During my first three years studying architecture at the University of Houston, I didn’t have a car. Instead of driving around Houston for a break or a bite to eat, I would walk to the fast food joints that lined the outskirts of campus along Scott Street. I have since then bought a car, and have the option to drive to other areas, but to this day, I take the same walk. My friends and professors have told me that I’m exposing myself to danger. That Scott isn’t a place for a young woman. Still, I take the walk. It is a walk that enables me to experience two completely different worlds in less than an hour. A walk that exposes extraordinary inequalities. A walk in which I can explore the tension between the two sides of an unspoken battle. I cross the border constructed to separate the university from the Third Ward, the historic black neighborhood in which the school was built.
Walking along the pathways of the University of Houston campus is much like walking the same road up and down, back and forth. I feel small. Strangled by the conformity. Alone. When I first leave the College of Architecture, I am almost immediately thrown into a wide paved street anchored by both the College of Engineering and College of Technology that tower over me as I walk the space between them. It’s not the architecture of each building that distinguishes it from its neighbor, but rather the black and red name posts. Made of stone or brick, they all seem a shade of gray, giving the walk through them a bleak and cold feeling. Even the attempts at green spaces in between and around the buildings seem uninviting – more for show than for use. There are rarely any students who take advantage of the open lawns or grassy hills. This street dead-ends into the main courtyard at the center of campus. I cut across the lawn on a path that has been matted by the hurried feet of many people before me who were in too much of a rush to follow the winding sidewalks. Students who walk alone seem too enthralled by the ground beneath them to look up and exchange a smile or conversation with the others who pass them by. The company of their shadow and iPod is quite enough, thank you.
At long last, I receive a friendly glance. We move toward one another in intrigue. I like him. He’s cute. He seems nice. He stops in front of me, and cocks his head as if to say hello. I reach down and offer an open hand to my furry little friend. My walks through campus are often interrupted by interactions with squirrels just like this one. I need this. Around my home in Argentina people live on the street. People who come to know your name. People like Federico. He helps me take the trash to the dumpster down the street whenever he is around. Maybe he is genuinely nice, or maybe he knows that I will always come back with our leftovers from lunch that day. I don’t care either way. I hate taking out the trash, and I appreciate his conversations and willingness to lend a helping hand in exchange for even the smallest amount of food. I appreciate the warmth and humanity of the exchange. My new squirrel friend is nothing like Federico. He takes one sniff of my hand and scurries away unimpressed by my lack of nutritional offerings.
Leaving the courtyard, I take yet another sullen road. More stone towers. More unused landscape. At the end of this road is the new Science and Engineering Building. Many see it as a fresh of breath air since it is the first building to break to mold of the grayish architecture that has defined the university for so long. The bright red and white colors of the building attract many students to the building and the curved shape of the structure, which encases the courtyard and water feature, invites them to stay. But I can’t help to notice the orientation of the building. It is completely focused inward, and I must walk along the back of the building to get to Holman – one of the few streets that connect the university to the Third Ward. From here, I cannot experience any of the inviting qualities of the building – just the back side of the curve – a tall blank wall.
No Man’s Land
The block of Holman between Cullen and Scott is one of the newer areas of UH. Since the 1960s, the university has been expanding both in population and size, and in the 1980s an entire neighborhood was leveled for more parking lots and a few sport arenas, including Hofeinz Pavilion and Robertson Stadium. Entering this area of campus on any given school day is like entering No Man’s Land. This place barricades the university from the community that the area once was a part of, and enforces the seclusion of campus living from any surrounding humanity.
As soon as I cross Cullen, I start on my journey down this strip. I pass by the bus stop where a 47-year-old homeless man by the name of Joe Tall was murdered a few weeks ago without any cause or reason. I remember how fear had completely taken over the faculty and students after he was killed. For a few days, you could hear nothing but murmurs of the incident anywhere within the campus borders. “I’m constantly looking over my shoulder.” “It could be me next!” People left comments at the end of on-line new articles concerning the subject. “Keep the Third-Ward Thugs out!” “Build a freaking wall.” Students were too scared to go class. Now, people walk different, see different, and hear different when the sun starts to go down. The Religion Center on campus held a memorial service for Joe, but the sermon centered more on quieting the concerns and assuring the safety on campus than on the victim’s tragic death. In the Official Statement sent out by the university, Carl Carlucci (the Executive Vice President and Vice Chancellor for Administration & Finance for the University of Houston) boasted that UH has nearly 50 policemen, over 20 security guards, and 490 video monitoring cameras to protect the campus. He assured the students, faculty, staff, and news crews that precautions are being taken accordingly, and proudly asserted that “the university remains as safe and secure as most areas of Houston and safer than many” while placed in the heart of one of Houston’s oldest communities that has been plagued by crime for years.
