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Third Ward opens chess park to revitalize vacant lot in gentrifying community

HOUSTON – A Third Ward developer has loaned a vacant lot at McGowen and Live Oak streets in Houston for a community chess park, according to Third Ward Complete Communities.

Ciara Jarmon, a developer and realtor with Realinc LLC that specializes in Third Ward real estate, said she provided the land and hopes the park becomes a safe green space for residents of all ages. She said she wanted to offer a fresh outlook to stakeholders of what community advocates are willing to bring to Third Ward.

“I am doing what I can do to be a part of the solution to this major problem, not just for my family but for others as well,” said Jarmon, who lives in Third Ward with her family. “I am hoping to generate and bridge more collaboration between the public and private sectors and increase black ownership and generational wealth in Third Ward.”

A Third Ward developer has loaned a vacant lot at McGowen and Live Oak streets for a community chess park, according to Third Ward Complete Communities.
A Third Ward developer has loaned a vacant lot at McGowen and Live Oak streets for a community chess park, according to Third Ward Complete Communities. (KPRC)

For many years before the formalized park, local residents frequently came together to play games such as cards, dominoes and chess. They meet regularly at the corner of Sauer and Tuam streets in a vacant lot under a tree with discarded tables and broken chairs, according to Ed Pettitt with the Third Ward Complete Communities program.

A new owner recently purchased the vacant lot where residents played. In recent years, developers have torn down the shotgun and bungalow houses in Third Ward to make room for luxury townhomes, Pettitt said.

“The realization that this vacant lot may not be vacant much longer sparked an effort to identify a new space with better infrastructure to make a case for long-term investment,” he said.

Pettitt, who is the chair of the Parks & Neighborhood Character work for Third Ward Complete Communities, is calling for partnerships with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department and other partners.

Complete Communities is a city program established by Mayor Sylvester Turner in 2017 to improve the quality of life for residents in underserved Houston neighborhoods. The program includes 10 communities: Alief, Fort Bend Houston, Kashmere Gardens, Magnolia Park-Manchester, Sunnyside, Acres Home, Gulfton, Near Northside, Second Ward and Third Ward.

Establishing the park

A few months ago, Pettitt began distributing information about the importance of green spaces as a way to increase public safety and community kindship, Jarmon said. She said the City of Houston needed a prototype before it would consider purchasing lots to establish more green space in Third Ward.

“I volunteered this property because I had recently acquired it but wasn’t ready to build on it,” Jarmon said.

Within weeks, Pettitt and Richard Johnson, the executive director of Cinque Projects, a nonprofit in Third Ward, secured donations of picnic tables and other supplies from the owners of Axelard and Sparkle’s Hamburger Spot. All of the prepping and outfitting for the park has been done with in-kind labor and contributions, Pettitt said.

The chess park is at a significant intersection and across the street from Ralston’s Liquor Store in Third Ward. However, the high-crime intersection -- known for car accidents, drug dealing and other problematic activities -- requires revitalization, said Pettitt.

Research shows that interacting with green space enhances child neurodevelopment, lessens behavioral issues and depression in children and teenagers, reduces anxiety in older adults and contributes to overall physical and mental health, not to mention the social benefits of playing games with friends, according to Pettitt.

Converting the empty lot into a chess park is the priority, he said.

Eventually, they hope to paint street crossing strips, upgrade landscaping, install a bike lane, increase public art and activate additional vacant lots and buildings.

The efforts are part of a citizen-led “tactical urbanism” approach to neighborhood building using short-term, low-cost and scalable interventions to catalyze long-term change.

A Third Ward developer has loaned a vacant lot at McGowen and Live Oak streets for a community chess park, according to Third Ward Complete Communities.
A Third Ward developer has loaned a vacant lot at McGowen and Live Oak streets for a community chess park, according to Third Ward Complete Communities. (KPRC)

Rejuvenating a vacant lot

Over 50 volunteers from Third Ward Team-Up to Clean Up, Volunteer Houston, Twitter for Good, the Faith in Action Work Group of the Emancipation Economic Development Council, the Rotaract Club of Houston Innovation Corridor and Nature & Eclectic Outdoors joined for the first clean-up for the chess park on Jan. 16, according to Pettitt.

The volunteers removed trash and debris, put mulch around the trees, installed signposts, arranged freshly painted picnic tables, added garbage cans and installed a bike rake.

The next phase includes a community garden in partnership with Blodgett Urban Gardens, Nature & Eclectic Outdoors, Houston Tool Bank and Kerr Photosynthesizers, a high school environmental club from Alief.

The groups hope to raise additional funds for more seating, public art and supplies through grant writing and donations, Pettitt said. The Third Ward Chess Club will maintain the chess park with assistance and guidance from Cinque Projects.

“Reclaiming incidental spaces like vacant lots for activation as green spaces and parks not only utilizes overlooked land but increases equitable access to nature and recreation,” Pettitt said.

Volunteer

The next volunteer day is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 1, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. to install planters and garden beds at the chess park. The event is open to the public.


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