February 15, 2024

Project Row Houses: 30 years of art and community

Before renovations

In 1973, seven visionary Black artists created a unique experiment combining art, community enrichment and neighborhood development in what is now part of the Greater Southeast Management District.

James Bettison, Bert Long, Jr., Jesse Lott, Rick Lowe, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples, and George Smith bought 22 derelict shotgun houses on a block and a half in the historic Third Ward. Their vision of enriching a neighborhood community through art became the world-renowned Project Row Houses, now encompassing five city blocks and 39 structures.

“As we celebrate the 30th anniversary we are affirming that social sculpture is the blueprint for how community engagement, centered in creativity and free expression, can truly make a difference,” said Danielle Burns Wilson, interim executive director, curator and art director of PRH.

“Now one of the best-known and most enduring social sculptures in the country, if not the world, PRH proves every day that effective creative place-keeping and community engagement can inspire meaningful and sustained positive change,” she added.

“At the same time, we are affirming that you have a place here. You can take part in preserving vital cultural elements, elevating marginalized communities, and celebrating each success along the way. Your time and participation will help us demonstrate how challenges at the local level can be met with thoughtful solutions that bring about transformative and lasting change.”

Project Row Houses is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. You can visit the art houses and artist studios as well as local businesses such as Doshi House, for a cup of coffee, a yoga class, live musical performances and more

Through the PRH website, you can download a walking map and a digital guide for use on cell phones

More than this, Project Row Houses provides business incubators, affordable housing, and architectural preservation.

Project Row Houses and Rice Building Workshop created a series of row house-inspired duplexes on the blocks, immediately north of the original PRH row houses, to provide affordable housing for people in the community. Some of the first Row House CDC residents were participants in PRH’s Young Mothers Residential Program who, after graduating, were ready to secure longer-term housing — but wanted to remain in the PRH orbit.

Row House CDC’s mission is developing housing for low-to-moderate-income residents, public spaces, and facilities to preserve and protect the historic character of the Third Ward.

Besides preserving the shotgun homes, Project Row Houses this year completed the preservation of the nearby 1939 Eldorado Ballroom, an iconic structure that now serves as an event venue and cultural center.

On March 28, 2024, Project Row Houses celebrates its 30th anniversary with a three-part program including a happy hour, an urban soiree at Emancipation Park, and an afterparty at The Eldorado Ballroom.

So, what’s in store for the next 30 years?

“Continuing to respond to the community and be in collaboration with artists, neighbors, activists, and innovators to leverage positive transformation in our community,” Burns Wilson said. “Our model emphasizes both preservation and elevation: preservation of existing Black culture, traditions, spaces, and places, and elevation of the next generation or artists, neighbors, entrepreneurs, and the Third Ward diaspora: Engagement, art and direct action.”

Courtesy of PRH: Aerial photo by Peter Molick, historical photo by
Sheryl Tucker Vasquez

— by Marene Gustin