How Project Row Houses is transforming a community

18 June 2022

HOUSTON, Texas — Thirty years ago, Houston’s Holman Street was one of the most dangerous areas in the city, a place known for crime and drugs. Today, it’s home to one of the most well-known social sculptures in the world.

Project Row Houses started as an experiment in 1993. Artist Rick Lowe saw potential in row of abandoned shotgun-style homes on Holman Street and rounded up six other artists to transform the homes into art installations.

“What the city saw as poverty and all the social ills that come along with that, blight and crime, artists saw as an opportunity to really use their gifts, skills and talents to enhance and transform the community,” said Eureka Gilkey, Executive Director of Project Row Houses.

Each art space – which changes every few months – addresses a different topic challenging the community.

“The foundation of Project Row Houses public art program is our Artist Rounds,” said Eureka Gilkey, Executive Director of Project Row Houses. “Twice a year we invite artists, mid-career and emerging artists, to respond to what’s happening in the neighborhood.”

Artist Leah Gipson created a row house installation called ‘She Asked Her Mother’, a space for the protection and safety of children. It includes the ‘Black Girlhood Altar’, which is dedicated to missing and murdered black girls. A piano sits in the center.

“One of the ways you can give an offering to this altar is actually to play the piano,” said Gipson. “So you can come and play the piano as part of the piece. It’s meant to be interactive just like all of the other objects or offerings you can bring, you can bring music.”

Gipson says when guests play the piano and see the display, it draws them in to the message.

“The space, ‘She Asked Her Mother’, is really the overall conversation that sometimes has to happen underground, the kinds of quiet gestures between daughter and mother and aunties and girls to each other, about the difficult things that can’t be said out loud, so it gets said through music, it gets said through art, it gets said through the things that we collect and treasure,” said Gipson.

Project Row Houses now covers five city blocks and 39 homes and buildings – all dedicated to art programs, community enrichment and neighborhood development. It started a Small Business Incubation Program and a Young Mothers Residential Program. Project Row Houses is also dedicated to rehabilitating the community’s legendary Eldorado ballroom, which was built in 1939. The ballroom was once one of the most acclaimed live venues to black musicians in the country. Legends like Etta James, B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown once performed there.

“This was a very important venue in Third Ward,” said David Bucek of Stern and Bucek architects. “It was not just a musical venue, it was a social club. It was really the focal point in the Third Ward through much of the 20th century. Every major musician in the 20th century played here. A lot of folks got their start here at the Eldorado and became national figures.”

Project Row Houses is gearing up for a Juneteenth Kickback Celebration for the community on Friday, June 17, and a Digital Art Experience at the Emancipation Park Cultural Center on Saturday and Sunday, June 18 and 19. For more information, visit Project Row Houses online.

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