Houston’s Quiet Revolution

A modern settlement house movement is brewing in Texas. Have organizers figured out the secret to reviving the immigrant dream?

This is the second article in an ongoing series, “The Inequality Chronicles.

Immigrant grazes animals in East Aldine, Texas
An immigrant from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, grazes sheep and goats along a bayou in East Aldine, Texas. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

Not far from George Bush International Airport, on Houston’s north side, the neighborhood of East Aldine is taking charge of itself. Home to 53,000 people living in 15 square miles, East Aldine is a hole in the donut. Wealthier areas nearby have been annexed by the sprawling city, but this land remains unincorporated. The residential streets are lined with ditches instead of curbs and storm sewers, and most households rely on septic tanks and wells. Racially and economically isolated, the neighborhood is 78 percent Hispanic and 12 percent African-American. Two-thirds speak Spanish primarily, half lack a high school diploma, and only 7 percent have a college degree. Forty percent of households make less than $25,000 annually. 1

The city wants no part of a fringe neighborhood that would need expensive municipal services. Not unless it is rich.

At its center lies an amenity that is scarce in Houston: 500 acres of public space. Densely wooded Keith-Weiss Park, donated by a philanthropist, is valued by city planners mainly for its role in flood control. The park’s detention ponds store water that overflows Halls Bayou after heavy rains, and the city has also built sports fields and a small playground. But that is the end of Houston’s involvement in East Aldine. The city wants no part of a fringe neighborhood that would need expensive municipal services — water, sewerage, trash collection, police and fire protection. Not unless it is rich. (Master-planned Kingwood was annexed over residents’ objections despite the fact that it’s twice as far from downtown.)

And yet if the people of East Aldine feel spurned by city government, they don’t show it. Rather than waiting for Houston’s embrace, they are organizing as a community to meet their own needs. Lately they have been working with Neighborhood Centers Inc., a nonprofit group that has quietly backed Houston’s poor for more than a hundred years. [Editors note: About a year after publication of this article, Neighborhood Centers changed its name to BakerRipley.] Led by director Angela Blanchard, Neighborhood Centers has grown into one of the country’s largest nonprofits, with 1,200 employees and annual expenditures of $280 million.

Keith Weiss Park, East Aldine
Soccer players in Keith-Weiss Park, East Aldine. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

Houston: El Civics

With a budget one-twentieth of the size of Houston government itself, Neighborhood Centers provides core social services in the nation’s fourth largest city. Unlike agencies focused on a single mission, Neighborhood Centers addresses multiple needs of the poor, offering education, job training, child care, financial counseling, housing advice, health clinics, and legal guidance. Among the people who need these services the most are Houston’s immigrants.

It’s been a rough year for immigrants in the United States. Donald Trump set the tone last summer when he kicked off his presidential campaign by casually slandering Mexican immigrants as drug runners, rapists, and scabs who should be thrown out of the country; later his target shifted to Muslims. Republican candidates fought over who most vehemently opposes a path to citizenship (or “amnesty”) for undocumented migrants, with Houston’s Ted Cruz taking the hardest line.

Locally, the climate is friendlier. Immigrants boost the Houston economy, and business leaders almost unanimously favor immigration reform. Still, the city is segregated by race and income. The census map looks like a broken mirror, with white, black, and Hispanic shards radiating from the center. Immigrants face challenges including unequal access to affordable housing, education, healthcare, and high-paying jobs.

A broken mirror: Race and ethnicity in the Houston area, 2010. Green is Hispanic/Latino, blue is White, orange is Black, and purple is Asian. [Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center]

What they have going for them is enterprise and ambition. Through Neighborhood Centers, Blanchard has assembled a coalition of business owners, political leaders, churches, and foundations who share her vision of empowering people through community education and shared services.

I asked if anybody else in the country is doing comparable work. No, he said. ‘You’ve got to go to Bangladesh to find programs like this.’

Blanchard’s work has brought her to the White House. She travels to conferences and lectures internationally. Neighborhood Centers was profiled in The New York Times by David Kirp, a public policy professor at UC Berkeley, and in CityLab and The National Journal. Yet somehow Blanchard flies under the radar of the Texas news media. Here she is better known to business leaders for her board seat on the Greater Houston Partnership than to the general public. I asked Kirp if anybody else in the country is doing comparable work. No, he said. “You’ve got to go to Bangladesh to find programs like this.”

It’s tempting to say that East Aldine is Angela Blanchard’s next project, but that would be misleading. She is East Aldine’s next project. Neighborhood Centers preaches a gospel called appreciative inquiry. Instead of barging into a community and telling residents what to fix, Blanchard’s organizers listen. They identify local leaders and ask what they can do to help. While many nonprofits talk about bottom-up organizing, this one takes it to another level. “We are so fanatical about treating people with respect,” Blanchard said. “It is embedded in the culture. We train on it. We teach other people.”

Angela Blanchard and Zainab Khalid Dadani
Angela Blanchard (right) chats with Zainab Khalid Dadani, a high-school student who volunteers at the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

“We go where we’re invited” is their creed, and they do not assume that because a neighborhood is failing, so are its residents. People are seen as a resource. “Oil and gas are not the fuel Houston runs on,” Blanchard told me. “People are the fuel. People and their aspirations.” Those aspirations are the same in cities around the world. People want a home, a decent income, a better future for their children. They want a chance to be part of something larger. “The biggest hunger is to matter, to belong, to contribute,” Blanchard said. “To answer the question: ‘Is there a place for me in the world?’”

