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.

Moving on when it became clear that Lawndale would go the way of the nickel Coke, she and art compadres Wes Hicks and Jack Massing (now one-half of the Art Guys) founded and helped colonize the Commerce Street Arts Warehouse east of downtown, which was then unimproved and abandoned and which is now part of an annual gallery crawl.

But there was a falling-out among the three -- creative differences and all that -- before Jackie could move in, and she ended up driving around blighted neighborhoods looking for cheap deals. She found a warehouse/ office space near Yale in the upper 20s just inside Loop 610. The asking rent was $600 a month, but Jackie talked the landlord down to $500. Then it rained, and water came through the roof like a fountain going the wrong way, and Jackie talked the landlord down again, this time to $350.

"Back then," says Jackie, "it was way over there. God, it's only like five miles from Montrose, but it's true, everyone thought that Montrose was where it's at, and that's where everyone lived. It was just a few people that lived over here, kinda like out in the boonies."

That was 1983, six years prior to the date Sunset Heights Civic Association President James Fanning pegs as the beginning of the area's turnaround from declining neighborhood to hip Inner Loop suburb. Perhaps coincidentally, it was in 1989, six years after moving into the neighborhood as a renter, that Jackie bought her warehouse for an owner-financed $50,000, transitioning herself from edge dweller to homeowner and taking on the duties of an investor -- namely, protecting the investment.

That means battling those aspects of the neighborhood that detract from its pleasantness, and among the many such aspects that Jackie has so far identified are people who park in front of her house, people who cut up her cactus garden, people who walk up and down the street firing guns, people who litter, people next door who deal drugs out of their kitchen window as if it were a Jack in the Box drive-through, kids who steal checks out of neighbors' mailboxes, people who sniff glue on their front porches and allow their children to play in the yard with knives and hammers, people who try to break into the shop across the street and have to be chased away with a garden rake, drunks who mistake the bed of Jackie's truck for a good place to sleep, suspected gambling rings, suspected drug-running fronts and anyone who mistreats dogs.

"Heights has remarkable rise in values"
-- Houston Chronicle headline, June 23, 1929

Of course all neighborhoods, at some point in their evolution, have precisely the same problems. There are four clustered Heights neighborhoods: Houston, Woodland, Sunset and Independence. Think of them as brothers and you can make some sense of their dynamics.

Houston Heights is the eldest, founded as a speculative, if self-fulfilling, development in 1892 by Oscar Martin Carter, who came to Texas a millionaire owner of the Omaha and South Texas Land Company, purchased 1,765 acres of jungle and woodland northwest of the Allen brothers' 30-year-old settlement for $50 an acre (called at the time a "foolish and outlandish" deal), bought out two local mule-drawn railway companies, electrified the lines and ran them across White Oak Bayou at a cost of half a million dollars, and watched the Victorian manses rise from the forest.

Next came Woodland Heights, developed in 1907 as infill between Houston and Houston Heights, the latter of which was an incorporated city all its own until it was annexed in 1918.

In 1910, both Sunset Heights and Independence Heights were platted, the latter as Houston's first neighborhood developed specifically for black residence, and the former being where Jackie Harris lives.

Over the years, all four Heights neighborhoods have gone through the cycles that real estate goes through to arrive at their present incarnations.

Houston Heights is the slightly staid oldest brother who drank his way through an inheritance of genteel decay, until bottoming out in the early 1970s, and then staged an AA-worthy comeback to a today of historic home tours and enough crown molding to make you sick.

Woodland Heights is the overachieving second son, who's taken an afterthought collection of modest two-bedroom Craftsman bungalows and pumped the area so full of aggrandizing small-town-within-a-town hype that you can't buy one today for under $130,000, unless it needs major structural rehabilitation, and even then you'll need $110,000.

Sunset Heights was too young and unsophisticated to hang out with the snootier Houston Heights that cradled it on two sides, but it idolized Woodland, following its path like a mimic, set back perhaps several steps in the early 1970s, when it became nationally infamous as the killing grounds of Dean Corll, who operated a candy factory on West 21st Street when he and his accomplice Elmer Wayne Henley weren't busy murdering 27 boys, most of them from the neighborhood.

And Independence Heights, separated from its brothers in 1973 by the interloping Loop 610, is the odd man out, real-estate-wise. Its smaller homes have either been sloppily added onto and rebuilt so often -- or just plain been run down so badly -- that little of the neighborhood's original character can be discerned from the street. You can probably still get into something on the cheap side, but you'll be waiting awhile if you're waiting for company.

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