Monday, May 4, 2024

Interview: Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses

By Omar Afra

Most artists could only wish for their work to have a transformative effect on their community. Their effect is ultimately bound by the respective work they do. But creator of Project Row Houses Rick Lowe's work is transforming his neighborhood. Since 1991, Lowe has both renewed and beautified Houston's 3rd Ward with his imaginative restorations, creative social programs (for lack of better description), and injection of artistic spirit into a community that sorely needs it. By adopting properties, organizing creative programs for kids, and generally giving people the tools to be creative in their community, the 40 something envelope-pusher has left an indelible mark on the 3rd Ward. One program, the Young Mothers Residential Program, has offered free housing to single mothers while in college since 1996. We had the pleasure to interview him and take a peek into his remarkably young looking head. Thanks Rick.

In your 12+ years of Project Row Houses, what has been your biggest obstacle?

The biggest obstacles have been convincing people that the neighborhood is worth investing in. Although we have made some investments, it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed and the potential for return on investment. The speculators are sure to win in this case.

Are you preserving the 3rd Ward or creating a new identity? Both?

I think it’s a bit of both. Even if I said we were preserving a part of the 3rd ward, we would still be creating a new identity within the changing neighborhood context. We can’t live in the past. However, we can try to anchor ourselves with some aspects of the past and make it a part of our new identity. I think that honoring the historic context of a neighborhood is good development practice.

The Young Mother's Residential Program has been operating since 1996. Are you still in touch with many of the women who have been part of the program and what kind of impacts have you seen on their lives?

I’m in touch with a number of women from the program. some have remained in our community after graduating from the program. some even after graduating still engage with certain aspects of the program. there have been a lot of success stories and some not so successful stories. Let’s see, we have one who left the program and went on to receive her PhD from Penn State and taught at University of Pittsburg for a few years and is now back in our community. There’s one who is completed her studies at TSU and when on to get a law degree and a masters in urban planning. She will be joining our board. There is a number who are now college graduates, Some now own their homes. There are a lot of success stories. Then there are the ones that we just wish we could have helped in some way but they just weren’t ready.

In an endeavor like Project Row Houses, can you ever really be 'finished'?

If you are working in a social environment, I don’t think things are ever ‘finished.’ There is a lot to do in this community to for it to be the kind of nurturing community that provides opportunities for folks comparable to other healthy neighborhoods. But even if we got it to the point that it was a healthy functioning neighborhood, you still have to work creatively with such limited resources to assure that it remains a healthy community.
Endorse anyone for the upcoming mayoral Election? What would you like to see from a potential new mayor most?

I’d like our new mayor make some efforts towards planning for our city. At this point, development is so market driven that our identity is a bit schizophrenic. Transportation, housing, commercial development, historic preservation, infrastructure, etc., should all relate to each other in some way. But within our current way of approaching things, none of these things seem to be connected.

What other local Houston artists inspire and baffle you?

I have so many artist friends and so many of them inspire me for completely different reasons. I’ve been fortunate enough to move in circles with some of Houston’s finest artists. I can’t really think of anything baffling about Houston artists.

How do you look so damn young at 47?

Well, I’m not sure I look so young. I’m amazed every I see our new president on in the media and think about how young he looks. He’s just a few days older than I and looks younger. Even with all the stress he lives with. Now that’s amazing!