It's Jackie's Neighborhood

Attention, drunks, drug runners, cactus thieves, and other enemies of Sunset Heights: Jackie Harris is looking for you. And she's got her machete.

"Prices in the Heights are up 23.9 percent in the last year and 43.5 percent over

the last five years."
-- Real estate agent quoted in the Houston Chronicle, August 12, 1998

Jackie Harris likes to tell a story.
It's about the cantina next door to where Jackie lives, in the Sunset Heights neighborhood, and the drunks that get plastered there, and the prostitutes that primp on weekend nights, and some casual drug trade, and how on one weekend night Jackie notices that people are pulling into her gravel driveway and dashing into the cantina and then leaving just as fast, buying dime bags of pot or something, she assumes -- and don't get her wrong, she's got nothing against bars or drunks or prostitution or the weed trade per se, legalize them all, as far as she's concerned -- but the point is, there are people pulling in and out of her driveway all night. This bit about the driveway, this is a simple matter of poor manners. These people are being bad neighbors, and that's what chaps Jackie Harris's ass.

"Finally, what I did about it is, I waited until happy hour, when the place was jam-packed, and I went in there with my machete."

Imagine that for a minute. You're a lone white woman, and some vaquero's raising hell on your corner, and you approach him, in a crowd of his peers, with a machete in your hand.

" 'Course that stopped 'em all and got their attention, and I said, 'Whoever is in here selling drugs, you need to start telling your customers to stop parking in front of my house, period. I don't want 'em parking in front of my house at all.'"

You've probably never done anything quite like that.
"And then after that, it all stopped. The very next day. Never again. All I know is, there was no more problem."

The story is one of many, but it's one of Jackie's faves. You can tell this, because you hear it again in conversations with Jackie's neighbors ("Have you seen her machete yet?" they ask), who tell it with minor embellishments and a palpable sense of wonder at the crazy lady on their street who is absolutely fearless in the face of just about whatever she doesn't like. The wild-eyed control freak who, not coincidentally, is a good neighbor. Unless you're up to something that Jackie thinks is bad for her neighborhood. In which case you may well get to see her homemade machete yourself.

As a story, it suggests some things about Jackie and about the Heights, one being that if you're thinking about joining the hordes of up-and-coming renovators currently driving Heights property values through the roof, you'd do well to be aware of those who came before you, those who paved your way, and why, and those who think that neighborhood security is more than just an alarm system and a chocolate lab named Bear.

You see, Jackie's been here 15 years, and she knows a little something about what we call "transitional neighborhoods" (a euphemism in the real estate world for both "dark-skinned people still live here" and "the yuppies called on their cell phones and they're headed this way").

Sunset Heights is very much a neighborhood in transition, from rundown rentals to upwardly mobile starter homes and from brown to white, and Jackie Harris, as middlewoman, is a key link in the chain. She's neither a lingering Eastern European settler nor a working-class Hispanic. She's also neither a developer nor a part of the fabled DINK family (that's "double income, no kids"). She's what comes in between, and as such, she probably has something to do, for better or for worse, with getting from what was to what will be.

And the minute you move in, Jackie's going to be more than just a link. She's going to be your neighbor, and she'll expect you to know how to behave. Because you know what? Jackie's not finished with her neighborhood yet.

"Jackie is a very colorful person. She's eccentric, you know.... And Jackie is a very strong person, a very take-charge-type person.... Are you going to print all this stuff I've been saying? It's, like, I live next door to her, okay?"

-- Rebecca Mize, Jackie's neighbor

Jackie Harris calls herself an artist, and some other people call her an artist, too. She does some commercial work on a freelance basis and is perhaps most widely known for her art cars, including the Orange Show's flagship Fruitmobile.

She is, let's say, middle-aged, and she wears dyed white hair that's looking less and less like a punkish accessory. She acts, with relative impunity, more or less like a teenager, which is to say impulsively and passionately, the indulgence of which traits is perhaps the finest of the trophies the world bestows upon you when you call yourself an artist and persuade some other people to call you that, too.

Back in the early 1980s, when "Historic Houston Heights" was little more than a gleam in a newly formed neighborhood association's eye, Jackie was living at Lawndale, the legendary arts center funded, but hardly overseen, by the University of Houston, until that institution realized what was going on -- which was that when Lawndale mounted a show, it was as likely to be four drunk guys in a band as anything you could hang on a wall. And that people like Jackie were living there.

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