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Fifth Ward, Houston facts for kids

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Sign indicating the Fifth Ward

The Fifth Ward is a historical political district (ward) and a community of Houston, Texas, United States, about 2 miles (3.2 km) northeast of Downtown. It is bounded by the Buffalo Bayou, Jensen Drive, Liberty Road, and Lockwood Drive.

The Fifth Ward, one of the six wards of Houston, was created partly from two other wards, the First Ward, which ceded the area to the north and east of White Oak Bayou and Little White Oak Bayou, and the Second Ward, which ceded all land within the Houston city limits to the north of Buffalo Bayou.


Early history

Sign pointing to the Evergreen Negro Cemetery

In its initial history the Fifth Ward had many ethnic groups. Large numbers of the residents were Irish and Jews; the latter had fled pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, and lived mostly in the eastern parts, while the former lived mainly in the north. Richard West of the Texas Monthly characterized the early Fifth Ward as being "prosperous".

After the American Civil War, newly freed slaves (freemen) began settling in the sparsely settled area. In 1866, it became the Fifth Ward and an alderman from the ward was elected to Houston's City Council. By the mid-1880s, it was virtually all black, home to working-class people who made their livings in Houston's eastside ship channel and industrial areas or as domestics for wealthy Houstonians. Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, founded in 1865 by a former slave, is the oldest church in the ward. Five other churches are over a hundred years old. Also home to the famous "Island of Hope (Anderson Memorial Temple) COGIC" the oldest Pentecostal church in Fifth Ward. Over the years it had been home to the city's minority and immigrant population. Additional waves of Irish people, as well as Germans and Italians settled the Fifth Ward.

In the late 1800s the Fifth Ward community threatened to secede from the city of Houston twice, in 1875 and 1883. Complaints about inadequate municipal services, including fire and police services, lighting, sanitation, and drainage, occurred during this time period. The 1875 secession complaint asked for the paving of streets and upgrades to the utility system. The city government ameliorated the 1883 complaits by establishing a drawbridge at San Jacinto Street that crossed the Buffalo Bayou. It paved parts of Odin Avenue, now known as Lyons Avenue, in brick in the 1890s. The pavement ended two blocks after the residence of Mayor of Houston John T. Browne.

Great Fifth Ward Fire
The aftermath of the Great Fifth Ward Fire in 1912.

On February 21, 1912, with stiff Northern winds blowing in, the largest fire in Houston's history began. This fire became known as the "Great Fifth Ward Fire". The strong winds spread the fire as embers set wood-shingled roofs on fire. It consumed a church, school, 13 industrial plants, eight stores, and 119 homes, mostly located in the Fifth Ward. There were no deaths, but there was over $3 million in property damage.

Post-World War I to the mid-20th century

In the post-World War I period the neighborhood makeup changed as a wave of African-Americans settled the Fifth Ward. The housing density increased as families put more people in each building in order to pay their rent. The buildings, occupied by too many people, began to deteriorate. Some Jewish people remained as landlords, but most of them moved away, with many of them going to New York City, including Bronx; and Long Island.

Before desegregation the community housed African-Americans of all occupations and income levels. The community was known as the "bloody Fifth" because of some highly publicized violent incidents in the neighborhood; Michael Berryhill of the Houston Press stated that the Fifth Ward was not as blighted in the 1940s as it was during the 1990s. Robb Walsh of the Houston Press described the 1930s era Fifth Ward as "one of the proudest black neighborhoods" in the US; more than 40 black-owned businesses were along Lyons Avenue in the Fifth Ward at that time.

In the post-World War II period a large number of black migrants, many of them from Louisiana and some from East Texas and other areas in the Deep South, settled the Fifth Ward. The community became characterized by poverty since many of these migrants were unable to get non-menial jobs.

In 1949 Brown & Root began buying land in the Fifth Ward for its headquarters.

The city government established some pocket parks and added pavement, gutters, and curbing to several streets in the southernmost part of the Fifth Ward in the period 1964-1974, during the term of Mayor of Houston Louie Welch.

