Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses (PRH), was making billboard-sized political paintings in his Houston, Texas, studio in the 1980s when a visiting high school student challenged his work. As Lowe recounted to the New York Times in 2006, “If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.”

In 1993, Lowe and other artists and community activists bought 22 shotgun-style houses slated for demolition on a two-block site in Houston’s Third Ward, among the city’s oldest—and poorest—African-American neighborhoods. With seed funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and other foundations, the activists transformed the row houses into a new form of socially engaged art.

Since then, they have revitalized a blighted neighborhood—and preserved an historic one—with affordable housing for low-income residents, including artists and young mothers, and spaces for visiting artists, exhibitions, performances, and offices as well as a park and gardens. The group’s programs have involved local children, churches, schools, and community groups. More recently, PRH started a community development corporation to buy and renovate properties for mixed-income housing, artists’ spaces, and public uses to help slow gentrification in the adjacent Fourth Ward, another historically black neighborhood.

PRH is among the earliest and best-known examples of creating community and housing through art. The project is not easy to categorize. Is it art? Development? Social do-gooding? The project’s public art director Ryan Dennis says PRH was doing “social practice” before anyone knew what it was or what to call it. “The important thing about Project Row Houses,” says Dennis, “is that we’re constantly trying to respond to the needs of the community.”

Housing as Action

In recent years, increasing numbers of artists have developed housing or assisted in its development. Among them are public artists, cultural producers, and activists who identify themselves as artists, and their body of work is both physical and theoretical, pragmatic and utopian. It blurs the boundaries of everyday life and public art, and it can be made of sculpture, objects, and architecture, as well as ideas, action, and education.

Jeff Huebner is a Chicago-based art writer and journalist who writes frequently on public art. He is co-author, with Olivia Gude, of Urban Art Chicago: A Guide to Community Murals, Mosaics, and Sculptures.

Featured in Public Art Review #49.