Woman on mission to preserve historic landmark in Fifth Ward community
'Wealth of any kind is to extend your table and not heighten your fence'
You know how the saying goes, every person has a story, and every building has a soul. The soul comes from the hearts of the people who occupy it. When Ashley Ruiz stumbled across a vacant building sitting at 4101 Lyons Avenue, she had no idea that’s its “soul” was bred in the love of a couple whose roots run deep, and whose story (albeit unknown to many) transcends time.
The Louis White Grocery Store, which was founded in 1925 and operated for more than 50 years by Louis and his wife, Elnora, quickly became a haven in the community, providing credit, counseling, and medical assistance.
[Photos courtesy: Ashley Ruiz, Urban Engaged HTX]
The couple had several other businesses, including apartment homes, and always provided a helping hand to those who fell on hard times. Mrs. White, a Louisiana native who studied nursing after graduating from Houston’s Wheatley High School, often treated the illnesses of people who could not afford to go to the hospital.
She was no pushover, either. Historians note that she was an advocate for the community in the “dawn of Houston’s civil rights movement” and was arrested in the 1940s – at her own store – for “talking back” to a white man. She did not stay jailed long as the Whites were well respected by city officials.
After Louis White died in 1967, Elnora continued to run the store with her son, Carl, until he died in 1984. Afterward, she leased it out for others to run. She later died in 2002 at the age of 93.
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Eventually, the store became a vacant space, waiting for another loving soul to come along.
Enter Ruiz, a Harris County 911 dispatcher who was looking to start her own business.
“I was basically driving around in 2015. I wanted to flip some houses and make some money and I came across this building.'”
Ruiz jumped on it, purchasing it for $80,000, but before she could sell it, she had a “new development” on the way.
“I got pregnant and found myself in the position of wondering if I could be a mom while still pursuing my dream of being a businesswoman. I decided I could, so I kept my head down and continued working hard and, by the time I looked up, within six years, the building was paid off,” Ruiz said.
Then another development came along.
Representatives from the City of Houston’s Preservation Office contacted Ruiz and told her the significance of her property and the people who once owned it. She said she resonated with Elnora.
“We are both double minorities – she is a Black female, and I am a Hispanic female – and we are both entrepreneurs. She cared about her community, and I care about mine’s.”
The native of Denver Harbor, which borders Fifth Ward, wants to pour back into the community that nurtured her as a youth.
“Even though I know I can sell the building and it can change my whole life right now, I realize that I have a piece of property that is way bigger than who I am, and I’m determined to bring it back to life.”
Ruiz is now owner of Urban Engaged HTX, LLC., which is a 100% female urban property developer, in addition to Urban Healing HTX, a nonprofit.
Keeping the outer structure of the historic landmark as it was, Ruiz is working to revitalize the inside, using it for free community workshops from Monday through Thursday, and event space rentals from Friday through Sunday.
She wants to partner with various agencies and businesses to bring educational programs for the youth, including NASA workshops, arts and STEM, in addition to “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” wealth building, self-help and enrichment seminars for adults who can benefit. The possibilities are endless, but money is needed.
In addition to searching for resources, Ruiz has been holding annual “I Love the Nickel” block parties to help raise funds. This year’s event was held on Oct. 29.
Her son, Chastin, is her main motivation, and when needing encouragement to keep moving forward, she revisits the words she heard from a Houston pastor on a radio show.
“Jerry Flowers said that wealth of any kind is to extend your table and not heighten your fence,” she said.
As for Mrs. White, Ruiz says she feels like they are “mirroring hearts” and hopes that she would be proud.
Those wishing to donate, sponsor or partner with Ruiz can visit www.urbanengagedhtx.social for more information.