The Changing Face of Houston: The Heights Then and Now

Nice older homes display much of the appeal of The Heights area for residents.
Nice older homes display much of the appeal of The Heights area for residents.
Photo by Chris Lane

I lived in the Heights area as a child in the late '70s, at that time one of Houston's well-known neighborhoods with a long history, and an area that had changed a great deal over the previous decades.

Today, the Heights is considered by many to be one of the most desirable Inner Loop communities and seems to exist in a continual state of metamorphosis. More than many cities, Houston and its neighborhoods seem to always be in a rapid state of change, and the Heights today reflects that trend.

The origin of the Heights is a tale of the type of entrepreneurialism that many Houstonians still consider a basic part of the fabric of the city. In the late 1800s a self made millionaire named Oscar Martin Carter, who had made his fortune in Nebraska and Colorado, saw the Houston area as the perfect place to create a new type of utopian community, perfect for the fast approaching 20th Century.

His vision was to shape a perfectly planned community where successful people and the working classes alike could live healthy and productive lives. Houston at the time was afflicted by problems with periodic flooding and outbreaks of yellow fever, so Carter decided to build his unique vision four miles northwest of downtown Houston in an area elevated 23 feet higher, inspiring the "Heights" in its name.

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Carter and his investors then formed the Omaha and South Texas Land Company and bought 1,756 acres of land from the Allen brothers, before spending a fortune building the streets, utilities, and other improvements needed to forge the new neighborhood. At the time, most major cities had electric streetcars, but Houston only had a couple of horse drawn systems, so Carter invested in having the existing lines converted to electric, ensuring that the Heights would have modern transportation.

The area was carefully planned, with schools, parks, and retail areas built, as well as Heights Boulevard, which was quite grand for the time, and still is today. It was modeled after Boston's Commonwealth Avenue and featured open spaces, and large Victorian homes, many of which sure still standing. The tree canopy that makes Heights Boulevard so pretty now was originally planted during the original building stage of the community, and the neighborhood originally boasted attractions such as a Natatorium during an age when public swimming pools were not a common feature in most places.

Carter and his investors correctly guessed that Houston's growing white collar population would flock to the new neighborhood to escape the noise and other hassles of living in a busy city like Houston. The Heights was always envisioned as a modest community despite the forward thinking planning, and palatial homes lining Heights Boulevard, the development was not specifically marketed to the wealthy, but instead to Houston's the growing middle and professional class.

 

The rows of town homes that took over my former street.
The rows of town homes that took over my former street.
Photo by Chris Lane

As the decades rolled forward, things had changed dramatically for the Heights area. By the late '60s and early '70s, the neighborhood was in decline, and viewed as another of Houston's low income neighborhoods. Things change, they always do in Houston it seems, and The Heights had suffered after the end of World War 2, when more industrial interests moved into the neighborhood, and as many Houstonians began to flee the Inner Loop neighborhoods to settle in one of the many new suburbs popping up outside of town.

By the onset of the 1970s, many of the old Victorian homes and once charming bungalows were in sad disrepair, and it was common to see businesses like auto repair and machine shops scattered around residential areas. The once grand neighborhood had seen better days, and its reputation was that it was not a great area to go into after dark. The fact that serial killer Dean Corll began luring in child victims from the area with the help of two teenage accomplices in the early '70s did nothing to help that reputation. By the time I was a teenager in the mid 1980s, The Heights area was still firmly working class and blue collar, with some pretty rough parts that it was best to just avoid. At the same time, I always thought the neighborhood and the others immediately around it retained a lot of their former charm.

There were still a lot of nice older homes, wide tree lined streets, and cheap rents that attracted quite a few artists, musicians, and other creative types to the area. By the late '80s and early '90s it seemed that more people were moving into the area set on fixing up one of the old homes. I remember how some folks thought those early remodelers must be crazy, but in hindsight they were obviously onto something.

By the mid '90s, the neighborhood still seemed to have a mixed reputation, depending on what part of area was being discussed, and I managed to buy my first house for a little less than $55,000. A mansion it was not, and even then finding a house anywhere in the area for that little was very challenging. Most of my neighbors were working class Hispanic families who had lived there for generations. I had noticed that developers were increasingly building all over the Heights area, and realized that eventually they would make it to my street, and boy did they.

It had become so commonplace to notice that a vacant lot, or a large lot with a modest older home on it, suddenly had a big "Notice of a variance request" sign posted on it, and then a short time later that house would be demolished and two to four nearly identical new "luxury" town homes would be built there within a month or two. It was astounding to me just how fast they could construct them. For the most part, the areas in the heart of the Heights seemed to gentrify well, most of the older homes were remodeled and not just destroyed. 

The canopy of trees covering Heights Boulevard makes for a lovely drive.
The canopy of trees covering Heights Boulevard makes for a lovely drive.
Photo by Chris Lane

I knew that long term lower income residents were being displaced by the increasing numbers of well heeled yuppies that were settling into the neighborhood, and that was sad to me, but that's the way gentrification works. Whether it's "fair" or not is for someone else to decide, but once an area becomes desirable to people with more money, people with less are often forced to move. I was one of those lower income residents, and so it goes. House prices were steadily climbing and continue to do so, making buying in the area something fewer people could afford.

My street was transformed over a period of three years. Developers bought every available lot, and began building cookie cutter town homes as fast as they could, and they could build them fast. After a while most of the older homes were either for sale, or sandwiched between giant new places that loomed over them. The weird thing I noticed was that a pattern seemed to emerge with the people buying those new town homes. They were mostly young white professionals, some barely out of college judging by the zeal they showed in advertising what school they'd gone to with a banner draped over their balconies, but a lot of them sold their new place only a year or two after moving in. By the time I moved away, some of those almost new town homes had switched hands two or three times in five years. It was strange.

But driving around the Heights area recently, I noticed that while there is still a lot of development going on, particularly around the edges of the neighborhood, much remains the same. The Heights is probably nearer now to Oscar Carter's original concept of a community intended to serve white collar people more than it has been in many recent decades, so perhaps that vision has come full circle, rising like a Phoenix after a long period of decline. It's no longer affordable to many of the people that once called it home, and prices will likely continue to rise, but the Heights continues to retain its place as one of the Inner Loop neighborhoods with an abundance of its own unique character, charm, and appeal.

Flashback: The Changing Face of Houston: The Montrose, Then and Now


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