Today, on our way back to our house, Minal points out to laundry laid out behind some bushes right off the freeway, as we enter Pierce Elevated, heading south.
“Those belong to the woman that lives under the bridge,” she tells me. “You know, the one that has the shopping cart…”
Before entering the freeway, I glance as the red and checked cloths hanging off a rudimentary clothesline. I would never have noticed on my own.
“They always hang clothes there,” Minal tells me.
I spend the first part of the morning talking with Catherine Roberts and Lue Williams on KPFT Pacifica Radio 90.1 FM. We kick off the Open Journal Think Global – Act Local! with a question, When is history history?
Armed with a key to a townhome, I show up at Kenny’s home with collapsible chairs. By the time, Autumn, Pruitt and Kaneem arrive, I’ve already set up the chairs and am getting ready to Skype with Babette.
“This is going to be a different living room art,” I say, after the preliminary introductions. “We’re going to use the street as our space and we’ll also be doing something in the daytime—unlike other VBB living room art productions that take place at night.” I explain my rationale and everyone agrees. Even though Freedmen’s Town lies between Montrose and Downtown Houston, no one turns into the grid.
After we sign off with Babette, we walk down the street to see my friend’s driveway and also to revisit the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum.
At the corner of Andrews and Mathews Streets, Pruitt to tell us that this was the spot where he and his family once lived. “Everything is completely different now,” he says.
I’m trying to find a home to host VBB’s next living room art production, but even though I’m talking to a lot of people, no one’s offering his or her house. Either people live in new homes, which they don’t want to showcase, or else, older residents are living in small spaces, which are already full. When we create living room art shows, we look for homes that are sparse, so we can transform them without having to strip all the walls and clear out a lot of furniture.
Also, as I walk the streets, experiencing the old bricks, I have more time to take in the history of the neighborhood. My mind is spinning. Perhaps this VBB production will be different – maybe we’ll do something on the streets. I’m also realizing that most people won’t want to drive into Freedmen’s Town at night.
Even though I can’t find a home for the production, I do manage to find a neighborhood space for an artist meeting; Kenny hasn’t rented out his space yet, and when I call him to ask if we can meet in his townhome, he immediately offers it to me. “It’s not rented yet…” he says. “I’m still painting the walls.”
Early Monday morning, Ms. Beckham welcomes me inside. But when she notices where I’ve parked my car, she signals to me to park in front of her home.
When I step inside, I ask her why she invited me to move my car.
She shakes her head. “It’s not safe… those young men… “ And she clicks her tongue.
I had noticed two or three men standing outside, close to where I was initially going to leave my car and we had just nodded hello to each other. Once we go inside, I ask her again about what the men are doing outside, but she doesn’t want to say more. Certainly, during my own movement through the neighborhood, I’ve noticed how many people sit outside and the number of police cars that circle the streets.
Once we get comfortable on the sofa, someone else knocks on her door. Ms. Beckham welcomes her friend Edward inside and introduces us to each other and we begin talking about the neighborhood. Things have changed a lot, they tell me.
“This neighborhood used to be the Harlem of Houston,” Edward says. “There was music, stores, restaurants. Always something happening. But over the years, things began to decline. More drugs started coming in. And the black community was pushed out…”
After our morning together, I walk with Edward back to his home, a duplex around the corner. Inside, multiple family members reside and there’s little room to walk.
Terry works in a house that serves as a storage unit for the church. The building contains painting equipment and other construction supplies. I park my car on Cleveland Street, walk by some boarded homes owned by the church toward where Terry works. A woman sits on the outside porch. I nod hello to her and she nods back. Before I can call out Terry’s name, I hear his voice through the netting. “There you are!” He steps out into the porch and we exchange Tuesday morning niceties.
But instead of being interviewed himself, Terry wants to take me to meet Jackie Beckham. I know the name – Catherine Roberts has also mentioned Ms. Beckham to me; she’s one of the oldest residents in the neighborhood.
We decide to walk over to Ms. Beckham’s home, five blocks west. Up until now, I’ve mostly been driving around the neighborhood, but today the temperature feels comfortable. We turn on Andrews Street along the brick street, passing by the Yates Museum as we head west.
Terry points to the old bricks and the tram line. “These bricks were burned by the freed slaves,” he tells me. “But now they want to tear them down.”
Ms. Beckham’s house has a historic marker on it and metal fence closes off the front entrance. She steps out soon after Terry calls out her name.
When I tell her I’m interested in interviewing her, she nods. “Well, you can do that. But not right now…” Her daughter is getting married soon and that she has a lot of work to do. Noticing that both Terry and I are sweating on the street, she invites us into the house. We chat a little more with television news in the background and by the time we leave, we have pinned down a time to talk.
Today I head back to the African American Library at the Gregory School to speak to Mike Moore, the Community Liaison. He tells me he’s been working hard to connect with the neighborhood residents.
“So many people who live near the Library don’t even know of our resources,” he tells me. “But in the evenings, many students camp out in the benches outside our building. We have free wi-fi, you know…and many of them don’t have the service at home.”
Later on in the afternoon, he sends me a link to an oral histories archive that the library has been collecting.
