Our Stories

“Now, We’re Together”

For seven years, a tide of financing and human capital has helped energize Houston's Near Northside. Today, the neighborhood is home to a bona fide community, resilient even in the wake of tragedy, with resident leaders equipped and determined to build a better quality of life.

On a 90-degree afternoon in May, Del Torres was closing up her ice cream shop across the street from Ketelsen Elementary when she heard the news: Josué Flores, a bright, 11-year-old middle schooler had just been murdered as he walked the seven blocks home from science club.

“My first thought when I saw his picture on the news was, ‘Oh my God, that’s my customer! He’s one of mine!’” Torres remembers. Every day at three o’clock, kids drift into Del’s for cones and snacks and to browse the books in her lending library. They know it’s a safe place to hang out when they need it.

Del Torres, owner of Del's Ice Cream Shop, stepped up as a community leader when Avenue CDC invited her to a planning meeting for a new park. Later, she attended a national leadership training for residents. "It was awesome," she says. "I never knew that other cities had the same problems we do."
Del Torres, owner of Del's Ice Cream Shop, stepped up as a community leader when Avenue CDC invited her to a planning meeting for a new park. Later, she attended a national leadership training for residents. "It was awesome," she says. "I never knew that other cities had the same problems we do."

Before the shock of his death had even settled, Torres, together with a slew of Northside residents, swung into action. They filled the Ketelsen school parking lot with volunteers and held a barbecue fundraiser for the Flores family that pulled in $30,000. A few days later, when parents were still too shaken to send their kids to school, they organized “Feel Good Field Day” to help restore families’ trust in the neighborhood. Another Northside native, Stella Mireles Walters, mounted a Safe Walk Home campaign, inspiring hundreds of volunteers to chaperone the morning and afternoon school commute. “The way to treat a tragedy like this is to do something to prevent it from ever happening again,” says Walters.

A less cohesive community might not have acted at all, or even fractured under the weight of such a tragedy.But seven years ago, the Near Northside, an historic Mexican-American neighborhood just beyond the downtown, began receiving injections of funding and resources as part of a LISC Houston pilot called GO Neighborhoods. (GO stands for “great opportunities.”) Organizing residents, and handing them the tools to create change, has been at the core of the effort. “A few years ago, we couldn’t have done this,” says Torres. “We weren’t a community then. Everyone was off by themselves, worried about their own thing. But now, we're together.”

One of many Northside memorials to Josué Flores, an 11-year-old who was murdered on the way from school in May. In the immediate aftermath, neighbors galvanized to monitor the school commute, keeping watch from street corners, parked cars and front porches.
One of many Northside memorials to Josué Flores, an 11-year-old who was murdered on the way from school in May. In the immediate aftermath, neighbors galvanized to monitor the school commute, keeping watch from street corners, parked cars and front porches.

Working through Avenue Community Development Corp., a relentlessly committed partner, LISC has invested more than $13 million to help make Northside a better place to live, with inviting, affordable housing and newly fortified neighborhood institutions and resources. That $13 million has leveraged another $65 million and counting. And the collaboration has propelled some 200 separate projects, built relationships with 260 partner organizations and embraced the donated labor of 14,000 volunteers.

At the outset, a group of older residents in a middle-class pocket of the Northside, with some time and bandwidth to spare, were the foundation of this activism. Now, there’s a far-reaching network of homegrown leaders from all kinds of backgrounds. They’ve formed civic associations and block watches. They make up eight “GO Teams,” tackling quality-of-life issues ranging from health and safety to culture to youth—a team run by high school students.

A "National Night Out" gathering getting underway at Avenue Place, a new complex of affordable, single-family homes for purchase developed by Avenue CDC. To date, Avenue has built 143 single-family homes in Near Northside, as well as 203 apartments. Another thirtynine houses and 156 apartments are currently in the works.
A "National Night Out" gathering getting underway at Avenue Place, a new complex of affordable, single-family homes for purchase developed by Avenue CDC. To date, Avenue has built 143 single-family homes in Near Northside, as well as 203 apartments. Another thirtynine houses and 156 apartments are currently in the works.

Today, you can hardly walk a block in the Near Northside without running into someone or something shaped by GO Neighborhoods. The neighborhood is peppered with well-used parks and public spaces, like the track and field at the high school, where seniors and young parents exercise after school. There are new, solidly built rental apartments and homes that families are able to buy. There’s a chamber of commerce now, and a Financial Opportunity Center where Northsiders are training for living wage jobs in the health professions, a big Houston industry that needs good workers.

