Houston backwards and forwards (well, six wards, actually)
© Clifford Crouch, 2007
In the beginning was the ward. Many Houstonians can probably tell you the name of our current mayor. Some may even know the name of their local councilmember. Devoted followers of the local political scene can likely inform you that the city council has 15 members: the mayor, nine chosen from individual or single-member districts (known by letter as Districts A through I) and five more who are elected citywide or at-large. However, with those levels of political interest shown by the public in mind, fewer people today can recall much about the old Houston wards. Although, the mention of wards continue to pop up in discussions of our urban landscape, like when someone speaks of “revitalizing the Third Ward” or refers to “a Sixth Ward landmark.”
The truth is, although the city’s ward system was officially abandoned in the early 1900s, the wards never really went away. Trying to get at the truth about them can be difficult. Houston’s wards are like hazy old family stories, passed down and sometimes embellished through the generations. Everyone has heard of them, but the facts are hard to pin down.
Wards as political subdivisions of a city originated in America’s British heritage and date back to the Middle Ages and earlier. Most major U.S. cities — New York, Boston, New Orleans — began with a ward system. Even today the city of Chicago is divided into 50 wards, each represented by an alderman.
Houston’s own wards date back to 1840 when, soon after the city was founded, its charter was revised to divide the city into four wards, and each ward elected two aldermen to the city government. At the very center of the city is the innermost intersection of the four wards, Main and Congress.
Imagine it this way: if in 1840 one person stood at each of the four corners of the intersection of Main and Congress, then whoever stood at the northwest corner would be in the First Ward, the one at the northeast corner in the Second Ward, the one at the southeast corner in the Third Ward and the one at the southwest corner in the Fourth Ward. The four wards each radiated outward from that central point to the city limits.
As the city expanded, aldermen were elected from the newly created Fifth Ward in December of 1866. Its boundaries began north of Buffalo Bayou to east of White Oak Bayou and extended outward to the northern and eastern city limits.
Here is how the “1890 Houston Street Directory” defined the wards:
First Ward — Bounded by Main Street to the east, White Oak Bayou to the northeast, Congress Street to the south, a line commencing at the end of Congress and Buffalo Bayou and the north to northwest city limits.
Second Ward — Bounded by Buffalo Bayou to the north and Main and Congress to the west and south.
Third Ward — Bounded by Main and Congress to the west and north and the southeast city limits.
Fourth Ward — Bounded by Main to the east and Congress to the north in a line that began at the end of Congress and ran to northwest city limits.
Fifth Ward — Bounded by Buffalo and White Oak Bayous to the south and west and the northeast city limits.
As Houston continued to grow larger, the Fourth Ward was split into Fourth Ward North and Fourth Ward South. In 1896, records indicate that Fourth Ward North elected the first alderman from a new Sixth Ward sandwiched between the Fourth Ward to the south and the First Ward to the north.
The “1897 Houston Street Directory” defined the newly reduced Fourth Ward and new Sixth Ward
Fourth Ward — Bounded by Main to the east, Congress and Buffalo Bayou to the north.
Sixth Ward — Bounded by Buffalo Bayou to the south and a line commencing at the termination of Congress and Buffalo Bayou, running 55 degrees west to northwest city limits.
However, by the early 1900s concerns were growing, both within the city and throughout the nation, about municipal graft fostered by the ward system. It had become notorious for its corrupt bosses, ward heelers and machine politics. A new Houston city charter in 1905 directed that four aldermen were to be “elected by the people at large,” a change that spelled the beginning of the end for the ward system. By 1917, the city directory (now titled the “Houston Street and Avenue Guide and Directory of Householders”) had made information about the wards less significant and noted, “Wards as political subdivisions of the city were abolished by ordinance November, 1915. The former boundaries are commonly used, however, to clearly define locations.”
Why care about the wards, now? Because, as William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The wards may no longer exist as governing entities, but they continue on as historical and cultural sites. They are important pieces of the puzzle that is Houston today.
