Sawyer Heights emerges as creative hub for Houston

Pocket of First Ward includes art studios, creative spaces, galleries, shops

HOUSTON – Houston may not be widely known as an arts and entertainment destination on a global scale quite yet, but its residents are certainly making a case to grow its reputation in Texas as a place to experience fine art and culture.

And there is an old neighborhood that is re-emerging as a creative hub for the city. Tucked in a corner of the historic First Ward is a compound of art studios, creative spaces, galleries and shops bordered by railroad tracks along Sawyer Street and Washington Avenue.

"When I first viewed (the area), I was really intrigued by the lack of redevelopment in the First Ward," said John Deal, a developer who invested in the area in 2004. "I think there was -- I counted a single new townhome."

Deal bought his first piece of property and then went on to create the Silos and Winter Street Studios, a space to house dozens of working artists and creative types.

"There are 400, plus or minus, artists, which is second only to a community that's in Los Angeles," Deal said.

In fact, since 2004, a variety of shops and studios have grown up around the space, including Sawyer Yards, a stretch of retail spaces. The pocket of First Ward has come to be known by some as Sawyer Heights.

It is one of six cultural districts designated within the city of Houston, something that the Houston First Corp. contends is a major selling point for tourists.

"Increasingly, we're seeing that needle move in terms of wanting to experience the museums, the art galleries, the cultural districts that make Houston very unique,” said A.J. Mistretta, of Houston First.

The Sawyer Heights area was also a popular spot for revelers during Super Bowl week in February. It was the site of the temporary mega-venue Club Nomadic, which hosted about 9,000 guests per night the weekend of the big game.

"Super Bowl week here was more energetic than anything I've ever been involved in, ever," Deal said. "(It was a) phenomenal place to be."

The neighborhood is not only on the radar of artists and real estate agents, but of business owners who are coming from other parts of the state to open shops in Sawyer Heights.

Kelsey Tuben brought her Austin-based bridal shop to Sawyer Yards, and caters to the alternative bride. She said the atmosphere of the neighborhood appealed to her more than better-known areas like Montrose or Upper Kirby.

"Just the environment of this area feels like somewhere where everyone's inclusive but still able to express themselves however they want," Tuben said. "We try to represent the more artistic designers that are undiscovered."

And if Tuben’s ideal demographic doesn’t know about the area, local developers are making efforts to get the word out about Sawyer Heights.

Silver Street Studios, the 20,000-square-foot space that Deal opened in 2004, has been hosting "Second Saturdays," which are nights when the gallery opens to the public on the second Saturday of the month.

To learn more about other events at Sawyer Yards, visit the website.