Angela Guerrero (at left), an Avenue CDC organizer, meeting with colleagues. Guerrero got interested in community development after her grandmother's house, where she grew up, was repaired by a LISC and Avenue partner. That led to an internship, which led to a career.
Angela Guerrero (at left), an Avenue CDC organizer, meeting with colleagues. Guerrero got interested in community development after her grandmother's house, where she grew up, was repaired by a LISC and Avenue partner. That led to an internship, which led to a career.

Machell Blackwell, a lifelong resident of Northside public housing, has attended LISC leadership trainings to become a more effective organizer. Jimi Vasquez, a graphic designer grabbing lunch from a taco truck on a recent afternoon, pricks up his ears at the mention of Avenue. He's enrolled in the organization's pre-purchase class while he waits to buy a house at one of their new developments. "There's no other way I'd be able to afford a home here now," he says.

Sometimes, the reach of GO Neighborhoods is felt in surprising ways: A façade improvement grant at the corner of North Main and Winnie Streets helped install a security camera—the very one that caught an image of Josué’s killer, a troubled, homeless ex-Marine, and led to his arrest.

For many Northsiders, the path to engagement started with a block party, an invitation to a meeting, a knock on the door. And more often than not, Jenifer Wagley, Avenue’s deputy director, was the one doing the inviting and knocking. “You can really see how Robert Putnam’s theory of change plays out,” she says, referring to the Harvard political scientist who wrote Bowling Alone. “When people get involved socially, that can lead to civic engagement, which can lead to political engagement. Now, we don’t hold the convening role very tightly. The community owns this.”

Jenifer Wagley joined Avenue CDC seven years ago to introduce GO Neighborhoods to the Near Northside and organize residents. It's hard to meet a Northsider whose path hasn't crossed with hers.
Jenifer Wagley joined Avenue CDC seven years ago to introduce GO Neighborhoods to the Near Northside and organize residents. It's hard to meet a Northsider whose path hasn't crossed with hers.

That ownership was on full display one evening last month for National Night Out, a countrywide public safety campaign. The Northside was alive with 16 separate block parties and events, each spotlighting the urgent needs of the neighborhood, and the strength of its affinities. “We went from two or three events, to this,” says Wagley, who greets virtually every Northsider by name, because she’s coaxed them to a meeting, or connected them to an agency, a school principal, a new friendship.

Near Northside Slideshow

Machell Blackwell (left), a parent organizer who lives in Northside public housing, stands with Stella Mireles Walters, founder of the Safe Walk Home program. They spoke to neighbors and the press about safety and community on National Night Out.
The Near Northside, built by railroad workers in the late 19th century, fills just over four square miles of terrain close to downtown Houston. The light rail now extends into the neighborhood, long cut off from the city center by freeways.
Real estate prices in the Northside have been surging, locking out people like Jimi Vasquez, a graphic designer, who is on a waiting for an affordable home at Avenue Place.
Carlota Casiano helped put on the Feel Good Field Day at Ketelsen Elementary after Josué Flores' murder. She's active on many fronts, including with Northside Dogs, a project to raise awareness about the area's stray dog problem.
Avenue CDC organized a safety audit of Moody Park, inspiring new lighting and other fixes that led to a marked drop in crime there. Now it's a well-used public space.
Gwyn Guidy went from membership in her civic association to being a stalwart neighborhood spokesperson, leading the crusade for more and safer parks. The renovated Leonel Castillo Center is a nexus of organizing and education for the neighborhood.
Del Torres and neighbors at one of 16 National Night Out events that took place all over Northside. As a businesswoman and a co-founder of "Sabor de Northside," an annual festival of local food and culture, she knows how to bring people together.
Marie Arcos is the dynamic director of MD Anderson Family YMCA, whose membership has more than doubled in recent years. The Y offers a long menu of classes and programs, as well as an early childhood center. Members see the Y as "sacred space," she says.
An onslaught of speculative real estate development is tearing at the social and architectural fabric of Northside. Neighbors are fighting to pass minimum lot size ordinances that protect against the rampant building of market-rate townhouses (at left).
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Northside continues to face more than its fair share of challenges: incomes are still among the lowest in the city, there’s a large vagrant population, and a recent surge in street use of the dangerous synthetic marijuana known as kush has poked a hole in painstaking efforts to reduce crime. Pressure from speculative real estate developers gnaws at the character of the neighborhood, threatening displacement.

But Northsiders don’t retreat anymore. They see it as their collective job to make the neighborhood a stronger, more functional and comfortable place to live. For Marie Arcos, director of the MD Anderson Family YMCA, a Northside anchor, the single most dramatic sign of change in the last seven years is this: “People are asking for more.” They know their lives can get better, she says, and they know it has to start with them.

LISC has leveraged $65 million in Houston's Near Northside.