The Changing Face of Houston - The Montrose Then and Now

A recent remodel briefly exposed a long hidden reminder of the '70s era Montrose.
A recent remodel briefly exposed a long hidden reminder of the '70s era Montrose.
Photo by Michelle Guillory

Houston always seems to be in a state of reinvention. It keeps this city an exciting place to live, but that state of flux can be difficult to get used to, as the character of some neighborhoods go through rapid transformations, being redeveloped as gentrification occurs and demographics change.

In recent years, this trend is no more obvious than in the city's Inner Loop neighborhoods. I grew up in Oak Forest, the Heights, and the Montrose, and those neighborhoods are dramatically different today than they were even 20 years ago. Of course, 20 years is a long time, and almost anyone would expect neighborhoods to change over the decades, but the process seems accelerated inside the Loop.

The Montrose in particular has gone through some major changes, and is continuing to transform into a neighborhood very unlike the one I knew as a teenager in the late '80s. Rather than make a judgment as to whether or not those changes are "good" or "bad," I'm more interested in looking at what's happening and why. 

The mural on Mary's, the famous Houston gay bar that closed in 2009.
The mural on Mary's, the famous Houston gay bar that closed in 2009.

The Montrose area was originally farmland, occupied by dairies, when developer J.W. Link conceived a "great residential addition" in 1911. His vision included four large boulevards and a massive landscaping effort that necessitated the planting of thousands of palms and other large trees.

Link built his own palatial home in the neighborhood, at the corner of Montrose and West Alabama, and the Link-Lee Mansion is now part of the University of Saint Thomas campus. The neighborhood even had its own streetcar line back in its early years, and was a magnet for many notable individuals of the early 20th century. Clark Gable studied acting in the neighborhood, Howard Hughes made his home on Yoakum Street, and in the 1930s, future President Lyndon Johnson lived on Hawthorne Street while teaching at Sam Houston High School.

By the late '60s and early '70s the neighborhood was home to an aging population of longtime residents, while younger families began abandoning the Inner Loop neighborhoods in favor of moving to the suburbs further out. In the first couple of years of the "Me Decade," Montrose began to transition into the neighborhood that gays, bohemians, artists, hippies, and weirdos of all kinds called home. Tattoo parlors and gay bars sat next to music venues, and older homes, giving the Montrose the eclectic mix of countercultural charm that it would become famous for. In the late '70s, clubs like Numbers and the Paradise Rock Island would open, eventually making the area a magnet for young people involved in the punk and New Wave subcultures.

I lived two houses down from Griff's Bar as a teenager in the mid 1980s. Back then, Montrose was definitely Houston's epicenter of gay culture as well as the main neighborhood to which eccentric folks of all types seemed to gravitate. Every gay kid I knew planned on moving into the Montrose as soon as they possibly could, and nearly every goth, punk, artist, and rock musician seemed to as well. While the area had nice older homes, it also was inexpensive to rent there, and had the reputation for being edgy and maybe a little dangerous.

On weekends, people would come in from other parts of Houston and the surrounding area to "cruise Westheimer," I guess as a strange form of tourism, to see "the freaks" that lived there, to live a little dangerously. I never quite understood that custom myself.

The neighborhood's annual Pride Parade may be moving to a downtown location soon.
The neighborhood's annual Pride Parade may be moving to a downtown location soon.

Montrose was the weird part of Houston, a strange island where people who were outcasts almost anywhere else in a city that was still not particularly tolerant of those who broke from the mainstream could live with less fear of being assaulted for looking weird or being gay.

The neighborhood had its share of associated unpleasantness. Seedy porno shops were scattered around and prostitutes walking the streets were more commonly seen in the area than they are now. But while those things weren't "charming" they didn't define the neighborhood either. When discussing how the neighborhood has changed in recent years, that seems to be the Montrose most people compare those changes against - the weird, bohemian, and slightly darker memory of the area as it was from the early '70s to the early '90s when it was much more obviously Houston's gay neighborhood, and the weird part of town where people would go to get a tattoo or to see bands like Black Flag play. It was where people from all over the city would come visit during the Westheimer Arts Festival, and the famous Pride Parade. More than most other neighborhoods, the Montrose always seemed to have something interesting going on that made it worth visiting. 

The Montrose has some of the Inner Loop's nicest older homes.
The Montrose has some of the Inner Loop's nicest older homes.

The area also has many very nice original homes, and is close to Houston's museums and other attractions that have made it appealing to the types of people who once rejected the idea of actually moving there. Looking at recent demographics, the average person now living in Montrose has a significantly higher income than most other parts of Houston, and the data seems to indicate a trend towards an increasingly upwardly mobile population. Rents have gone up significantly in recent years, so it's not surprising that a lot of long term residents I talked to indicated that they're being pushed out of the Montrose or finding it increasingly difficult to hang on and stay.

Of course, gentrification happens, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but the neighborhood seems to be losing some of its appeal to young artist and musician types that once contributed a lot to its character, which may affect the nature of the area in years to come. And while there still is a huge gay population calling Montrose home, the neighborhood doesn't look as outwardly gay as it once did. Lots of the older gay bars and clubs are closing, and with landmarks like Mary's shuttering their doors and becoming more generic type businesses, like coffee shops, Montrose might be losing something along the way. There is even discussion of moving the annual Pride Parade out of Montrose and instead celebrating it downtown, which might further change the way the neighborhood is perceived.

Along with the increasing gentrification of the Montrose, and an influx of people that probably would not have wanted to live there 25 years ago, is the rapid redevelopment of the area. Many businesses that once gave the area part of its character are simply gone - The Dream Merchant, Timeless Taffeta, and Mr. Peabody's Way-Back Machine are all distant memories. The River Cafe is gone, Mary's has closed, Chances is now the upscale restaurant Underbelly. The huge building at Hawthorne and Montrose that once housed Skybar was recently demolished, and the spot just looks naked without it. There is a lot of rapidly occurring redevelopment going on.

Then there are the townhomes. I won't lie, I hate the things. They're all over the Heights and other Inner Loop neighborhoods too, and they are not to my liking. But they must be very popular with someone, because developers are throwing them up as quickly as they can, and that includes the Montrose. In any case, all of these things add up to the area starting to look very different than it used to. Houston has always been about change, but that change is becoming more and more obvious as of late.

To me, the effect of this demographic change and the overall trend of gentrification is that the Montrose is beginning to look a lot like other gentrified areas of the city. Part of its unique character is slowly being whittled away and replaced by something new. It's clear that the Montrose will probably continue to be a nice area to live if a person can afford it, but it may not be as quirky and "weird" as it once was.

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