Still Standing

South Park has gone from a sheltered suburb to a crime-ridden war zone to a near wasteland. And Burger Park has managed to survive it all.

See South Park in pictures in our slideshow.

Seven days a week, the Burger Park food stand turns out 400 to 500 burgers a day. It isn't part of a chain, national or regional. It isn't known for its gourmet cuisine. It doesn't have gleaming granite countertops or even indoor seating. But for Texans who like their patties thin with plenty of cheese and fixings, Burger Park produces a very nearly perfect burger.

Its owners are a couple, Oak Kim and her husband Gil, who came to Houston from South Korea in August 1979 and purchased the place from its original owner in 1995.

The Kims turn out 400 to 500 burgers a day.
Troy Fields
The Kims turn out 400 to 500 burgers a day.
Burger Park offers a $4.32 cheeseburger combo with fries and a slush.
Groovehouse
Burger Park offers a $4.32 cheeseburger combo with fries and a slush.

They have operated all this time in a part of Houston world-famous for its notorious excesses. Burger Park, on MLK Boulevard, is in the heart of South Park, an area bounded by Loop 610 and Sims Bayou, Cullen and Mykawa. South Park became the stuff of legend as it almost cannibalized itself in the '80s and '90s with violent robberies and drive-by shootings. The pedophile rapper South Park Mexican didn't help its reputation when he was convicted and sent to prison for 45 years in 2002.

Some say the crime levels are down now because there's nothing of worth left to steal.

Yet some have stayed the course. And so did this lone hamburger stand with its fries and slushies and special $4.32 deal for a combo — catering mainly to neighborhood people. The couple is Korean-American, the neighborhood almost solidly black, although Hispanics have been moving in increasingly. Whites are missing, long gone to newer suburbs.

None of that matters to the 62-year-old Kim. She says she loves her customers and they love her right back.

"I don't have any problems at all," she says about the neighborhood. "I hire security guard because you never know. Nowhere is safe. But we never had a problem."

"People are sometimes drunk, I just talk to them nicely. Sometimes they ask for free food, I give them a little package. I have good reputation. Mostly people are very friendly." When her husband, Gil, is out for the day, the customers ask about him. When he's there, he's dispensing hugs to customers in line. That is, if they don't get to him first with embraces of their own.

In fact, the Kims hope that their son will take over operation of the place in about five years and carry on the tradition. They look beyond the bombed-out yards, the abandoned elementary up the street, the rusting signs and see not only an acceptable present but the potential, if not the promise, of a good future.
_____________________

It's hard to believe it now, but South Park started out as a suburb.

The neighborhood was created in the 1950s for middle-class whites and their baby boomer kids. A reflection of the postwar time period and of the homebuyers themselves — who were mostly returning war veterans — the streets in South Park are named for famous World War II battles and generals: Pershing, Mountbatten, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and even Bataan, the infamous death march in the Philippines.

The one-story homes had cedar shank siding; some more affluent homeowners were able to afford aluminum. Lawns were well-kept and children rode their bikes everywhere. Famous people were growing up here: movie actress JoBeth Williams and basketball's Clyde Drexler.

"Everybody looked after everybody," recalls Ralph Gonzales, 60. Gonzales, my stepfather, grew up in South Park until graduating from Sterling High School in 1968 and moving to Alief, where he became a Houston Police Department officer soon after graduation. He's been married to my mother for 20 years now, and it's always been known that he grew up in South Park. But he rarely speaks about it apart from my mother teasing him about being head cheerleader at Jones, and one of the most popular guys in school. Memories of his old neighborhood seem somewhat painful when viewed through the lens of what South Park has become today.

When I told him that I'd been visiting a burger joint in his old neighborhood for a few months, having fallen in love with their burgers and slushes, he was initially irritated with me for going over there alone, especially at night. Once the paternal protectiveness subsided, he began to reminisce with me about South Park one evening. Gonzales is a big and boisterous man, six feet tall with a gun still permanently holstered on his hip. But he speaks softly about South Park.

