Making A Space For the Near Northside in Houston
I live in the Near Northside of Houston, TX. That’s where my wife and I were born and raised.
Our families saw the first transformation of the neighborhood from a community of predominantly German and Italian immigrants that worked at the nearby rail yards in the early 1900’s into the one that emerged during and after World War II. It was then that residents fled to the outlying suburbs and the working poor Mexican-Americans from the rented shacks in Frostown began to occupy the wood-frame cottages and rail yard jobs that the previous residents left behind.
By the time I was born, the neighborhood was Mexican-American, working-class, and a little rough. Although we both spent some time away, the Near Northside is where my wife and I have decided to settle and raise our family.
The area was originally developed in the 1890’s as a Neartown neighborhood around all of the railroad and warehouse jobs in North Downtown near Allen’s Landing. The older streets are still laid out in a grid with commercial structures facing the major thoroughfares and rows of old one-story houses behind.
There wasn’t very much development in the area in the last half of the 20th century; with the exception of the construction of I-45, Highway 59, and the Elysian Viaduct; all of which have cut through the neighborhood creating new boundaries and changing the flow of community life.
Fortunately, we have everything that we need all centralized within a five-block stretch of Quitman St. Davis High School, Marshal Middle School, and Carnegie Neighborhood Library (not a real Carnegie Library) all meet at the same intersection which is across the street from the local supermarket, Fiesta.
Down a block the other way you find the new Ketelsen Elementary School building. There's also a newer suburban-style Walgreens drug store and a few smaller local shops like the Houston Bakery Taqueria and Del's Ice Cream. This is arguably the center of the Near Northside. All kinds of Northsiders find themselves going through this area at one point or another to do business, go to school, grab a bite, or whatever.
What we don’t have is a centralized public space with a reason to get out and walk around and interact with each other; like a plaza, or a mall, or a square. With no such physical space, we don't have room to congregate. We are forced to meet in taquerias, small meeting rooms in schools or libraries, or people's homes. All those options are not only limited in their capacity and accessibility, but they are out of public view, preventing passer-by engagement.
However, in between the Carnegie Library and Marshal Middle School is a small patch of green space called John Castillo Park (no relation). It has a sign from the Parks and Recreation Department, and is accessible from the library and the middle school. It is also accessible from Quitman Street and from Noble Street, except that the entire thing is fenced in and the gates are seldom open.
The ownership and custodianship of that land seems to be in question. It appears to be public property, but the school uses it as something of a front-yard during lunchtime and dismissal, conveniently corralling the students in this fenced in area which extends around the library parking lot.
When combined with the library, this park seems to be the best choice for the kind of public space that allows neighbors to gather easily without cultural or economic barriers. It is within walking distance to a large portion of the neighborhood, and is located where people tend to go on a daily basis, anyway.
It would be especially attractive if there were an increase in small retail (coffee houses, cafes, small shops, etc.). It would be the place that we stop to sit between errands or just a nice detour. The adjacent library could provide wi-fi and park features like the amphitheater and the playground could be enhanced.
Northsiders see this need and the community has come together to redesign the park. Of course, the city officials have informed the community that there is no money in the Capital Improvement Plan for this project. The only way to get this kind of space is for us to claim it for ourselves.
We will do this by holding festivals and events in the park or on the street, reinvigorating the activity, and encouraging denser activity around it. The 2nd annual Sabor Del Northside festival will be held in the park this month, generating some of that energy and letting our elected officials know about the community’s desire for this kind of space.
The Near Northside has a lot to say, and we need a place to say it. We need that space to express our distinct history and culture within the context of our city.
We need that accessible public area where neighbors can have encounters that are out in the world and part of urban life, but close enough to home to make us want to take ownership.
Every now and then, we will need that physical platform to let our collective voices manifest into the political will that will end the decades of neglect and divestment in the ‘hood.
Without it, we can’t get to the next level as a community.