Oil and gas are not the fuel Houston runs on. People are the fuel. People and their aspirations.

In the United States that question has never been harder to answer. Inequality has risen dangerously since the 1970s and is now the highest since the Gilded Age. Governments at every level fail to provide basic social services, let alone a sense of belonging. As Blanchard told me, the “War on Poverty” became a war on poor neighborhoods, which became a war on poor people. She believes that Houston, with its robust economy, should set an example for the nation. “It’s not right that 500,000 people in the region work full time and live at or below poverty,” she said. “That’s not the number of children living in poverty. That’s full-time, working adults.”

Neighborhood Centers is trying to help them. A map of its activities includes 67 counties across East Texas: north to Tyler and Longview, south to Corpus Christi, and west to rural counties near Austin. But the bulk of its work takes place in the Houston metro area, comprising eight counties and 6.5 million people. Here it manages twenty-one Head Start facilities and five charter schools, eleven Workforce Solutions career offices, twenty senior service centers, and an adult day center for people with dementia.

At the heart of it all are the five “Neighborhood Centers” that give the organization its name. They help community members gain business and computer skills, pass the GED, find jobs, access child care, learn English as a second language, file taxes, study for citizenship exams, and negotiate the complexities of immigration law. Two of the centers have credit unions where members can get a loan for a secondhand car (a critical purchase for any Houstonian who wants to work). The centers are clean, welcoming, comfortable places with couches in the waiting areas and books for children to check out.

Future site of the East Aldine Town Center
The East Aldine Town Center will break ground this fall on a site near Keith-Weiss Park. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

The next project on the horizon is the East Aldine Town Center, which is more ambitious than anything the organization has attempted. On a 61-acre site, Neighborhood Centers is working with civic partners to build commercial office and retail spaces, a community college branch, an outdoor community theater, a major grocery store, a sheriff’s office, and a medical clinic. Green space and walking trails will link pedestrians to Keith-Weiss Park. Construction is expected to begin this fall. It’s the biggest test yet for an organization that has achieved tremendous success as a social service provider. Can it be a city-builder at a larger scale?

It’s the biggest test yet for an organization that has achieved tremendous success as a social service provider. Can it be a city-builder at a larger scale?

In The Metropolitan Revolution, Brookings Institution analysts Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley argue that local reformers are leading the way toward social progress where large-scale government interventions have failed. They devote an entire chapter to Neighborhood Centers’ work, under the title “Houston: El Civics,” which explains how Blanchard has taken “rigid, compartmentalized, regulation-encrusted funding streams and braid[ed] them together.” The lesson is clear. The revolution will be led not by grassroots collectives running on poster paint and sweat equity, but rather by professional nonprofits that transform private and public dollars into community assets. The authors reported that Neighborhood Centers had received “grants or contracts from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Treasure and Energy, the City of Houston and more than 500 private foundations, corporations and individuals,” and that “keeping track of the dollars and the accountability requirements requires some forty separate database systems.” 2

In 1986, when Blanchard joined Neighborhood Centers as a finance officer, the budget was $7 million. Two decades ago, when she was promoted to president and CEO, it was $40 million. Now it is closing in on $300 million. And as the organization grows, it has become even more focused on its goal of building inclusive communities. “Having a place in the world is much more than the physical, built environment,” Blanchard said. “It’s not who’s here, it’s who’s welcome here that defines a neighborhood, a city, a country.”

A strip mall in the Houston suburb of Pasadena
A strip mall in the Houston suburb of Pasadena offers tacos, piñatas, and the repair of Nomex, the flame resistant clothing worn by refinery workers. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

The $7 Billion Immigrant Economy

I’d argue that there is no better place in North America than Houston to pursue a new way of life. While northern cities such as Cleveland and Detroit have contracted, the Houston area is growing phenomenally, from 4.7 million people in 2000 to 6.3 million in 2013. 3 Much of that growth comes from foreign-born immigrants, who make up 22 percent of the population. (Among major cities, only Los Angeles and Miami have a larger share.) 4

Immigrants aren’t moving to Houston for the social safety net, which barely exists. Jobs are the safety net.

What makes this city a magnet for immigration, both domestic and international, is an abundance of jobs. Nearly all major oil and gas exploration and production companies have headquarters or subsidiaries here, along with hundreds of firms engaged in renewable energy, biodiesel and chemical production, pipeline transportation, global shipping, international finance, and small manufacturing. In the first dozen years of the century, metro Houston led the nation by adding 530,000 jobs. 5 And despite the decline in oil prices, there is still demand for workers with what are called “middle skills”: carpenters, welders, electricians, plumbers. Not a restaurant meal gets served or a hotel room cleaned without immigrant labor, and most new homes are built by immigrant subcontractors.

And yet despite healthy job growth, Houston’s economic mobility is below average. 6 Texas ranks near the bottom of states in caring for poor children, the mentally ill, and the disabled. 7 Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst at the nonprofit Center for Public Policy Priorities, said, “Texas is always low in state spending. We do very little — for very few people.”

