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.

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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.  

Modern day Main Street with its Metrorail tracks.
Modern day Main Street with its Metrorail tracks.

In the years following World War II, as builders began to develop communities in areas away from the central hub of downtown, moving to the suburbs became a common goal for many Houstonians. Originally, downtown was the most important retail center of the city, but as the city spread further out, many of the older businesses began to lose their appeal, and that, combined with flight to the suburbs, contributed to the downtown area beginning to become run down and less appealing to visit.

Why go downtown when a new mall had just opened in Sharpstown, and new homes were available in Spring Branch? Quite simply, other areas were beginning to draw interest away. Houston was no longer going to be a city that was entirely focused on its downtown area. It was getting too big and decentralized for that to continue.

When I was growing up, we hardly ever went downtown for anything. It seemed like its image was primarily that of a place people went to work, and then left to go home somewhere else, usually a good distance away. Most of downtown definitely wasn't an area you wanted to be walking around after dark, or at least that was the perception. The building boom of the '70s and '80s had resulted in the building of some magnificently huge skyscrapers, giving Houston an amazing skyline, but most of the downtown area looked like a ghost town after dark. Meagan Anderson, a acquaintance who worked downtown in the mid '80s, described the situation she dealt with daily: "I learned to use the underground tunnel system to get around as much as possible. Even during the day walking around downtown above ground was a hassle. There were always guys that would harass me back then, but the streets feel safer now."

Then the economy crashed. A lot of the huge new buildings were largely vacant, and older downtown businesses began to shutter their doors. Things weren't looking good for the area by the late 1980s.

In 1990, I lived in an old downtown hotel that had been converted into apartments. It was the kind of place that had once been very beautiful, but had fallen into disrepair from decades of neglect. Almost everyone that lived in the place was a junkie, a musician or artist, or a junkie musician/artist. And late at night, you could look out the window and would hardly even see cars drive by. It was a dead zone. I tracked down my old friend Jeff Ayers, who'd been a neighbor at that bohemian apartment paradise, and he had this to say about downtown back then: "Basically all of the people that came into downtown during the day fled by nightfall, and if you saw someone walking around late at night, chances were they were in some kind of trouble or looking to find some." 

The historic Rice Hotel was converted into the luxurious Post Rice Lofts in recent years.
The historic Rice Hotel was converted into the luxurious Post Rice Lofts in recent years.

By the late '90s, a few trendy clubs began to appear downtown, as well as new bars and restaurants. But after a few years, most of them began to close and a revival in downtown as an entertainment destination began to look unlikely. It seemed like a lot of Houston's club going population started to migrate to new hot spots in town in pursuit of their nightlife fix. But despite that false start as a club destination, downtown continued to change, and more people began to make their homes there.

While some people have always lived downtown, many considered it too impractical or dangerous as recently as a few years ago. But that has been changing in later years - the streets are safer, and once missing necessities like grocery stores have opened. Businesses such as Phoenicia Specialty Foods and Epicurian Express have opened, providing downtown residents the opportunity to shop for groceries without leaving their neighborhood to do so.

Although Houston has in the past resisted expansions of our mass transit systems, downtown benefits from the Metrorail line, which allows area residents a way to get around, and will undoubtedly connect the downtown area to many other parts of town as the rail lines expand over the next few years. The rail line has also been responsible for a lot of redevelopment along its path. Many new businesses, restaurants, and lofts have appeared near the Metrorail line, and that trend will probably continue as it expands. The rail line may eventually allow those living downtown a true rarity in a city like Houston - the ability to get from point A to B without ever having to set foot in a car.

Because of these developments, Houstonians are beginning to view downtown as a livable neighborhood, rather than just as a place they had to commute to for work. With the area's appeal growing, many people are choosing to become full time residents, living in one of the many high rises, town homes, or condos that have appeared downtown.

Houston has also become an entertainment destination for Houstonians and out of town visitors. In 2012, Houston topped the list of Forbes Magazine's "Coolest Cities," and it's easy to see why. The Houston Theater District is one of the largest and best in the country, featuring award-winning ballet, theater, and music at several great venues - Jones Hall, the Wortham Center, the Bayou Music Center, the Alley Theatre (now undergoing a massive renovation), and the Hobby Center. Downtown also offers sports fans entertainment options at the Toyota Center, Minute Maid Park, and most recently, at BBVA Compass Stadium. There are also frequent events of interest at the George R. Brown Convention Center, giving downtown Houston visitors a chance to enjoy everything from a weekend gun show to a baseball game, a Judas Priest concert or the ballet. Spectacular parks such as Discovery Green also offers visitors to and residents of Houston opportunities to enjoy the outdoors while appreciating new newly revitalized area.

While writing this article, I came to the realization that Houston's downtown really is the heartbeat of this city, and mirrors the unique nature of Houston as a whole. It's gone through many transformations, and been through some rough patches, but it has bounced back, and today has many attractions drawing in people from all over the city and beyond.


The Changing Face of Houston - Oak Forest

The Changing Face of Houston: Sharpstown - Then and Now

The Changing Face of Houston - Spring Branch Then and Now

The Changing Face of Houston - The Heights Then and Now

The Changing Face of Houston - Montrose Then and Now

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