The Changing Face of Houston - River Oaks

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When I first considered covering River Oaks for this series, I figured that I would eventually almost have to, but was unsure how to present it. After all, River Oaks is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the United States, much less Houston. How many people can truly relate to its story?

But, like lots of the Houston neighborhoods I have researched, the story of River Oaks is not only an interesting one, but is also intertwined with the rest of this city, and plays an important part in how Houston has changed over the many decades of its existence.

River Oaks is Houston's first master planned community, and began its existence in the early 1920s when two sons of former Texas Governor Jim Hogg and an attorney partner collaborated on a real estate deal. The attorney, Hugh Potter, had obtained the option to buy land around the River Oaks Country Club, and brothers William and Michael Hogg established and promoted the sale of lots in the Country Club Estates subdivision over the next few years. The development plan encompassed every detail it could to establish River Oaks as a well-integrated community. Deed restrictions dictated that only specific architectural styles were allowed, and that homes had to be valued at $7,000 or more - a significant amount of money in the 1920s. Over the next decade and a half, River Oaks got widespread national attention for its design and planning standards, and that high bar of excellence led to the neighborhood becoming the wealthiest in the Houston area during the '20s.

In 1927, the City of Houston annexed River Oaks, which until that point was technically outside of town, and the annexation added 3,465 acres to Houston's city limits.

There was a negative aspect to the early years of River Oak's story, in that a "gentleman's agreement" excluded blacks, Jews, and other minorities from being able to buy into the community. Such an agreement was common during the era of River Oak's birth, and while a sad reminder of racism in Houston's past, it also had the effect of inspiring wealthy minorities to establish their own upscale communities. In the case of Houston's Jewish population, they notably developed Riverside Terrace, "The Jewish River Oaks," as a rival to the posh neighborhood that they weren't allowed to live in.

In 1927, the River Oaks Shopping Center was opened nearby, and was one of the first shopping centers in the United States that catered to a population discovering their love of the automobile. An example of Art Deco design that straddles both sides of West Gray Avenue, the River Oaks Shopping Center opened to great acclaim, and was featured in national publications, because it was considered a model for future retail centers in America.

One of the most obvious features of the shopping center is the River Oaks Theater, which to this day is a beautiful example of an Art Deco theater, and is also notable for being one of Houston's only theaters playing independent and art house movies. It is also Houston's oldest movie theater that is still used as it was originally intended. There is something very special about attending a movie showing there, as it is a real step back in time.

Extremely wealthy neighborhoods tend to retain their appeal over the passing of decades, and aren't usually as likely to experience a long term period of decline, and River Oaks is no exception in that regard. The neighborhood never saw a major flight of its residents to new suburbs, and wasn't blighted as a result in the same ways that The Heights and other inner loop neighborhoods once were. River Oaks was always an exclusive community, and probably the most often associated with wealth in Houston, so it has always retained its image as an expensive and luxurious neighborhood to live in. Fortunately, the early institutional prejudices that kept minorities out of River Oaks have disappeared, and anyone with enough money to buy into the community is welcome to do so. The neighborhood is or has been home to some of the most famous people in Houston, including Joel Osteen, Jeffrey Skilling (of the Enron scandal), Clyde Drexler, and Tilman Fertitta, and it's likely that it will continue to be a magnet for the rich and famous who live in Houston.

The neighbrhood's appeal is obvious - beautiful mansions located on enormous lots, with private security and about as centrally located as a person living in Houston could hope for. River Oaks is the type of neighborhood that's interesting to drive through even for a person like me, who is unlikely to ever be able to afford to actually live there. It's a constant in Houston, that has become more inclusive of minorities, like the city in general, but is still expensive enough to be affordable for only a small percentage of the population.

The River Oaks Shopping Center is perhaps more susceptible to changes than the neighborhood it shares its name with. When efforts to partially demolish and redevelop the iconic shopping center were announced in 2006, many Houstonians were outraged, a rarity in a city that usually looks more towards developing its future than it does preserving its past. Unfortunately, a portion of the center was redeveloped with a typical big box Barnes and Noble, but the majority of it has, thus far, remained unscathed. I've always wondered why it's necessary to have a Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks, but figure it's a small price to pay to still be able to see a midnight movie at the River Oaks Theater from time to time.

Like many of Houston's older neighborhoods, River Oaks has helped shape the city in ways both obvious and not. It has been the home for many of the city's wealthiest and most famous residents, and is one of our most well known communities.


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