A Neighborhood Canvas
When Assata Richards moved into one of the newly renovated row houses in Houston's Third Ward in the winter of 1996, she knew her life had changed. Richards had been living with her young son and eight other people in a two-bedroom apartment in the "Bottoms," the most economically depressed area in one of the city's oldest African American neighborhoods. Eager to go back to school after a several year hiatus, she jumped at the opportunity to join the Young Mother's Program, an arm of Project Row Houses, the community revitalization and public art endeavor. Richards, one of the first five women in the program, recalls the immediate impact of moving into her new home. "It was like being in a smoky room and walking into fresh air," she says. "I knew that things were going to be ok."Project Row Houses was born when a group of high school students visited artist Rick Lowe's studio in 1992 and challenged him to make art with community impact. Lowe, then a practicing painter, was convinced that his art needed a practical application and spent the next few years building a small coalition of volunteers, fellow artists and community organizers to rehabilitate an abandoned 1 1/2 block site of twenty-two shotgun style houses in Houston's Third Ward. "I treated it like I would any art project," says Lowe. "Are the essentials there? The first thing I did was find people to support the project."Lowe's inaugural endeavor– cleaning up that first block– was not glamorous or a textbook interpretation of art, but one not without precedent. One of Lowe's biggest influences, German artist Joseph Beuys, planted 7,000 oaks throughout Kassel, Germany with an army of volunteers; in the process initiating a conversation around civic action, social change, and artistic expression. Lowe works with Project Rowe Houses' staff and residents to help them understand that they are making creative acts. "We were art in and of itself," says Richards. "We were creating art. We were changing ourselves."Over the last seventeen years Project Row Houses has evolved into a smorgasbord of art and social services considered by many to be one of the most visionary public art programs in the country. "You begin to see that art is not this static thing that sits on a wall but something that has relevance," says Richards. Throughout the year Project Row Houses hosts visiting artists, after school programs, even urban garden installations.Several of the houses are dedicated art spaces hosting interactive installations focusing on issues critical to Houston's Third Ward. The Young Mother's Program, which moved Richards from a cycle of crisis to earning her PhD, has helped 50 young mothers through a comprehensive approach including deeply subsidized housing, weekly workshops (on topics like financial literacy), and counseling. Many of these women go on to careers as artists, accountants or in Richards' case, professors.Other cities have adopted Lowe's "art in the shape of neighborhood redevelopment" tactic. Edgar Arceneaux, the artist behind the Watts House Project, studied under Lowe before incubating the project on LA's south side. Lowe's vision will extend next to Anyang, South Korea where he will lead a project to empower small business owners and displaced residents. When he returns to Houston, Richards, who now heads the Young Mother's Program, will be there along with a new round of installations, the recently donated, solar powered Zerow House and a community of visiting artists and residents. "Project Row Houses took on this enormous endeavor, to revitalize this community," says Richards. "But the revitalization was within ourselves."This post originally appeared on www.refresheverything.com, as part of GOOD's collaboration with the Pepsi Refresh Project, a catalyst for world-changing ideas. Find out more about the Refresh campaign, or to submit your own idea today.