For seven years, a tide of financing and human capital has helped energize Houston's Near Northside. Today, the neighborhood is home to a bona fide community, resilient even in the wake of tragedy, with resident leaders equipped and determined to build a better quality of life.
On a 90-degree afternoon in May, Del Torres was closing up her ice cream shop across the street from Ketelsen Elementary when she heard the news: Josué Flores, a bright, 11-year-old middle schooler had just been murdered as he walked the seven blocks home from science club.
“My first thought when I saw his picture on the news was, ‘Oh my God, that’s my customer! He’s one of mine!’” Torres remembers. Every day at three o’clock, kids drift into Del’s for cones and snacks and to browse the books in her lending library. They know it’s a safe place to hang out when they need one.
Before the shock of his death had even settled, Torres, together with a slew of Northside residents, swung into action. They filled the Ketelsen school parking lot with volunteers and held a barbecue fundraiser for the Flores family that pulled in $30,000. A few days later, when parents were still too shaken to send their kids to school, they organized “Feel Good Field Day” to help restore families’ trust in the neighborhood. Another Northside native, Stella Mireles Walters, mounted a Safe Walk Home campaign, inspiring hundreds of volunteers to chaperone the morning and afternoon school commute. “The way to treat a tragedy like this is to do something to prevent it from ever happening again,” says Walters.
A less cohesive community might not have acted at all, or even fractured under the weight of such a tragedy.But seven years ago, the Near Northside, an historic Mexican-American neighborhood just beyond the downtown, began receiving injections of funding and resources as part of a LISC Houston pilot called GO Neighborhoods. (GO stands for “great opportunities.”) Organizing residents, and handing them the tools to create change, has been at the core of the effort. “A few years ago, we couldn’t have done this,” says Torres. “We weren’t a community then. Everyone was off by themselves, worried about their own thing. But now, we're together.”
Working through Avenue Community Development Corp., a relentlessly committed partner, LISC has invested more than $13 million to help make Northside a better place to live, with inviting, affordable housing and newly fortified neighborhood institutions and resources. That $13 million has leveraged another $65 million and counting. And the collaboration has propelled some 200 separate projects, built relationships with 260 partner organizations and embraced the donated labor of 14,000 volunteers.
At the outset, a group of older residents in a middle-class pocket of the Northside, with some time and bandwidth to spare, were the foundation of this activism. Now, there’s a far-reaching network of homegrown leaders from all kinds of backgrounds. They’ve formed civic associations and block watches. They make up eight “GO Teams,” tackling quality-of-life issues ranging from health and safety to culture to youth—a team run by high school students.
Today, you can hardly walk a block in the Near Northside without running into someone or something shaped by GO Neighborhoods. The neighborhood is peppered with well-used parks and public spaces, like the track and field at the high school, where seniors and young parents exercise after school. There are new, solidly built rental apartments and homes that families are able to buy. There’s a chamber of commerce now, and a Financial Opportunity Center where Northsiders are training for living wage jobs in the health professions, a big Houston industry that needs good workers.
Machell Blackwell, a lifelong resident of Northside public housing, has attended LISC leadership trainings to become a more effective organizer. Jimi Vasquez, a graphic designer grabbing lunch from a taco truck on a recent afternoon, pricks up his ears at the mention of Avenue. He's enrolled in the organization's pre-purchase class while he waits to buy a house at one of their new developments. "There's no other way I'd be able to afford a home here now," he says.
Sometimes, the reach of GO Neighborhoods is felt in surprising ways: A façade improvement grant at the corner of North Main and Winnie Streets helped install a security camera—the very one that caught an image of Josué’s killer, a troubled, homeless ex-Marine, and led to his arrest.
For many Northsiders, the path to engagement started with a block party, an invitation to a meeting, a knock on the door. And more often than not, Jenifer Wagley, Avenue’s deputy director, was the one doing the inviting and knocking. “You can really see how Robert Putnam’s theory of change plays out,” she says, referring to the Harvard political scientist who wrote Bowling Alone. “When people get involved socially, that can lead to civic engagement, which can lead to political engagement. Now, we don’t hold the convening role very tightly. The community owns this.”
That ownership was on full display one evening last month for National Night Out, a countrywide public safety campaign. The Northside was alive with 16 separate block parties and events, each spotlighting the urgent needs of the neighborhood, and the strength of its affinities. “We went from two or three events, to this,” says Wagley, who greets virtually every Northsider by name, because she’s coaxed them to a meeting, or connected them to an agency, a school principal, a new friendship.
Northside continues to face more than its fair share of challenges: incomes are still among the lowest in the city, there’s a large vagrant population, and a recent surge in street use of the dangerous synthetic marijuana known as kush has poked a hole in painstaking efforts to reduce crime. Pressure from speculative real estate developers gnaws at the character of the neighborhood, threatening displacement.
But Northsiders don’t retreat anymore. They see it as their collective job to make the neighborhood a stronger, more functional and comfortable place to live. For Marie Arcos, director of the MD Anderson Family YMCA, a Northside anchor, the single most dramatic sign of change in the last seven years is this: “People are asking for more.” They know their lives can get better, she says, and they know it has to start with them.