16 Sep, 2012

exploring freedmen’s town

Sehba Sarwar
16 Sep, 2012

Danielle Smith, a curator at the Houston Public Library System, visits with me at the African American Library at the Gregory School, a library that archives history about Houston’s black community and about Freedmen’s Town, where the library is located. She’s been interested in helping out with VBB project in the neighborhood and has offered to help by introducing me to different homeowners and others that she knows. Today, as we talk, she sees a truck across the street.

“I see someone who might be able to help you,” she says.

We walk across the library’s parking lot the street. The door of the corner townhome is open and the inside smells of fresh paint.

“Kenny!” she calls.

No answer. We step through the doorway to the back of the house and Kenny greets her with a hug and smile. I get a warm handshake.

“Sure,” he says, once I explain VBB’s newest living room art project to him. You can use the house. But you’d have to have the show soon. I’m tryin’ to rent the place real soon.”

“Maybe we could have a dinner here?” I ask.

“Maybe. Let’s see how quickly I can rent. I need the money soon. But later on I might buy more property here,” he says. “There’s another home in this strip that’s for sale.”

Kenny’s openness is touching. Even though the home is relatively new – it was constructed in 2000 – Freedmen’s Town has been a tough neighborhood to find a home to host a production. The houses are either too new or else they are occupied and there’s little space for art installation. And then, there are rows of old homes that are boarded up. I’m also aware of a vanishing history. The corners of Freedmen’s Town are now crunched in a grid of ten one way streets that run east and west between Heiner and Genessee streets (and the I-45 Freeway feeder), while the seven streets that run from north to south are marked by West Gray and West Dallas. North of West Dallas is the Allen Parkway Village , of which only a piece remains, while the old Jefferson Davis hospital has been replaced by newer homes and now there’s a large state reserve bank along the bayou.

Sehba Sarwar

The houses in the grid are a mix of older shotgun homes, some still in use while others have been boarded up while yet others are marked as historic homes. One such home is the Rutherford Yates Museum on Andrews Street. Many aluminum townhomes have sprung up in the neighborhood, while other townhomes were built as part of an assisted living project.

As we talk, Danielle suggests we visit Terrence who takes care of housing properties around the corner.

Terry also welcomes Danielle with a warm hug and tells me: “I can introduce you to people. I’m not really from here…” He tells me he’s been involved in living in Freedmen’s Town for more than 30 years. “I’m from Ohio – and I lived here for a long time. But now I live in the Third Ward because there’s no housing here.”