"I never felt alone or frightened. There was some adult out there always looking after you. As a kid, I felt safe."

Before Burger Park, burger stands like Price's and Kip's Big Boy ruled the neighborhood, as did places like the one-screen King Center Drive-In and Palm Center, a majestic shopping center on Griggs Road anchored by a JCPenney. Boy scout lodges and small, family-owned businesses rounded out the area, with the occasional pawn shop and drive-through liquor store attesting to the solidly blue-collar nature of the residents.

In 1968, the street that Burger Park is located on was still called South Park Boulevard. Loop 610 — just to the north of Burger Park — was still brand-new. It was the construction of the Loop that many former residents believe was the first nail in South Park's coffin. "You would've thought that it would make the area grow, but it didn't," Gonzales said.

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27 comments
Darryle Green
Darryle Green

As a licensed Realtor, I feel quite a few tax paying homeowners in "South Park" are quite offended as I am. I really did not appreciate your comments and I disagree with you totally.

Avgarcia55
Avgarcia55

Katharine, My sister Alma, worked at Burger Park in the early 70's through the 80's. She could have given you greater insight to the real drama that unfolded during that time. She was left in charge of Burger Park when Harry couldn't work anymore. I remember thinking how brave my sister was and how she never was afraid to go to work. She carried a gun with her at all times. Harry offered to sell the place to Alma, but the bank didn't want to finance the risky business. She quit working when the new and now owners took over.

texasmamma
texasmamma

ever heard of Detroit, Michigan? Unfortunately, factions in Houston could care less if parts of our city fall into the urban decay that defines the once-great, once-thriving "Motor City".

It's disgraceful and worse: NO ONE wants to discuss the "whys" and "wherefores" of these travesties. It's easier to pretend or suggest by innuendo that it's the result of racism, overt or implied.

texasmamma
texasmamma

Kudos to author Katherine Shilcutt for an excellent attempt at the touchy/feely cum socio/anthropological genre. Shame on her editors.

Pros: 1) stepdad sound like a smart, together guy who has authentically been through the “wars”, but retains his sanity and humanity. He, his experience, and his insights were good for the story.

Cons: 1) Korean family (whose story it obstensibly is) only touched on lightly at beginning and end of story – we don’t learn enough about them. 2) middle part of the story highlight problems in South Park, especially regarding housing and education, but never explores failures that led to its current plight..

The story fails to offer any reasons for the decline of the neighborhood over the past decades, other than that “whites moved out” and “Hispanics are moving in”.

A few pertinent, unasked questions: could the welfare program be to blame for people who move into housing that they can’t afford? – people who don’t have jobs often, who never work, but who rely on government checks for all their income? On the education topic – could it be that people who run the school system are more concerned with “running the system” and keeping the “educators” in their comfortable status quo, than they are concerned about the students?

Big questions, totally ignored in this, basically, bleeding-heart, “feel-good-in-perverse-way” story about which no one should feel good. Yes, a typical American neighborhood at one point – now another area condemned to obsolescence, due to . . . nebulous, unknown, unidentified “various factors”. What you ignored, Houston Press and Ms. Shilcutt: WHY?

You’re both either willfully blind, ignorant, or partisan.

Pamela Lewis
Pamela Lewis

Wow how would have thought Burger Park would be noticed or South Park for that matter. Great article about a great place to eat and the great people who have kept Burger Park running for years.

Dream
Dream

really awesome article. another reason to love htown.

dream

Mary
Mary

This is a great article!

Jrexer
Jrexer

Really fantastic article! Thanks!

Terence
Terence

It's awesome how you took a burger place and made a feature story about it that encompassed the whole neighborhood. Bravo. Bravo.

Gil Velasquez
Gil Velasquez

You know the husband is a cool guy because his name is Gil.

Fatty FatBastard
Fatty FatBastard

Well, an address would've been nice, but I suppose I can find it online easy enough. I'm always up for trying out a new burger, so I will get over there for lunch. And where did you find the housing listings for this area? I saw nothing pinpointing where it was on HAR.com.

