Houston, TX: Southeast Houston Arts Initiative

Artist rendering of a community garden
Photo by Raùl Baez

How can community-based arts initiatives bring social cohesion and develop a sense of character for an urban neighborhood?

For an area of Houston that had long had a sluggish economy and high crime rates, an arts-based community development plan helped to transform the district into an inspiring place to live. By strategically linking community members with artists, architects, and designers, the project helped to develop a more cohesive neighborhood by identifying potential arts-based community projects, placing art works at key public spaces and transit nodes, and by making tactical improvements to public landscapes.


The “Southeast Houston” area, where the project took place, is located just southeast of downtown Houston and is home to many of Houston’s African-American community. South of Brays Bayou was a white blue- collar area that was developed in the 1950s as suburban bedroom community, complete with Houston’s first outdoor shopping mall —Palms Center Mall. A few decades later, when integration efforts began and federal policies started favoring development outside of the urban core, African-American families moved into the area while whites moved out to create new suburbs. In the 1980s, the mall —along with the general area—fell into decline, driving the economy down while crime rates rose. The location’s valuable proximity to downtown Houston, two universities and the Medical Center, however, eventually overrode its decline. In the early 2010s, municipal administrators created a number of infrastructure initiatives, including a new METRO light rail line, Brays Bayou waterway restoration, two new schools, a new library, and a new YMCA center.


Today, Palms Center has evolved into the Palms Center Civic Mall and is now home to government and civic groups, such as the Houston Business Development, Inc. (a non-profit organization established by the City of Houston to help stimulate economic growth in low- moderate income communities), the Houston Texans YMCA, the Harris County Hospital District Dental Center, the Harris County offices of the Constable Precinct 7, the Tax Assessor Office, and the Justice of the Peace Court for Precinct 7. These organizations are focused on addressing the needs of the area’s changing demographics. As Carroll Parrott Blue, a University of Houston research professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences focused on various cross- disciplinary and interactive community arts, architecture and humanities initiatives, says, the neighborhood “began as an Anglo middle-class neighborhood in the 1950s, rapidly turned over to an African-American population in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and now includes an expanding Hispanic population. Many residents are fixed or low income, but slowly new and renovated housing catering to higher income residents is broadening the income profile.”



With a history of changing land use and economic decline, it was important for the area’s residents to consider its future comprehensively and strategically. Rather than fall victim to outside economic forces, it needed to be proactive about its future. Much of that consideration stemmed from concerns about crime, decay, and future gentrification. With increased civic and private residential investment, local residents were worried that they could be forced out of the area they had so long helped to build and define. So, in addition to thinking about the future plans, it was important to capture the cultural narrative that these residents had helped to create, and to bring in the cultural and artistic practices that had flourished for so long in other nearby areas. These had not yet taken root in Southeast Houston because of the lack of community arts organizations to establish and maintain these practices.


Setting out to address these land-use challenges and socioeconomic pressures, Blue launched what she called the Southeast Houston Arts Initiative. The goal would be to “achieve positive transformation of Southeast Houston that included community-based creative placemaking and empower residents to bring values and community history to effect change through well- designed improvements to the physical environment by artistic and cultural expression projects.” Through a mix of art, performance art, architecture, design, and public history, Blue was determined to define art broadly as a larger world of creative and cultural community expression. To this end, there were four guiding principles put forth: personal and environmental health, cultural history, urban connectivity, and community organization empowerment.


Working with project co-organizers Steve Spillette and Gwen Fedrick, Blue knew the complex project would become stronger with the advice of outside expertise. As Blue concedes, “our team of three concluded that we were not good enough, wise enough, or strong enough on our own to do everything needed to fulfill all the goals of the initiative.” After articulating the vision that included the goals collected from a community survey, Blue and residents from nine civic clubs decided to form the Southeast Houston Transformation Alliance (SEHTA), a non-profit umbrella leadership team whose overall mission was to carry out the master plan. Because of SEHTA’s success and future promise, the Houston branch of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (Houston LISC) also stepped in to provide SEHTA with its Great Opportunities (GO) Neighborhood award. Through their combined efforts, Blue’s NEA Our Town Southeast Houston Arts Initiative, SEHTA, and Houston LISC were able to bring together several major area stakeholders including the University of Houston, several City of Houston departments and programs, several Texas Southern University departments, the Harris County Flood Control District, landscape architectural firms SWA Group and Asakura Robinson Company, local real estate developers interested in partnering with the community, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO), among others. From the beginning, Blue, SEHTA, and Houston LISC were determined to make these stakeholder relationships a collaborative experience by holding weekly meetings and events and celebrating near the end with a public charrette and several community celebrations.


