What It's Like Living in First Ward, Houston

From farmland to an artistic hub, the First Ward neighborhood in Houston is an ever-evolving cityscape that firmly maintains a connection to its past.

In the late 1800s, railroad employees working near Downtown Houston called the First Ward home. That commuting convenience remains a draw because the area’s boundaries easily connect residents to Downtown and the major interstates of I-10 and I-45, leading to many of the energy companies outside of the city’s 610 loop. First Ward dwellers also enjoy access to an arts community supported by local businesses from restaurants to retail. 

History

Because of First Ward’s status as one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, a portion of the area is a designated historic district known as the High First Ward. The name is derived from the division of the neighborhood into the High and Low First Wards from the 1840s when the First Ward was founded.

Back then, residential streets were lined with Queen Anne cottages and Craftsmen bungalows, and the neighborhood’s industrial side was characterized by warehouses and groceries run by European immigrants.

One of the original First Ward businesses, Montalbano Lumber, remains—still situated near the railroad lines where shipments of lumber have been unloaded for 119 years.

The First Ward is also the site of one of the city’s first fire stations. Built in 1903, Station 3 is no longer operational but the station’s motto "Trust in Us" is etched in stone on the building’s exterior. Now, the original wood floors are danced on by wedding parties who appreciate the historic patina of the fire station’s restoration into an events venue. 

Ghost sightings also add character to the First Ward, and spirits have allegedly appeared at the Elder Street Artists Lofts which was built on the grounds of a former cemetery from the late 1800s and one of the city’s first hospitals.

Culture

The First Ward is proudly part of the Arts District Houston, one of the city’s five state-designated Arts and Cultural Districts, making it a top destination to experience the local arts scene.

Home to over 300 artists, galleries, creative businesses, and nonprofit art organizations, Sawyer Yards anchors the Arts District in the First Ward. The 55-acre complex pays homage to the area’s industrial past and still-active railyard with six revamped warehouses filled with purpose-built studios and office space.

Each building hosts a rotating calendar of art exhibitions highlighting the work of resident artists as well as regional and national shows. Occasional large-scale installations take place at The Silos, where the interior of 34 former rice silos create an unconventional gallery space. Also, the Art Alley features 800 feet of vibrant murals painted by local and international artists, and it’s a favorite spot for photoshoots.

This creative campus is also the location for small theater productions, music festivals, and writing workshops. Second Saturday at Sawyer Yards, the regular open artist studio event, allows residents behind-the-scenes views, while the monthly and holiday markets are fun for perusing the booths of handmade jewelry, clothing, crafts, and specialty foods. 

On Houston Avenue, Station Theater hosts weekly improv shows, stand-up performances, and classes in a building covered with murals of David Bowie and Gene Wilder. Nearby, the Spanish-inspired cafe Cafeza hosts musicians, live podcasts, and painting sessions.

The Food Scene

The Sawyer Yards complex offers plenty of dining and drinking options to pair with its art scene. Spend an afternoon sampling Holler Brewery’s latest brews on tap and get to know the area by joining their running club. Poitin brings foodie accolades to the First Ward after Texas Monthly named their Southern-inspired menu one of the state’s best new restaurants in 2018.

Residents are anticipating the arrival of Buffalo Bayou Brewery’s new taproom and restaurant, which will include skyline views from its third-floor patio.

Since 1961, longtime First Ward dwellers have dined on classic and creative hamburgers at Stanton’s City Bites. Other popular spots along Houston Avenue include: Brussels Cafe, serving Belgian moules et frites; Spring Street Beer & Wine Garden, providing an outdoor patio for get-togethers; and R Bar, catering to sports fans in a former tire shop. Look for Paper Co’s blue door for coffee and lunch priced on a sliding scale so you can pay it forward as a karmic offering.

Neighborhood Activities

Despite the industrial backdrop, the First Ward isn’t lacking in greenspace. Hike and bike trails connect the neighborhood to scenic paths along White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou. The area’s high walkability is evident with easy access to the Greater Heights, Downtown, and its historic counterpart, the Old Sixth Ward. The First Ward Community Garden at the Elder Street Artist Lofts gives a hands-on opportunity to gardening fans.

What It’s Like to Live Here

The First Ward is a tight-knit neighborhood where newcomers quickly become part of the community thanks to the First Ward Civic Council, which regularly hosts community cleanups and safeguards the area’s historic character. Beautification efforts are often artistic endeavors, including a mosaic wall on Houston Avenue created by neighbors who covered 100 feet with handmade tiles depicting First Ward landmarks. 

This three-year project is one of the reasons why Kitty Shields, a resident since 2007, values the camaraderie as much as the convenience of living in this area. “After living in Houston for 40 years, the First Ward is the only place I’ve lived that I felt like I lived in a neighborhood,” she told Neighborhoods.com. “The First Ward is almost a microcosm of Houston in that it’s very diversified in terms of race, age, socioeconomic levels, and yet, harmonious.”

"The First Ward is almost a microcosm of Houston."

Prospective homebuyers are also drawn to the diverse housing inventory, which includes modern townhomes, renovated homes, and new construction taking inspiration from the First Ward’s original residences.

FW Heritage, fronted by husband and wife team and First Ward residents, Dominic Yap and Lin Chong, fills in vacant lots with one-story, single-family homes mindful of the area’s architectural origins. The variety of options from FW’s “respectful restorations” and townhome communities makes for an eclectic mix.

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