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Project Row Houses

In 1993, a group of high school students came to visit artist Rick Lowe’s studio. Lowe had recently moved to Houston’s Northern Third Ward, one of the city’s oldest African American communities, and his work commented on social issues he saw around him. In teenage fashion, one of the students spoke up bluntly. "That work doesn’t change anything," he said. Then he went on to pose this challenge: if Lowe is an artist, why doesn’t he come up with creative solutions?

This got Lowe to thinking. Inspired in part by African American muralist John Biggers, who painted black neighborhoods of shotgun houses as places of pride not poverty and German artist Joseph Beuys who addressed how people shape their worlds, Lowe engaged six other African American artists—James Bettison (1958-1997), Bert Long, Jr. (1940-2013), Jesse Lott, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples, and George Smith. Together they began to explore how they as artists could be a community resource and catalyst for change. Upon discovering 22 abandoned shotgun style row houses, they found their medium. This is how the PRH story began.

The program has since expanded to a variety of community-based initiatives, all of which use the arts as a means of development. Since 1993 PRH has grown from the original block of twenty-two houses to forty properties, including twelve artist exhibition and/or residency spaces, seven houses for young mothers, office spaces, a community gallery, park, low-income residential and commercial spaces.

All of the arts and cultural programming of PRH is referred to as “Public Art,” developed to respond to, involve and reflect the community. In PRH philosophy, arts and community are integrally necessary for each other– art is not viable without community and community is not viable without art.

PRH continuously evolves to address needs in its community. In 1996, PRH developed the Young Mother’s Residential Program (YMRP). Many young, single mothers are forced to discontinue their education in order to raise families – often perpetuating a cycle of poverty. YMRP assists low-income single mothers and their children to achieve successful, independent lives by providing up to two years of subsidized housing, counseling for personal growth and parenting skills, and most importantly, a supportive, nurturing community.

Similarly, in 2003, PRH assembled a new entity, The Row House Community Development Corporation and started buying land and buildings in order to protect the historic character of the neighborhood against encroaching gentrification.

The work of PRH remains a leading example of how communities can be saved and reborn from within. We had a chance to talk with Rick Lowe on our podcast Social Design Insights. Listen to Episode 23 | How do we make life into art, and vice versa? here.