Art Works Blog

From the Archives: Blighted Structures Get New Life As Artists' Studios

Houston, Texas

Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses, was one of the pioneers of creative placemaking. From our archives, here's a story about Lowe's transformative project. (Lowe was one of the panelists on our September 2010 Creative Placemaking panel. Take a look at the video archive here.)

Volunteers pitch in to clean up the site and make it a place where Houston residents and visitors can interact and experience the arts firsthand. Photo courtesy of Project Row Houses

Houston artist Rick Lowe had a dream. The transforming power of the arts would be used to rebuild an impoverished neighborhood and, in the process, help rebuild the lives of its citizens. That was back in 1993. Since then, a predominantly African-American, underserved community in Houston, Texas, has become home to Project Row Houses.

This unprecedented model project began with $25,000 in seed money from the National Endowment for the Arts. "Without the initial NEA money, Project Row Houses would still be just an idea. It helped validate the project, attracting other corporate and foundation support," according to Founding Director Rick Lowe. With the federal dollars in hand, local businesses and arts groups stepped forward with financial and personnel support. Residents from around the city came to help clean up the site and the sheriff’s office cooperated by sending volunteers to pitch in. With this unique partnership of neighborhood residents, local volunteers, arts organizations, and area businesses, Lowe's vision began to take shape. Previously uninhabitable residences were transformed into artist studios and exhibition spaces for local, national and international artists—a place where neighborhood children, Houston residents, and visitors from all over the country and the world could interact and experience the arts firsthand.

Before long, Project Row Houses expanded to meet other crucial neighborhood needs—developing after-school and adult education programs, summer courses, an infant care facility, a parenting class and housing for teenage mothers and a neighborhood garden. Throughout the project, Lowe says, “Artists are encouraged to partner with the general community, such as parents, churches, youth programs, and senior citizen groups.” Many of the young people who benefit from the project return later to contribute their time as mentors.

In the process of transforming the spirit of its community, Project Row Houses also has become a major player in the economic development of the area, making a substantial impact on real estate and tourism. The success of Project Row Houses has not gone unnoticed. Other cities are exploring how to replicate its vision, described as a successful blend of culture and community service. So far, more than 100 artists, more than half from outside the Houston area, and countless citizens have enriched their lives through this exemplary project. As Lowe sees it, “Artists are the visionaries of our community.”

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