1970s and 1980s

House in the Fifth Ward, 1973, as pictured in a photo by Danny Lyon.

Desegregation lead to middle class African-Americans to move to the suburbs. By the 1970s the Fifth Ward lost a significant part of its population, and many houses were boarded-up. Many area businesses were vacant and the area had many vacant lots with overgrown plants. In 1974 Whit described the neighborhood as "one of Houston's poorest ghettos". In the 1970s and 1980s the Fifth Ward became notorious throughout Houston for the violence perpetrated in the community. Ernest McMillan, a community activist and contributor to the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program, said in a 1987 Houston Chronicle article that "One of the differences between this neighborhood and one like River Oaks is that they have lots of support and all kinds of resources available. Here in the Fifth Ward it's the exact opposite: These people have no resources at all. There's one clinic, one library, no YMCA, very few activities, and the community is very fragmented. It's not the kind of environment that helps a child excel."

As of 1979 the median income in the Fifth Ward was $5,030 ($14766.08 adjusted for inflation), 25% of Fifth Ward residents had high school diplomas, and 34% of Fifth Ward residents lived below the poverty line. The respective citywide averages were a median income of $9,876 ($28992.01 adjusted for inflation), a percentage of those with high school diplomas of 52%, and a poverty line percentage of 10%. By 1979 only a few Italian American families remained in the Fifth Ward. By that year, black flight from the Fifth Ward to Kashmere Gardens, South Park, Sunnyside, and Trinity Gardens had occurred.

West wrote in 1979 that about 90% of the Fifth Ward was characterized by "physical ugliness" and "poverty" while there are some middle class "pockets of affluence" that do not have physical indications of troubled neighborhoods. At the time the Fifth Ward was more dense in terms of population than most Houston neighborhoods. The average Fifth Ward housing density was 9.14 and there were 30.5 persons per residential acre, while Houston's citywide average density and persons per residential acre were 4.98 and 14.4, respectively. In addition, 21% of city blocks had no drainage systems, while 39% had open ditches and 40% had storm sewers. West stated that the Fifth Ward's physical character was not like that of Harlem in New York City or Roxbury in Boston. In 1974 Whit Canning of Texas Monthly stated that the Fifth Ward was characterized by a "project-type apartment complex", "narrow streets" and "small stores". West wrote that the Fifth Ward had its environment "out in the open, on the street" and that it had "more barbershops, pawnshops, churches, loose dogs, abandoned buildings, bars, broken windows" while there were "fewer sidewalks, streetlights, fire hydrants, culverts, curbs, parks, jewelers, museums, libraries, garbage trucks."

In 1970 metal manufacturer Moncrief-Lenoir Manufacturing Company planned an urban renewal project, spending $10 million to buy bought 20 acres (8.1 ha) of land along Lyons Avenue's western end, but nothing was built by 1979. It was scheduled to be one of the largest urban renewal projects in the United States.

1990s and onward

Between 1990 and 2000 the Hispanic population of the Fifth Ward increased from around 19% of the population to around 31%. In 2000 the median annual income was $8,900. 62% of its residents lived below the poverty line. 9 of 10 school-aged children qualified for free or reduced lunches. The commercial streets had several empty buildings and vacant lots. Lisa Gray, a journalist in the Houston Press, stated in a 2000 article that the existing businesses "run mostly to dingy mom-and-pop operations, grim little grocery stores and cheerless liquor stores. There's no McDonald's, no Fiesta, no Target, no Wal-Mart. It's turf where national chains fear to tread." Gray added that the words "new" and "nice" were not often associated with the Fifth Ward, while "at-risk," "crime," and "poverty," were. Walsh said that the Fifth Ward in 2002 was "in much better shape" than it was in the 1970s; he added that while the Fifth Ward is "hardly a garden spot," the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation took many steps to improve the community including assisting low income borrowers in finding loans, encouraging architects to develop "innovative designs" for low income housing, and bringing commercial building projects into the Fifth Ward.