My friend Christine arranges a breakfast meeting with Catherine Roberts, who serves on the board of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum, that’s close to my friend’s house on Andrews Street in the heart of Freedmen’s town. I’m meeting with Catherine to see if perhaps VBB can use the Museum as part of our December 1 living room art production, Homes and Histories.
The R.B.H. Yates Museum is “dedicated to preservation of the cultural history, brick streets, archaeology, and architecture of the early residents of Freedmen’s Town”. Built between 1898 and 1900, the home was the home of Reverend Ned P. Pullum. Today, an archeological museum has been created in the space.
After breakfast, Roberts takes me on a tour of the house, which is now marked as historic. Inside the museum, the foundation exhibits neighborhood artifacts, photographs, newspaper clippings and objects. One room contains a tall stack of boxes containing material that still have to be sorted through and tagged; in the backyard are areas that are marked for digging and exploration.
“This room,” Roberts says, opening a door to side room, “was the ‘guest room’ where out-of-town visitors stayed. There were no hotels for African Americans to go so they came here and these homes were built so visitors could have a place to stay. THey were given separate entrances…”
We walk out on Andrews Street and Catherine points to the cobbled street. “The city wants to tear these historic red bricks. They say they want to redo the streets and they’ll put the bricks back…but these are the last of the bricks that were made by the Freedmen’s Town’s first residents….”
Danielle Smith, a curator at the Houston Public Library System, visits with me at the African American Library at the Gregory School, a library that archives history about Houston’s black community and about Freedmen’s Town, where the library is located. She’s been interested in helping out with VBB project in the neighborhood and has offered to help by introducing me to different homeowners and others that she knows. Today, as we talk, she sees a truck across the street.
“I see someone who might be able to help you,” she says.
We walk across the library’s parking lot the street. The door of the corner townhome is open and the inside smells of fresh paint.
“Kenny!” she calls.
No answer. We step through the doorway to the back of the house and Kenny greets her with a hug and smile. I get a warm handshake.
“Sure,” he says, once I explain VBB’s newest living room art project to him. You can use the house. But you’d have to have the show soon. I’m tryin’ to rent the place real soon.”
“Maybe we could have a dinner here?” I ask.
“Maybe. Let’s see how quickly I can rent. I need the money soon. But later on I might buy more property here,” he says. “There’s another home in this strip that’s for sale.”
Kenny’s openness is touching. Even though the home is relatively new – it was constructed in 2000 – Freedmen’s Town has been a tough neighborhood to find a home to host a production. The houses are either too new or else they are occupied and there’s little space for art installation. And then, there are rows of old homes that are boarded up. I’m also aware of a vanishing history. The corners of Freedmen’s Town are now crunched in a grid of ten one way streets that run east and west between Heiner and Genessee streets (and the I-45 Freeway feeder), while the seven streets that run from north to south are marked by West Gray and West Dallas. North of West Dallas is the Allen Parkway Village , of which only a piece remains, while the old Jefferson Davis hospital has been replaced by newer homes and now there’s a large state reserve bank along the bayou.
The houses in the grid are a mix of older shotgun homes, some still in use while others have been boarded up while yet others are marked as historic homes. One such home is the Rutherford Yates Museum on Andrews Street. Many aluminum townhomes have sprung up in the neighborhood, while other townhomes were built as part of an assisted living project.
As we talk, Danielle suggests we visit Terrence who takes care of housing properties around the corner.
Terry also welcomes Danielle with a warm hug and tells me: “I can introduce you to people. I’m not really from here…” He tells me he’s been involved in living in Freedmen’s Town for more than 30 years. “I’m from Ohio – and I lived here for a long time. But now I live in the Third Ward because there’s no housing here.”
Gordita’s altar, Galveston, TX; Photo by Oskar Sonnen
We press our backs
On flat cement,
Cradled by black sky
Above, a shooting star flickers.
Gushing silver waves
As the half-moon sets,
Reflecting coastal lights.
Close to the shore is where
I want to be-
To my hair,
And lacing my lips.
In Houston, protests are rising – as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) goes on strike to demand higher wages for janitorial staff.
Local organizers are participating in daily marches in Tranquility Park in downtown Houston. Tomorrow, there will be another march at 4 pm.
Last Thursday’s protest was broken by police on horseback….
We’ve been driving by the gates of Villa de Mittal for more than five years and I’ve often wanted to explore the greenery beyond. After meeting Sister Paulette at a gathering, I set a time with her so Minal, my mother and I can actually see what lies behind the gates.
On the guided tour, we explore the graveyard, the forest, the actual building where the sisters live and also the chapel. As we walk through the forest trails, we see many trees that are marked to be cut down because of the recent drought. Even still, there is shade and this visit with nature — in an enclave created in 1920 — seems distant from !-45 just half a mile away.
“There are very few sisters here now,” explains Sister Paulette. “When I started here, I had to live in a dorm. We have private rooms now.”
Ever curious, Minal asks: “Why?”
“I don’t know,” responds Sister. “Would you be interested in joining?”
I’m relieved to hear Minal’s response.
