In communities across America, shotgun houses are often regarded as eyesores or threats to property values, automatically relegated to condemnation and in some cases, slowly edged out by gentrification. But in Houston’s Third Ward, many of these homes represent the union of historic conservation efforts with artistic expression, thanks to a non-profit organization called Project Row Houses (PRH).
Founded in 1993 by artist and activist Rick Lowe along with six other artists, PRH scratches beneath the weathered surfaces of shotgun houses by illuminating their cultural and historical significance to the African-American community in which they exist. The windows of these formerly unoccupied homes now serve as easels that display vivid works of arts. PRH has also transformed other renovated areas into artist studios, a residential program for young single mothers, a ballroom, as well as an affordable housing program for low-to-moderate income residents.
While gentrification remains somewhat of a hot-button topic that was the basis of Spike Lee’s infamous rant, Lowe doesn’t appear to outright reject it, but instead proposes a way to refine the process. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle , Lowe stated, “I’d like to suggest we consider, as neighborhoods change, how we can foster policies that are more likely to ensure that people who’ve lived there for years benefit from the changes.”
In 2007, PRH’s efforts became the subject of the documentary Third Ward, TX, that chronicles the organization’s role as “the catalyst for transforming community through the celebration of art and African-American history and culture.” Thus far, that mission has been accomplished, and then some. Since PRH began by renovating 22 abandoned homes in a two-block area, it has since grown to occupy over 50 buildings within a 10-block radius.
In a recent interview with HuffPost Live, Lowe summed up the overall mission of PRH by saying: “What we try to do here with Project Row Houses is focus on what the positive qualities that allow people to live in shotgun communities and still maintain family and communities, and many of them go on and excel. There’s a powerful message there that oftentimes we don’t necessarily look at as African Americans, and so Project Row Houses is trying to redirect that.”