A fire creeps up in the smallest of ways.
On August 16, 2016, a Houston Chronicle article, “De Menil Plans Artist Enclave in Acres Homes,” detailed a new plan to build a development of fourteen single family houses for artists in Acres Homes, a historically Black neighborhood on the north side of the city. The homes would be in the $300-450,000 range, far higher than the median home price in the city in 2016: $230,000. The development is to be called NoLo Studios, a common real estate move to invent a new name that sounds like a high-rent New York City neighborhood (NoLo means North of the Loop). Though the press is new, it appears from what is available online that the efforts to develop Nolo Studios are not.
Of course, this happens all the time: developers build new housing with stratospheric pricing in working-class Black and Brown neighborhoods around the country without engaging in dialogue with community residents. The open debate happening in Los Angeles and in other cities around the country about gentrification is uncommon here in Houston, and rarer still is a substantive and critical analysis of what is happening. Though there are occasional pieces in the local daily, weeklies, and arts and architecture press, what is missing is a vibrant and systematic analysis of this process that considers the perspectives of local residents, especially Black and Brown folks.
The argument of this essay is that Nolo Studios is one small iteration of a larger problem in the city and nationwide, indicative of a slow but steady drift away from the more progressive elements of the Menil legacy. Though this development is not a project of the Menil Foundation board, I think it is an important flashpoint, since, as I will argue, the Menil name is being touted for private economic benefit at the expense of people the de Menils once fought alongside. It seems crucial to pause and think through what is happening here.
What is Acres Homes?
Once the South’s largest unincorporated Black community, Acres Homes is a place with a long story of struggle and creation, a neighborhood founded during World War I by African-American migrants from rural areas, moving into the city for increased opportunities and to escape racial violence. A neighborhood built from the ground up out of individual and collective struggles during horrific years of Ku Klux Klan activity, segregation, police brutality, red-lining, and abuse and neglect from all sectors of local government. A neighborhood established against all odds by a generation of people with hardly any distance from the stories of plantation enslavement. A neighborhood that has fought back—historically and in the present day—in the face of an awfully unjust and unequal burden in terms of health inequities, crime, police brutality, educational injustice, housing. A neighborhood in a perpetual struggle with white supremacy. By white supremacy, I mean an on-going and persistent cultural and economic system that perpetuates racializing inequalities born of centuries of exploitation, even if individual actors do not harbor bad intentions.
Despite this rich and complicated history, the Houston Chronicle article (and developers) talk about Acres Homes as an empty space with no residents: only pretty trees, chickens, horses and lots of room. This is how gentrification (and colonization) begins: by imagining a space as empty and under-utilized, dangerous and deficient, by publicly declaring it as such and then by moving in to take possession of the land for the exclusive use of the new arrivals. While there is a lot of debate in professional quarters about what gentrification might mean in an academic sense, the word is being used across the country to think about a phenomenon that goes beyond simple displacement. The impacts of this process in Black and Brown neighborhoods are legion and incontrovertible: not only the displacement of entire communities, but also a process of resignification whereby a neighborhood is stripped of its history and disconnected from its past. That’s what I mean by “gentrification” in this essay. The history of these communities is erased by a development logic that purports that nothing is actually there; a logic that argues that any development is better than nothing.
In a community that faces so many challenges, where median family income in 2000 was $29,130 and median individual income was $10,954, Nolo Studios’ unaffordable homes attempt to capitalize on the erasure of Black history and community-building, all in the name of a supposed benefit to artists.
One note for anyone looking to move into a neighborhood in Houston that is not historically their own: no need to rename the neighborhood. Nationwide, this phenomenon has become a tired cliché. If historical residents call the neighborhood East End, let’s not call it EaDo. If historical residents call the neighborhood Third Ward, let’s not call it Midtown. If a neighborhood is called Acres Homes, let’s not invent another name like NoLo. It’s offensive and wrong. Naming is important, is political, is a way of self-identifying. When a developer re-names a neighborhood, it enacts a kind of violence, an erasure, of that community and its history.
In the Chronicle article, Tim White, president of Acres Homes Super Neighborhood, asks, “Will they bring in parks? Green space? Things everyone can benefit from? What’s going to come along with it to help lift the community?” This is the perfect question. How can the wealth and reputation of the de Menils be leveraged to create real and positive change in Acres Homes and across Houston? What would this development look like if it had been created in conjunction with the local community and not through their exclusion? What might be able to be imagined out of this intervention if it were a real collaboration?
Who were John and Dominique de Menil?
The Houston Chronicle article states that Dominique de Menil “personified art and high culture here for decades.” On the one hand, this is true; she has come to personify the highest echelons of art and culture for a large swath of elite Houstonians. But for others, she personified something quite different: a commitment to human rights and to the use of a radical imagination and creativity in the face of crisis and conflict.
