Soon after moving to Houston, one of the few things I’d learned was that local cuisine included fried chicken and waffles—at the same time. In the same dish. Each as I’d known them previously, only together. Syrup and everything. So wonderful it ought to have been obvious. I think probably everyone who’s discovered Chicken and Waffles has wondered why they didn’t think of it first.
So when my wife and kids picked me up from work for a dinner out, we located the closest destination–a short drive due east from my work. That afternoon also became my first real introduction to Houston’s segregation.
A few weeks earlier, I had begun my home search in Houston’s 3rd Ward because of it’s proximity to University of Houston. Politely, euphemistically 3rd and 5th Wards ware called “Historically Black Neighborhoods.” They are that. But they are also ghettos in the strictest sense possible: they are historically black because following the prolonged and begrudging news of emancipation, they are where freed slaves, and subsequently their decedents, were permitted to live.
The historical reality of exclusion sunk in, as we traversed the Inner Loop neighborhoods from west to east: buildings, homes and infrastructure progressively became more run down, until we began to wonder out loud, how some of the homes could be habitable. They seemed to be inhabited based upon people on porches and small AC units in windows—but their pier and beam floors were deeply uneven, walls crooked, with shabby tarp covered roofs. The perennially hot, humid climate of the Galveston Bay area is not kind to wood structures, and these were showing in real time just how the decomposition process works.
It looked as though Hurricane Ike had just happened.
Our destination, MoMo’s, like so much of Houston commerce, is housed in a strip center. As we pulled the car in to an open spot in front of the next-door barber shop and unloaded kids, a teen-aged kid stood and stared through the peeling window tint.
The owner was our server. He was nothing but neighborly and polite. The kind of polite that’s overcompensating and nervous at first, though. His daughter first grade daughter stared over the foosball table, forgetting her game.
As my family got seated, I went next door to see if I could get a haircut in before the food was ready. My watch said 6:30, and the sign said open til seven, so I leaned in the door and asked the guys sitting along the wall what the wait was like. I got blank expressions but no response. As I repeated the question, a kid jerked his head indicating a man sitting with his back to me watching sports from a barber chair. Partway through my repeat of the question, he blurted “CLOSED.” “But the sign…” “CLOSED” again.
After I got past the initial hurt feelings, “Those guys don’t know anything about me. Why would they treat me like that?” A couple things occurred to me: 1) That I’d never really been treated with outright prejudice like that. I’d made it well into adulthood. And 2) I already knew the theory of why they’d act like that. It was obvious.
They live in the Bloody Nickel. They know how people outside their neighborhood view their part of town. Just about every white Houstonian I shared this experience with responded with disbelief that I’d even dared enter 5th Ward. It made sense in terms I’m familiar with—social demographics and theory. But firsthand—face-to-face with the anger and shame. Well theoretical knowledge doesn’t hurt.
When Hurricane Harvey hit, the news primarily showed the outer ring suburbs, or Houston’s West side. I’ve had to really dig to find news related to recovery in 3rd Ward and 5th Ward. And those evidently, are the places relief has come least and slowest.
Which has caused me to reflect back on that thought I’d had driving up to Momo’s Chicken and Waffles—that it looked like Hurricane Ike was yesterday.
That was not too far from the truth. There’s no financial safety net to speak of. There is a positive correlation between affluence and FEMA relief approval rates (a phenomenon that must be addressed to find out how, why, and how to respond). Some area residents call it the Galveston Bay Area’s version of apartheid.
Fifth Ward has attempted to secede from the city of Houston twice in its history—each time citing disparities in public services. And it’s not just Fifth Ward, it’s 3rd ward, it’s Kashmere Gardens, it’s Greenspoint, and Aldine, and 3rd Ward and Alief. It’s anywhere that these disparities persist. It brings to mind that famous quote from Jaime Lerner, “A city is like a family portrait – you don’t tear it up if you don’t like your uncle’s nose.” But that is exactly how we treat our cities. It’s how citizens treat them. It’s how city governments all too often treat them.
credit and story.
We settled in Houston in an affluent, predominantly white suburb, and subsequently relocated to a working class, suburb between Aldine and Humble. The two, despite being only a few miles apart may as well have been in separate planets. At my daughter’s middle school, she was one of only a handful of white kids her Hispanic and Black classmates had ever interacted with. As often as not, they simply didn’t know how to act for lack of practice. We became quite well versed in the prejudices faced by our neighbors. We came to experience the problems of socioeconomic and racial segregation first hand.
Our neighborhood, being newer with more sophisticated drainage, was spared from the flooding. It was a sickening feeling: while we barely lost power, all around families were losing everything. It was stranger yet, when in the thick of the rebuild, my family moved to another state. I’ve never felt survivor’s remorse, but I imagine this was closely akin. My heart still aches for the families who are still rebuilding even as the next hurricane season, predicted to be more severe than the last, is only weeks away.
It’s worse yet for the families who are left on the margins. By the time, Harvey’s rain had fallen and cleanup begun, we’d been in Houston long enough that it was no surprise to see, in less affluent neighborhoods, the flood damaged home-innards sit and rot in miles-long curbside heaps while the trash haulers lined up in and out of affluent suburbs.
But the demand for construction services created a price-point hierarchy that I hadn’t anticipated. While those families with flood insurance and financial reserves (who can begrudge them that?) we able to tap in to experienced, knowledgeable and more scrupulous contractors, we found the labor pool flooded with less scrupulous construction help, claiming more expertise than it ought.
In a few isolated cases, I was able to help families navigate those issues, but there will be thousands of families dealing with the effects of mold for years to come because of less capable contractors, or perhaps homeowners themselves enclosing wood structure still wet enough to begin molding again. At the bottom of the heap there’s not only fewer financial resources, but a dearth of good help.
And so the struggle continues. The people of greater Houston are fortunate to have a Houston mayor who advocates for those with less access to financial resources and help. Who is willing to take on the state (still steadfastly refusing to access its “Rainy Day Fund” though how could a day be any rainier?) and the federal government (slow, overrun, and reluctant as it is) to spread the help to where it is most needed.
And so much help is still needed. The flood waters are long gone. The work remains undone. And Hurricane season is upon us again. And now I can only do what the rest of us outside the Galveston Bay Area are left to do: pray, donate to worthy causes, and let our voice be heard. Advocate to the state of Texas, to the responsible Federal agencies for the family members torn from the edges of Houston’s family portrait.