Third Ward builds community through art, business initiatives
On the third Saturday of every month, an asphalt lot on the corner of Emancipation and Bastrop avenues comes to life with morning yoga, live music, Ghanaian food, hot dogs and stalls of vendors who offer custom apparel, accessories, artwork and handmade beauty products.
The monthly event, called Free Market Square, is part of a broader initiative that aims to use art, creativity and local businesses to combat gentrification of Houston’s Historic Third Ward.
“It’s creating a space, an organized space, and allowing people to come from their corners and organize themselves here, and put a visual front,” Free Market Square organizer Cedric Douglas said. “Art is always about what you can see, what you can experience (through your senses). So we highlight the visual, the audio, the aroma, touch and taste, and this is a manifestation of all the senses.”
Launched last June with the re-opening of Emancipation Park, the monthly market started receiving funding in January of this year as a project under the Strategic Art Plan run by Project Row Houses.
PRH is an organization that gathers neighbors, artists and enterprises “in collective creative action to help materialize sustainable opportunities in marginalized communities,” according to its website. The Strategic Art Plan is an extension of the PRH mission that uses money from the Houston Endowment to support nine neighborhood projects, including Free Market Square, that use art and creativity to support Third Ward businesses, promote community engagement and foster neighborhood growth and wellness.
The idea for the market, said Kazembe Gray, another Free Market Square organizer, came from a charette hosted by the Emancipation Economic Development Council in March 2017. A charette is defined as “the intense final effort made by architectural students to complete their solutions to a given architectural problem in an allotted time.”
Both Gray and Douglas, Third Ward natives, are architects and designers by trade. Creating a solution to bring back businesses to the Emancipation Avenue corridor, formerly called Dowling Street, seemed to fit their skill sets. Their day jobs revolve around creating space for activity to happen, and this project called for something similar — but instead of developing a physical structure, they decided to develop a gathering point for local growth.
Douglas handles the market’s commercial logistics, and is mainly responsible for organizing vendors.
“We feel that we have a good vendor participation,” he said. “We average 20+, and 37 is our biggest number of vendors coming out. The site can accommodate 50.”
One vendor who has been present at every market is Nzingah Gross, owner of Inclusive Randomness, a custom button company.
“Everything I make is made out of a button,” she said. “I make buttons with my designs, and I also make custom buttons for small businesses, for politicians, for elections, clubs and kids. They send me their graphics and I’ll make buttons for them also.”
Gross has been an entrepreneur for two years. After seeing a Facebook post about Free Market Square, she started coming to sell T-shirts, but quickly realized that the two small jars of custom buttons she offered on the side were getting more attention. In January, she shifted her business model to focus on buttons only, and has seen success.
“I get all types of customers,” she said. “Adults, little kids, older people, younger people. Everyone loves buttons.”
As a veteran vendor, Gross can also attest to the continued growth of the event.
“A lot of new vendors, a lot of recurrent vendors, a lot of new artists come and perform onstage,” she said. “So it’s a really good vibe out here.”
Marc Newsome is one of the newer vendors. He started coming to the market in February, and sells custom shirts, buttons and towels with his own artwork, which tries to bring attention to Third Ward gentrification.
Newsome is an artist who participated in Round 47 of the Artist Rounds series hosted by PRH. According to the PRH website, Artist Rounds are a bi-annual event that invites artists to “collaborate with other artists and community members to create a positive creative environment within the neighborhood, in a way that enriches lives and honors culture and history.”
Gentrification was the theme of Round 47, and Newsome’s art installation, called ILove3W, was an ode to his neighborhood. The centerpiece was a giant customized Monopoly board with Third Ward street names and motifs that referenced the rising property values that were forcing longtime residents out of their homes.
“It’s kind of comedy all the way around,” he said, gesturing at the Monopoly board, which now hangs on the side of his vendor stall. “But it’s bittersweet if you live in the area. With the progress, with the changes in the area, everything becomes more expensive for people who have been there forever… Any type of property in the area is four times what it was three years ago.”
After the success of his installation, Newsome decided to put his marketing and design background to use to convert his creative product into a commercial brand.
“I took motifs from the Monopoly board I designed, and I made different T-shirt designs,” he said. “I used the Monopoly motifs to represent the gentrification in a way that people can understand and in a way that’s cool, but pulls at your heart too.”
Performers are also a key component of Free Market Square, and the responsibility of organizing them and managing the stage falls on Gray, who also works as a DJ.
