Art and Community: Shovel-ready Investments

Two disparate events, one local, one national, just struck a deep resonant chord around the spaces and places we call home. The first was John Canda’s riveting piece on gangs and the need for youth/community cohesion in Portland; the second was the furor surrounding Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s amendment to the economic stimulus package, which would bar any fed funds from going to community amenities like parks, museums, and art centers.

Project Row Houses (PRH)—”the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country,” according the NYTimes’ Michael Kimmelman — is a neighborhood-based nonprofit art and cultural organization in Houston’s Northern Third Ward, one of the city’s oldest African-American communities.

PRH began life in the early 1990s when (in the process of looking for a venue for African-American creators) artist Rick Lowe discovered 22 abandoned shotgun houses in a so-called blighted area of Houston. With help from the community and some seed funding, Lowe founded “Project Row Houses”—transforming the historic houses into a community art and education center offering programs that encompass arts and culture, neighborhood revitalization, low-income housing, education, historic preservation, and community service. What began as a kernel of an idea, grew and spread, essentially nurturing a context where “art could create real social change.”

Since 1993, PRH has grown from the original block and a half to six blocks, including twelve artist exhibition and/or residency spaces, artist residencies, office spaces, a community gallery, a park, low-income residential and commercial spaces, seven residences for young single mothers struggling to finish school—and in 2003 PRH launched a sister enterprise, the Row House Community Development Corporation (RHCDC)— “to develop housing for low to moderate income resident, public space and facilities to preserve and protect the historic character of the Third Ward. ”

Lowe’s vision for PRH was founded on an inspired melding of artist Joseph Beuys’ “social sculptures” (things like Energy Plan for Western Man, which viewed art as a socially transformative act), a Saul Alinsky-like grassroots approach to community organizing, and the spiritual energy of Dr. John Biggers’ ideas around community-building: that art and creativity should be viewed as an integral part of life; strong neighborhoods create social safety nets; architecture as a unifying force —meaning that housing not only be well designed, but that it be a link to preserving a community’s historic character and oral traditions.

Speaking to the Times in 2006, Lowe said: “We can approach our lives as artists, each and every one of us. . .It’s a choice people have. You don’t have to make houses the way people always have. If you choose to, you can make every action a creative act…People interested in housing and social services have a narrow focus.From a developer’s standpoint, the houses we’ve built are not cost-effective. But to me, they’re not just housing. They tell a story about a community.

Portlander and gang-outreach worker John Canda knows this full well:
“I remember times when it didn’t really matter what color your neighbor was. The fact that we lived in the same place gave us a common bond that transcended race and custom. When something happened on our block or in our neighborhood it affected us all. I remember the pillars in our neighborhood who protected us and kept us out of harm’s way as best they could. The pillars I speak of were our fathers, mothers, grandparents and extended family from various ethnic groups.”

If you want to find a concrete illustration of the valuable, positive connections that can arise through the collaborative partnership of the arts, community, and economic stimulus—look no further than the work that Lowe and Project Row Houses have been doing for 15 years.

Portland could learn a lot from bold community cultural developments like Lowe’s PRH. Sustainability isn’t just about stormwater and green buildings—it should also mean that our streets are safe and our kids aren’t shooting one another.