Making A Space For the Near Northside in Houston

Posted by Jimmy Castillo, Apr 16, 2013 12 comments

Jimmy Castillo Jimmy Castillo

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.

12 responses for Making A Space For the Near Northside in Houston


Kacy O'Brien says
April 16, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Jimmy - It's exciting to read that your community is taking action on creating community space! Your story is similar to an initiative up here in Trenton, NJ that I'll be talking about in my post "A New 'Garden' State" (it goes live on Thursday) called the Gandhi Garden, which is a collaboration between artists, community activists and our local destination marketing/economic development organization, the Trenton Downtown Association. What kinds of cross-industry partnerships you're seeing on the Castillo park?

Here's a link to the Gandhi Garden, if anyone's interested in learning more:


  • Please login to post comments.
April 17, 2013 at 10:35 am

Thanks, Kacy. Our community has a big vision and expectations for the park - which is a great thing. The first steps are getting some kind of decision on the future use of the land. It's public land (municipal), but leased to the School District. The school, Parks Department, and the community are going to have to all agree how that land should be used.

Looking forward to reading your post on the Gandhi Garden!

  • Please login to post comments.
April 16, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Public areas with a strong sense of place are really important for a community to develop and go to the next level. Festivals sound like a great way to push this project forward and raise awareness for officials. I look forward to hearing about the park's progress!

  • Please login to post comments.
April 17, 2013 at 10:38 am

Thanks, Tim. The festival happened on Saturday (I wrote the post a few weeks ago) and was a big success. You can find more about it here,

  • Please login to post comments.
April 18, 2013 at 12:13 am

Awesome! I'll have to look him up.

  • Please login to post comments.
April 18, 2013 at 12:12 am

It sounds like we have opposite problems. You have the facility, but no audience; and we have the audience with no facility.

You bring up another good point about use. We are lucky in the Northside to already have this axis of activity near the park. My hope is that this park can not only be a destination for events, but a place that happens to be just part of urban life i nthe neighborhood. The park would not be the main feature of the area, but just one of many other amenities that make the whole area active in lots of different ways. I hope that this kind of use can help to keep the park accessible for the whole community.

That seems to have been the goal with your plaza that was originally intended to be part of a surrounding development. Is there any hope that those projects in Kent will ever get back on track in the future? Are there any other amenities or destinations surrounding your plaza that could help to create a larger area of daily activity?

  • Please login to post comments.
April 16, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Great post. In Chicago, during the summer there are a lot of art and music festivals which combine different forms of artistic expression. Streets with empty shops for example, have been turned into arts walks, with shops becoming temporary galleries. Community spaces and art experiences are great ways to bring different communities of people together, especially cross industry and communities. Thank you for sharing ... look forward to hearing more about how the space develops. :-)

  • Please login to post comments.
April 17, 2013 at 10:41 am

Thanks, Kelly!

  • Please login to post comments.
Hadia says
May 01, 2013 at 10:00 am

Hello Jimmy,
I read your post with great interest. I am a recent graduate in arts administration living in Houston and my thesis focused on Houston's Latino's community and their interaction with the arts. I immersed myself in the research and met a lot of your community's leaders. I was at Castillo Park when the Texas French Alliance for the arts participated in a festival earlier in April to inaugurate their "Open the Door" project. I admire your determination to create a place in the Northside that can allow the community to gather, talk, play and celebrate. I will be watching your progress closely. I wish you all the best!

  • Please login to post comments.
Kacy O'Brien says
April 17, 2013 at 3:51 pm

That's very exciting Jimmy! Do you know Greg Esser, Associate Director, Desert Initiative, Arizona State University Art Museum? He recently led a webinar for AFTA's Local Arts Classroom, and the transformation he helping to create in Arizona was astonishing. He may be worth taking out to virtual coffee while your community is tackling this project.


  • Please login to post comments.
April 17, 2013 at 11:02 am

The city of Kent, WA, where I work, has a similar lack of centralized public space. Several years ago a public plaza was built as part of surrounding development - hotel, condos, retail. The plaza was built but the other projects were derailed. We (the Kent Arts Commission) and parks department have worked hard to activate the space with concerts, festivals and movies. A number of community groups also use the site for various cultural festivals and Saturday markets. Unfortunately, the plaza has become more and more of a gathering place for the city's homeless population. This situation is beginning to significantly impact attendance at events. It's a tricky situation as the city can't (and doesn't necessarily want) to force the homeless population out, but very much needs to maintain the positive amenities and impacts of a central community space that the whole community feels comfortable utilizing.

  • Please login to post comments.
James says
May 26, 2014 at 6:14 pm

I live a little further north in lindale park, and I believe that a facility like the one you're speaking of would be fantastic! I love driving around the neighborhood and seeing the different types of houses, the potential that Irvington, Hogan, Fulton and main all have. I would love to see more cafés, coffee shops open up. It would bring more people that currently would rather go to heights blvd for a drink, or westheimer for food.

  • Please login to post comments.