One of the great mysteries of American politics is that anyone regards immigrants as a drag on public welfare. In truth, nobody moves to Houston for the social safety net, which barely exists. Jobs are the safety net.

Stan Marek
Construction company owner Stan Marek, an advocate for immigration reform. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

Stan Marek understands the immigrant dream as well as anybody. His father and uncles emigrated from Czechoslovakia and founded Marek Construction shortly after World War II, and he worked his way up from union carpenter to owner. Now it’s one of the biggest firms in Houston, but Marek can’t find enough skilled workers. He is an outspoken advocate for immigration reform, on moral as well as economic grounds.

Several years ago his company was audited by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Marek had to dismiss workers whose documents didn’t pass muster. “We had a thousand people, and we had all their I-9s in order,” he said, “but we had 150 people whose names didn’t match their Social Security numbers.” He called Houston’s foremost immigration lawyer, Charles Foster, for advice. “He told me, ‘You can go to jail or you can fire them.’”

So Marek let go a tenth of his workers. But they were not deported, he said. They simply went to other construction firms — his competitors — where they worked off the books, classified as subcontractors rather than employees. Subcontracting is the key to keeping undocumented immigrants in the workforce. Middlemen can charge the main contractor $18 an hour and pay laborers $10 an hour, with no health insurance, no retirement or disability benefits, and no workers’ compensation insurance. (Unlike other states, Texas does not require companies to join the state plan.) Often there is little job training and minimal safety measures. If workers fall off a scaffold because there is no railing, they are taken to emergency rooms for treatment, and the county picks up the tab. If they die in a workplace accident, their families are paid off for as little as $10,000. Undocumented relatives are afraid to complain.

“It’s a social justice issue,” Marek said. “I’m a Catholic and it’s not right. It’s about safety. It’s criminal, but it happens every day.” He observed that nannies, home care workers, janitors, and others are also misclassified as contractors for low wages and no benefits. “At some point we’re going to run out of labor,” he said. “We’re not attracting young people into the trades.”

Marek Construction classroom
High school students on a career tour visit Marek Construction. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

Marek is trying to do something about it. He wants people to have careers in construction, not just jobs. His company started a year-long training program that matches new workers with coaches who mentor them in the construction trades. At a graduation ceremony I attended last year, the audience was served a sit-down dinner of Mexican food, and then twenty-two young men and women were summoned up front to receive plaques recognizing them as skilled craftspeople. About half of the graduates had Hispanic surnames. Marek regards his company as a family, and he wants his employees to feel they are entering a lifelong relationship. Not surprisingly, he also serves on the board of Neighborhood Centers.

If Houston’s undocumented workers were employed on the books, they would add $1.4 billion in tax revenue.

Although he identifies as a Republican, Marek voted for Barack Obama in 2012 after he heard Mitt Romney support an immigration policy of self-deportation. When Congress failed to act on a reform bill in 2013, Marek hoped for executive action. He strongly supports the Obama initiative known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, which would help undocumented parents of American-born children obtain legal status. The executive action could affect as many as 3.6 million of the nation’s eleven million undocumented immigrants, but it has been frozen by court order, pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by Texas and twenty-five other states. Lawmakers have failed to act on broader reforms, perhaps spooked by former House leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss to a Tea Party opponent. 8

The business case for immigration reform is clear. According to a study by the Greater Houston Partnership, an estimated 132,000 undocumented workers in the area earned $7 billion in 2008. If they were employed on the books and paid their full share of Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, and federal income taxes, they would have added $1.4 billion in state and federal revenue. 9 That’s not counting the multiplier effects of economic growth. A more recent study estimates that the undocumented workforce generates a net 3.3 million jobs and a net $33 billion in government revenue statewide. 10 Of course, undocumented immigrants pay state and city sales tax at the rate of 8.25 cents on the dollar, and they pay property taxes indirectly through their rent. Some pay income tax, hoping that a clean record with the IRS will help them gain legal status when Congress comes to its senses. Nevertheless, a lot of public money is falling through the cracks. Immigration reform would not only ease legal risks for employers but would provide revenue to cover the social cost of population growth.

Day laborers wait for work in the Gulfton area of Houston
Day laborers wait for work in the Gulfton area of Houston. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

Undocumented workers and their families do place a burden on the healthcare system, but it’s not drastic. The former head of county hospitals told a reporter, “The undocumented population is a lot healthier than the average citizen of Harris County. They’re younger. They’re working hard jobs. When they’re in our hospitals or clinics, they’re not getting paid. So they’re not coming to this country for health care. They’re out there working. Eighty percent of our undocumented are women and children.” 11 He complained that while anybody can buy home and car insurance, the Affordable Care Act does not allow undocumented people to purchase medical insurance, leaving them with few options for pregnancy and childbirth. Hospitals are further burdened because Texas, along with twenty-one other Republican-led states, has refused to accept billions of dollars of Medicaid money under the Affordable Care Act. Texas newspaper columnist Dave McNeeley calls Governor Greg Abbott the $94 billion man, for that’s how much money the state is turning down during the next ten years. 12

With so many Texas business and union leaders and Republican politicians supporting immigration reform, it’s surprising the state hasn’t been able to create change at the national level. Houston’s Charles Foster, the immigration lawyer Marek consulted, has advised three presidents (George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama) and former presidential candidate Jeb Bush. Foster said he had an immigration reform policy ready to launch early in George W. Bush’s first term, but the 9/11 attacks stopped it. By the time Bush was ready to try again, he had made the mistake of trying to privatize Social Security and didn’t have enough political muscle to advance a bipartisan bill. Then the recession hit, and the Tea Party backlash prevented congressional action under Obama. After Romney’s defeat, the “adults” in the Senate (as Foster called them) drew up a reform bill that would pass the House if only the speaker would put it up for a vote, but that never happened. Reform will have to wait for a new administration.