The team used a multi-pronged approach to help meet project goals. Following the charrette, the team created a comprehensive catalog of existing arts and culture sites, and initiated an extensive research effort into the area’s architectural and urban history. Using key anchor points—the Palms Center, the Southeast Transit Line, Brays Bayou, Kuhlman Gully, the Park at Palm Center—and key public transportation intersections, the team also identified places for art, design, and landscape installations. Blue and the SEHTA art committee then commissioned artists to create projects at these sites. The team worked to create more unconventional pieces, such as the work of the Writers-in-the-Schools program, which partnered spoken word artists with local school children to write and perform poetry about the community. Julia Powell and Norola Morgan, volunteer community residents with prior arts training, created handmade “solace” dolls for single mothers. As Blue puts it, “these artists built upon Third Ward’s signature atmosphere by bringing arts to life in venues that may surprise.” Because venues tended to be diverse and unorthodox, Blue is creating a website that has a page on it to allow the public to locate these spaces.


By authoring a community-led, arts-based development plan for Southeast Houston, the Southeast Houston Arts Initiative was able to approach site-specific art in a cohesive and systematic way, positioning it as a critical step toward improving the public domain and identifying the area’s value to all of Houston. Part of the team’s efforts was also ensuring that the community’s perspective was integrated into other municipal planning projects such as the METRO’s Southeast Transit Line Corridor Public Art project. This ten- station public art installation and sculpture series will premiere with the opening of the line in 2015. Knowing that other municipalities and areas that had taken on similar work would have insights to offer those involved in Southeast Houston, Blue’s Southeast Houston Arts Initiative brought in outside experts over the course of five seminar sessions. Based on the lessons learned from these sessions, the community’s goals were so focused that they impressed Houston LISC to invite SEHTA to become part of its highly competitive Great Opportunity (GO) Neighborhood Program and win a Mayor of Houston’s 2013 Keep Houston Beautiful honorable mention award.


No one could see in the beginning that the project would result in the creation of SEHTA, which is now committed to creative placemaking in Southeast Houston and which will continue to work throughout the community long after the grant cycle is complete. This is due in large part to the relationships Blue established with university administrators and professors whose research and student involvement, along with the university’s in-kind resources, turned out to be a more productive base of support than Blue had originally anticipated. “I discovered that universities are a wealth of resources and can bring in the energy of student volunteers and the guidance of their professors,” says Blue. “They have a lot to offer to the community development process.” Ultimately, the best surprise came in the overwhelming support from the community itself. As Blue puts it, the best outcome of the project was “the high level of hope that the community residents had in their desire to improve their community.”


Southeast Houston Arts Initiative: Activities Report / Strategic Plan / Evaluation
A project report, strategic plan and evaluation done by Carroll Parrott Blue, Steve Spillette, Gwen Fedrick and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, principal of Metris Arts Consulting

Southeast Houston Arts Initiative: Evaluation
A project report and evaluation done by Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, principal of Metris Arts Consulting

Understand the citywide and the area’s mission and master plans to develop programs that complement and align with the area’s larger development goals.

Travel and develop field trips for you and your partners to see best practices elsewhere. These visits are opportunities to brainstorm, customize project ideas and allow the team to bond around shared input.

"While public art installations, performing arts events, design and architecture products have resulted, the most productive consequence that has been achieved through creative placemaking is in the bonding of residents and their allied stakeholders as they work together to build a restored community and a unified sense of pride." - Carroll Parrott Blue

  • Sam Jones - created a bench out of gully trash
  • Jesse Sifuentes - created art banners for the park
  • Scott Wharton, videographer and photo journalist - created event videos
  • Johnny Hanson - created banner photographs and interviews that are accessible through the banners as QR codes
  • National Organization of Minority Architects, Houston Chapter - held a YMCA summer architectural workshop for middle and high school students
  • Steph McDougal, architectural historian - created MacGregor Park and Palm Center histories that appeared in the Houston History Magazine’s summer 2014 digital issue on Southeast Houston
  • Aaron Landsman, performance artist  - City Council Meeting, and Harris County Justice of the Peace courtroom (located in Palm Center)
  • Dr. Alvia Wardlaw, co-currator with Dr. Blue for a Southeast Houston photography exhibition by photographers Earlie Hudnall and Ray Carrington 
  • University of Houston
  • Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC)
  • The Dawn Project
  • Houston Arts Alliance
  • Houston LISC
  • Asakura Robinson
  • City of Houston Cultural Affairs and Health Departments
  • Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts
  • Harris County Justice of the Peace Court
  • Greater Southeast Houston Management District
  • City of Houston Public Library, Young Branch
  • Houston Texans YMCA

Develop resources and partnerships with other stakeholders and institutions in your area and outside. They often provide a unique perspective and access to resources. Project leaders in Houston are currently working with Houston LISC and the National Park Service, who are providing valuable technical and organizational assistance. In turn these organizations are also learning how to incorporate NEA’s creative placemaking principals on both local and national levels.

Communication is key to community participation. Use tools that are accessible to a variety of stakeholders, and to get the word out. Also consider working with public relations firms, graphic designers, and digital and paper media to create a cohesive communications plan. 

“Celebrations are fun ways to bring the community together to mark the major achievements that the community residents have completed. Fun, a great attention getter, is extremely important.” - Carroll Parrott Blue

To help the community continue the work of the project, Blue, the project manager, knew that the success of any future initiatives would be helped by taking the time to do a collaborative project evaluation.  For this they partnered with Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, the principal of Metris Arts Consulting, to spearhead the study.