemplating putting it back in its place. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if it had died,” she says. “Not my son’s plant.”

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Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is Senior Editor with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

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