Refinery smokestacks rise behind an apartment building in the Houston suburb of Pasadena
Apartments in Pasadena, near the industrial corridor of the Houston Ship Channel. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

The Path to Enfranchisement

South of the Houston Ship Channel, just beyond the glow of the petrochemical complex, is the working-class suburb of Pasadena. Modest brick houses and neat lawns back up against commercial streets lined with laundromats and Mexican meat markets. The Cleveland-Ripley Neighborhood Center — one of the five flagships for Blanchard’s organization — is located next door to a temp agency, across the street from a domestic violence shelter and a large Latino church.

I drove out to Cleveland-Ripley to meet Miguel Hernandez, who showed up in work clothes: a red shirt with metal snaps that bore the Shell logo and yellow reflective strips. He gestured at the building, which serves as a hub for the community. “This is like a one-stop shop,” he said. “Learn English, get your GED, find legal advice, register to vote, take citizenship classes.”

Hernandez embodies the promise of Neighborhood Centers. When he arrived in Houston as a teenager, he was a penniless laborer who couldn’t speak English. Now forty-seven, he has three associate degrees and is pursuing a bachelor’s. It’s not enough to get young people a GED, he said. That’s a ticket to flipping burgers. “You’ve got to get them to the community colleges. With a $9,000 degree, you can go out and make $80,000 a year.”

He emigrated in 1986 from Zaragoza, Mexico, a small town sixty miles from the border city of Eagle Pass. His parents were teachers, but there was no work for him. So he went to find a job in Texas, following the steps of his grandfather, who had left Mexico during the revolution of 1910 and worked at the Texaco refinery in Port Arthur. “I didn’t have any skills,” he said. “I didn’t speak English. I worked a day here and a day there. But after six months I got on as a laborer with Brown & Root at the Exxon plant in Baytown.”

Miguel Hernandez at the Cleveland-Ripley Neighborhood Center in Pasadena, Texas
Miguel Hernandez in a computer lab at the Cleveland-Ripley Neighborhood Center in Pasadena. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

He took night classes in English at Lee Community College and earned a certificate in pipefitting. Later degrees triggered promotions to foreman and manager. In 2006, he got a job at the massive, 1,500-acre Shell plant only a few miles from his home. The company dock is always busy. Something like 2,000 ships a year unload there, he said. He is working on a B.S. in industrial technology at Lamar University in Beaumont. Many classes are online so he doesn’t have to drive. “My degree is loaded with management skills,” he said. “I analyze data, create a report with data, and search out the waste. We’re working on continuous improvement. Every class I take I bring back skills for what I am doing at work.”

With his employer’s blessing, Hernandez volunteers for the Economic Alliance Houston Port Region. He speaks at student assemblies, proselytizing about the demand for middle-skill workers. Last year he visited twenty middle schools, aiming to get young students interested in science, engineering, and technology at an early age.

If you ask the right question, you can build change. Ask what is working well. You create change just by listening.

“I was surprised that parents and students don’t know there are opportunities out here,” he said. The decline in oil prices has hurt “upstream” industry jobs like oil drilling, but technical jobs are still plentiful on the “downstream” end, where oil and gas are turned into final products. As baby boomers retire, industry observers anticipate 300,000 openings for mechanics, electricians, pipefitters, welders, process technicians, and other skilled jobs that do not require a four-year college degree. 13 “I tell people if there’s one place where you can follow the American dream, this is it,” he said.

Hernandez married his wife, Maria, when they were twenty-two, and she, too, worked her way up, from bank teller to officer to manager. To help others follow their dreams, they have set up a $10,000 scholarship at Lee College. “We want to encourage the folks coming behind us,” he said. “My goal is to create one [scholarship] every year.” He wants to get kids directly into junior colleges, where they can go for the good-paying jobs, the sooner the better. And then he said something that sounded like Angela Blanchard: “If you ask the right question, you can build change. Ask what is working well. You create change just by listening.”

An adult math class at Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center
Richard Rodriguez teaches an adult math class at the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center. A retired engineer, Rodriguez volunteers in the adult education program as well as at the tax center. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

A Modern Settlement House Movement

Many people distrust government solutions in this laissez-faire city, which is perhaps one reason Neighborhood Centers has grown so rapidly. Blanchard shared her theory about how Houston leaders think: “Run like hell in your own lane. Make your institutions effective, profitable, make sure you deliver. We expect that. We want that.”

Neighborhood Centers is funded by a mix of public and private sources and holds itself rigorously accountable for the money it spends. It follows government rules (Head Start alone has 1,800 of them, Blanchard said) but does not mistake itself for a bureaucratic agency. With governments at all levels hobbled by narrow mandates and political constraints, there is an opening for this private, entrepreneurial model that emphasizes communication, networking, and leveraging resources.

