“Gulfton is a neighborhood in transition,” says Aisha Siddiqui, founder of the nascent immigration non-profit Culture of Health — Advancing Together. CHAT itself is new to Houston, founded in 2015 to help immigrant and refugee communities overcome the challenges of settling in Houston through education, arts, advocacy, and healthcare.
Part of that work, Siddiqui explains, is the new Gulfton Story Trail Mural Project—a series of 12 murals highlighting ethnic and cultural diversity made possible with support from the city's Visit My Neighborhood pilot program. The mural trail forms a walkable (or drivable) loop meant to highlight what makes the neighborhood unique.
Gulfton is not thought of as a destination neighborhood—not yet, at least—but Siddiqui hopes to change that. The region saw unprecedented speculation-based growth in the ‘60s and ‘70s as Rust Belt workers moved to Houston to take advantage of the oil boom. It quickly became one of the largest concentrations of apartment complexes in the Houston area. When the boom went bust, many of those apartments sat vacant, until an influx of immigrants and refugees began to move in. According to the 2000 Census, it was the densest neighborhood in Houston. By 2005, more than 60 percent of Gulfton residents were immigrants, representing citizenship from 42 countries.
“Art is a component of CHAT, and we believe that the murals can change the community quicker than other services,” Siddiqui says. Her hope is that, like other public artworks throughout Houston, people will come to Gulfton for the photo ops, and maybe stay for lunch or explore the other things the neighborhood has to offer.
The murals also create a sense of ownership and civic pride in the area, Siddiqui says.
“The community is loving it,” she says. “People keep sending us pictures.”
The artists have been changed, too. Initially, CHAT put out a call for mural proposals, and every artist commissioned ended up having some connection to Houston’s immigrant community. Vivienne Dang's mural, Pillars of Strength and Support, stands outside Jane Long Academy and features students with pink and purple skin holding beakers and test tubes that represent the possibility of their future. “I think diversity is looking past our skin color and ethnicity and showcasing our experiences instead,” she says.
For the students at Jane Long Academy, who might not normally have access to museums or galleries, Dang's visit was revelatory. Even though she’s finished the mural, she still gets recognized by students from the school as she walks through the apartment complex where the CHAT offices are located.
"Art is like a universal language, and the art has come to them," Siddiqui says. “We want people to think My community is beautiful. I don’t have to go elsewhere. When the community takes ownership, that’s success.”