“I source artists and DJs from the local Houston community,” he said. “Just to give them an opportunity, a stage. It’s kind of a monthly community festival… Entertainment is a way to get the people to come out and support the vendors.”
The lineup for Saturday kicked off at noon with beats from DJ AnArchY, followed by rising talent Izzar Thomas, new face Liya Himan, a dance performance from Workshop Houston, and a two-hour finale from Keyun & the Zydeco Masters.
For Gray, the market is a personal project. Not only was he born and raised in Third Ward, he was also the one who named the event “Free Market Square,” and he designed its logo.
“I went to Turner Elementary, played band for Jack Yates, and went to high school on TSU’s campus, so yeah, this is my area,” he said. “Third Ward is a concentration of black culture. Just the historical relevance of why so many people congregated to this area, and still congregate to this area… it’s a really thriving community. And a community in the sense that we are accountable to each other, and we also seek to continue to enrich each other.”
Free Market Square shares its green space with another Strategic Art Plan project, Yoga with Letty. Meeting on the first and third Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., the beginner-level yoga classes are free.
Leticia Contreras, who leads the sessions, teaches yoga at YogaOne Studios in Midtown, but also studies art at the University of Houston as a graduate student. One of her mentors was Rick Lowe, the founder of PRH, which led to an instant connection with the organization.
“Last spring, when the ‘Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter’ round was up at Row Houses, we began initiating, as black women in the community, various health-related, wellness-related workshops, and one of them was yoga,” she said. “It had a great turnout.”
Seeing the enthusiastic response, Contreras wanted to continue offering the free classes to the community, and reached out to PRH to see if there was any way they could help her.
“That’s when the Strategic Art Plan opportunity emerged, and the activation of Emancipation corridor,” she said. “We’ve been keeping it going since May of last year, offering free classes twice a month.”
“Yoga With Letty” is also part of the Melanin Yoga Project, a community initiative that aims to make yoga more accessible to demographics that normally don’t have the opportunity to give it a try.
“Whether it’s economic, or whether they just don’t see themselves represented, right? We bring this to them in a low-cost, affordable, engaging way,” she said. “It’s not just for black women. I’m super light-skinned ... I’m half black and half Latina. We uplift all folks on the spectrum.”
Yoga entered Contreras’ life in 2005 as a source of healing after losing three family members to a murder that happened at their workplace. She now hopes to provide others with the same healing and connection that she received through the yoga practices that she now offers.
Overall, Free Market Square is a hit with visitors.
Charnetta Pete, whose family has a long history in Third Ward, sat on the lawn to watch the music performances with her 14-year-old granddaughter, Brianna Rainey.
“I’m definitely going to enjoy this one,” she said, smiling, as the band began to play. “I love Zydeco.”
Terea Rowland, a patron of the market, said, “ I love the growth. I’ve had a really good time here, despite the heat.”
Not everyone present was from Texas. Steven Flax, a community developer, and his wife, Pat Cassidy, were tourists from New York who came to explore the area.
“Brooklyn has had a lot of gentrification, and we heard that Third Ward is undergoing something similar,” he said. “We wanted to experience it.”
His favorite part of the market was meeting people, while Cassidy was a fan of the music. The couple was also looking forward to going on the Emancipation Avenue Bus Stop Tour, another Strategic Art Plan project.
The market even attracted an ambitious young entrepreneur.
Brice Everhart, an 11-year-old dressed sharply in a full navy-blue suit despite the heat, had come to promote his business, which will be three years old in August.
“I wore this because I am a fashion designer. I make men’s accessories— I make lapel pins, bow ties, and pocket squares,” he said. “I’m selling but I don’t have a booth.”
Everhart said that he was inspired to start his business after watching his sister, a women’s fashion designer. His favorite men’s fashion brands are Michael Kors and JoS. A. Bank Clothiers. But fashion is just the start of his dreams.
“I want to become an actor,” he said. “I will grow and expand my business to where I have a manufacturing facility, where I have a whole bunch of lapel pins, and bow ties and pocket squares (made) at a time, and have my own brand, and that brand will be selling well. And then I will become an actor and pursue my acting career.”
Business owners with big dreams like Everhart are the part of the population that Douglas hopes to attract to Third Ward and support through Free Market Square.
“If we’re able to show we have commerce… then we are stemming off gentrification because we are filling the voids,” he said. “Gentrification happens when people think there are unused voids (in a community), and they think they can do something better than what is going on there, or exploit the proximity to downtown. This is a historical neighborhood, it’s had multiple changes of what it has been, but the residents who’ve resided here the longest are operating and living.”