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One night in December, house movers plopped the beat-up bungalow onto the empty double lot at 3705 Lyons.
They didn’t appear to have done a good job. The little pink house sat both backward and crooked on the bedraggled lot. The front door only sorta-kinda faced the back fence.
But the neighbors didn’t complain. The Fifth Ward is full of weird empty houses on weedy lots.
Then, early this summer, a couple of white guys showed up. First they pried off the portico that once sheltered the house’s front door. Then they started generally smashing the place up, gutting the interior walls that held it up and replacing them with a thicket of wooden supports nailed at bizarre angles.
One day, Sherman Miller, who lives across the intersection, ambled over and asked the guys what they were doing. They said something about making the house into art. So he asked if they had any work for him.
He thought they were crazy. But they paid in cash.
Six years ago, the white guys – Dan Havel and Dean Ruck – smashed up a couple of other bungalows, and in the process, created Inversion, one of the most astounding of pieces of art that Houston had ever seen. A giant horizontal vortex, made from the bungalows’ own wood siding, seemed to rip through the houses – a sight that literally stopped traffic on Montrose Boulevard.
It was public art that the public loved. People who never set foot in galleries asked their neighbors whether they’d seen it. Parents snapped photos of their kids crawling into the funnel’s mouth; dog owners snapped photos of their mutts peeking out the little hole at its tail. Pranksters stuck Realtors’ signs out front. Inversion appeared on Christmas cards, newspapers, magazines and the TV news. And naturally, it was a Web sensation.
But it was easy, too, to read meaning into the spectacle. Montrose, like other neighborhoods, was gentrifying fast. Its bungalows and other old houses were disappearing; townhouses and highrises seemed to appear overnight, out of nowhere. The time-space continuum seemed in flux. The past was being sucked into the future. A vortex was ripping through.
You were free to decide whether that vortex was good or bad. Obviously, the Art League of Houston – which had commissioned Havel and Ruck – thought it was great: The Art League was about to replace its cramped pair of bungalows with a brand-new building, one with galleries designed to be galleries and classrooms designed to be classrooms. Inversion was intended as a way to send the old, not-quite-right houses off in style, a temporary way to connect to the public, an artful way to make way for the new art space.
It worked almost too well. After the better part of the year, when the Art League finally demolished the work that was always supposed to be temporary, some Houstonians were sad or angry; they’d wanted Inversion to last. The Art League responded by naming its new coffee shop Inversion. And now, embedded in the reflective window facing the parking lot, there’s a big photographic image of Inversion The longer you look at it, the stranger it seems: a permanent picture of a temporary artwork; a shiny, glassed-in window celebrating a rough wooden hole; an unchanging snapshot of something all about change.
Fifth Ward Jam, as Havel and Ruck call the piece they recently finished, isn’t at all a copy of Inversion. Jam is made from one bungalow instead of two, and it has multiple vortexes, not just one. In front of all the wooden chaos, there’s an area that could serve as a stage. But anyone who remembers Inversion will immediately recognize Jam as its kin.
The main difference, really, is the site: The Fifth Ward is wildly different from arty, gentrifying Montrose. In the past decades, change has crept in, here and there – a new-ish apartment complex sits directly across Lyons Avenue from Jam – but the neighborhood remains much the same: mostly African American, mostly poor. Weedy lots and vacant houses are problems here; gentrification and whirlwind change are not.
Ruck and Havel scrounged much of the stuff they nailed onto the house. They reused much of the house’s own pink siding. Other inch-thick bits of flotsam and jetsam came from the city’s ReUse Warehouse, which recycles building material that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
But the big stuff they needed to create Jam – the money, house and real estate – came from official sources: the Houston Arts Alliance and the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corp. “Dean and I were asked to ‘revitalize the neighborhood,'” Havel said, staggering back and rolling his eyes: That’s a lot to ask from a piece of art.
But on that recent Monday evening, before Jam’s official debut on Oct. 1, the artwork was at least enlivening that stretch of Lyons. Cars slowed down so drivers could get an eyeful; bicyclists stopped; drivers asked questions. Recently, Havel said, a Metro driver stopped his bus to take a photo.
But will people leave the street to come hang out there? Jam is supposed to last about two years before time and termites take their toll. In that time, will its newly, lightly landscaped lot function as a little park, as the Arts Alliance and CRC hope? Now that they’ve built it, will people come?
Havel likes imagining Jam’s stage taken over by politicians or preachers. He likes the idea of kids investigating Jam, trying to find out where its vortexes lead. And he likes the idea that people might hang out at the park’s round white concrete picnic tables, the kind that grandmas have in their backyards.
But most of all, he likes the idea that Jam might be taken over by a new generation of Fifth Ward musicians: rappers or anyone else who could use a free stage. He loves the Fifth Ward’s rich music history – loves knowing that Lyons Avenue, in the ’40s and ’50s, had a legendary music scene. Peacock Records recorded R&B and gospel greats there; among them, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Texas Johnny Brown, Big Mama Thornton, and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. The record company’s sister club, The Bronze Peacock, hosted acts like T-Bone Walker and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Havel is thrilled that the Jam’s opening celebration included a scheduled performance by Texas Johnny Brown, once Peacock Records’ house guitarist.
Inversion’s vortex seemed to whip Montrose out of its past and into a future that was arriving all too fast. Jam’s gentler vortices connect Fifth Ward’s past to its present – and its future.
“Do you still think we’re crazy?” Ruck asked Miller.
“No,” Miller said. Then he paused a couple of seconds to think. “Well,” he corrected himself, “maybe half crazy.”