Ain't That a Ditch

Hiram Butler and his neighbors are fighting to retain the funky charm of Magnolia Grove, and they're drawing their battle line in the ditch.

The architecture is a worn mix of stoic bungalows from the original German settlement, two-and-a-half-story Victorians and post-World War II prefab ranch houses. There has been little new construction the past 40 years or so, and during that time, a great many of the old homes once occupied by owners have become rent houses for low-income families, more and more of them, it seems, from Mexico and Central America. Modern construction -- aside from that erected in the name of art -- is rare. That's probably for the best: Amidst the anarchy of nature and the abundant decay of the surrounding structures, anything new is almost embarrassingly grotesque.

Had the forces of neglect been left to their own devices, Magnolia Grove would surely be on the brink of death right now. But as it seemed the rest of the world had forgotten it, there remained enough charm in Magnolia Grove to seduce a rather eclectic assortment of urban pioneers. Butler was among the first to see the possibilities, back in the mid-1980s.

"When I saw this neighborhood, it reminded me of where my grandmother lived," says Butler, whose grandmother was a cotton farmer in Pendleton. "And it's very much like the neighborhood in To Kill a Mockingbird. I thought, 'What a great place to be able to live.' "

Butler landed in Magnolia Grove with unusual impact, which is to say that his redevelopment of the community's original homestead had spiritual, as well as physical, significance. Butler figured that back in the 19th century, Stark had no use for curtains or blinds in his whitewashed bungalow. So Butler has left the windows in his house and gallery uncovered. Day and night, he watches Magnolia Grove go by while inviting his neighbors to witness almost every move he makes, to the extent that they so desire.

As a result, it's the rare man, woman or dog who walks the streets of Magnolia Grove to whom Butler isn't a familiar sight. Given that many of those who traverse the neighborhood on foot speak Spanish -- and so does Butler -- it's a phenomenon that can appear both lordly and egalitarian.

"The disparity between the rich and poor in this country continues to grow," he says. "The rich are moving into gated communities, and the poor are moving into slums. If some of us don't start moving into neighborhoods ... I have something to give back, and that's what I'm trying to do.

"I don't feel like an alien in this community," he adds. "I've had a tree blow over in the middle of the night, and I've knocked on friends' doors to get help. And they've knocked on my door in the middle of the night and said, 'We don't speak English, and our daughter is sick. We need a doctor.' "

Butler was the first, but he's not the only artist who found an outlet for expression in Magnolia Grove. Salle Werner Vaughn, an installation artist, has bought several small houses in the neighborhood, all of which have been carefully restored to their original state. A few years ago, Vaughn turned the inside of two Victorian homes into actual exhibits, including one that interpreted the Greek myth of the seasons, which revolves around the kidnapping of Zeus's daughter Persephone.

The bizarre treelike sculptures of Lee Littlefield seem particularly inspired by the rugged bohemianism of the neighborhood's north end. Like several others on the block, the Littlefield house on Lillian is a riot of form and color. On the outside, the one-story structure is overwhelmed by an assortment of exotic plant life, and weird artifacts of indeterminate origin are scattered about the yard and in the swale, alongside Littlefield's striking creations, which are painted a screaming shade of yellow.

"I like it here," he says. "It's like the Wild West."

One of the realities of urban life, however, is that nothing resists taming forever. Under Mayor Bob Lanier, in particular, neighborhoods like Magnolia Grove, which is ten minutes from both downtown and the Galleria, have become Houston's new frontier. Lanier's Neighborhoods to Standard and Safe Sidewalk programs have been successful in removing many of the barriers to profitable inner-city redevelopment, as has a huge EPA-mandated project to retool the city's sewer system.

The payoff on all this public investment is most obvious in Montrose, where, in the past few years, whole blocks have been transformed into exclusive townhome enclaves. The once-delightfully funky neighborhood, the acknowledged hedonistic heart of the city, has suddenly become populated with thousands of upscale professionals who can now experience suburban life without the commute.

It hasn't escaped the members of the Magnolia Grove Civic Association that just across Shepherd/Durham from them, a charming old subdivision named Rice Military is beginning to look a lot like Montrose, which means Magnolia Grove could be next in line for gentrification. Indeed, the neighborhood has seen a few early missionaries from the private sector already, but has managed to remain largely untainted.

Michael Bell, a professor of architecture at Rice University, studied Magnolia Grove for a year as part of a class project. In the end, he was impressed with the residents' enthusiasm toward their neighborhood, but not altogether convinced they'd be able to stem the inevitable tide of the market.

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