Bridgette Dorian drove up Noble Street, past old family homes bookending a new townhouse. The townhouse’s design mimicked the surrounding properties down to the muted tan color scheme. To Dorian and her passenger, Jayne McCullough, it’s starting to feel as though a new construction project pops up in Fifth Ward every day. And no matter how well the new buildings try to capture the small town vibe of the historic, predominately African-American Fifth Ward, transformation is underway. Dorian, McCullough and five other small business owners, recognizing the opportunity, have formed what’s believed to be the first Fifth Ward Chamber of Commerce. They hope to serve as a liaison for existing businesses and incoming enterprises.
Dorian, the chamber president, and McCullough, its secretary, know that preserving Fifth Ward’s history while simultaneously welcoming development is a tall order. It’s also personal. Dorian wound through residential streets until she slowed down by 4911 Lyons Ave. Her father ran a shoe repair shop there where he employed former boxer, George Foreman, and the late congressman, Mickey Leland. Now Dorian and her brother run an engineering consulting firm inside.
From the 1920s through the 1950s, barbershops, grocery stores, restaurants and repair garages lined Lyons Avenue and other commercial sectors of the neighborhood two miles northeast of downtown, bounded by Buffalo Bayou to the south, Jensen Drive to the west, Liberty Road to the north and Lockwood Drive to the east. In 1950 there were more than 44,000 residents in Fifth Ward, according to U.S. Census tract data. People didn’t have to go out of the community for anything, said Patricia Prather, historian and former Fifth Ward resident. Her own father, one of the first licensed African-American master electricians in Texas, wired most of the buildings in the neighborhood. “We had hospitals, schools, businesses,” Prather said. “And we had the Club Matinee.” African-American performers touring the segregated country struggled to find accommodations when playing at white-owned venues, Prather said. But not in Fifth Ward. The owner of the nationally regarded Club Matinee also owned a small hotel in the neighborhood, ensuring Fifth Ward residents got to spend time with the likes of James Brown, Louis Armstrong and more.
The 1950's marked a time when neighbors new each other Prather said. When children could walk or bike to one of the three Houston swimming pools for black residents, or they would sit on porches, chatting the afternoon away with Popsicles melting in their hands. Teenagers could get easily get jobs at shops run by their neighbors. Businesses sponsored performances at the local conservatory, and business leaders were among the families helping put on events for the local schools, in particular the historic Phillis Wheatley High School. McCullough’s grandparents had 10 children, all of whom opened businesses in the neighborhood or became local teachers. She said her relatives passed on an entrepreneurial, civic-minded spirit to future generations.
McCullough, 66, became a teacher and later opened both an educational nonprofit and consulting firm, which she continues to run out of her Fifth Ward home. But the days of camaraderie, when everyone knew what was going on and who to turn to for help began to disappear in the 1960s. Interstate 10 cut the neighborhood in half, separating residential areas from business corridors. As Houston integrated, families sought opportunities elsewhere. By the early 1970s, the number of businesses on Lyons Avenue and Jensen Drive drastically declined. And in the 1980s, crime in pockets of Jensen Drive muddied the neighborhood’s reputation. Today the Fifth Ward Chamber of Commerce estimates there are about 1,600 businesses in the neighborhood, ranging from retail and wholesale trade, to health care and construction. At least 55 businesses in the area are run out of people’s homes, ranging from consulting firms to daycare services. Nearly 20,000 residents live in the Greater Fifth Ward area, according to a September 2017 report from the city’s planning and development department. The majority of them, 9,463, are African-American, with Latinos at 9,093. Yet chamber leaders say remaining businesses aren’t reaching out to these residents as best they could. Driving south of I-10, Dorian and McCullough passed by a restaurant they know is open for business. But the Wani Kitchen storefront, with covered windows and no “open” sign, is uninviting. Dorian hopes the chamber can reach out to such businesses, advising them on how to better market themselves. “The more visibility you have, the more you make,” Dorian said. On the south side of Fifth Ward, Dorian passed a stretch of empty land marked for development. The 147-acre tract in neighboring East End could turn into 8 million square feet of shops, offices and entertainment venues as a project called East River is developed. East River was announced in 2016 and when built will mean more residents and entrepreneurs moving east of downtown, including into Fifth Ward.