Steven
Steven

I was a classmate of Ralph's at Jones High School. I have not been back to the old neighbor since graduation. I have seen it from the air flying into Hobby and I can tell that the area is pretty run down now. Virtually all of the businesses that I remember are gone from OST to Griggs to Bellfort. Use to spend a lot of weekend nights at the King Center Drive-in which was actually a double screen theater.

joel2
joel2

it's always impressive just how desolate the retail landscape is in south park. you can't help but think of it as an endemic cycle of poverty. i guess there's just not enough money to be spent in the area to support anything, but i always wonder where these people work. here's hoping their bus serice isn't cut to pay for the light rails, but i'm sure it will be.

Kixette
Kixette

Katharine, always enjoy your pieces in the food blog, nice to see you doing a full story!

redonthehead1
redonthehead1

Excellent article...very well-researched and thoughtfully written. The burgers AND proprietors sound amazing!

tiffanyinhouston
tiffanyinhouston

I graduated from Jones in 1991, when the Vanguard magnet program was still there. I haven't been back to South Park since but Burger Park made my high school years mighty tasty. Well done article. I will be sure to re-post on my FB page so my classmates can see this.

itsdanilove
itsdanilove

This was a really well-written and thoughtful article, Katharine. Very well done.

Franklin
Franklin

Burger Park burgers are definitely worth the trip! If you have any hesitation about going... go during broad daylight! Good stuff.

DuckDuckGoose
DuckDuckGoose

Heya Darryle, go visit some of the Pacific battle named streets and then report back how the neighborhood is so wonderful.

The area went from moderate-income home ownership to absentee landlord hell. I have known people in the neighborhood since the mid-1960 and that's the way it is.

Kanichi Moji
Kanichi Moji

Hi Darryle !1. Your post does not identify these "falsehoods" so it fails to challenge Schilcutt's post.2. People often have inappropriate enabling attitudes about crummy neighborhoods/small towns. They say "it mat be a piece of crap but it's my piece of crap!"

I am offended that you are offended.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Wow. I wish I could have spoken with her beforehand. It was difficult to find anyone who knew anything at all about the old owner. Has she been back since?

Kanichi Moji
Kanichi Moji

Racism is PART but not ALL of the problem. I am confident that this account makes it clear.

Kanichi Moji
Kanichi Moji

Hi, Texasmamma!1. I agree that I would have liked to have known more about the Korean family2. The article clearly mentions more factors and reasons for the decline than "whites moved out" ("Hispanics moving in" was NOT cited as a factor)* Building of the 610 Loop, which brought the neighborhood in easier contact with other parts of the city* The people who moved in did not maintain their homes well* Telephone Road, a "wild" road, is in close proximity

If you recall what Giuliani did in NYC, it refers to the "broken window" theory.

Now, other points:1. While the people moving in were poorer, is there any evidence that they were on welfare or that the welfare system conditioned them to not maintain their houses?2. The question about the failures of the wider education system aren't pertinent to the specific neighborhood, unless a very incredible example of the wider failure specifically occurred at Jones High. For example, North Forest ISD was hard-hit by people who had the idea that school districts exist to provide jobs for people rather than educate students.

The burden of proof on a claim is on a person who makes a claim. The person who says "welfare system is what did it" or "the wider education system failures doomed Jones" is the person who needs to dig up the evidence himself/herself.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I noticed today that the listing had been taken down. Gus over at Swamplot.com managed to find it (and a photo from the listing) if you want to check it out over there.

Fatty FatBastard
Fatty FatBastard

Always good to know about these things. A friend of mine just purchased the two Skylane Montrose complexes on W. Alabama, an d he showed me what he is doing to clean it up and make it a better neighborhood. And after seeing a "before" and then seeing an "after" I was impressed. Plus he made them go back to monthly rent and kicked almost every drug dealer out. I like seeing folks trying to spruce our city back up. Folks are starting to move back in, and South Park will eventually be prime real estate. Whether that is in 20-50 years? Who knows?

 
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