As I pass the bus station, all signs of college life trickle away. There is more space between everything – the buildings, the trees, the students, the parked cars. There is nothing but cold pavement to fill the voids, until I am completely surrounded by empty parking lots and a line of parking meters not in use. I keep looking down to assure that I do not trip on the cracked pavement and uneven sidewalks, and I notice a growing amount of empty coke bottles, McDonalds wrappers, and discarded notes and test papers along the ground. I look up to see a billboard with the face of a cougar and bold red words that read “Spread the Red.” The sign marks the point where the sidewalk ends, and I am forced to walk in the street for a few yards before reaching Scott Street.
It is at this intersection that I feel aware of the schism between the two communities. There might as well have been a red line painted over Scott or a 20-foot-tall-wall surrounding the ocean of asphalt around Robertson Stadium.
The Third Ward
As soon as I get to Scott Street, I feel an almost instant relief from my solitary confinement, and I am taken back to a place of familiarity and comfort. The air smells of fried food, car exhaust, and dirt. The bus stops are drowned in a sea of blue and white – a sign that the nearby Yates High School has let out. The children run and laugh and yell and play. Despite never having met me, they welcome me with tales of their day, and quickly share secrets of their friends while giggling and whispering to one another, “Shhhhh. She’s coming.”
The streets dance to the movement of cars stopping and starting. The drivers pause at any given moment to honk, wave and yell like Italian men on a relaxing afternoon drive through the neighborhood. You can never tell if they are happy or mad. In Buenos Aires, my uncle would drive me places that I needed to go, and I remember feeling terrified of getting in a wreck or getting shot before we reached our destination. He honked at the familiar faces, screaming some unfriendly salutation that for some reason was accepted and followed by an “Ayyy! Marioooo!” Or he would somehow manage to drive with his knee as he stuck half his body out the window shaking his fist and yelling obscenities at the jerk who just cut him off.
Maybe out of distraction, or out of excitement to get the other side, I cross the street, and barely avoid getting hit by multiple drivers, who chastise me with long-winded car horns. I look up to find an old man across the street laughing at me,
“Whoa now, little lady, them cars are bigger than you.”
I smile and confess my distraction to which the old man responded with more hearty chuckles, as he mumbles to himself and walks back to an area where his friends were waiting for him. I had wanted to go down the same street, but thought it would be strange to follow him after our encounter; so instead, I turn to walk along Scott for a while. This side of the street isn’t well groomed, and the sidewalk is infused with cracks, weeds, and trash, but it is a comfortable place to walk. The structures are all to the human scale, and each building is a different color and draws in a different crowd which gives them all a character of their own. The red and orange Popeye’s seems to be one of the most popular hangouts, as it always has people sitting and eating out on the stoop no matter what time of day. The little, white Navy Seafood store with the green roof a little down the street is never as busy but brings in a nice Sunday crowd after church. There are a few wood houses along Scott Street as well. At first glance, they all seem abandoned. They have broken windows, overgrown roots and weeds, and quite a bit of peeling paint. In fact, some of them are abandoned. The others provide a couple of university students some nearby, off campus housing. They all have jungle-like yards with a few trees and flowers that offer some shade as you walk by, as well as a nice change of scenery. Scott is even home to the Smith Neighborhood Library, adorned with some of the children’s construction paper artwork that is taped on the inside of the windows for a year-round display. Right next door to this is my favorite stop, Steve’s Café. It is a Vietnamese restaurant in the middle of a newly developed shopping strip, along with a college bookstore and a Subway. Each store is identified by its own color for the bars on their windows, as well as pictures and text of their latest specials plastered on the windows. Past the parking lot behind the strip is a fence that does not quite surround the playing field for Yates High School. Subsequently, Steve’s Café is one of the most popular hangouts for the high school students. I oftentimes come here to get some spring rolls to eat outside on the curb, and listen to their conversations. One time, there were two boys on the corner roughhousing talking about how that “fine ass girl at lunch was checking me out today,” while his friend sounded warning that the girl’s brother is in jail; apparently something the future couple has in common. Another time, a young girl was talking to her friends about how she had to stop going to the dance studio to help her mom out with the kids. Today, I can hear a girl tell her friends how she will probably drop out of school to start working to help pay the bills – “It’s not like I was goin’ to college or nothin’ like that.”
