Jose Zavala grew up in the Fourth Ward before his family relocated to Pearland in 1988, when he and his siblings were teenagers. Every now and then, Zavala, now 43, finds himself looking around on Facebook, checking on his old friends from the neighborhood. He was doing that one night when he stumbled across a Facebook page: Houston, A Look at Fourth Ward 1987.
"She had some photos on there, and I was going through them, and I said, Wow, that looks like my brother," Zavala says. "I looked closer and sure enough—there he was, with our old neighbor and another old friend."
Zavala was transported back in time to his days playing with other kids in the old neighborhood. In addition to portraits of residents, many of the photos were of buildings that, like his old house, no longer exist as gentrification wiped out much of the historic neighborhood, home to Freedman's Town, a formerly thriving African American hub of segregated Houston. "The feeling you get when you see a picture you didn’t know existed, being of your brother of all things, and your friends ... I can’t explain it," Zavala says. "After 30 years, you see something like that, it’s like, wow."
When photographer Roxanne Chartouni stumbled on the neighborhood in the summer of 1987, she felt like she'd stepped back in time. A photography student at LA City College, she took a road trip with a friend to visit her friend's family in Houston, borrowing an expensive Leicaflex 35 mm camera from a professor for the trip. They spent a day walking around the brick streets, hand-laid by in the 1800s by former slaves as they settled the area. "It felt like the whole world disappeared and we were in this make-believe place where everyone knew each other and everyone was so nice to us—giving us water, neighbors talking to us, telling us history. We didn’t look like we belonged there, but they were the opposite of suspicious, they were willing to talk, friendly—not even friendly, warm," Chartouni says.
In 1988, photographs from that day became the basis of Chartouni's first professional show, at the LA Photography Center. And although that was just the beginning of her photography career, Chartouni still feels deeply drawn to those Fourth Ward photographs—so much so that she launched the Facebook page in order to try and connect with the people whose photos she took that day.
"People I photographed and met that day, they kept saying, 'Don't forget us, and let us know what you do with the photographs and how we could see them,'" she says. "They wanted to make sure that Fourth Ward was going to be remembered in a good light."
"I always thought some of my best work I did that day," she adds. "I think they show a community that was very vibrant and present. Regardless of the poverty and the homes falling apart, they had the strength to go on and forge their lives."
For Zavala, finding the photo of his brother was a bittersweet experience. After his family left the neighborhood, his brother Jesus, who the family called Chuy, was murdered at age 18, a month after becoming a father. "I showed it to my mom and my sisters and my wife and my kids, and they said, 'Where’d you get the picture from? Were you looking for it?'" he says. "I wasn't! It took me by surprise—it’s my brother, you know. To see a photo of him when he was little, our old friends, it brings back childhood memories. Growing up as a child, you don’t get the chance to take so many pictures, and especially with him being gone ... I’m glad I ran across it. It gives me good feelings."