The Fifth Ward Had Zero Murders Last Year (No, Really)

The Nickel stands on the precipice of a bright future—and that's exactly what its residents are afraid of.

By John Lomax April 7, 2014 Published in the April 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Jim Sherman, who has lived in various Fifth Ward residences over the past decade, currently resides one block south of Lyons Ave., in a paint-peeling clapboard shack not far from a temporary public art piece funded in part by the NEA. We make it a habit to check in with Jim every time someone declares a Fifth Ward renaissance is at hand, which is another way of saying we see him every few years. The Chronicle prompted our most recent visit (Feb. 17: “… what organizers are calling the Lyons Avenue Renaissance”), as did something we noticed during our semi-regular perusal of the city’s murder statistics. 

In 2013, according to the Houston Police Dept., the Greater Heights area had four murders, Montrose/Midtown five, and the Fifth Ward … zero. None. Zip. 

This disquieting state of affairs begged explanation, and Jim seemed the man for the job. Actually, an HPD spokesman seemed the man for the job first, until he told us he didn’t “want to speculate” on a cause, which somehow made murderlessness seem like a crime. We pressed the man accordingly, demanding he tell us who had swiped the Fifth Ward’s murders. Was it the police? Community activists? The HPD was pursuing all leads, we were told, but no charges had been filed. 

Hence, Jim.

“Kinda made me crack up about the no-murders thing,” he told us one morning not long ago. We were strolling the Nickel near the corner of Coke and Schweikhardt streets when Jim suddenly saw a house he recognized. “That was the site of a chainsaw dismemberment,” he said. Last year, we asked? No. “A couple of years ago.” 

In other words, things are better, we concluded. No, Jim said. Petty crime is still rampant. After all, he himself had been punched in the face not long ago by a four-foot-something kid in junior high.  “You really have to watch out for the little ones,” he warned. 

Well, okay, but conditions these days pale by comparison to the ’90s, when the crack inferno consumed the Fifth, when a night in the Nickel sounded like a bunker in Khe Sanh, and when the Geto Boys’ hyper-violent raps about life and death in the Fifth Ward were so extreme, the band was abandoned by both their label and distributor.

But Fifth Warders are still locked and loaded, one resident protested, although in the next breath the man admitted that he didn’t much worry about getting mugged these days. “But I do carry my pistol around for the dogs,” he said.

It’s true that packs of feral canines can be found everywhere in the Nickel, as can empty lots, crumbling old homes, trash-strewn streets—and, of course, not a single grocery store. But Jim Sherman’s home, while a shack, is a shack near a stretch of Lyons that has become something of an advertisement for the Nickel, a gleaming hint of what it might become. Already corporate donations have borne fruit in the form of new apartments, offices, and art installations, and the city and TSU recently announced plans to restore the De Luxe Theater.  

All true, Jim countered, but the distance from the spick and span-ness of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation’s efforts to a Potemkin Village is still just a few blocks.

We were beginning to notice a macabre streak in our friend and the other Nickel residents we’d met on our stroll, when it suddenly occurred to us that painting a dark view of the place might be a last-ditch effort to save it. As every Fifth Warder knows, a storied and historic neighborhood in the shadow of downtown’s glittering skyscrapers with easy access to four freeways, minimal traffic, ample bus service, and $100,000 three-bedroom homes is a neighborhood whose days are numbered. 

Jim Sherman denied any campaign of disinformation, though he freely admitted to wanting the Fifth Ward to remain what it’s always been, a fine place, or as fine as a place can be when it doesn’t have any murders.

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