The organization started small: It was founded in 1907 as the Houston Settlement Association, in a dilapidated neighborhood near the Port of Houston, by a schoolteacher who was alarmed by children’s living conditions. During the next half century, the association built three settlement houses across the city to serve immigrants and other disadvantaged people. Always it relied on the work of volunteers as well as paid staff. During the 1960s and ’70s, the houses nurtured the careers of black and Latino activists, who became state representatives and city council members and congressional representatives.

Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center
Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

Today, the organization’s most visible success is a cluster of brightly painted buildings in the dense southwest Houston neighborhood of Gulfton. The Gulfton apartments sprang up in the 1970s to accommodate young people pouring into the area for energy-related jobs. Developers built 5,000 apartments with access to swimming pools and workout rooms, and they promised a fast-paced, single adult lifestyle. When the oil boom ended in the early 1980s, the swinging singles left, and immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and East Asia crowded into the buildings. The newspapers printed lurid stories of gang activity, drug dealing, and prostitution that gave the neighborhood its nickname, the “Gulfton Ghetto.” 14

Blanchard figured there was more to the story. In 2003, her staff began getting to know Gulfton residents and found a neighborhood filled with people who wanted to work and would strive to succeed. She described it as Houston’s Ellis Island (although New York’s Lower East Side might be a better comparison) and said that immigrants appreciate the population density because it instills a sense of community. They need to see people like themselves.

An apartment building in Gulfton, Houston.
Apartment building in Gulfton, a neighborhood that Blanchard calls “Houston’s Ellis Island.” [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

Neighborhood Centers organizers began their process of appreciative inquiry, talking to residents and looking for community leaders. They discovered a grocery store where immigrants were buying spices their mothers had used back home. The storekeeper would even special-order items that neighbors requested. So, Blanchard said, “We go right to meet this woman. When we meet her, we discover she’s done this for everybody. She is the person they go to if they want to find out about Little League and a bus stop. She’s the de facto community leader.” She is not just selling spices, she is handing out information.

Blanchard continued:

We ask her who else is like her, and she gives us four names. That’s how we found the woman in Napoleon Square Apartments who was operating a completely illegal grocery store. Most of the families were lucky to have one car that took the wage earner to work, so you have to put a baby on your hip and walk through some unsavory streets to the neighborhood store. When [this woman] had use of the family car, she drove to a big-box store and bought things that people needed all the time and stocked them in her apartment.

What the government would do would be to put her out of business. Institutional folk say, ‘Well, it really doesn’t matter because a store like that is not scalable, replicable.’ I can’t even talk about that without using four-letter words. Her store was the exact scale that fit that community’s needs. We’re not going to tell her what she is doing is breaking the law. We say to her, ‘Look, let us help you make this legit.’”

Before long, the organizers found other enterprising residents. Some were selling food that they cooked in home kitchens. “We said, ‘Great, let’s get you a certificate,’” Blanchard said. “And when we build this community center, we’re going to build a commercial kitchen, and you can rent it whenever you want. And if you can’t afford to rent it, you can teach a class.’”

Clothing re-sale shop at the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center
Clothing re-sale shop at the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

In 2010, the $20-million Baker-Ripley Center opened in the heart of Gulfton on the site of an abandoned nursing home. The complex features a child-care center, a tax center, a library, an arts-and-craft center, a clothing re-sale shop, a credit union, a commercial kitchen, and a welcome office. Neighborhood Centers also operates both a Head Start school and the Promise School, a state-funded charter school that educates 300 students in grades K-5. Most are the children of immigrants; they speak eighteen different languages. When the first graders visit the neighborhood center, they see the pennants of local and regional colleges: Baylor, Rice, A&M, Sam Houston State, and Stephen F. Austin hanging on the walls. The seeds of higher education are planted early.

Often the most important loan is one that helps buy a used car or commercial vehicle; the credit union has even financed dump trucks.

At the re-sale shop, community members learn basic business skills by conducting inventory, making sales, and running cash registers. At the credit union, families can open savings and checking accounts and get basic loans, circumventing the predatory lenders who charge high interest rates. Often the most important loan is one that helps buy a used car or commercial vehicle; the credit union has even financed dump trucks. Many workers are paid in cash, and the center helps them get a tax ID Number. The IRS wants your money, one of the officers told me, even if you are not a citizen. By offering free tax help, Neighborhood Centers puts money in the pockets of its members, whose average income is just over $26,000. The credit union urges people to save their tax refunds. It will pay $250 to families who keep $1,000 in savings for a year.

This local infrastructure supports people like Santos Valasquez, who told me his life story. Now twenty-eight, he left Guatemala for Houston as a teenager. His brother taught him restaurant work. He saved $1,500 for a course to learn English, and he sends home money to support four brothers and three sisters. He also helps raise two nephews who are in high school near Gulfton. Through the Baker-Ripley Center he has continued his education. He would like to get a business degree and own a restaurant or store. “There’s no end to learning,” he told me. “I feel so proud of myself. I just want to do the right thing in life.”

Santos Velasquez of Houston
Restaurant manager Santos Velasquez, who immigrated from Guatemala as a teenager, at his Houston apartment. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

“There’s a Way of Life, and You Want It”

I sat down with Angela Blanchard last year at a coffeeshop in the Third Ward, a historically black neighborhood about two miles from her house. She had walked there to meet me, so I brought up the concern of some self-appointed urban advocates who want to redesign Houston to make it “walkable.”

