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Fighting Gentrification With Money In Houston
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Fighting Gentrification With Money In Houston

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Fighting Gentrification With Money In Houston
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're reporting this week from Houston, Texas, which is a rapidly growing city that is also growing more diverse.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: You can tell that just by listening to the Spanish announcements on the trains or visiting Houston's Hong Kong Mall. That massive Asian shopping center with Korean videos and shark fin for sale is where we spoke with sociologist Steven Kleinberg.

Mr. STEVEN KLEINBERG (Rice University)): Houston has a more even distribution among the four great communities of America than most of the other multi-ethnic melting pot cities in this country.

INSKEEP: Those four groups are black, white, Hispanic, and Asian American.

Mr. KLEINBERG: The four communities meet in greater balance, greater equality, all of us minorities, all of us called on to build this new multi-ethnic world that will be Houston and Texas and America in the 21st century.

INSKEEP: By all accounts, this business-like city handles its diversity calmly, yet as the city adds a million people this decade, even Houston has a certain amount of jostling. The jostling comes between different races and also between different classes.

We're going to tell one such story this morning. It's the story of a Houstonian who wants to preserve the places he has always known.

State Representative GARNET COLEMAN (Democrat, Texas): Now, this is Emancipation Park, and that's self-explanatory. So Emancipation Park was a park where black people could go, founded 1918.

INSKEEP: State Representative Garnet Coleman took us for a ride around an area known as Houston's Third Ward. This is a historically black neighborhood. We stopped by the Breakfast Club, a restaurant where he spotted the funk musician George Clinton.

Unidentified Man: Rocking the house, man. It's really a pleasure.

INSKEEP: Then we drove past black churches and an old blues club. The Third Ward is also close to the skyscrapers of downtown. And as Houston's population grows, developers are building upscale town homes in this area.

State Rep. COLEMAN: This is a gated community. You probably key in a code, go through the gate. But you know, they know their market wouldn't buy without a security gate.

INSKEEP: This is a poor neighborhood. We keep passing vacant land and sagging houses. But Garnet Coleman doesn't look at these new town homes as a revival. He thinks black renters are being forced off the land.

If you put in upscale housing, because of the connection between race and income in this country, it means…

State Rep. COLEMAN: Well, that's right. I mean you displace people by price because their incomes are historically lower if you're African American.

INSKEEP: Plenty of people have fought against gentrification and lost. Representative Coleman thought he had a way to win. He's 48 years old, light skinned, with a mustache. Like any good politician, he is not shy about introducing himself to constituents. And several years ago he wrote an unsolicited letter to thousands of Third Ward property owners.

State Rep. COLEMAN: So I sent out the letter and it said if you can afford not to, don't sell your property to the speculators. We will hook you up with somebody in the community who will buy it for community purposes. I didn't know where the money was going to come from.

INSKEEP: Suddenly Garnet Coleman was competing with developers to buy the land first.

State Rep. COLEMAN: The real deal was if we'd have looked up and all the sudden there would have been - it would have been just getting smaller, smaller, smaller, smaller, until there's no one that ever was in Third Ward historically living here anymore, and that is what happens in a Harlem or in a Shaw District in D.C. or Atlanta, Southwest Atlanta. And you know, I don't want somebody playing Monopoly with my neighborhood. I just don't think that I can stand for that.

INSKEEP: Coleman is on a community board that has a flow of local tax money. The board has used that money to buy $15 million worth of vacant land. Now community groups are starting to build duplex rental homes on the property. That includes the one rented by an artist named LaToya Allen(ph).

Ms. LATOYA ALLEN (Artist): We have, like, a really, like, big community connection, like, my neighbor, here she has three kids, I have two, and we cook dinner in between the houses and my neighbor up here, too; she cooks dinner and we'll, like, share dinner and the kids come over and eat. It's really cool.

INSKEEP: She's African American, one of many people who came to Houston from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The first dozen houses are long, with tin roofs inspired by the old shotgun houses that have lined the streets here for decades. Garnet Coleman says the homes will come with deeds to keep the rental income forever low.

Where does race fit into all of this?

State Rep. COLEMAN: Race is the end with a history of segregation. The system created this community. It said you have to live here, people, if you are black. Now that's not the case, but this is very valuable land.

INSKEEP: Is it fair to say you're a little offended by the notion of people coming in and taking…

State Rep. COLEMAN: Yeah, because to say that I forced you to live here, now I'm going to take it away from you, you know, that's the kind of thing that is offensive. I don't - I can tell you, I'm egalitarian like everybody else, and talking about the racial aspect of this or saying that it is born of race is not something that I feel absolutely comfortable with. However, all the property in neighborhoods around Independence Hall in Philadelphia have been preserved for historic purposes. Why isn't culture historical?

INSKEEP: You mention there's a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., historically black, just like this…

State Rep. COLEMAN: Segregated community, yeah.

INSKEEP: Which has become gentrified and much more integrated, maybe even a majority White neighborhood. I'm actually one of the people who has bought a house in recent years in a neighborhood like this is in Washington, D.C., and I'm white. What bothers you about what a person like me has done when we move into a neighborhood like this?

State Rep. COLEMAN: Most importantly, you're not moving into the neighborhood, you're buying a house. If people move into this community, regardless of their ethnicity, become a part of the community. Don't come into the community, renovate your house, then act like the people that have been living there forever have no standing. And that's generally what happens. People don't do it on purpose. That's what happens. So if somebody's going to move into Third Ward, I don't care who you are, just become a part of it.

INSKEEP: State Representative Garnet Coleman is determined to preserve the character of Houston's Third Ward.

State Rep. COLEMAN: This is the hardest thing I've ever taken on. Most people don't walk off cliffs like that.

INSKEEP: The hard thing, of course, is holding back the power of a changing city.

We are reporting this week from Houston and you can find photos of the Third Ward at npr.org. Tomorrow we'll board a boat on the bayou that flows through the central city.

Unidentified Woman #2: It was late at night. We got far away from downtown towards where we're going now, into a part that's not well-lit. There were no buildings. It's all brush. And we heard a woman screaming for help.

INSKEEP: That memory is where an author begins a story about the underside of Houston.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: From Southern California and Houston, Texas, it's NPR News.

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