It’s absurd that this school, sandwiched between two universities, has such a high dropout rate – both Texas Southern University and University of Houston pride themselves on their community outreach programs. Once again, I look back across the street to see the emptiness of blank parking spaces that face these students. It seems that the reach went out a little too far, skipping over their closest neighbors.
Once I was finished with my lunch, I got up and resumed the path I had been following before my detour, and started to head down Holman towards the residential areas. I regressed into the world inside my head as I wandered down the sidewalk.
I love walking down this street because it reminds me so much of the block I live on when I go to stay with my family in Argentina. The houses are all a little decrepit, but are adorned with outdoor furniture and kids’ toys – a true sign of life and vitality. In Argentina, whenever I walk to the store for my aunt, I have to plan to be gone for a while. Everyone is always outside either sweeping the sidewalk, playing cards, or just chatting in the rocking chairs while they watch the children play. I am constantly stopped by the neighbors asking me how my mother is back in the states, if Guya (my aunt’s Great Dane) is still around, and if I’m married yet – which always leads to how their canasta partner’s brother-in-law’s coworker’s son is single, and how I should meet him. These walks are one of my favorite parts of my stays there, despite the multiple times my family members and I have been mugged around the area. You learn to be careful, but not torment yourself with fear. My aunt always says that you must strive to live, not survive – a saying that her neighbors all seem to live by.
I am suddenly jerked back into reality as the old man that I had run into earlier called out to me, “You still out walkin’ around?”
I turn to see him sitting under a shed with a few other, older gentlemen, who were gathered around a checkers board and surrounded by a pack of dogs. I laughed and admitted to being distracted once again.
“Whatever gets you through the day. . . as long as you make it through the day” he laughed as he pointed to the spot where we had first met after my encounter with the moving vehicles.
“What are you doin’ ‘round here anyways?”
I told them that I was just walking, enjoying the area, and told them about how I was a student at UH who sometimes just needed to get out, which sparked some mixed reactions. Two men continued to talk to me about how good it was that I was studying at such a “fine institution.” Meanwhile the rest of the men grumbled to each other in the back and continued their game. Their reactions reminded me of many others I had heard from the community.
In doing a school project, I had gone to a few community workshops hosted by the Community Design and Resource Center and the Holman Street Baptist Church, who now owns many plots of land on Holman in an effort to revitalize the area, while staying true to the Third Ward. The Third Ward was where the black population moved shortly after slavery was abolished in 1865. It became the place where the newly emancipated population built their churches, their businesses, and their homes, and it soon after became the “center of black intellectual, cultural, and political life in the growing city.” Since the 1960s, many of the inhabitants began to move out to the suburbs, and many lots of land were sold for development. The MFAH is hosting a photo exhibition titled, Eyes of the Third Ward, that pays homage to the historical landmarks that were lost in sight of this development, and that looks to record other landmarks before they are torn down or decayed. During the workshops, many of the citizens shared stories of how developers had gone to their house to try and buy their property, and some remembered the days when the yards were filled with signs that read “Third Ward Is Our Home and It Is Not For Sale.” When the University of Houston was brought up, many citizens voiced their dislike. “I never would have thought that an institution could turn its back on an entire community if I hadn’t seen it myself.” To this day, they still fear the loss of their homes, their culture, their community.
UH is in fact still expanding. They have proposed a master plan that is to be implemented by 2020, that will remain within the same boundaries that it is in now, but will work on filling in the gaps with new buildings, more green spaces and more organized parking and pathways. The new plan sparked much controversy. Some students believe that there is still not enough parking, despite the mote of various parking garages at the boundary lines of the campus edges. Members of the community insist that shutting down Cullen and moving all traffic to Scott Street would only worsen the congestion that they already face daily. Other students complain that they would not feel safe living in housing so close to the edges of UH. Community members still see the University as a threat to their way of living – as a small city that isolates itself from the community in which it sits.
As I start to walk back toward the school, I feel the atmosphere start to shift once again. I get farther from the voices, the laughter and the noise, and revert once again into the usual game of follow the leader that will take me back to my car. I pass by the bus station where Joe Tall was killed, and take a look at the students around me who still exude a sense of fear – fear of the danger that may come from the surrounding community. And I think about the community members who so openly shared their fear – fear of losing their home, culture, and community to a development that will them behind or vanished. And I wonder. How can two places that are so close to one another seems worlds apart?