HOUSTON: Plan to Gentrify East Houston Faces Early Opposition

Photo: Artist rendering of mixed-use “East River” project, part of nonprofit Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s plans to gentrify the Fifth Ward and East End.

By Jennifer Kelly

Over the last month, Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP), a nonprofit comprised of developers, real estate agents, and city officials, has revealed its plan to gentrify east Houston, particularly the Fifth Ward and East End. From the moment its plans were made public, BBP has faced continuous and growing resistance from activists and residents, including the disruption of a BBP panel, the appearance of anti-gentrification graffiti, and political agitation in the local neighborhoods.

These historic Black and Chicano neighborhoods, which have long been defined in part by industry along the bayou, have been burdened with growing redevelopment for the past decade. BBP plans to turn the industrial sites of the area into large parks and gardens and to build new luxury developments in order to attract wealthier residents and raise property values.

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Artists rendering of “Adventure Park” concept as part of BBP development plans.

On Monday October 28, a few days after announcing the plans, BBP hosted a “Panel Discussion” in downtown Houston where representatives intended to field questions on their development plans.

As they enjoyed their complimentary wine, the small group of investors, nonprofit leaders, and developers had their panel disrupted by a small group of activists. The activists chanted before standing in front of the panel with a banner and giving a speech where they made it clear that the working class was going to fight their plans for gentrification. “Your plan will fail,” one activist said, “because the masses will fight it every step of the way, we will fight it every step of the way.”

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Activists disrupt BBP Panel Discussion, banner reads “Defend East Houston! Combat & Resist Gentrification!”

The activists were able to speak and chant for almost 10 minutes unopposed before the attendees began to try to physically remove them. One BBP member gloated, “You know we’re being paid a lot of money to be here?” while others taunted the activists that they would be arrested and sent to jail.

One elderly attendee attempted to physically assault the activist giving a speech but the activist evaded him. The activists stayed almost 15 minutes before a police officer arrived and escorted them out, and they continued to chant as they left.

The activists continued to chant outside of the building until the panel was over and the police were forced to escort many attendees, who feared even a small display of the people’s anger, to their cars.

This was not the first expression of opposition to the plan. Two days prior, before BBP publicly showed off the plans at a celebration on October 26, graffiti opposing the plan appeared outside the former industrial site used to host the event.

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Graffiti reads “Defend East End! Fight Gentrification!”

At the October 26 event, BBP members and associates from other companies along with politicians like Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo, both listed as honorary members of BBP, gave speeches to a crowd of prospective gentrifiers. While Mayor Turner told the crowd that the plan had the city’s backing, Hidalgo assured them that leading up to the park’s construction they would be increasing policing in the area. This common prelude to large scale redevelopment projects has the effect of brutalizing the working class and oppressed nations residents before displacing them.

BBP admits in their meetings and public documents that there is currently no timeline for the development plan, beyond seeking to start some part of it in the next year. Representatives have revealed that the plans currently lack any funding and that the majority of the funding will come from private sources, mainly developers.

In statements to the press, at the panel and the celebration, BBP spokespeople have tried to mislead the masses with talk about “equity” and placate concerns about displacement. These claims actively cover up the connections between BBP, the city, and developer interests.

Among BBP’s board members is one Jonathan Brinsden, president of the development company Midway and a former vice chair of the BBP board. Midway is behind the forthcoming 150-acre “East River” development slated to be built in stages over the next 20 years on the bayou between East End and Fifth Ward, a massive mixed-use development which would include luxury housing, corporate offices, and high end retail and restaurant spaces. Developers are already building new luxury developments in East End in anticipation of East River’s completion.

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Jonathan Brinsden of Midway, BBP Board Member

BBP has repeatedly lied to residents and activists about its affiliation with Midway and Brinsden, stating that he has never been a member of their board and that they have no connection to him. However, BBP’s own website quotes Brisden as the one who reassured the Houston Chronicle that BBP doesn’t want to call their plans “gentrification,” framing it instead as an effort to connect the two neighborhoods, also noting Midway’s excitement about the project.

BBP was set to have a fundraising gala on November 8, with table prices in the tens of thousands of dollars, for the explicit purpose of raising money for their “Buffalo Bayou East Master Plan,” but at the last minute canceled the event due to inclement weather.

Meanwhile, activists have gone door to door, through parks, and on public transit in the area to organize the residents against the plan and the gentrification that will follow it.

Residents and local small business owners have been enthusiastic about organizing against BBP’s plans. One local mechanic, Leo, who has been living in the area for 40 years, told Incendiary that he was excited to see people fighting back against gentrification. He said he knew his family wouldn’t be able to stay if these plans went forward. At a local skate park many young people told activists they were excited to join the fight and they were outraged that their park couldn’t even get lights so it could be used after dark while the developers planned to build botanical gardens and outdoor rock climbing parks.

The activists and residents who have already begun to struggle against BBP’s plans join a growing anti-gentrification movement across the country that does not ask for reforms to displacement but combats the fundamental systems of capital behind gentrification that rearrange cities for the benefit of the petty bourgeoisie and bourgoisie. The more that the people take up this fight on revolutionary terms, the sharper the contradiction between the exploiters and exploited will become.