How should the de Menils be remembered, then? As Euro-elites enriching themselves and their family through oil extraction? Or as defenders of a progressive commitment to ending white supremacy?
Let’s turn to the second option for a moment: John and Dominique de Menil did work steadily in favor of human rights and interracial collaboration at a local level in Houston. Their contributions include the founding of the Rothko Chapel and the establishment of the Menil Collection, a free museum in the heart of the Montrose, one that was integrated with the existing homes and buildings in the neighborhood.
Throughout their time in Houston, the de Menils were intimately connected to Black leadership and had a deep respect for Black knowledge creation and Black self-determination. Throughout the heated days of unrest and uprising of the 60s and 70s, the de Menils found concrete ways to collaborate with Black leaders, activists and organizers. As current Texas Southern University Art Museum director Alvia Wardlaw and Black liberationist Deloyd Parker write in the book Art & Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil, the couple had an impressive ability to work for racial justice across lines of color and class: they funded an impressively early effort to catalogue and to think critically about the presence of people of African descent in art, titled The Image of the Black in Western Art, beginning in 1960. They supported one of the first racially integrated art shows at the De Luxe Theater in 1971 in another historically African-American neighborhood in Houston, the Fifth Ward: an exhibition that made art history for its expansiveness and its spirit of radical integration. These two philanthropists gave substantial funds to Black Panther and Black liberationist groups, like the SHAPE Community Center in the Third Ward. They also did battle with the city of Houston over the installation of the Barnett Newman obelisk sculpture, requesting that the city dedicate it to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr and then installing it in front of the Rothko Chapel when their gift was declined by the city.
The NoLo Studios project is so deeply disappointing because it is an utter abandonment of every political and social goal to which the de Menils dedicated their lives. Is this how Houston honors their legacy in 2016? The de Menils’ political goals were learned from liberationist thinkers of many stripes, but particularly from local, national, and global Black thinkers and activists. Of course, alongside their radical tendencies, the de Menils were also a wealthy European couple, who made their wealth from oil extraction through the Schlumberger corporation. Their contradictions establish a central paradox of the Houston art world: progressive at times, while concomittantly fueled by extractive capitalism.
So this is not just an issue with the details of one small development in one neighborhood on the north side of town; NoLo Studios is indicative of a larger lack of rigorous critical and structural analysis of the means for Black liberation in our contemporary moment. It is also indicative of a larger failure in local arts organization and museums, all of the artist community charged, in my view, with carrying forward diverse legacies of resistence and resilience.
I am saying that we need to call things by their names. In Houston, we have an unfortunate history of not calling things by their name. Desegregation happened behind closed doors with no dialogue or media attention. Rebellion and uprising like at TSU in 1967 or Moody Park in 1978 are not part of the historical memory of the city, despite critical efforts to redress that by local activists and artists. Police killings of Carl Hampton, José Campos Torres, Pedro Oregon, Ida Delaney, or Byron Gillum are not discussed as a key part of the city’s history, and are thus relegated to the dustbin. We have an unfortunate legacy of sweeping big issues under the carpet, even when steps are taken forward. We need to actually use words like “white supremacy” and know what they mean. This is one thing Dominique de Menil insisted on: if we change how we see and how we listen, if we change our very language, we might be able change how we think.
What is the Menil Foundation role in all this?
The member of the de Menil family supporting NoLo Studios is John and Dominique’s son, Francois de Menil, who—though a member of the Menil Foundation board—is not making investments on behalf of them. We can’t insist the son have the same ideals as his parents, as much as we might like that to be the case; he is an independent person, which is why this is really not about him or even just about NoLo Studios. It is about all of us, including the current Menil Foundation leaders.
Unfortunately, this development dovetails with other decisions by the Foundation that are detrimental for the community. For example: the Menil Foundation owns significant property in the neighborhood around the Collection building. The recent decision of the Foundation, then, to demolish the Richmont Square apartments in historically LGBTQ+ Montrose is perhaps one of their most disappointing. At a moment when affordable housing for artists, LGBTQ+ people, students and low-income people in the Montrose is practically non-existent, the Foundation decided to demolish the hundreds of units at Richmont Square in their vision for a larger and more integrated arts campus. This goes against the initial vision of an arts institution co-existing in harmony with the surrounding neighborhood. Imagine the difference it would have made for the Menil to stand with the community and declare it important for its mission to have a mixed-class community around it.