She laughed:

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to roll my eyes, but everyone is trying to create these precious neighborhoods. I remember being at a conference and someone said the thing we need to do with poor neighborhoods is make them walkable. I thought this was absolutely hilarious. If you’re in a poor neighborhood, your neighborhood is walkable. It might not be a nice walk or a fun walk, but you walk. … I actually love Houston for its total, messy, sprawling randomness. I get invited to conferences where people talk about Houston with frowns on their faces. People haven’t been able to figure out our city and how to make it smart and precious like other cities that no one can afford to live in. My biggest concern for this city is that it remains a place where you can start at the bottom and work your way up. Where it’s a good city to begin in, and where if you have a dream and water it with hard work, it amounts to something.

Blanchard grew up in Beaumont, ninety miles east of Houston, in a three-bedroom bungalow full of bunk beds. Her parents had eight children by the time they were thirty, and the family ran a small print shop in the dining room. Her dad had grown up in an orphanage in Louisiana, and her mother had lived through what Blanchard calls “the very definition of Southern poverty: alcoholism, violence, abuse.” Never having had much parenting themselves, they made it up as they went. “We all grew up together,” Blanchard said. “My mom raised me a little while, and I raised her a little while, and we got through it.”

Angela Blanchard, Neighborhood Centers Inc. CEO
Angela Blanchard at the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

By the time she was a teenager, she wanted out of Beaumont. “My memory is of the little house next to Railroad Avenue and thinking, ‘Is there a way out of here? Is this it? Is this going to be my view the rest of my life?’” She escaped to Minneapolis-St. Paul, where she worked as a teacher’s aide helping disadvantaged children. She wasn’t sure that she was smart enough to go to college, but her job training required her to write a paper for an education professor at the University of Minnesota. He summoned her to his office and urged her to go to graduate school. She asked him if she didn’t have to get an undergraduate degree first. He said, “You have to go to college now.”

Studying social work at the University of Texas, she discovered the research of Virginia Satir, a therapist who studied family systems and group dynamics: “How when you change one part of a family, it affects another part,” as Blanchard put it. You can see that influence in her work today. During her final year, she ran out of money. Her parents offered to help if she would move back to Beaumont, so she transferred to Lamar University. She decided to switch tracks and get a degree in business. “I had spent a lot of time hearing people saying things were not in the budget,” she said, “and I thought I needed to get to the bottom of how the business side of things gets run.”

For a couple of years she worked at a major accounting firm. She laughs about that job now, but it led to her career at Neighborhood Centers. And her instincts were right. To build a sustainable nonprofit, she had to run it like a business.

Tax center at the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center
Tax center at the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

That means keeping overhead costs low. Although the five community centers are the heart and soul of the organization, their combined operating budget is less than $10 million a year. The vast majority of funding — $263 million, according to the 2013-14 annual report — comes from government grants and goes directly into programs like education and job training. For example, nearly $190 million comes from the state’s Workforce Development Boards: the public-private boards, made up of government officials and business leaders, that are responsible for allocating state and federal tax money for job training. Workforce grants have been vital to Neighborhood Centers’ success.

“It’s such a flat structure,” said Claudia Vasquez, senior vice president for programs and superintendent of the organization’s schools. “That keeps the costs low. Many times when organizations do what they think they need to be doing — marketing, publicity — they spend a lot of money. We turn the engagement inside out. If we listen to the folks, they do the marketing.”

A former teacher and principal, Vasquez is one of a handful of top executives who manage the Neighborhood Centers. She met Blanchard while working for former mayor Bill White on the Hurricane Ike recovery, and she was immediately impressed by the organization’s lean structure. “We can be big and we can be small,” she said. “We’re efficient. After 108 years, we’ve got it down. Every dollar we raise we try to put it right back into the community.”

Food bank at the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center
A volunteer stacks carrots for the food bank at the Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

That flat structure, highly dependent on grants, also means that there are no guarantees from one funding cycle to the next. To keep the public money flowing, Neighborhood Centers has to pass rigorous government audits. And Blanchard hustles for funding every year, supplementing the federal and state grants with gifts from individual and foundations. She would like to build a significant endowment, greater than the $30 million on hand. She read that the Houston Grand Opera exceeded its fundraising goals, and she admitted to being frustrated that community centers do not have the same status as cultural institutions. “We would never think of not endowing Rice or Baylor or [the famous cancer center] M.D. Anderson,” she said. “I don’t know if I will live to see Neighborhood Centers endowed in that way.”

Still, Blanchard said, there are plenty of business leaders in the city who remember what it’s like to be poor. They seem to understand Neighborhood Centers better than folks who were born with money. “Houston,” she said, “is built for work. … San Francisco is like a one-night stand. You had a fling. But Houston is a long-term proposition. I love this city because I got to contribute here. That’s a different kind of love. When you feel that you can leave something in a city of yourself, of things you care about, that’s pretty strong stuff.”

