Best of Houston

The Changing Face of Houston - Downtown Then and Now

To a large degree, a city's downtown area is its heartbeat. In many places, downtown is the most significant part of town, filling many roles in the lives of residents, and serving as the public face of a city's image to those that visit. Houston's downtown is no different in that regard. Although until recently it was often criticized as being run down and dangerous, it has a rich history, and has changed in character many times since the founding of our city.

Since Houston is, on the surface, a very modern looking city, and an "old" building might be one dating back just 40 or 50 years, it is easy to forget that Houston was founded in the early 1800s, and our downtown area is the oldest part of town. There's a lot of history there, and it all began in 1836, soon after the end of the Texas Revolution. The Allen brothers, two real estate investors from New York, bought 6,642 acres of land to create a new settlement.

At the beginning, Houston was very dependent on Buffalo and White Oak bayous, with docks built where the two meet -- the area known today as Allen's Landing. The Allen brothers and others envisioned the bayous allowing Houston to become a center of shipping commerce, and designed the city around them. The reason Houston is called the "Bayou City" today is because of that early vision.

Initially the city was divided into wards, a popular form of political zoning in the nineteenth century. In the early 1900s, the ward system was abolished in Houston because of widespread political corruption, and the city eventually switched over to a different form of local government. Although the wards no longer officially existed as political districts by 1915, residents continue to identify certain neighborhoods with them, and they have taken on local cultural significance.

It's easy to forget, but up until the early 20th century, downtown was Houston. The sprawling city of far flung neighborhoods that we're all used to did not exist at that time, and even nearby neighborhoods like The Heights were considered separate from Houston originally.

In 1909, a new railroad station was commissioned to be built, as Houston had 17 railways at the time and was the main rail hub of the southern states. The resulting station was beautifully designed and built, serving Houston for decades, but some believe that the surrounding neighborhoods began to decline after it was constructed. Hotels and other businesses began to open in the area to service travelers, and over the years, they began to attract derelicts and other problems which adversely affected the nearby residential areas.

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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.