I grew up as a child in a wonderful community called Frenchtown in Houston Texas. The area has undergone tremendous change over the years but even at its worse I found it to be a wonderful place. Fifty-eight years ago you bought milk in glass gallon jugs. There was no such thing as being ‘lactose intolerant’ and children were given aspirin when they had fever and as a matter of fact ;if they had a physical complaint they were told to go to bed! Some miraculous way we were fine the next day. Our brains did not swell and kill us. Everyone spanked us if we were bad. We learned to work at an early age. Cartoons were funny and if you made it to Disneyland you had the ultimate vacation.
The Fifth Ward is a historical political district (ward) and a community of Houston, Texas, United States, northeast of Downtown. It is bounded by the Buffalo Bayou, Jensen Drive, Liberty Road, and Lockwood Drive.
The Fifth Ward, one of the six wards of Houston, was created partly from two other wards, the First Ward, which ceded the area to the north and east of White Oak Bayou and Little White Oak Bayou, and the Second Ward, which ceded all land within the Houston city limits to the north of Buffalo Bayou.
After the American Civil War, newly freed slaves (freemen) began settling in the sparsely settled area. In 1866, it became the Fifth Ward and an alderman from the ward was elected to Houston’s City Council. By the mid-1880s, it was virtually all black, home to working class people who made their livings in Houston’s eastside ship channel and industrial areas or as domestics for wealthy Houstonians. Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, founded in 1865 by a former slave, is the oldest church in the ward. Five other churches are over a hundred years old. Also home to the famous “Island of Hope (Anderson Memorial Temple) COGIC” the oldest Pentecostal church in Fifth Ward. Over the years it had been home to the city’s minority and immigrant population. Although it had been a mostly black area, Latinos, Filipino Americans, Pakistani Americans, and Italian Catholics also moved there.
On February 21, 1912, with stiff Northern winds blowing in, the largest fire in Houston’s history began. This fire became known as the Great Fifth Ward Fire. The strong winds spread the fire as embers set wood-shingled roofs on fire. It consumed a church, school, 13 industrial plants, eight stores, and 119 homes, mostly located in the Fifth Ward. There were no deaths, but there was over $3 million in property damage.
Before desegregation the community housed African-Americans of all occupations and income levels. The community was known as the “bloody Fifth” because of some highly publicized violent incidents in the neighborhood; Michael Berryhill of the Houston Press stated that the Fifth Ward was not as blighted in the 1940s as it was during the 1990s. Robb Walsh of the Houston Press described the 1930s era Fifth Ward as “one of the proudest black neighborhoods” in the United States; more than 40 black-owned businesses were along Lyons Avenue in the Fifth Ward at that time.
Desegregation lead to middle class African-Americans moving to the suburbs. By the 1970s the Fifth Ward lost a significant part of its population, and many houses were boarded-up. Many area businesses were vacant and the area had many vacant lots with overgrown plants. In the 1970s and 1980s the Fifth Ward became notorious throughout Houston for the violence perpetrated in the community. Ernest McMillan, a community activist and contributor to the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program, said in a 1987 Houston Chronicle article that “One of the differences between this neighborhood and one like River Oaks is that they have lots of support and all kinds of resources available. Here in the Fifth Ward it’s the exact opposite: These people have no resources at all. There’s one clinic, one library, no YMCA, very few activities, and the community is very fragmented. It’s not the kind of environment that helps a child excel.”
Between 1990 and 2000 the Hispanic population of the Fifth Ward increased from around 19% of the population to around 31%. In 2000 the median annual income was $8,900. 62% of its residents lived below the poverty line. 9 of 10 school-aged children qualified for free or reduced lunches. The commercial streets had several empty buildings and vacant lots. Lisa Gray, a journalist in the Houston Press, stated in a 2000 article that the existing businesses “run mostly to dingy mom-and-pop operations, grim little grocery stores and cheerless liquor stores. There’s no McDonald’s, no Fiesta, no Target, no Wal-Mart. It’s turf where national chains fear to tread.” Gray added that the words “new” and “nice” were not often associated with the Fifth Ward, while “at-risk,” “crime,” and “poverty,” were. Walsh said that the Fifth Ward in 2002 was “in much better shape” than it was in the 1970s; he added that while the Fifth Ward is “hardly a garden spot,” the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation took many steps to improve the community including assisting low income borrowers in finding loans, encouraging artchitects to develop “innovative designs” for low income housing, and bringing commercial building projects into the Fifth Ward.
Japhet, a section of the Fifth Ward at Emile Street at Clinton Drive (two blocks east of Hirsch Road/Waco Street), was the Houston Press 2004 “Best Hidden Neighborhood.” The article stated “Say the words “Fifth Ward” to most Houstonians, and they’ll think crime, poverty and desperation.” The article added that Japhet is “more like a village than anything else — fragrant organic gardens are everywhere, bursting with vegetables, fruits and flowers, and the whole neighborhood comes together for a big party every full moon.”
Lisa Gray, a journalist for the Houston Press, stated in a 2000 article that the Fifth Ward has an overall sense of history and a “small-scale, deep-rooted personal history, the way that, in the middle of the city, lives are intertwined in a small-town way.” Many families from the area had lived in the Fifth Ward for several generations.
In previous eras, African-Americans of all social classes lived in the Fifth Ward; African American professionals patronized businesses. After the end of segregation, African-American professionals began to patronize other neighborhoods, and members of the African American middle class moved out of the Fifth Ward.
In 1922, a group of Louisiana Creoles organized the Fifth Ward community of “Frenchtown,” which contained a largely Roman Catholic and Creole culture. When new residents no longer resided in Frenchtown, the neighborhood culturally merged with the greater Fifth Ward. The community was about four square blocks. The Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church, completed in 1930 by Creoles for Creoles, serves as a social center for the neighborhood. The Houston Press described the Continental Zydeco Ballroom at 3101 Collingsworth as serving as the “Saturday-night focal point” for Frenchtown for several decades. Throughout its history, Frenchtown had narrow streets and a lack of sidewalks, complicating the riding of bicycles. Around the 1950s young women from Frenchtown rarely married outside of the community.
In 2002 Mike Snyder and Matt Schwarz of the Houston Chronicle said that Frenchtown was “scarred by decades of deterioration and neglect.” The neighborhood had deteriorating houses that had been abandoned for years, vacant lots with high weeds, and a malfunctioning drainage system that resulted in standing rain. Snyder and Schwartz wrote that the issues “create health and safety hazards and lend the neighborhood a bleak, desolate appearance that discourages private investment and prompts many residents to leave when they can.” By that year many Frenchtown residents began to distrust city officials. Frank Broussard, the head of the Frenchtown Association, said that the neighborhood needed new streets and adequate drainage and that the vacant lots needed to be dealt with. Snyder and Schwartz also said that “what distinguishes neighborhoods such as Frenchtown is chronic problems with basic infrastructure and services that contribute to blight and often lead to declining property values and dwindling population.”