The first time Kevin Troy Adkins, Sr., 54, saw someone walking their dog in Houston’s historic Third Ward, he knew the neighborhood he grew up in was never going to be the same. It was only a matter of time before patrons of The Tree, an outdoor space for residents who want to play an impromptu game of chess, would have to find its third location.
Third Ward is a predominately African-American neighborhood near Houston’s downtown and renowned medical center. It’s known for its many black-owned businesses and its thriving arts scene. Gentrification has been an issue the residents have been fighting for at least a decade, and playing chess at The Tree is one of the traditions Adkins is trying to hold on to.
“They wanted to move The Tree and what we do there into a building, but we didn’t want to do that,” Adkins said. “There’s beauty in where we are now. You don’t need to beautify something that already has its natural beauty.”
According to a 2016 study by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, buildings in Third Ward were being demolished at a faster pace than in the rest of Houston. The area inside of Loop 610, where Third Ward is located, accounted for over 43% of demolition sites. The study also showed that development of the Midtown business district was inching closer to Third Ward.
Adkins believes The Tree, which sits in a vacant lot with two wooden tables, a handful of dingy computer chairs and animated conversations among working-class men playing competitive chess, is not in the future plans of developers.
“If you dig enough, you’ll find gold in Third Ward,” Adkins said. “To be honest, people only come to Third Ward when they see an opportunity to build or when they desire to possess something.”
Adkins and other committee members from the impromptu chess club moved to their current shade tree at Taum and Sauer after the death of the original founder forced them to change locations from the oak tree near the founder’s home.
“Folks are attracted to Third Ward for its verdant neighborhoods, history, culture and charm, then proceed to obliterate it through over-development” said Nata Koerber, a community organizer.
Adkins doesn’t blame people for not wanting to visit Third Ward. He blames media for not showing the positive aspects of the area and how its culture is something all of Houston should be proud of.
“When you redevelop an area, you don’t change it,” Adkins said. “You just make it stiffer, stronger and better. You shouldn’t lose what’s rich. Third Ward is rich. You don’t need to strip it down.”