HOUSTON — Imagine a bicycle copiously bedecked with flowers front and rear, ridden by a wiry, smiling 71-year old, sailing through a city neighborhood.
But the house of Cleveland Turner, celebrated bike-riding "Flower Man" of Houston's hardscrabble but now gentrifying Third Ward, is even more amazing. It's an old bungalow, painted the brightest yellow imaginable — though that's just the first technicolor impact. The exterior walls, the yard and inside Turner's home are festooned with literally thousands of paintings and bric-a-brac, animal figures, dolls, rocking horses, discarded musical instruments. Not to mention a luxuriance of flowers.
How did it all happen? "I came off Skid Row," explains Turner. "I was a wino, hooked on Thunderbird. I wouldn't beg, but I spent 17 years eating out of dumpsters, sleeping under bridges. Finally I got so sick I couldn't drink any more. A white woman found me, sent me to a hospital. I prayed good I could stay sober. That was in 1983. I haven't had a drink since."
The day before the hospital released him, Turner had a vision in a dream. "It was so pretty, all these colors coming from junk, flying high and about like a whirlwind and coming down pretty. So the next day I said I'll get me a little house and find junk and hang it up."
Turner's juxtaposition of objects, plus personal creations like a colorful gourd tree, form an appealing aesthetic whole. Here's a onetime handyman and window cleaner from rural Mississippi who can't read or write. But his talent and personality (enhanced by a flashing smile of gold capped teeth) draw a constant flow of visitors, including busloads of children.
Glimpses of the Flower Man last week delighted a Ford Foundation-sponsored national meeting of some 100 leaders in community development and philanthropy, hosted by Houston's Project Row Houses — a public art project just across the street from Turner's house. Project Row Houses has declared Turner "an artist in residence."
The meeting's focus was on how the arts and culture can strengthen civic life and ameliorate tensions in so-called "shifting sands" communities — lower-income neighborhoods in the path of middle class resettlement, or receiving large numbers of immigrants.
The community development movement born in the civil rights era of the 1960s has focused, in many places very successfully on affordable housing, the Ford Foundation's Miguel Garcia noted. But in today's "shifting sands" era, he suggested, the time's ripe to use unconventional tools like the arts to open residents' personal horizons and create new possibilities for dialogue when people of new classes move in.
It's a too-long ignored message, notes Robert McNulty of Partners for Livable Communities, which is coordinating Ford's new outreach. McNulty recalls how the late Geno Baroni, the social visionary who served as an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Carter administration, insisted repeatedly that the arts and spirit are as important as "bricks and mortar" redevelopment. It's a message even the country's exemplary "intermediary" organizations in low-income housing finance have often ignored, McNulty notes.
Project Row Houses, a local non-profit, proves the potential. In 1993 Rick Lowe, an African-American artist, discovered the site of 22 old-style Southern "shotgun" houses he found architecturally fascinating for their rhythm of fixed roofs. But he also found them spiritually and socially significant because they'd been constructed in times when the neighborhood had all classes of black residents, visits from the likes of Booker T. Washington and Count Basie, and music that even drew jealous white Houstonians to listen outside the windows of the fabled Eldorado Ballroom.
Today Project Row Houses has expanded from its original block to five more (with an eye on 35). It attracts artist exhibits from across America to its shotgun house exhibit buildings. There's big emphasis on public art, greenspace, historic markers and artist live/studio space. An after-school program mentors young people; 60 have received full college scholarships.
There's close collaboration with Rice University's School of Architecture. Handsomely designed two-floored duplexes, echoing shotgun form but with more space, house low-income single mothers who are aiming for independent, self-sufficient lives. Two of those residents are now studying for their doctorates.
Lowe began his own career with painting and sculpture; now he talks of "social sculpture," services to fortify more low-income neighborhoods through art and culture.
The Flower Man didn't attend last week's conference with its reports of amazing arts-based turnarounds. Among them: the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's rejuvenation of North Adams, Mass.; western North Carolina's "Handmade in America"; and the Queens (N.Y.) Museum of Art's remarkable outreach to a borough transformed from "Archie Bunker" population to a kaleidoscope of new immigrant groups.
Instead, the Flower Man is thinking about how he'll repair the broken horns of the big ceramic red cow that blew off his roof during Hurricane Rita. But the spirit's the same: with verve and art, all things are possible.