While Blanchard’s staff regards her as a visionary, she insists she is not a one-off and she is not a hero. Her principles are embedded in the culture and practices of an organization that may last another hundred years. She doesn’t know what the next wave of immigration will bring. Economic migrants, climate refugees, asylum seekers. Hondurans, Indonesians, or Syrians. But she knows they will be looking for a place in the world. She identifies with that struggle because she knows what it’s like to build a life from scratch, with nothing but her imagination and tenacity: “Not done it, not seen it, didn’t live it, but believe it’s possible, and just work at it every day. And that’s the basic immigrant story. That’s everybody’s story whether you’re crossing the tracks or the river or the ocean. You know on the other side there’s a way of life, and you want it.”

Children play in a mobile home park in East Aldine, Texas.
Mobile home park in East Aldine. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

Breaking Ground in East Aldine

The American dream is a shape-shifting thing. Some imagine that it looks like The Woodlands, a master-planned community a half hour north of Houston on Interstate 45. With big brick homes on standard lots, perfectly situated shopping centers, and broad parkways running past artificial lakes and canals, The Woodlands bills itself as a sanctuary within a native forest. Major corporations have built their headquarters here, and median household income is close to $100,000. Someday it, too, may be annexed by Houston.

East Aldine may seem chaotic and poor and an unlikely place for the American dream, but it’s not.

But the American dream is no less strong in East Aldine, with its small businesses and trailer parks on ditch-lined streets, bright with bougainvillea and towering hibiscus, shaded by banana trees and other semi-tropical foliage. Two generations of immigrant families live together in starter homes on deep lots. Their long backyards, perfect for soccer games, border tire shops and repair garages. Younger generations leave home, then come back and build bigger houses. There is no zoning here, no deed restrictions. One family parks a taco truck on their lot. They pour a concrete slab and set down tables and chairs, build a roof over the tables, string up Christmas lights. Another family has started a business reselling wood pallets, stacked two stories high in the back. Trucks rumble into the yard of a cement mixing company where a garden sprinkler keeps the dust down. East Aldine may seem chaotic and poor and an unlikely place for the American dream, but it’s not.

People who grow up here love this place. At a community meeting led by Neighborhood Centers, a young man working on his GED declares that he wants to become a certified welder and put down roots. A woman who runs a beauty salon says, “I could have opened my business in The Woodlands, but my heart is here, in the Aldine area. I wanted my business to prosper in the community, with the community.”

Taco truck in East Aldine, Texas
Taco truck in East Aldine. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

Dozens of shops line Aldine Mail Route, the four-lane country road that is the main thoroughfare: Taco la Bala, Pizza Patron, Speed X Check Cashing, Flat Tire, Cricket Phone, Cash America, Metro PCS, Title Loan Services, Family Dollar, Scrap Metal, Supermercado with Western Union. Muffler shops, pawn shops, tortillerias, small churches in metal buildings. Car insurance starting at $29 a month. No license, no credit check, no bank account, no problem. Mattresses and beds and children’s bicycles stacked in the open air by the side of the road. At Alma Latina Seafood & Taqueria, two dozen people sit for lunch at one long table. The waitresses bring platters with pineapples sliced in half and filled with boiled shrimp. Alma Latina, Latin soul. This, too, is the American dream.

The Woodlands is where you buy your way into the dream. You announce your wealth and send your kids to private school and leave the problems of the city for someone else to solve. East Aldine is a place you are born into, or drawn to. You work your way up but not out. The public schools are a source of pride and community development. Students graduate and come back to teach. People help themselves and others.

Nine volunteers serve on the board of directors of the East Aldine Management District, established in 2001, which is the closest thing to a government here. Funded by a one-cent sales tax, the district operates on an annual budget of $3.5 million. It works with the county to improve roads, public transportation, and policing. The major focus now is a $31-million water and sewer master plan, half funded through county, state, and federal agencies. That’s a step in the right direction, but the area needs more than $200 million in water and sewer improvements overall. As a former board member wrote: “If there’s ever going to be any improvements here, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.” 15

Horse in East Aldine, Texas
A man shows off the fancy footwork of his horse at the East Aldine property where he rents stable space. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

When Neighborhood Centers began working with the community in 2013, organizers found a level of enthusiasm they had never seen before. They interviewed residents about what made them proud to live in East Aldine, and they identified a network of community leaders. Out of those conversations came the vision for a town center on the sixty-one-acre lot on Aldine Mail Route, backing up to the big city park. Neighborhood Centers created a bubble diagram, the Aldine Voices Report, that describes the network of ideas that emerged from the two-year process of appreciative inquiry. They’ve mapped dozens of concepts and relationships, and Blanchard hopes to engage Google engineers to refine the visualization. She doesn’t care about ribbon cuttings. She cares about human capital. The fanciest community center in the world means nothing if you don’t identify the structural relationships that can sustain it.

Neighborhood Centers has committed $20 million for the East Aldine Town Center, and when I met Blanchard last summer she seemed genuinely worried about meeting the target. But Houston donors came through, even as the oil economy wilted. Now the project is fully funded and on track to break ground this fall. The announcement came in February at a fundraising luncheon attended by 800 people at a downtown hotel. A gigantic screen, nearly as wide as the ballroom, thanked Houston’s biggest corporations, banks, and law firms, and prominent philanthropists.

The room buzzed about keynote speaker Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, which has recently consolidated its grantmaking programs to focus on combating inequality. Walker grew up in a shotgun house a few miles down the highway from Angela Blanchard’s hometown of Beaumount, and he attended one of the state’s first Head Start programs in 1965. With a strong education, he rose out of poverty to lead an institution responsible for half a billion dollars in annual grantmaking. That morning he had taken a tour of the Baker-Ripley Center in Gulfton.

