There’s a sense of nostalgia I get every time I return home to Houston in the historic community known as “Sunnyside, Texas.” During my three decades as a soldier in the U.S. Army, I have lived abroad in Germany and South Korea; and stateside in South Carolina, Maryland, Alabama, Arizona and Colorado. My admiration of living in those charming locations gave me a better appreciation of the world, and my mother’s kitchen in my childhood neighborhood of Sugar Valley.
The joy of riding throughout Sunnyside brings much excitement as I drive down Airport Boulevard past Carter G. Woodson Middle School, where I caught the METRO bus each day to middle school (I’ll come back to this later). Driving to the corner of Reed Road and Scott Street brings flashbacks of my time at Evan E. Worthing High School where I first fell in love. No trip home would be complete without stopping by Watkins Grocery Store on Cullen Boulevard to stock up on some boudin or hog head cheese, before traveling to my aunt’s house near MacGregor Park and Old Spanish Trail.
Despite the euphoria of experiencing a treasure trove of memories from the days of my youth, there’s also a feeling of melancholy, despair and hopelessness. These same streets that were my “stomping grounds” are littered with abandoned homes, overgrown and unkempt empty lots, generational poverty, dilapidated businesses, crime, and lost potential. I am reminded of the Thomas Wolfe novel You Can’t Go Home Again as I struggle to change my perspective of the areas which I still consider home – even though I’ve been gone so long.
If you try to return to a place you remember from the past, it won’t be the same as you remember it. Sadly, this isn’t true, as much of Sunnyside is still the same as I remember. For some reason, the dichotomy of the neighborhood I grew up in is still the same.
Today, Sunnyside is a community of about 20,000 residents and remains one of Houston’s most underserved and impoverished areas. Many of the streets and roads have cracks and potholes, reminiscent of the catastrophic aftermath left behind from improvised explosive devices I witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the base of the “Sunnyside – Historic Houston Community” sign, litter and debris is an uncomfortable prelude to what greets the flow of human and automobile traffic into the community. Mattresses, sofas and discarded furniture, and other rubbish are stacked in front of houses from evicted tenants or covering green street islands where flowers are supposed to bloom.
I have come to realize that Sunnyside is a neighborhood with many contradictions. What I perceived as Black people fulfilling the American dream of home ownership was nothing more than a fallacy. Despite having fast-food franchises, black-owned businesses, and a church on just about every other corner painting a picture of prosperity; my neighborhood was predominantly poor. According to the Distressed Communities Index (DCI), which examines economic well-being at the zip code level in order to provide a detailed view of the divided landscape of American prosperity, area code 77051 has a distressed score of 83.3. Sunnyside in the 7th percentile in safety; meaning that 93 percent of cities are safer and 7 percent of cities are more dangerous.
With nearly 80 percent of the demographic being African American, the poverty rate is 33.3 percent, median household income is $27.5k per year, 20.9 percent of residents have no high school diploma, and 36 percent of adults are unemployed. These statistics are painful to see, but also gives me a sense of gratitude for getting out and surviving.
We have a functioning and thriving community, where many children went on to college and have successful careers. Yet, I can’t help but wonder why those left behind, whether by choice or necessity, got to a point of apathy and neglect for Sunnyside. One year while home on leave I noticed some of the letters were missing from my middle school’s name. A rush of anger swelled within me. How could parents who pay taxes and drop off their children to school each day not notice this glaring omission? Here’s a school with a predominately Black demographic going to a school named after the man who started African American History Week, and the building is missing letters! Where’s the outrage my people at the Houston Independent School District?
Because I love a great Hip Hop quotable, for years the lyrics of Mos Def’s Fear Not of Man has been on repeat in my eardrums. He raises a question that I’ve debated and tried to answer when it comes to how to make the conditions better for the people of Sunnyside.
So if Hip-Hop is about the people
And the Hip-Hop won’t get better until the people get better
Then how do people get better? (Hmmmm)
Well, from my understanding people get better
When they start to understand that, they are valuable
I recognize that I may come off as insulting or even as someone who doesn’t see the best of the community despite the legacy of segregation and racism from Houston’s expansion and growth. However, all those years away from Sunnyside gave me an opportunity to reflect on how it feels to be a Black man and visit my old neighborhood. I’ve seen firsthand how the United States poured millions of dollars to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan; however, there’s a failure by our same nation to invest in communities like mine. I would see the same dilapidated buildings, same brothers hanging out in front of the corner store, same broken infrastructure, and same intolerable conditions that politicians have yet to resolve at the city, state, and federal level.
So how do people in the community get better?
I’m hopeful that under Houston Mayor Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Complete Communities initiative, that Sunnyside will be able to revitalize with better economic opportunities for the residents of the community. Show the people they are valuable and bring big name businesses to invest in the human capital and talent. Uplift the community by investing in social programs to give people a sense of worth and they are not a part of the fringes of society.
Having traveled across the world and our nation, I always thought if only we had businesses, cultural and recreational centers, or restaurants like that in Sunnyside; then the people would have a better quality of life. If “no matter where you go, you can always come home” is to be given credence, there must be something “home” to go to. Sometimes we leave home and sometimes home leaves us. I might not be able embrace the feeling of home again, but I have a strong desire to rekindle the love of the community I once lived. Until then, I’ll return to my mother’s kitchen and continue to live in the past with the “Sunnyside Pride” that still resonates within me today.
Donald Sparks is a retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major, who has accomplished many awards in journalism and photojournalism during his time in service as a Public Affairs senior enlisted leader. His military awards include the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Defense Meritorious Medal, Army Meritorious Medal and the Purple Heart. He is a recipient of the Ancient Order of Saint Gabriel given to those rare individuals whose careers embody outstanding achievements and accomplishments in the spirit, dignity, and sense of sacrifice and commitment epitomized by a career that so singularly distinguishes the individual as a contributor to Public Affairs that they have few peers. He is a graduate of Evan E. Worthing HIgh School (Class of 1986) and University of Texas at El Paso (2013) where he earned a Masters of Leadership Studies.