Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Last Guy to Show Up at the Itchy Acres Party

by Robert Boyd

I've written about the Independence Heights art neighborhood twice now, here and here. Finding this place was purest serendipity, which is the loveliest thing that can happen to an art lover. Only my arrogance would let me think I was the first (beyond the artists themselves) to stumble across this neighborhood. Of course, I was not the first--not even close.
In 2001, a 3-acre lot next to Kittelson and Ernst's property became available. A loose partnership - Kittelson and Ernst, sculptor Ed Wilson and his wife, Magda Boltz-Topp; artist Charlie Sartwelle, and contractor/fine woodworker Brian Owens - leaped at the opportunity to buy it.
"We were on Ashland in the Heights, but with two growing kids, the two-bedroom house was getting small," Owens said. When the land came up for sale, "I hooked up with Carter, Ed and Charlie, and we bought it together."
Owens designed and built his beautifully crafted family home after constructing a temporary metal house that now serves as a guest house. Wilson refurbished a bungalow after paying to move it from across the street to his land. He then built an open, 1,600-square-foot metal studio on two levels with room for his wife's photography and print-making.
The only fence on the now-larger Itchy Acres compound is the gated one along the city street.
Neighbors seem receptive. Mohamed Bataineh owns a strip center on Yale one block south of Martin that includes Harvest Food Store and Fixit Body Shop. "People are moving in and putting money in the neighborhood, and that is good," he said.
Sculptor Tim Glover and his wife, Mary, bought an acre that backs up to the compound. They are selling the bungalow they own in the Heights that has doubled in market value since they bought it in 1989, according to the Harris County Appraisal District.
By comparison, land in northwest Houston is cheap. Most house values around Itchy Acres range from $20,000 to $90,000 and land is about $1 a square foot.
Artists Virgil Grotfeldt and Terrell James recently bought land in the northwest neighborhood, too, with plans to build studios.[The Houston Chronicle, Houston artists have been scattering from the traditional enclaves / AN ARTISTIC MOVEMENT, 11/12/2006]
 If the Chronicle was on top of this in 2006, it must have been well-known within the artistic community well before then. That gives you an idea of how late I am to this party.

Not only did the Chron report on them, they recently had a group exhibit at Gallery Nord in San Antonio.The thing is, some of these artists have been living there since 1995. There has been a very slow influx since then, with the most recent artistic addition to the neighborhood being Independence Art Studios, which started two years ago. In a way, it seems like a critical addition to the neighborhood. While it was just artists and their studios, it could be somewhat secret. But once an institution moves in (like a gallery or an public art space or studios for rent or an art school), you start getting visitors from the greater Houston area. Word gets out (for instance, via feckless bloggers) and the cycle of gentrification can begin.

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Zillow.com map of Independence Heights/Garden Oaks

According to Zillow and HAR.com, there is little for sale near Itchy Acres (except for this promising warehouse on Martin). The prices just to the west of Shepherd are relatively high--that neighborhood is Garden Oaks, and it is a lot more suburban than Independence Heights. To the east of Yale--the heart of Independence Heights--the prices for houses are dirt cheap, but the houses are small and dilapidated on small lots.

Anyway, that's all I'm going to write about Itchy Acres for the moment. It may be that despite the artists who have moved in, no gentrification will take place in Independence Heights or Acres Homes. Who knows? Nonetheless, artist-lead gentrification is part of the artistic economy, and therefore extremely interesting to me.


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