The challenge of any Foundation is to maintain the spirit of its founders in a manner that reflects the changing needs of its times. It is, then, startling to note that the 24-person Menil board is comprised of 23 Anglo/white members. Surely if the Board better reflected the diversity of the city, its actions would also reflect the Menil’s original interest in building and sustaining community. This interest is reflected in the explanation at Menil.org that “The Menil is also marked by the activism and spiritual pursuits of John and Dominique de Menil.” What is that mark though exactly and how does that mark figure in the contempory life of the Foundation?
So how do “we” do better?
This project to build an “artist enclave” in Acres Homes is not happening in a vacuum. This is about a larger battle going on. This is about how arts organizations and institutions—especially in Houston, where the art world is most blatantly tied to the politics of oil —are slipping away from any larger vision of empowering communities of color and creating cross-class and cross-race alliances. It is about how our era of timid non-profit boards and white-led organizations has caused us to turn a blind eye to structural inequality and continuing abuses and brutality against Black and Brown communities.
Let’s imagine a different “we” for a minute, one that includes the Menil Foundation, the De Menil family and all of us invested in continuing the best of the De Menil legacy. We need real actions and real creativity. We are poised on a precipice, a point of potential catastrophe as massive displacement happens in the inner loop, as whole communities are made invisible and undesireable at the same time. We are in dire need of imagination and collectivity.
We can be inspired by the collaborative actions of the de Menils in the 60s and 70s in conjunction with Black organizations, activists, and artists. Indeed, I argue, we have to be. We can look to the legacy of people like the de Menils, but even more importantly to the Black artists, organizers and thinkers who they learned from: Mickey Leland, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Alvia Wardlaw, Carroll Harris Sims, Deloyd Parker, Charles Freeman, John Biggers, Aimé Cesaire and more. These individuals have dedicated their lives to providing different models of community development and arts engagement; we have an embarrassment of riches to draw upon as we think creatively about how to move forward.
Though there are myriad and on-going attacks being made on Black and Brown communities in Houston, in our arts organizations there is a white-centric blindness that means these issues are rarely addressed in a substantive way. We have to ask pointed questions: what are we doing to work against the loss of affordable housing? To work for access to education in the most impoverished sectors of our city? What are we doing to use arts and culture to create a more just city for all its residents? How might we align ourselves with the Black Lives Matter movements and against police brutality? How can we work against the deportation machine that is causing so much hardship in immigrant communities in the city? Against the 287g agreement that allows our local sheriff to collaborate with ICE? How do we work in conjunction with community organizations leading this work in neighborhoods?
“White supremacy” sounds like a big and unwieldy term, but it is a result of a blindness that happens in the smallest and stealthiest of ways, and to analyze it and to work against its worst impacts, we have to dig deeper, think more critically, collaborate more actively across lines of class, color and ethnicity.
We have to learn how to be radically imaginative.
There are a lot of specific changes that could be made in regards to this one development and in regards to the direction of the Menil legacy more broadly, both in Houston and as a case study for others in other cities. This essay looks to provoke a thousand different approaches to making the necessary changes. It asks for a public conversation, it asks for action from you. It will take myriad strategies to combat the nefarious ways white supremacy and gentrification have taken root in our communities. There is no one answer, but this essay is asking for some accountability, for us not to just pass the buck down the road.
Without a doubt, residents of Acres Homes and other Black and Brown residents of other neighborhoods are already at the forefront of this conversation. If you don’t know about their work, make an effort to reach out, to listen to the stories, learn about the work and the demands being made. These communities are already agents. They are creating master plans and leading organizing campaigns through groups like Fe y Justicia Workers Center, Texas Organizing Project, Right2Justice and United We Dream. They are establishing coalitions and CDCs. They are organizing through the Black Lives Matter movement and against the deportation machine, organizing for criminal justice reform and educational equity. Hopefully, organizers, urban planners, activists and others will make concrete asks, suggestions and demands both of the Menil and of local developers and organization. This letter is not intended to make those demands, but rather to open up space for them to be heard.
This essay is not suggesting little changes or reforms to tweak the system; instead, I want to note how far astray we seem to have gone—in Houston particularly, in this moment especially—from a vision of profound community engagement, an end to white supremacy and liberation for Black and Brown people. This is a vision that John and Dominique de Menil attempted to champion, in spite of their faults and contradictions. How could we leverage the Menil legacy to create further change here in Houston? To create a model for a different kind of community-building?
In 1978, Dominique de Menil wrote a powerful letter to the Menil Foundation, a call to action that is just as relevant today as it was almost 40 years ago. She writes, “In front of such a situation, it is conceivable to take the attitude: there is nothing we can do about it. Political action is not the role of foundations. Let’s keep doing what we do well: buying and promoting art. But does this make sense? If a house is on fire, who wouldn’t save the children before the paintings? If the paintings can be saved, that’s wonderful, but let’s not forget the children. Human beings, people, come first.”
The house is already on fire.