By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
There are books dedicated to Houston Heights, but not much has been written about Sunset Heights in particular. Plat maps on file at the county courthouse show the boundaries as 23rd Street on the south, a notched line cutting up Cortlandt to Aurora and left to Yale on the west, 28th Street and/or Loop 610 on the north, and Link sloping into Airline on the east. Records don't indicate a developer, just a name: John Austin, the Texas pioneer whose original 1824 land grant encompassed the area.
Volume Six of The New Handbook of Texas, published by the Texas State Historical Association -- one of the few published references to the neighborhood, outside of newspapers -- identifies Sunset only as "a residential suburb and retail center" north of Houston Heights. It also points out that Sunset was named for its position on high land, which is true of all the Heights neighborhoods. (The 20-or-so feet the Heights had over Houston proper was important in the days when yellow fever regularly settled in the lowlands.) A post office operated there from 1915 to 1951, after which the "town" disappeared from the county highway map.
The most redolent detail is that "the townsite is the terminus of a trolley line." That would be O.M. Carter's trolley line, whose streetcars clacked gloriously and perhaps a bit smugly up Heights Boulevard -- at that time the widest and longest boulevard in the entire American South -- and then stopped and turned at what must clearly have been the end of the line.
"I don't know her, but of course I know who you're talking about."
-- James Fanning, president, Sunset Heights Civic Association, on Jackie Harris
There are people in Sunset Heights who remember when Cavalcade wasn't there, when the farmers' market on Airline was just woods, when there was still a public natatorium (when swimming pools were still called natatoriums) at the foot of Harvard Street within spitting distance of White Oak Bayou's alligators. One nice old lady remembers moving into the neighborhood in 1931, freshly married at age 17. She and her husband built a four-room home with a storefront attached and sold groceries there until he died. She remembers dirt roads, and then asphalt, and little bridges over ditches you had to cross to get to the houses.
"This block has changed a little bit," she says.
"There was quite a few Italians. A lot of them have moved away, and some of the Polish people have moved away, but we have some Czechs and some Polish. I go to Christ the King Church, and they've been there since I guess '29, maybe '28, and their congregation [is] a lot of Czechs and a lot of Polish people. And the Italians, as I said, and then the Spanish people, but I think the Spanish people are a little bit ahead of us now."
And she's heard the low approaching rumble of Y.U.P.s in S.U.V.s, but "Most of 'em I think is doing that along about 26th and 28th, like close to Yale and North Main and that area." They haven't spread yet even to the neighborhood's own east end. "Not yet."
Indeed, you can see them over closer to Yale in the upper 20s, some sprucing up their two-bedroom, one-bath American bungalows, others buying knockdowns for the land and putting up plywood Victorians and worse.
Sunset Heights Civic Association President Fanning has been associated with one particular Sunset Heights house -- first his aunt's, later his own -- since the age of five, which makes for about 50 years. His aunt and uncle moved out in '65, the same year the Astrodome went up, and after that, says Fanning, Sunset Heights "became more an area of transition, a neighborhood in transition. Certainly it became much more Latinized."
Now, as the pendulums swing, "It's getting whiter, as the lower-income people are driven out because of the high rents. The yuppies can't afford West U, [but] they can still build these nice Victorians because the lots are so much cheaper in the Heights."
Fanning says he's been seeing lots of rehabilitated homes, but lately he's also been hearing more bulldozers at work, knocking down structures to make way for fresh development. "I think we'll see more of that as the land becomes more valuable."
Which isn't to say that there are no longer Hispanics living in ghetto conditions in several areas of Sunset Heights. (There are.) Just that the competition is visible in increasingly dense rows of fixed-uppers, freshly painted, not in the historically likely white with black trim (those colors being always available and easy to match), but in designer combinations of Muirlands and Navajo White, Juniper and Bleached Ash, Sanded Oak and Natural Redwood, Rockport Blue and Ox Blood.
"Yeah, gosh, she was very bossy, especially to us, being the younger kids."
-- Jackie's younger sister, Lanie Harris
Jackie's dog is named Shredder, and he's a mixed breed -- pit bull and Great Dane -- and a real sweet, easygoing dog, too. Go ahead, threaten him.
Her front yard is mostly cactus, some of which is prickly pear grown from the droppings of a giant specimen outside the Alamo. In the back, which is impossible to see from the street, there's a courtyard with high plywood and aluminum walls and the shade of a mature banana tree. There's an old concrete holding tank in a corner hidden by river cane, and that's as good as a hot tub. The patio is surrounded with elephant's ear and night-blooming cereus and a large number of potted succulents. She could use a breeze back there, but the lush swelter is equally effective, in its jungle-ish way, at transporting its occupants.