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.

In 1993, the City of Houston was debating how to spend a $57.5 million cash surplus under the Lanier administration. By that time, the simple infrastructure itself in the neighborhood — the veins and arteries that run silently under the streets, keeping bathtubs filled and toilets flushing — had become rusted-out and busted up. Councilman Al Calloway wanted to spend the surplus on fixing the "decrepit water and sewer lines" in South Park and its neighboring areas. But — as the Houston Chronicle reported at the time — Calloway admitted that "residents in neighborhoods such as South Park or Sunnyside may die before the projects are done." The surplus was never spent.

The floods of October 1994 — still remembered for the 25 inches of rain that fell in one day, displacing over 10,000 people from their homes — didn't help matters. South Park experienced heavy flooding and damage when nearby Sims Bayou overflowed its banks. Many houses and businesses were devastated by the high waters, but very few residents had any flood insurance at all. Some residences and businesses were never repaired and were left to rot. Residents sank further into despair at the brutal waves of destruction that seemed aimed at their community.

A Houston Chronicle article from 1993 described South Park during the early '90s solely in terms of violence: "South Park was a war zone, a place of nightly shootings, fistfights, police harassment and strife. There, the right amount of money could buy any weapon, even hand grenades. Seven-year-old children knew how to handle pistols."

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.

But, Gonzales says, even that period in South Park's history eventually came to an end.

"The criminal element destroyed itself," he states, plainly. "You can only steal so much before it's all gone. You gonna break into a house already has the door hangin' off it, ain't nothing inside but dirt? The bad guys moved on to Alief, Hiram Clark."

And South Park now? "Pickins is slim over there," he sighs.
_____________________

These days, South Park is undergoing yet another change: an influx of Hispanic residents, from 16 percent in 2000 to nearly 20 percent in 2009. That number is expected to jump to 22 percent in five years, while the number of black residents is on the decline: 82 percent in 2000 compared to an estimated 77 percent five years from now. Census data shows no white people living in the area at all.

An examination of average home prices in the area shows that the median home price is $50,400 — an increase of 15 percent since 2000. This sounds promising until another statistic is revealed: The median income is a mere $33,196 per year, which is nearly 15 percent less than ten years ago. The most expensive listing for a single family home on HAR.com right now — a completely remodeled three-bedroom house on Bataan with granite countertops in the kitchen — is less than $78,000, its asking price recently reduced in a bid to attract buyers. The modest house, built in 1955, has been on the market for months.

Attesting to that low annual income is the fact that only 55 percent of South Park's residents are high school graduates. Part of this anemic rate could be attributed to the number of immigrants who are flocking to the area: The foreign-born population has increased nearly 10 percent in the last ten years. But it also speaks to the disappointing graduation rates at nearby Sterling and Jones high schools. In 2007, the Associated Press in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University pronounced both Jones and Sterling to be "dropout factories" after a study showed that only 60 percent of the entering freshman class actually made it to their senior year of high school, much less graduated. The study further showed that more than half of the students zoned to the two schools voluntarily chose to attend different high schools in HISD.

Residents are still protective of the neighborhood, however. As I drove around to get photos of the old Bastian Elementary School — now replaced by a shiny new building on West Bellfort — people eyed me warily each time I hopped out of my car with camera in hand. One woman pulled her SUV up close to mine and demanded to know what I was doing.

My stepfather was with me in the car that day, showing me his old house on Northridge and pointing out long-gone landmarks. He hadn't been to South Park in years. "That used to be a 7-11," he pointed to a gutted gas station, looking like a scrap heap on the corner of MLK. "It was always getting knocked over like a sumbitch."

The woman's angry demands drew Gonzales out of the car, and he strode over to her and explained that he was showing me around his old neighborhood.

Attitudes shifted in an instant as they chatted about old dentists' offices and grocery stores, and camaraderie replaced the mistrust. The residents who still care about South Park are guarded now, hardened by the crime and the drugs that swept through like a maelstrom.

On a recent evening, I took my cheeseburger and fries out to one of the little metal tables that perch under the awning outside Burger Park's front door. The joint was busy, as usual, with people waiting and sweating outside in the heat.

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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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