Researching various Houston neighborhoods has been an interesting endeavor for me, because while I have watched many of those communities experience huge changes over the last few decades, a few of them are old enough to have undergone really enormous transformations, and a lot of that older history gets buried by the passage of time.
As a teen in the '80s, I had a lot of friends who lived in Alief, and never really thought much about the area other than as another mostly middle and working class neighborhood in southwest Houston. But Alief goes much further back than my teenage years in the 1980s. It began its existence in 1861, when an area 15 miles to the southwest of Houston was developed by a succession of people, including the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway who built a rail line through the area.
In 1893, a man named Francis Meston bought 1,250 acres of land with the intent to develop a community within it. The following year, Harris County recognized the area and it was surveyed, and the new town was named "Dairy." A doctor named John Magee and his wife Alief Ozelda Magee were the town's first residents, with Alief. Magee acting as the settlement's first postmistress. When she successfully founded Dairy's first post office out of her own home in 1895, the postal service referred to her office as "Alief", a pragmatic honor using her first name to avoid confusion with "Dairy" being mistaken for Daisy, another Texas town.
The town remained small, and got even smaller after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 destroyed its corn and cotton crops, which forced 24 of the 30 families living in the area to relocate elsewhere. Alief's tendency to serious flooding led to a couple of important developments. Rice replaced other crops in the area, and became a quick success, luring people back to the town, including early German immigrants. Members of the community also responded to the area's flooding issues by founding the Harris County Flood Control District in 1909. In 1917, the name of Alief had edged out the original name of Dairy, and the town was officially renamed. Alief continued to prosper, inspiring the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railway to establish a depot there, with commercial development growing around it.
Churches and schools were built as the community grew, and electricity finally arrived there in 1935. It was almost ten years later, in 1943, when Alief got its first phone service. The community continued on as a prosperous farming community outside of Houston until it experienced a huge period of growth in the early 1970s. Up to that point, much of Alief was still pastured farmland and gravel roads, but the region's economy was booming by the '70s and Alief became a magnet for new people moving into the Houston area since it was very affordable and relatively close to the larger city. During that period, a lot of people were also leaving older Houston neighborhoods near downtown and Houston's perimeter continued to expand, particularly westward. In fact, Alief's population surge accounted for half the population growth in Harris County by the mid '80s.
Much of that population growth also reflected a major demographic change in the area, with whites moving into newer suburbs even further out, while large numbers of Hispanics, blacks, Indians, and Asians began to settle into the area.
Houston had begun to annex sections of Alief into the city beginning in 1977, and continued to do so, eventually absorbing most of the community. Alief's connection to agriculture also began to wane, with more typical urban development replacing the remaining remnants of the area's farming past.
As the years rolled forward, Alief continued to transform, gradually becoming an increasingly ethnically diverse area of Houston. While the community did experience growing pains in the form of some gang related crime, it seems to have stabilized in recent years, and Alief is becoming a destination for people interested in the many unique shopping and dining opportunities that the area now offers. The diversification of the community has given much of it a truly international flavor, and destinations like the Hong Kong Market draw visitors from all over Houston and beyond.
Alief, like much of Houston, seems to have steadily changed in character over the years, and that is an ongoing process that doesn't seem to be in any danger of slowing down. What started out as an area of flood prone prairie land, was slowly developed into an outlying rice farming community far outside of Houston, and remained that way until the region's economy boom and other factors led to growth in Alief, as well as a steady expansion of Houston itself. Over the last 35 years or so, Alief's white population decreased, while its minority population exploded. That was most evident with the huge number of Asians who settled into the area, although there are now many residents from every corner of the world living in Alief. Those demographic changes have been transforming Houston into a truly international city, and are a boon to the area, bringing cultural treasures and great food for all of us to experience. In short, Alief is a window into what Houston is becoming, and is a unique area of town to live in or visit.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.