For three months I lived in the heart of the ghetto. Much of what I found there I expected: bitter poverty, crime, broken families, the dark underside of life. But I also found a community determined that life should win over death, hope over despair, pride over poverty. It’s true that in the ghetto only the strong survive—and I don’t mean just physical strength. I mean the strength that is in quick wits, friendship, family, religion, love, and hard work. Those two worlds—life at its worst and life at its best—exist side by side, beginning just outside my window.
Dawn in Houston’s Fifth Ward on an autumn morning. The dark sky softens, lightens, the air warms with the rising sun as the day begins to breathe. Women in white uniforms and men carrying black lunch boxes already crowd the bus stops along Lyons Avenue and Liberty Road. The first yellow cabs arrive at Lovick’s drugstore, delivering their drivers to coffee, pork chops, two over easy with country sausage, or rice and chili gravy, the favorite “bowl of soul.”
On the side street beneath my upstairs apartment behind Lovick’s, a group of black men—Grover, Cooley, Gene, Swainmaster, Ballerina, Littly Blue, Johnny—gather under the big oak, as they do every morning, passing the half-pint of Canadian Club, slapping skin, giving five-on-the-sly behind their backs, grabbing their sex, jumping back, bowing, breaking into an Ali shuffle, spinning, lighting Kools, passing the brown bag—a staccato street dance accompanied by steel coils of hard laughter. Scatalogical asphalt talk. Boasts. The talking blues of pain, protest, humor, tension. Spoken soul. They are street entertainers who have mastered sound, movement, timing, the oral word. It is the rhythm of vitality, of exuberance, of the urgency to feel. It is the rhythm of ghetto life I wake up to every morning along this side street lined with the choking underbrush of garbage and visited by puppy-size wharf rats up from Buffalo Bayou, the Fifth Ward’s southern boundary. The voices float up to my room like joyous, audible street vapors.
“Mine host, lay another C.C. on my man, here.”
“See those jive Army ads on the box? I don’t want to go noplace where you got to be fully dressed at five in the a.m.”
“I feel like a brand-new movie. Just need a place to show.”
“That woman really tied a knot on me man. She likes to buy things, and when I was bought out I was put out. Talk that talk, bro. You gots to be hip, slick, cool, and no fool with her, man.”
“Last night that Southern Pacific blew all night long. In the key of B-flat, the key of the blues, baby.”
“Who’s that gray dude, man?”
“He the writer or something living behind Lovick’s.”
“No, man, he FBI. Why else a white man come to Fifth Ward?
“Looks like just a blue-eyed cracker-ninny to me, man.”
They were talking about me.
The Making of a Ghetto
The Fifth Ward is different from New York’s Harlem or Boston’s Roxbury with their anonymous rows of tenements that soar skyward and mile upon mile of all-embracing poverty. There are pockets of affluence with well-kept homes, clean streets, trees and space—middle-class neighborhoods free of garbage and burned-out buildings. But not many. For ninety per cent of the area, poverty is the first fact of life, and physical ugliness is the most dominant visual impression.
The Fifth Ward is crowded and poor: population density in the area is 30.5 persons per residential acre compared with Houston’s overall density of 14.4; the average housing density is 9.14; Houston’s, 4.98. Thirty-four per cent of the citizens live below the poverty level compared with Houston’s 10 per cent. The median income is $5030: in Houston, $9876. The people are under-educated: only 25 per cent have high school degrees, while in Houston 52 per cent do. City services show important differences, too. Forty per cent of the blocks are drained by storm sewers; 39 per cent by open ditches; and 21 per cent have no drainage improvements at all.
How is a ghetto created? Harlem remains the classic case. In the beginning, it was a prosperous mixed neighborhood with large groups of Irish families living in the northern section and Jews living to the east. The late nineteenth century brought huge migrations of East European and Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms and, like immigrants everywhere, searching for better jobs and living conditions. Then came Italians, Germans, more Irish, and, after World War I, wave after wave of blacks from the South. Many of the Jews moved north to the Bronx or to Long Island, most of the rest scattered throughout the boroughs of New York City, but some remained as landlords. Blacks doubled and tripled the number of families in a building to pay the rent. The strain of over-population caused the buildings to deteriorate and ultimately created a vast slum.
The history of the Fifth Ward is much the same. Around the turn of the century, blacks were a decided minority among Houston’s immigrant residents, but after World War II migrations of blacks from the Deep South (mainly Louisiana), from rural Texas, and from the rapidly growing neighborhoods north and west of downtown Houston changed the area’s ethnic makeup. As in Harlem, the newly arrived blacks were isolated culturally, economically, and socially by racial discrimination and prejudice. Only manual and menial jobs were open to them. Their schools were inferior, their incomes remained low, and their neighborhood fell into what sociologists call “the cycle of poverty.”
“The cycle of poverty goes like this: if you’re poor, what you need is more money and that means a better job. But to get a better job you need better educational training. Of course, the better schools and facilities are in the better neighborhoods. But to get there you need mobility, which means more money, which you don’t have if you are poor.”—Donald Tryman, political science professor, Texas Southern University.
One of the many poets of Fifth Ward