There is precious little that Ed Pettitt doesn’t know about the Third Ward. “That’s where Lulu White used to live,” he says, pointing to a two-story red-brick home across Tuam from his own. “She was state director of the NAACP and helped integrate the University of Texas. Just imagine the conversations that took place in that house with Thurgood Marshall.” Pettitt shakes his head. “There’s not even a marker there. But at least they haven’t torn it down.”
Pettitt is an active member of the Emancipation Economic Development Council, which focuses on preserving and revitalizing the historic neighborhood just south of downtown. He often joins the weekly Tour de Hood bike rides, led by TSU professor Veon McReynolds, adding his own commentary about the area’s history as they pedal along. He’s a graduate of the SURE (Stimulating Urban Renewal through Entrepreneurship) program at the Bauer College of Business at nearby UH. And as of last year, he became a full-time resident of the Third Ward—as well as one of its increasing number of small-business owners—when he purchased a 2,300-square-foot home on Nagle and converted it into a thriving guesthouse.
The accommodations in the tidy white house range from the “Texas room” featuring a large, four-poster bed bearing a Lone Star State bedspread and pillowcases, to a small sun room near the front door that goes for $20 a night, to a tent—yes, a tent—inside Pettitt’s garage that is popular with “urban campers” and consistently receives five-star reviews on Airbnb. “I ask people, ‘You understand this is a tent in my garage, and you’re okay with that?’” he laughs. For $10 a night, his boarders definitely are.
Every room including the tent is booked the day we visit, sitting with Pettitt in a cozy dining room adorned with succulents purchased at a recent East End Street Market. A bowl of fruit on the table came from the NuWaters organic co-op on Elgin, while a nearby end table holds such titles as Kolache, a graphic novel written by UH students; Invisible Houston, from famed TSU dean Robert Bullard; and a novel by a retired HPD officer titled, simply, Third Ward.
You’d be forgiven for assuming the towering, cheerful 33-year-old is a native Houstonian, given his deep connections to the area and his all-consuming passion for the Third Ward—not to mention his cowboy boots—but you’d be wrong. Pettitt didn’t even set foot in Houston until six years ago. When he did, though, a spark ignited.
Growing up outside Buffalo, New York, Pettitt knew two things from an early age: He wanted to travel, and he wanted to help people. He ended up in the Peace Corps after earning his biology degree from Cornell, serving in a remote village in Botswana from 2006 to 2008, over 70 miles from the nearest town with electricity, where he learned to speak Setswana and two Khoisan click languages from the bush tribes as he worked on pediatric HIV and AIDS prevention projects. It was while in the African country that he met researchers from Botswana-Baylor Children's Clinical Centre of Excellence, who recruited him to pursue his master’s degree in Houston. So it was that in 2011, Pettitt first visited the Bayou City.
“I found a woman renting out a room here in the Third Ward,” he says, “and I thought, ‘That sounds perfect—it’s close to the Medical Center and it’s cheap.’” More importantly, Pettitt says, the community he found here helped bridge a large social gap.
“That was the hardest part of the reverse culture shock of coming from a very communal African village to a big city. So many Americans just live in their homes, don’t even know their neighbors,” says Pettitt. “In my village in Africa, neighbors would be stopping by, and if someone was out cooking or having dinner you’d go and join them.” In the Third Ward, he says, “I would see neighbors coming together and barbecuing in the evenings. You can’t run along the Columbia Tap Hike & Bike Trail and not smell barbecue, not see people playing dominoes."
“I was so thankful that I ended up in Third Ward,” he adds with a laugh. “If I’d moved to Bellaire or something, I think I’d have freaked out.”
After completing his master’s degree, Pettitt traveled back to Botswana again with Baylor—but only until 2015, when he returned to Houston to complete his post-graduate studies and PhD. By then, Pettitt was ready to make Houston his home. “Working in the non-profit field, I wasn’t swimming in cash,” he says. He rented in Riverside Terrace while searching for “a place that was big enough to where I could rent out extra rooms for income, because I knew that the University of Houston and TSU and HCC were right there.”
And last year, Pettitt found his perfect place just off McGowen, in a seven-room property built in 1930, with an attached apartment and space to build out in the future. He renovated portions of the property just in time to book six of his rooms for the NCAA Final Four tournament. Since then, Pettitt has hosted over 500 visitors, mostly booked through Airbnb, from as far away as New Zealand and China. “A couple of weeks ago,” he says, “I had people from Japan, Sweden, Austria and South America all on the same day.”
Working from home half the time as a senior project coordinator on Baylor’s pediatric AIDS research allows Pettitt to play host to his guests while they’re here, showing off everything from Rebel’s Honky Tonk to the Museum District to local neighborhood favorites: art at the Gite Gallery, installations at Project Row Houses, vegetarian nosh at Doshi House, and baked goods from Ella Russell’s Crumbville, TX bakery, whose custom cookies Pettitt places on guests’ pillows in lieu of mints.
“I’m trying to use Airbnb to bring folks to Third Ward,” says Pettitt. “The money they’re saving by not staying in a big-box hotel, they’re spending on small businesses in the Third Ward, and they’re seeing a community that they wouldn’t otherwise see.”
Pettitt admits he misses traveling, but his guesthouse eases his wanderlust. “If I can’t be traveling myself,” he says, “I’d rather have the world come to me.” More than that, he’s now able to show off his beloved adopted home to others. “My motto,” he grins, “is ‘Bringing the World to the Third Ward.’”