- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2016

HOUSTON (AP) - David Flake watches as his Lockwood Skating Palace in Houston’s historic Fifth Ward fills with neighborhood kids.

He’s a happy man - his old-school business is flourishing, and he is surrounded by family. That’s his dad, Andrew, 80, handing out the leather roller skates and his mom, Katherine, 77, behind the concession stand.

“Skating rinks go through spells,” David Flake told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/2dUh9ME). “Skating is coming back around.”

The same might be said of the Fifth Ward, a predominantly African-American community just northeast of downtown. Though many neighbors left years ago, anxious to escape the specter of segregation, some multigenerational families dug in and stayed put. Now, some are returning. Fifth Ward churches hum with activity on Sundays. Lyons Avenue is not the vibrant thoroughfare it was in the 1950s, but it has a heartbeat.

Children of all ages love Fifth Ward JAM, the park that has a stage and a house-turned-art project on one side and water play on the other. Two blocks down, the old DeLuxe Theater has been reimagined for classes and performances. New housing for all ages and low and moderate incomes lines the street, and more is on the way.

But as longtime residents and community organizers try to revitalize the neighborhood from the inside out, other powerful forces are pressing from the outside in. Next month, it’s likely that the Fifth Ward will be one of the neighborhoods that the city of Houston will announce as targets for economic development.

Developers, most more interested in pleasing downtown office workers than the Fifth Ward faithful, are already buying up swaths of land. Midway, one of Houston’s most prominent developers, recently revealed its plans to develop the old KBR site - 147 acres along Buffalo Bayou - into “East River.” In the next decade, the mostly vacant land could hold 8 million square feet of shops, offices and entertainment. “This is generational real estate,” Johnathan Brindsden, Midway’s CEO, enthused to a reporter. It’ll look like New York, he said. And it’s expected to raise the value of property nearby - so much that even the developers say gentrification could be a problem.

Even so, there’s lots more land for developers to buy. The Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corp., responsible for many of the improvements, counts more than 3,000 empty lots within the ward’s old boundaries. That’s Buffalo Bayou to the south, Collingsworth to the north, Jensen to the west and Sakowitz to the east.

No one can really say what the area will look like in 10 or 20 years, or whether the neighborhood stalwarts or outsiders will prevail. They all want to see the Fifth Ward prosper. But they have different and conflicting visions in mind.

In 1839, Houston’s founding fathers divided the fledgling city into four wards, essentially city council districts, and the people in each of those wards elected aldermen to represent them. But by 1866, it was clear that the racially mixed population east of White Oak Bayou and north of Buffalo Bayou needed representation, too. Voilà, the Fifth Ward was carved from the Second, and 10 years later, the Sixth Ward was carved from the Fourth.

When the ward system disappeared in 1905, some Houstonians, especially residents of the Fifth Ward, held tightly to their geographic and cultural identity.

Patricia Prather, who has spent decades documenting African-American history in Houston, says the blacks who settled in the Fifth Ward were freed men and women passionate about supporting their families and building churches and schools.

Mount Vernon United Methodist Church dates to 1865. The Fifth Ward School for Coloreds had 100 students by 1877. Men sought jobs with the railroads that crisscrossed the area and, with the passage of time, industries on the shores of Buffalo Bayou and the Houston Ship Channel. Women took in laundry and worked as seamstresses.

Fifth Ward midwives were particularly skilled, Prather says. “They deserve a story of their own.”

Leaping forward, into the 1940s and ‘50s, Lyons was the main drag - the spot to shop, catch a movie or drop by a club featuring home-grown jazz musicians such as Arnett Cobb, Milt Larkin and Illinois Jacquet.

In addition to jazz, blues and R&B;, zydeco was huge, imported by Louisiana residents who settled into a corner of the ward known as “Frenchtown.” Kids could hear tunes wafting through their open windows as they drifted off to sleep. The Fifth Ward had its own hotels, nightclubs, taxis, even its own record company, Peacock Records.

The highlight of the year, for almost 40 years, was the Thanksgiving Day football game between two high school rivals - Wheatley and Yates. Festivities would begin with community breakfasts and parades, build to a crescendo with the early-afternoon kick-off and wind down with turkey dinners.

