Inside Houston's Third Ward
Inside Houston’s Third Ward is a three year photo-documentary I began in 1986, chronicling the lifestyles and culture of one of Houston’s most vibrant and historical African American communities.
The documentary emerged out of my fascination with the African American culture, something that had developed from my early interest in jazz music. In my late teens it wasn’t uncommon to find me at some of Houston’s most influential jazz clubs. Some favorites were the Jazz Connection on Caroline Street, Club LaVeek on Blodgett Street and Mum's Jazzplace on Main Street. There was also Rockefeller's Night Club on Washington Avenue that brought in touring jazz and blues artists. A brief favorite was a short-lived warehouse-like space on Main Street called Temple Chambers.
When I decided to major in photography at the University of Houston in the mid-1980’s, my documentary interests inevitably led me to the Third Ward. Here was a neighborhood that I would drive through each week to get to class, seemingly calling to me to come explore. It was a community that was not unlike one of Arnett Cobb’s unforgettable sax solos: free flowing, bright with color and piqued with guttural improvisation.
It’s no wonder I was immediately drawn to it. The Third Ward had been a hotbed for many notable jazz and blues artists for decades. That musical energy seemed to emanate from the streets every time I drove through it. Local legends such as Cobb, Jewel Brown, Sam “Lightnin” Hopkins, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland all lived here. During my years of documentation, little did I know that a young Beyoncé was growing up on the same streets.
When I started the documentary, I had no idea how the residents would respond to me: a skinny, white twenty-four-year-old kid looking to take their picture. I could only hope that my vulnerable demeanor might elicit their trust.
But on the first day of photographing the stage seemed to be set. It was then that I met the single connecting person to all of the other people and activities I would photograph over the next three years. His name was Roosevelt Gunnie.
I met Roosevelt on Drew Street when I stopped to photograph a man named Mr. Carter sitting in front of his home. Roosevelt was there visiting, and I ended up including him in some of the pictures with Mr. Carter. I told them about the documentary I was working on, and Roosevelt excitedly wanted to take me over two blocks to his home turf on Anita Street. There he introduced me to his wife, Ida, and a few nearby neighbors, all of whom graciously let me photograph them. Thus, this documentary was officially born.
I owe a great deal to Roosevelt. He ended up serving as an ambassador to his neighborhood for me over the following three years. In a way, Roosevelt was also exploring with me.
We met some great people like Cleveland Turner, aka, “The Flower Man.” A recovering alcoholic having recently come off skid row, Cleveland had a spiritual vision to bring some beauty into the world - with junk. A pact with God to keep him off Thunderbird wine in exchange for his new envisioned talent as “junk artist” led to Cleveland’s energetic drive to build upon his rented home with dumpster finds as if he were preparing for a major art exhibition. Combined with his uncanny knack to make anything grow, from cotton plants and banana trees to marigolds and rooster chromes, Cleveland’s home soon became the signature icon of the Third Ward.
Then there was Victoria Herberta, one of the few white people living in this community who, incidentally, had a 700 pound pet pig living with her. Victoria’s exterior home, unabashedly painted in lavender, was known as Pigdom and was committed as a “shrine to swine.” The front yard was ladened with appropriated road signs that read: “No Porking,” “Pignic Area,” “Slop” and “Hog Heaven.”
Everyday brought a new discovery, such as when I was driving past Second Pleasant Grove Baptist Church and noticed a “rent-a-sign” advertising a revival. I quickly made the acquaintance of Pastor Marion Reed, and arranged to document the Friday night service. What a night this was! Soulful and heartfelt gospel emanated throughout. The evening culminated with a vibrantly energetic sermon by Reverend Anthony Wilcots who led the congregants into a frenzied thirst for God. I was fortunate to have made an audio recording of the event that helps bring alive some of the images I took that night.
There is also the rodeo party that I documented at Molo’s Lounge. This connection came to me from meeting John Woods, who had a makeshift bicycle shop on a vacant lot across the street from Molo’s: the Sundown Low Rider Bicycle Shop. John was handling DJ duties that night, and told me about the event. This was undoubtedly one of the most memorable and fun shoots I had in the neighborhood. All of the club goers welcomed me enthusiastically, and this really helped in capturing some great candid moments that night.
There are many other wonderful people I encountered and photographed for this documentary that are too numerous to mention. But one more that is worth noting is Vincent Frank. Vincent was sort of the neighborhood junk collector. When I was introduced to him by Roosevelt, Vincent was only interested in having me take his picture with his collection of milk bottles.
Through our conversation, Vincent mentioned that he played accordion, so this certainly got my musical wheels spinning to capture him with his instrument. This led to a great relationship where I was able to photograph Vincent playing accordion on other occasions, as well as tape record and videotape him.
My dabbling into videotaping within this documentary was somewhat short lived aside from documenting Vincent. One other existing video is an interview I conducted with Roosevelt where he speaks about his life in the Third Ward. As Roosevelt took this video-op quite seriously, I was a little taken aback when I showed up at his house to do the filming. There Roosevelt was, clad in cowboy hat, western vest, plantation tie and boots ready for the big moment.
Unlike our numerous relaxed gab sessions at his house, the formality of videotaping seemed to throw us both at unease. Amidst the awkwardness, this interview is of such great historical value. Roosevelt talks not only of living in the Third Ward, but speaks of historical moments such as when President John F. Kennedy visited Houston.
I’m sure if President Kennedy had made a stop in Houston’s Third Ward, he would have marveled at the sincere honesty and joy of the human spirit found in many of its residents. To Roosevelt and his wife Ida, Vincent, Cleveland, Victoria and the host of others I met along the way, I find myself in endless gratitude. These wonderful people not only helped make me the photographer that I am today, but also the person I am today.
What a great gift I’ve been given!
Paul Vincent Kuntz June 2015
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