On our way home from Minal’s school, we find ourselves in an obstacle course. All roads leading east are blocked off. President Obama is landing in Fort Ellington and there’s no way to get across the freeway to our side of town. Ninety – NINETY – minutes later, the police finally open up the roadways.
I thought this only happened in Pakistan.
I’ve landed in Karachi after a fairly painless 24-hour journey.
I fly out of Houston Intercontinental Airport’s Mickey Leland international terminal. At the security gates and am asked to raise my arms so guards can take a full body x-ray. This is the first time I’ve had to undergo that process. But I’m luckier than others.
As I buckle my belt and shove my laptop into my backpack, I watch officers escort an older West African woman to a private area to undergo a full body search. Her husband’s gaze is fixed on his wife as she’s led away from him. They exchange words in a language that I don’t understand. I can only imagine what they must be saying to each other.
Graffiti along Allen Parkway.
Minal and I start out the day by attending the Houston Fine Art Fair, where we see exhibition booths set up by galleries around the US. One of the highlights for Minal is an inflated sculpture by William Cannings which she can actually touch.
We spend the second half of the day grocery shopping at Central Market. As we sit down on the upstairs patio to eat a fast lunch, we witness a rainstorm, the first in Houston during one of the worst drought periods in the history of the state. In the meantime, though, we are profoundly aware of more flooding in Sindh, which still has not recovered from the monsoons of 2010.
We are gearing up for VBB’s season opener. The flinging of my chappals across the electric wires on Dowling Street is the formal launch of the project. Don’t miss the show – October 22, 2011.
Living in a Rose
A poem by Minal Saldivar
When you live in a rose
You feel so comfy
Warm and cozy
You get a nice breakfast
And a quiet morning
You can plant fruits
And sunflowers of course
You can relax in the rose
The tippy top of the rose
From where you can see
People, buildings, and art cars.
Minal will be performing the poem at her school’s talent show and the very next day, she will perform at the open mic on VBB art car Revolution. I am not surprised that her first poem closes with references to art cars – the weekend is around the corner…
Today has been a busy day for 6-year-old Minal. I want her to know what protest and celebration feel like in this country, so we head out to west Houston to attend the gathering in front of the Egyptian Consulate. There, about 100 people assemble with drums, flags and balloons to celebrate a new start for Egypt. Children and elders are among the crowd that is mixed with Egyptians, Arabs, South Asians and Houstonians. TV cameras along with police cars are also there to mark the event. As the flags billow in the wind, drivers and passengers in passing cars, roll down their windows to beep and wave in support of changes in Egypt.
From west Houston, we turn back around and and head into town to land at the Menil Collection where Da Camera has organized a special event for families and children; musicians work with children to use their bodies to respond to the music. Needless to say, we run into many friends at the performance, including Minal’s summer school music teacher Creston.
Later at night, it’s Kids On Stage at Main Street Theater, for which Minal dresses up as a princess so she can hang out with her friends Ollin, Kalyan, and Elizabeth and watch MST’s production of King Arthur, while I head out to Barnevelder to see Shunya Theater’s latest production 1-888-DIAL-INDIA.
It’s a cold brisk morning in Houston, Texas. I’ve just dropped Minal to school, but for some inexplicable reason, I don’t want to deposit myself at home or in the office. I want to drive and listen to the radio, KPFT Pacifica Radio 90.1 FM. This week is fund-drive, but I have multiple errands to do – stop by the post office, pick up something from the Museum, go to the bank – and I’ll just take care of all my work while I catch up on the latest news about Egypt. As I tune in, I hear the voice of my friend Renee Feltz aka Chickpea, who used to work at KPFT and has recently started employment at Democracy Now in New York. It’s the usual fund-drive exchange: she’s talking to Duane, KPFT’s General Manager, calling for pledges. I’m on Montrose. On a whim, I turn right onto Lovett Street and pull into the Station’s parking lot. I might as well make my donation in person, and maybe I’ll go on air and say hello to Chickpea. And I also figure, I can remind Duane about the protest rallies taking place all weekend in front of Houston’s Egyptian Consulate.
Inside, at Pledge Central, the phones are somewhat quiet, and there are volunteers camped around the table. Duane paces by the french doors, microphone in hand, as I’ve seen him many a time. For a brief second more, I hear Chickpea’s voice, and then she’s replaced by Amy Goodman. I hang out for a few more minutes, share information about the protests, and then drive off, still tuned into the news. Amy Goodman disappears again, and Chickpea comes back on, urging listeners to send in pledges and keep the station alive.
But now there’s a crackle in the air, and increased background noise. Amy’s voice returns. It’s past the pledge time for her show, but clearly, there’s news to share. She urges Houston listeners to pledge, but doesn’t stay on the air too long. Chickpea’s voice is back. I’m driving with my windows rolled up, now listening closely. Something is about to happen.
After a few minutes, Amy’s voice returns. “I have some news,” she says. “And it’s directly from Cairo….Wait, it’s hard to catch from the earphone in my other ear.” Dead air and crackles. “Yes, it’s official. Hosni Mubarak has resigned. He has left Cairo.”
The background noise behind her voice is the roar of the people of Cairo on Tahrir Square.