Photography by Fred Morales
A circle of local artists were recently discussing Houston’s history – or lack thereof. “Yeah, they think not tearing down the Astrodome is preserving Houston’s history!” was the clincher. Although the dome was affectionately coined “the eighth wonder of the world,” it was built in 1965 – not exactly historic, it’s only 40 years old.
As Houston experiences the gentrification of its historic neighborhoods, there is one area that still stands out as a unique in-town community.
The Houston Heights was Space City USA’s first suburb. Four miles from downtown and 23 feet higher in elevation than Houston, the Heights was founded in 1891 by the Omaha and South Texas Land Company. The treasurer of OSTLC, Daniel Denton Cooley, was sent to the new town by the company’s president, Oscar Martin Carter, to help get the fledgling city on its feet.
Just northwest of downtown Houston, the city’s first master-planned neighborhood was originally just 1,175 acres – bordered by White Oak Bayou on the south, Oxford on the east, 29th Street on the north and Dorothy on the West. The main drag, Heights Boulevard, housed many of the first homes and started the look that has since defined the Heights – tree-lined.
Growing rapidly, the area was home to nearly 9,000 residents in 1915. A completely separate city for more than two decades, the residents of the Heights voted to be annexed into the City of Houston in 1918. Through the decades that make up the more than 100 years of the Heights, there have been a number of ups and downs in the area. Because the neighborhood had experienced somewhat of a decline since America’s mass exodus to the suburbs in the ’50s, the Houston Heights Association was formed in 1973 to help promote and preserve the area. In 1983, the Houston Heights was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Now, the greater Houston Heights is definitely on the rise.
Since its inception, the general perception of the Heights has grown. Although Heights proper continues to be constrained by its original boundaries, the surrounding area has become known as ‘the Heights,’ as well. With different neighborhoods, such as the Woodland Heights and Sunset Heights, cropping up adjacent to the Houston Heights, now the area inside I-45 North, I-10 West, Loop 610 and beyond has taken up the moniker of ‘Heights.’
In fact, the City of Houston government claims that the Heights is 4,682 acres – a large increase since its purchase in 1891. For instance, the Rice Military area just south of Washington Avenue is frequently called ‘the Heights.’ Few Houstonians would know the misnomer, and even fewer would care. Those that do care hold a special pride for the Heights – and to tell you the truth, there are quite a few residents in that category.
Through such groups as the Houston Heights Association, Woodland Heights Civic Association, Opera in the Heights and Houston Heights Woman’s Club, many have become quite active in the area. Not letting the neighborhood diminish, Heightsians have joined in a fight to preserve the historic area, homes and atmosphere.
Rather than bulldoze the old homes and trees, residents restore the Victorian mansions and tiny bungalows. There are not many other places in Houston where you can find 75- and 100-year-old homes. Even fewer areas boast fully grown trees, making canopies over the streets. It is this kind of historic pride that makes the Heights stand out – and other areas want to be considered part of it. What the Houston Heights Association started in its rehabilitation of the Heights in 1973 was a new and improved community pride.
Although the area has vastly gentrified, the neighborhood has kept its deep-seeded roots, and inexpensive housing continues to be available. The new condos and homes scattered about have pretty much kept the look and feel of the Heights. Despite the ever-present no zoning laws helping to spark Houston’s architectural diversity, the Heights has maintained a visual fluidity.
People have caught on to the secret of the Heights. It is ‘the’ place to live for artists and yuppies, alike. Young families abound here, but so do retired couples. The Heights has a personality that is unique and accepting. Neighbors know each other; they wave and throw block parties.
A combination of close proximity to Houston’s major business centers, somewhat affordable housing and homey neighborhoods has helped to increase home sales and prices in the area. In the last 10 years, the Houston Association of Realtors® reports that home prices have more than doubled. From an average price per square foot of about $67 in 1994 to $151 in 2004, many have found living in the Heights not only pleasant, but an investment resulting in great monetary rewards.
With this population growth and revitalization, the Heights is becoming a hotbed for businesses. Restaurants, bars, coffee shops, boutiques and small businesses have been popping up throughout the area – all the while, keeping to the architectural and atmospheric nostalgia of the Heights. First to embrace the business boom was the original town center: West 19th Street. The quaint downtown area overflows with boutiques, antique shops, art galleries and restaurants. Just like its home, 19th Street shops boast one-of-a-kind gems and unique finds. The stores are not corporately owned chains, but much-loved individually owned boutiques.
The Heights seems to be growing by leaps and bounds every day. White Oak Drive has become a distinct entertainment center in itself. Old regulars like Fitzgerald’s, Jimmy’s Place and Camphouse Bar-BQ have offered live music, ice-cold beer and lip-smackin’ barbecue, respectively for decades, but additional enterprises have sprung up, increasing traffic and amusement.
At the front of the pack is Onion Creek, a coffee house and bar that offers beer, wine, sandwiches and more. Adding to the neighborhood feel, the deck here encourages patrons to enjoy the laid-back atmosphere of the area. Aunt Mike’s in the Heights gift store sells unique jewelry and knickknacks while October Gallery and Indian Summer Lodge and Art Garden promotes local artists and encourages relaxation in its funky and fun art garden. Two new businesses are getting ready to open on the corner of White Oak Drive and Studewood, as well.
To much anticipation, Sawyer Heights Village is set to open in 2006. Located just south of I-10 at Taylor Street, 30 acres are currently under construction for a shopping, dining and entertainment center. The main attraction in the lineup is Target, but the Village will house retail stores and restaurants, as well. The setup should encourage walking, rather than driving, from store to store; and bike trails will lead eager visitors to the complex, too. Additionally, architects have promised to keep to the historic look of the area, including preserving trees and downscaling signage.
Many are comparing this new complex to that of West University, and there are mixed reactions among residents. Home costs and taxes have been speculated to rise, and the sidewalk talk has been heated. Many feel that this will improve the area; while some are worried that big business will suck the character out of the Heights.
Heightsians have done such a good job at keeping grounded and preserving the history of this unique little area, but will this large-scale growth add to the conveniences or overshadow the charm of the Heights? H