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.

Jackie's house used to have the words "Jackie's House of Weapons" spray-painted on the front, an affectation the neighbors eventually grew to understand as an artsy eccentricity. She sanded the words off recently, anticipating a visit that may yet come from a bank officer in connection with the big fat loan she hopes to take out for renovations soon. She's lost a few character points, but at least she's still got her cactus, except for the giant agave that some asshole dug up and stole in the middle of the night. Jackie drove around looking for it in someone else's garden, in someone else's pickup, but it was never found.

Someone's been slicing off pads of her prickly pear, too. Jackie suspects the patrons of the cantina next door. Those pads are called nopalitas, and once you've burned off or peeled off the spines, they're delicious boiled in strips and fried with eggs in the morning.

Jackie spent 12 years growing up in the Memorial area -- the fourth of seven children of a father who retired from the Army and went into the oil business -- but she had some childhood years in El Paso, too, and so the brown aspects of Sunset Heights don't bother her.

It's hard to talk about these things because, on the one hand, if you're white and you say the word "Mexican" in conjunction with crimes committed by Hispanics, you're easily presumed to be racist; on the other hand, if you're white and talk too much about how you appreciate the mixed ethnicity of a neighborhood, even as the arrival of more people like you drives out more people like them, you're easily presumed to be a pandering liberal thoughtlessly destroying another working-class neighborhood for the sake of your own adventurousness.

Jackie doesn't seem to worry about this issue much and bulls on ahead with her mission, which is to make her corner of the world a more decent place to live.

One thing that was in the way for years was the house directly next door to hers.

"That place was such a problem for so long. The little old lady that owned it, she was so nice, but when she died, the son was an alcoholic, and you wouldn't believe the people that moved in. I remember the first day, there's some guy sitting on the front porch, they're all Hispanic, they didn't speak any English, and this guy's looking to me like he just sniffed a whole shitload of glue. You know how they get that real crimson look? I mean they turn bright red and they get that look. And he's vomiting. And I go to what appears to be sort of a family, with an older man -- he was the drug-dealing guy -- and a wife, and then there was several children and a couple of young girls there in the backyard, and I said, 'Hey, there's someone in the front who's sick. He's throwing up. He's sick.' And they're like, 'Ha, ha, ha, ha! Thank you!'

"It took me, like, six weeks to get them to move out."
She called the cops incessantly. After three arrests, the glue-sniffing dealers threw a big party and moved out.

Her neighbor mocked her: "Gosh, it took you six whole weeks to get rid of them?"

The people who moved in next weren't much better, and Jackie decided to think long term. Check this out -- anyone can do this: She called the county tax collector's office and asked about the property's tax situation. She found out that the absentee owner owed more than a thousand dollars in delinquent taxes. She wrote a very simple letter to the city, informing it of this fact and requesting that it begin foreclosure proceedings on the property. The city did (a monthly list of foreclosed properties is posted in the lobby of the Family Law Center at 1115 Congress). Jackie showed up at the public city auction (first Tuesday of every month, same place). Jackie bought the lot for a $4,000 bid, had friends help her tear down the house and added it to her empire.

She didn't know until recently, by the way, that there was such a thing as the Sunset Heights Civic Association. "You should give me the number," she responds. "They might be able to help me on something."

"She's the guardian angel of the neighborhood."
-- Linda Kindall, co-owner of Kindall Auto Repairs on Yale

"When we moved in, it was 1990," says Lanie Harris, who lived on her older sister's very street for almost eight years before moving south to Houston Heights. "We would sit at dinner and you'd hear gunshots going off constantly, and after a few months of that, we just got kinda used to the gunshots."

You don't hear as many gunshots in the neighborhood these days, but predicting the landscape is still a matter of, as the convenience store chains say, location, location, location.

There were recently two houses for sale on 26th Street. They're both about the same size, but one has been redone and sports new wiring, central air conditioning and heat, a screened-in front porch, a remodeled kitchen and bathroom, fresh paint and refinished floors. The other has old wiring, skanky carpet over wood of indeterminate condition, window units and the rental-house gloss of years upon years of white latex paint gummed up on the window frames. The nicer house is the slightly cheaper of the two, in the mid-80K range, because its side fence backs up to the parking lot of another of Yale Street's cantinas and because it's catty-corner to the local liquor store. The three blocks between the two houses makes all the difference.

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