Houston Avenue is the main thoroughfare of the First Ward, which is heavily oriented to industrial and commercial use, but also includes the magnificently restored old Jefferson Davis Hospital, which now functions as the loft apartments on 1101 Elder, and the Amtrak Rail Passenger Station on Washington Ave. Among those who have called the First Ward their birthplace are Jack Valenti, a one-time aide to President Lyndon Johnson and former head of the Motion Picture Association of America, and former Congressman Craig Washington.
In the Second Ward, Navigation Boulevard winds through sites that include the modern-day Hispanic cultural arts organization Talento Bilingue off of South Jensen, the historic Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and the original Ninfa’s Tex-Mex restaurant. The area also includes such old settlements as Frost Town and Harrisburg, the latter of which predates Houston. The Second Ward has been increasingly Hispanic ever since the 1910 Revolution first drove many Mexican citizens to seek a new home north of the border. Today it is sometimes referred to by its residents as “El Segundo Barrio.”
The main thoroughfare of the Third Ward is Dowling Street, named after Houston’s best known Civil War hero, Irish-American Dick Dowling. The area’s demographics have varied since its creation, but today the population of the Third Ward is more than 90 percent black. Some of its most distinguished residents have included musicians, like guitarist Albert Collins, singer Robert Smith and blues legend Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins. The Nobel Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison (author of “Beloved”) also lived in the Third Ward during the 1950s while she taught at Texas Southern University.
Much of what once marked the Fourth Ward has fallen to the wrecking ball of urban renewal over the years. However, it is still home to the Founders Memorial Cemetery, a resting place for some of Houston’s earliest residents. Fourth Ward’s main thoroughfare is West Dallas, but it also has Allen Parkway Village, one of the country’s first public housing projects, and the historic Freedmen’s Town, an area settled after the Civil War by former slaves, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
Houston’s Fifth Ward was once known as the “Bloody Fifth” for its violent atmosphere. It was the site of two major fires in 1891 and in 1912 that razed scores of blocks. Later, it became home to some of the city’s most prosperous black-owned businesses. Some of its famed residents have included U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, jazz pianist Joe Sample and heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman. In his acclaimed 1975 novel “Terms of Endearment,” writer Larry McMurtry captured some of Houston’s complexities in the contrasts between the wealthy River Oaks neighborhood (home to the story’s heroine, Aurora Greenway) and the working-class Lyons Avenue that is the main street of Fifth Ward (home to the devoted maid, Rosie Dunlup).
Of all of Houston’s wards, the Sixth Ward has best maintained its structural integrity over the past century. A small area filled with late Victorian-era houses and cottages, whose main thoroughfare is Washington Avenue, the heart of the Sixth Ward was officially placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 as the Old Sixth Ward Historic District. Also known for many years as the Sabine area (after a local street), this neighborhood was first settled by workers for the adjacent Houston and Texas Central (H&TC) Railway. Its architectural highlights include a beautiful two-story brick house, at 2018 Kane, built in 1906 in the Classical Revival style that is popularly called “The Queen of the Sabine” and the imposing St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, at the intersection of Kane and Houston Avenue, erected in 1901 after its predecessor was destroyed in the infamous 1900 storm.
Houston’s six wards died politically, but they have since been resurrected over the decades in other forms. The wards continue to not only live through their landmarks and their history, but also in various present-day guises, like nonprofit Community Development Corporations (CDCs), Tax Increment Redevelopment Zones (TIRZs), homeowner associations and other citizen-based organizations. These modern-day ward healers have replaced the ward heelers of yesteryear.
Some years back Mayor Lee Brown chose to initiate a citywide network of Super Neighborhoods to address the needs of all Houston’s communities. Among the ones created were the Second Ward (Super Neighborhood #63), the Greater Third Ward (SN #67), the Fourth Ward (SN #60) and the Greater Fifth Ward (SN #55). All of which seems to indicate that, no matter how much you suppress it, it’s hard to keep a good four-letter-Anglo-Saxon word out of people’s mouths.