Preservation and Pop Culture: A Tour of Houston's Third Ward

As the landscape of the historic Third Ward continues to change with the influx of modern townhomes rising next to traditional single-family homes, the area’s past remains proudly on display. Historic landmarks, preservation projects, and pop culture shout-outs teach new residents about the Third Ward’s past as an epicenter of the Civil Rights movement and its history of influencing the culture of Houston and beyond.

Located southeast of Downtown, the Third Ward is bordered by the Gulf Freeway (Interstate 45) providing easy access to nightlife in Midtown and the art scene in the Museum District. While Almeda Road was cut off from the neighborhood when the city build the freeway, the historically significant thoroughfare is very much still considered part of the neighborhood. 

Commuters take advantage of the area’s close proximity to the Texas Medical Center, and two major universities—University of Houston and Texas Southern University—call Third Ward home. Prospective homebuyers are also attracted to the neighborhood’s greenspaces like Emancipation Park and nearby Hermann Park for outdoor fun.

Emancipation Park

Emancipation Park
Photo by Joni Fincham

Anchoring the community is Emancipation Park, a 10-acre site with historic roots. The plot of land was purchased by four former slaves for Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the official abolition of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865. An abstract light sculpture in each of the park’s four corners serves as a tribute to the original founders. The park’s recent $33.5 million renovation includes a substantial upgrade to the park’s facilities.

Residents work out in the recreation center and cool off in the swimming pool. Hoops, tennis courts, and a baseball field offer plenty of recreation, and kids can enjoy the playground and splash pad while parents relax in the picnic areas. The large lawn hosts regular events like the Zydeco Festival, the King of Crawfish Festival, movie nights, and concerts. Park-goers on their way to the new Emancipation Park Cultural Center will find the park’s historical marker prominently displayed. In addition to this, UNESCO recently designated the park as a site in its Slave Route Project

The park borders Emancipation Avenue (previously known as Dowling Street), where shops like the still-operating Wolf’s Department Store and Pawn Shop were part of a vibrant shopping and entertainment district of African-American-owned businesses. The street’s recent Texas Main Street Designation aims to revive the once-bustling scene and attract new businesses.

Already joining the area is Soul Food Vegan, with crowds lining up for their plant-based take on boudin balls and burgers. Neighborhood-anchor coffee shop and hangout Doshi House is remodeling its space known for its lattes and “Vegetarian Victuals.” Nu-Waters Co-op brings fresh produce straight from their farm to the store. And no one can resist a peaches ’n cream stuffed cupcake from Crumbville, TX or a hug from owner Ella Russell.

Third Ward Music Legends

A mural on the Eldorado building.
A mural on the side of the Eldorado building. Photo by Joni Fincham. 

The Third Ward’s rich music history ranges from blues to Beyoncé. Famous blues and jazz artists, such as B.B. King, Count Basie, Etta James, and T-Bone Walker, all took the stage at the renowned Eldorado Ballroom, which occupied the second floor of the Art Deco building on the corner of Elgin Street and what is now Emancipation Avenue.

The nightclub was also instrumental in launching the careers of local legends like Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Sam “Lightnin” Hopkins, whose own historical marker is a block away. Occasional concerts and art happenings give residents the opportunity to experience this historic landmark.

But the neighborhood’s music history isn’t all in the past. A whole new generation has been introduced to the Third Ward thanks to the Knowles family. Beyoncé regularly name-checks her home turf from the “Miss Third Ward” sash in her “Pretty Hurts” video to naming her Ivy Park clothing line after Parkwood Park, where she would run with her father (the “Ivy” comes from her daughter, Blue Ivy Carter).

Younger sister Solange rented a house in the neighborhood to reacquaint herself with her childhood surroundings while working on the 2019 “When I Get Home” project. Her resulting album and accompanying film is full of Third Ward references, with a few tracks even named after local streets, like “S McGregor,” “Almeda,” and “Binz.”

Project Row Houses

The project row houses in the Greater Third Ward of Houston.
Photo by Joni Fincham

With a trip to Project Row Houses, residents can imagine how the streets in the Third Ward once looked when row houses were the common architectural style. 

The nationally recognized, community-driven nonprofit organization uses original row houses painted bright white to serve as gallery space for rotating public art installations highlighting themes of equality and civil rights. Art openings function as neighborhood gatherings with live music, performances, and arts and crafts for sale. Project Row Houses also supports the local community through housing and business incubator programs.

Texas Southern University

The YWCA Blue Triangle Branch building in the Third Ward of Houston.
The YWCA Blue Triangle Branch building in the Third Ward of Houston. Photo by Joni Fincham

“Homecoming,” Beyoncé’s recent Netflix documentary celebrating the cultural contributions of historically black colleges and universities, put Texas Southern University (TSU) in the national spotlight. Newcomers can initiate themselves with the school’s Battle of the Bands tradition by attending a TSU football game when TSU’s Ocean of Soul takes on the opposing marching band in alternating drumline performances.

The historical markers on TSU’s campus showcase notable alumni and faculty like the trailblazing politician Barbara Jordan and the influential African-American muralist John Biggers, who founded the school’s art department. Biggers’ legacy includes Hannah Hall, home to one of the largest collections of student murals in the United States.

Residents can also view Biggers’ mural depicting the work of famous African-American women at the historic Blue Triangle Y.W.C.A., just a mile from the TSU campus. The mural suffered major damage due to a roof leak during Hurricane Harvey, but the Blue Triangle Community Center worked diligently to raise funds to preserve and restore this Third Ward treasure. 

Almeda

A bowl filled with crawfish.
Crawfish similar to what is served at Bar 5015 on weekends. Photo by T.Tseng / CC BY 2.0

The same street where Houston’s first sit-in took place in 1960 is now home to the Third Ward’s most popular restaurants.

Green Seed Vegan’s portobello cheesesteak and sunflower walnut chorizo tacos will make you a regular, vegan or not. Jerk chicken paired with live reggae is on the menu at Reggae Hut. Lively crowds line up on Sundays to feast at Turkey Leg Hut, whose fans include Houston Rockets star James Harden. The party continues across the street at Bar 5015 where Etta’s Pop Up Brunch serves crawfish and mimosas every weekend.

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