By the 1950s and ‘60s, new freeways divided the neighborhood. Civil rights legislation freed residents who wanted bigger, better homes and integrated neighborhoods. The absentee landlords who replaced longtime homeowners didn’t maintain the modest homes or the vacant lots when the structures were bulldozed.

The Fifth Ward gained a reputation for crime, drug abuse, general mayhem. One old label, “the bloody Fifth,” seemed more appropriate than ever. So did “Pearl Harbor.” In 1979, a writer for Texas Monthly, Richard West, spent three months living in the Fifth Ward, then wrote an article called “Only the Strong Survive.”

In part, West said, “After my three-month stay, I felt that Fifth Ward’s most haunting quality was the frequency of lurking disaster that awaited all men and women there, the certainty that no life, no matter how virtuous, would escape the pain, misery, and degradation caused by poverty, racism, and prejudice. And until the politicians and financiers sitting two miles away in downtown Houston smell self-interest in the winds blowing from Fifth Ward, this will not change.”

The Rev. Harvey Clemons grew up in the Fifth Ward. He is proud that two-time world heavyweight champion George Foreman came from his neighborhood, as did U.S. Reps. Mickey Leland and Barbara Jordan.

When Clemons was called to preach at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church for the first time in the early ‘80s, he posed a rhetorical question that referenced the prophet Ezekiel. Could dry bones live? he asked. Or, could the Fifth Ward spring back to life?

Since 1984, when Clemons became pastor, he has tried to make that happen. He intensified his efforts in 1987, when he was approached by Habitat for Humanity volunteers who were building new homes in his neighborhood. They worked on weekends. They would make progress, then return the next Saturday to find the new shingles were stolen or the aluminum windows gone.

With the widespread community support that Clemons helped muster, 18 Habitat homes became bright spots in the neighborhood. He also founded the redevelopment corporation, responsible for the new housing projects, public art, services for seniors and much more.

Stephen Fairfield was the corporation’s first CEO, and he and others pushed the city of Houston to improve the streets, parks and other city services, all woefully lacking compared to more prosperous neighborhoods. He also helped change a rigged system that prevented well-qualified home buyers from getting loans.

“The first things we worked on were water and sewer upgrades,” Fairfield says. “I was coming from the west side of town, where some folks didn’t understand why churches and pastors were involved in public policy issues. In those communities, everything works.”

Fairfield is no longer president and CEO of the redevelopment corporation; he gave that job to Kathy Flanagan Payton in 2003 after watching the calm and direct way in which she got things done.

The Fifth Ward is a neighborhood in transition, full of promise but hardship, too.

The latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the area within the 77020 ZIP code has a population of 26,777, of which 57 percent is African-American, 35 percent is Hispanic and 8 percent is “other.” The median age is 32.9. In the 18-24 age group, only 34.8 percent have high school diplomas. The median income is $27,871. More than 16 percent make less than $10,000.

Another way to describe the poverty: Volunteers have formed a group called the Forgotten Dogs of the Fifth Ward. They’ve found homes for almost 1,000 stray dogs in the past 4½ years.

Some of the dogs up for adoption look perky and fit. Others have had such hard lives on the streets that they collapse from hunger, illness, injuries.

The neighborhood has a Chase bank and a Walgreens but no Target, no Starbucks, no clothes shopping, no veterinarian, no grocery store that either Clemons or Payton wants to claim.

A good grocery store, one with fresh produce and low prices, is coming, both say. But it’s not in the cards quite yet.

So that’s one view of the Fifth Ward, also known as the Nickel. Pearl Monmouth tells a more upbeat story.

When Monmouth was young, she was a single parent with two children and a series of low-paying jobs. But she raised two happy, successful adults. Before she retired, she worked herself up to a management position in Houston Independent School District food services.

Today, Monmouth, 74, is active in her church, Pinecrest Presbyterian, and she and her associates are proud of programs that provide seniors with meals, teens with jobs and human-trafficking victims with social services. “But my thing,” she says, mostly joking, “is trying to keep Pearlie going.”

She attends arts classes, Weight Watchers and water aerobics, all in the neighborhood that she loves.

“People ask me, ‘Is the Fifth Ward dangerous?’ It’s not any more dangerous than any other place,” Monmouth says. “I hear people say in other neighborhoods, ‘That never happens here.’ Well, it happens everywhere.”

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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