Japhet, a section of the Fifth Ward at Emile Street at Clinton Drive (two blocks east of Hirsch Road/Waco Street), was the Houston Press 2004 "Best Hidden Neighborhood." The article stated "Say the words "Fifth Ward" to most Houstonians, and they'll think crime, poverty and desperation." The article added that Japhet is "more like a village than anything else -- fragrant organic gardens are everywhere, bursting with vegetables, fruits and flowers, and the whole neighborhood comes together for a big party every full moon."

In 2007 the Fifth Ward was one of several Houston neighborhoods with a high concentration of felons. During that year a debate regarding the ownership of the historic Evergreen Negro Cemetery in the Fifth Ward continued. Some Hurricane Katrina evacuees also moved from Southwest Houston and lived in other parts of Houston such as the Fifth Ward.


"Big Tree," a tree in an area where Interstate 10 and U.S. Route 59 (Eastex Freeway) now intersect, historically has been the center of activity in the Fifth Ward and was in proximity to the terminus of the streetcar line.

Lyons Avenue, serves as a primary road in the Fifth Ward. In 1979 West wrote that Lyons Avenue, named after saloon owner John Lyons, served as the "Soul Street" of Houston, declaring it equivalent to 125th Street in Harlem, 47th Street in Chicago, South Street in Philadelphia, Seventh and T in Washington DC, Tremont Street in Boston, and Springfield Avenue in Newark, New Jersey. In the 1920s the Lyons family owned many businesses along the street, originally named Odin Avenue after the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, John Mary Odin. The street received its current name in 1927.

As of 1979 the intersection of Lyons Avenue and Jensen Drive was called "Pearl Harbor" due to many violent incidents occurring there.

The southern edge of the Fifth Ward, along the Buffalo Bayou, housed farms in its early history before becoming a host of slums and the city dump by the 1920s. Cleanup of this area began when Brown and Root began establishing its headquarters in the late 1940s.

The 359-acre (145 ha) Englewood Radar Yard, located in the eastern end of the Fifth Ward, is 4.5 miles (7.2 km) long. The railyard, owned by Southern Pacific. includes a wood preservation plant. This plant, as of 1979, gives a distinct odor that caused area Mexican Americans to name it el Creosote. In 1979 Englewood Radar Yard was the largest railyard in the Southern United States.


In 1922, a group of Louisiana Creoles organized the Fifth Ward community of "Frenchtown," which contained a largely Roman Catholic and Creole culture. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 forced many Creoles to leave Louisiana, and they settled the Frenchtown area. When new residents no longer moved to Frenchtown, the neighborhood culturally merged with the greater Fifth Ward.


Mount Vernon United Methodist Church serves as the Fifth Ward's oldest church

Lisa Gray, a journalist for the Houston Press, stated in a 2000 article that the Fifth Ward has an overall sense of history and a "small-scale, deep-rooted personal history, the way that, in the middle of the city, lives are intertwined in a small-town way." Many families from the area had lived in the Fifth Ward for several generations.

In previous eras, African-Americans of all social classes lived in the Fifth Ward; African American professionals patronized businesses. After the end of segregation, African-American professionals began to patronize other neighborhoods, and members of the African American middle class moved out of the Fifth Ward.

The north-south Southern Pacific Transportation Company railroad tracks separate the Fifth Ward from Denver Harbor. David Benson, an assistant to Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee, described the railroad line as "a semi-permeable membrane." In the 1990s many Fifth Ward African-Americans went into Denver Harbor to shop at the area supermarket and stores, while the Denver Harbor Hispanics rarely entered the Fifth Ward.

Richard West of the Texas Monthly wrote in 1979 that within the Fifth Ward one's personal status "is determined less by what you have than by personal qualities of wit and style and by what you know of the power structure of the street".


Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, founded in 1865, is the community's oldest church, and the Fifth Ward has six churches that, as of 2011, are over 100 years old. Kate Shellnutt of the Houston Chronicle said that the historic church facilities "have been community strongholds."

