Rick Lowe, Project Row Houses

Can we instill creativity in our communities? Project Rowe Houses inspires with an arts-driven approach to urban revitalization in Houston's Third Ward

If you walk through Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood, you will notice blocks are filled to the brim with art. In 1993, a group of artists acquired 22 derelict houses in Houston’s oldest black neighborhoods with a mission to transform it into a vibrant ‘social sculpture’ for the city. The turn around story of this long-neglected neighborhood has been the work of many people, but at the helm is artist Rick Lowe who was recently awarded the 2014 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant

Originally trained as a painter, Lowe shifted the focus of his artistic practice early in his career and created Project Row Houses as a way to more directly address the pressing social, economic, and cultural needs of his community. Over the years, the visionary public art project has expanded to 70 refurbished buildings and become a vital anchor in the low-income community. It now serves as an arts incubator – with contemporary arts education, studio residence, and exhibition space - as well as transitional housing for young single mothers. Most recently, it worked with city developers to build historically appropriate designs for low-income housing on land surrounding the original row houses.

Defying category, Lowe’s unconventional approach to community revitalization and historic preservation has saved the Houston neighborhood from encroaching gentrification. In response to their initial success, Project Row Houses formed a community development corporation to expand their overarching goal of animating the assets of place and the creativity of its people. "Houston is not a place that is accustomed to preserving its history. Or having a high cultural identity in its neighborhoods," Lowe says. "Project Row Houses at least gives Houston an example of how that can happen."

Through the arts, Project Row Houses is able to unlock the deeper layers of complexity, integrity, and potential of the neighborhood by leveraging its social and symbolic space. Inviting constant collaboration with local residents, artists, church groups, architects, city officials and urban planners, Lowe empowers residents to change the way they see themselves within the community, to feel connected and part of the vitality and value of the neighborhood they inhabit.

Responding to a flurry of requests from other cities, Lowe has begun to duplicate his arts-driven redevelopment formula across the nation, including the Watts House Project in Los Angeles, Transforma Projects in New Orleans, and most recently, Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow. He is also currently leading the Pearl Street revitalization program in Philadelphia's North Chinatown neighborhood. Let us hope city officials and developers will build upon Lowe’s work and learn to deeply integrate creativity into the foundation of communities.