Angela Blanchard and Darren Walker
Angela Blanchard mixes at a Neighborhood Centers fundraiser last month. Ford Foundation president Darren Walker (foreground, with glasses) was the keynote speaker. [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

Armando Walle, the young state representative from East Aldine, also addressed the donors. He was raised in the neighborhood, the oldest of five children. When he was thirteen, he said, his father went to prison, and so he had to grow up fast. He graduated from the Aldine school district, attended the University of Houston, and worked for a U.S. congressman. In 2008 he ran for state representative in the Democratic primary against a longstanding incumbent and out-campaigned him by walking door-to-door. 16 Four years ago, he approached Blanchard with a folder full of maps and data, and he asked her to talk to the people in his district. The conversation hasn’t stopped since.

When the new facility opens, East Aldine — that hole in the donut — will have its own center of gravity. Blanchard reminded the audience that the first gift for the East Aldine Town Center came from the community itself, which provided the land on which to build.

In another time or place, that social infrastructure would be understood as a public responsibility, even as the core function of government. But here in Houston, we do things differently.

Of course, entrenched inequality does not reverse itself overnight. For Houston’s transformation to be more than superficial, it will need to encompass the entire region, from Pasadena to Gulfton to Aldine, and include all its people: urban and rural, native and immigrant. Is that even possible in a city whose philosophy is “run like hell in your own lane”? What does the American dream look like in this “messy, sprawling, random” place?

It seems like such a simple thing: a city organized around diverse, inclusive neighborhoods, supported by a basic social infrastructure — education, jobs, healthcare — that is accessible to all. In another time or place, the provision of that infrastructure would be understood as a public responsibility, even as the core function of government. But here in Houston, we do things differently. A private organization, funded mostly with public money, has stepped in to fill the gap, and it has set an example that could be followed in other cities where government action is constrained.

Bumper stickers on a pickup driving through Gulfton
A truck driving through Gulfton displays bumper stickers in Arabic (“Masha’Allah”; “There is no god but thou…”) and English (“Born in Texas, Built by Texans”). [Michael Stravato for Places Journal]

Outside the luncheon, thousands of well-dressed people milled about. A conference for the oil and natural gas industry was also being held in the hotel. I overheard one young man on a cell phone talking about $50,000 for this, $350,000 for that — the kind of business deals that people imagine when they think about Houston. But the landscape is shifting here, and activists are making deals on an equally grand scale. Teenagers in Gulfton just talked the Houston City Council into spending $400,000 to build a skateboard park. They boosted their campaign by printing and selling T-shirts. “We’re not as stupid as we look,” one of them told a reporter. Politicians and corporations are learning that the most productive approach to dealing with inequality comes not from the top down but from the bottom up.

As Blanchard says, “The people we need are already here.”

About the Series: The Inequality Chronicles

This is the second article in an ongoing series, “The Inequality Chronicles,” supported by The Kresge Foundation. To date, the series includes articles on Memphis, Baltimore, and Chicago, in addition to Houston.

Editors’ Note

Neighborhood Centers Inc. last received funding from The Kresge Foundation in 2009. The foundation, which has supported this series on Places, did not participate directly in the commissioning or editing of articles, and was not involved in the decision to focus on Neighborhood Centers.

  1. East Aldine Management District, 10 Year Report, 2011.
  2. Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2013).
  3. Social, Economic and Demographic Characteristics of Metro Houston, Greater Houston Partnership, October 2014.
  4. Rolf Pendall and Margery Austin Turner, Expanding Access to Economic Opportunity in Fast-Growth Metropolitan Areas, Urban Institute, May 2014.
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid.
  7. According to the advocacy group Texas Forward, the state ranks 49th in spending on Medicaid and public assistance and 50th on mental health services.
  8. Jeffrey Toobin, “American Limbo,” The New Yorker, July 27, 2015.
  9. Patrick Jankowski, Potential Tax Revenues from Unauthorized Workers in Houston’s Economy, Greater Houston Partnership, January 2012.
  10. Texas Needs the Workers! An Analysis of the Economic and Fiscal Impact of Undocumented Workers, The Perryman Group, February 2016.
  11. Clifford Pugh, “Outspoken Harris County Hospital District CEO David Lopez Has a Plan for Health Care in the Obama Age,” CultureMap, July 29, 2010.
  12. Dave McNeely, “Abbott — The $94 Billion Man,” The Port Arthur News, May 28, 2015.
  13. Addressing Houston’s Middle Skills Jobs Challenge, Greater Houston Partnership, April 2014.
  14. Gulfton was the subject of a 2005 article in Places by University of Houston architecture professor Susan Rogers. See Susan Rogers, “Superneighborhood 27: A Brief History of Change,” Places Journal, Vol. 17. No. 2, Summer 2005.
  15. East Aldine Management District, 10 Year Report, op cit.
  16. Claudia Feldman, “Armando Walle Steps Into Role as State Representative,” Houston Chronicle, January 18, 2009.
Michael Berryhill, “Houston’s Quiet Revolution,” Places Journal, March 2016. Accessed 08 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/160314

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