For McCullough that also means the neighborhood has to beat a ticking clock. Former Fifth Ward residents have been talking about redeveloping their parents’ defunct grocery store into a coffee shop, not unlike ones found in Montrose and the Heights.
McCullough has urged them to get the ball rolling. It’s only a matter of time before a Starbucks appears, she said. Making her way back onto Lyons Avenue, Dorian passed the renovated DeLuxe Theater. When families started leaving Fifth Ward, they missed old entertainment venues and nice restaurants for dinner dates. The DeLuxe now doubles as an event space, and talk of the East River project has turned into talk of new walkable public spaces and eateries soon to come. “It’s becoming the place [people] were in search of when they left Fifth Ward,” Dorian said. The Fifth Ward Chamber of Commerce has kept busy since its launch seven months ago. Its founding members, working on a voluntary basis after their day jobs, meet regularly at the Mystic Lyon art gallery. They’ve planned out the monthly mixers and membership events throughout summer and fall. The annual membership fee is $25 a year, a rate good through March 2019 when the price is expected to go up. Dorian and McCullough go door-to-door to solicit new members. They answer questions, take note of newcomers, and track when businesses move and don’t notify customers of the new address. “It’s something we always needed,” said Edward Loche, owner of Ross Mortuary and a member of the chamber. Multiple groups are bringing development into Fifth Ward. The Houston City Council agreed in September to subsidize a new grocery store to the neighborhood. And the city has also been working with the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corp. to bring in construction projects, including disaster recovery work and the development of St. Elizabeth's Hospital into affordable housing units, said Kathy Flanagan Payton, president and CEO of the nonprofit.
For its part, the corporation has catered to small businesses by hosting networking events. But the nonprofit doesn’t prioritize businesses the way a chamber could, said Camilo Parra, founder of the Parra Design Group. Parra has largely been interacting with the redevelopment corporation as he’s bought up hundreds of empty lots in Fifth Ward for new projects. He even opened an office on Lyons Avenue to show his dedication to the community. As he’s learned more about the chamber, he believes it could serve as a better mediator for incoming businesses and fellow developers looking for insights on the neighborhood. At the same time, existing businesses and even residents, are looking to the chamber to be a guiding force for their interests. Craig Presley, McCullough’s nephew and owner of The Nickel Sandwich Grill, never lost faith in Fifth Ward. While many of his old customers moved out years ago, they often return to his corner joint at Lyons Avenue and Lockwood Drive, where blue-collars, white-collars, Democrats and Republicans alike can enjoy a BBQ sandwich together. “I always tell people when they come back to the community, they always come back for two things,” he said, “to get a haircut and eat.” Presley hopes the chamber can serve as a welcoming committee of sorts to incoming development that’s likely to bring more customers for him, and more business to the old main street.
Dorian ended her drive at noon, dropping McCullough off at the Julia C. Hester House community center.
In time, Dorian hopes she and other chamber members can offer tours for newcomers, sharing Fifth Ward’s story and instilling a desire to help restore the neighborhood’s glory days. “You need to invest in your community or you lose a voice,” Dorian said. Raised across the street from her father’s shoe repair store, Dorian moved to Central Southwest Houston in 1995 after getting married. When she returned to Fifth Ward in 2002, she moved back into her childhood home and started working with her brother in their dad's old shoe repair shop.
It was surreal at first, she said, to run a business within the same walls where her father employed so many neighbors, where he taught her about entrepreneurship and civic duty. Back in the day her father employed many of Fifth Ward’s young men. He was known as a Fifth Ward father figure to all, and his shop was a second home. “I started thinking, maybe we should have opened the business here to begin with,” Dorian, 57, said. But she said she is back to stay and is dedicated to making sure the chamber serves Fifth Ward just as her father’s generation did all those years ago.
Before heading off to meet with afternoon clients, Dorian walked behind the community center. She took a moment to breathe as she stepped onto the grass of park there. It was named after the Rev. James H. M. Boyce, the first pastor of Houston’s oldest African-American Presbyterian congregation. And her father, Louis Dorian.