In 1979 the largest church in the Fifth Ward was the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, with 5,600 members.

The Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church, completed in 1930 by Creoles for Creoles, serves as a social center for the Frenchtown neighborhood.

Community services

Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation is a nonprofit community-based agency located in Houston’s historic Fifth Ward community. Kathy Payton is the President and CEO of Fifth Ward CRC which was founded in direct response to a period of negative migration – when businesses were fleeing the community, public schools were closing, school dropout rates and teen pregnancies were increasing and the community as a whole was being decimated by the prevalence of multiple social and economic ills. In 1989, the community responded to the devastation in the Fifth Ward when civic leaders, business owners, ministers and educators came together to establish a point of positive systemic change and Fifth Ward CRC was formed. Since its inception, the organization has operated under the same name, without change. The Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation (FWCRC) is to serve as a catalytic organization dedicated to the collaborative fostering of holistic community development.

Since its inception in 1989, Fifth Ward CRC has built 300+ new homes, two multifamily complexes totaling 336 units, two commercial developments, four public art installations and two community gateway monuments. It has preserved and renovated two of the most significant landmarks in the area—the historic St. Elizabeth Clinic and the historic Lonnie Smith house. To support homeownership and enhance affordability, the organization has provided more than $500,000 in second mortgages to those in need – loans averaging between $5,000 and $30,000 that benefited more than 70 individuals and families. Fifth Ward CRC's corporate offices are located at 4300 Lyons Avenue, Houston, Texas 77020.

Community Partners operated community services in the Fifth Ward.

The Human Organizational Political and Economic Development, Inc. (HOPE), the second-ever antipoverty agency in Houston, was based out of three buildings on Lyons Avenue as of 1979. It operated a Black Arts Center and the Roxy Theater, and published the Voice of Hope. Methodist minister Reverend Earl Allen worked to establish the agency, funded with $27,000 ($172314.00 adjusted for inflation), was established in the summer of 1967. John de Menil was instrumental in providing funding, and HOPE encountered financial difficulty's after de Menil's 1973 death. The Emergency School Aid act provided $164,000 ($535643.81 adjusted for inflation) in September 1978, and the National Endowment of the Arts stated that it was going to give a grant of $15,000 ($48991.81 adjusted for inflation) one month later.

FORGOTTEN DOGS OF THE FIFTH WARD is a group of dedicated volunteers who help the forgotten and abandoned animals of the 5th Ward, offering animals in need help with placement in a no kill rescue, and assist the residents of this area with food, vetting and pet care as needed.

Parks and recreation

Finnigan Park

Finnigan Park and Community Center, operated by Harris County Precinct One, is located at 4900 Providence. The park has a lighted sports field, a swimming pool, lighted tennis courts, a .65 mile hike and bicycle trail, and a playground. The community center has an indoor gymnasium, a weight room a kitchen and a computer room. In May 2011 the city announced that it is closing Finnigan Pool.

The Swiney Community Center, operated by the City of Houston is located at 2812 Cline. The center has a playground and an outdoor basketball pavilion.

The city will establish the Fifth Ward Future Park at 4700 Clinton, 77020.

The Julia C. Hester House serves as a settlement house and community center. As of 1979 it offers youth activities and community services, and it is a part of the United Fund. It was originally known as Houston Negro Community Center of the Fifth Ward, but it received its current name before its opening. A biracial committee established the center in 1943 to improve the education, health, and welfare of Fifth Ward residents. It originally used rented facilities on Lyons Avenue, before moving into a $150,000 building on Solo Street in 1949; the center has occupied the Solo Street building since then. West wrote that in the Fifth Ward the Hester House "is as much an institution as Wheatley High."

The Northeast Family YMCA serves residents of the Fifth Ward.


Fifth Ward/Denver Harbor Transit Center

Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas (METRO) operates bus routes. The agency operates the Fifth Ward/Denver Harbor Transit Center on Lockwood Street.

Prior to 1952 electric streetcar services were available on Lyons Avenue. Buses with steel wheels used these tracks during the late 1950s.

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