The Changing Face of Houston - Riverside Terrace

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Just southeast of downtown, near the University of Houston, and bordered by Highway 288 on the west and the Third Ward to the south, lies Riverside Terrace, an often forgotten older Houston neighborhood with an interesting past.

Decades ago, the city was not the diverse melting pot that it is today, and Houston's affluent Jewish community was prohibited from moving into the wealthy River Oaks neighborhood because of societal prejudice. But those prominent Jewish families included some of Houston's richest business people, and the mansions they built in Riverside Terrace reflected that status. Families such as the Fingers, Sakowitzes, and Weingartens built enormous homes on huge lots that were the rival of anything in River Oaks at that time. Many of the early neighborhood houses were built by notable architects such as John Staub and Bolton & Barnstone and were designed in the late art deco style popular in the 1930s and '40s. In a bit of irony, Riverside Terrace became locally known as "The Jewish River Oaks," since it rivaled the estates in the wealthy neighborhood they'd been excluded from.

As time went on other styles emerged in the area, including mid-century modern homes built in the 1950s.

Riverside Terrace stayed a primarily wealthy Jewish enclave until 1952, when a rich African American cattleman named Jack Caesar moved into the neighborhood. Caesar faced a dilemma. He was well heeled, but, in the early '50s, Houston neighborhoods weren't integrated, and the options for a rich black man in search of a home in an affluent neighborhood were extremely limited. Sadly, a little over 60 years ago, race was such an issue that Caesar wouldn't be allowed to buy a house in a white neighborhood. Not being the type of person that would allow prejudice to keep him from owning a house he wanted, Caesar located a home he liked in Riverside Terrace, and had his white male secretary buy it, who then transferred the deed over to him.

That clever strategy to get in the neighborhood predictably upset many of Caesar's white neighbors. Within a year, that unrest boiled over, and a bomb was left on his porch. Fortunately, no one was hurt when it exploded, but the incident badly damaged Caesar's house, and worried other white residents enough that many began to sell their homes and leave Riverside Terrace.

In 1959, another event took place that greatly affected the future of the neighborhood. Planners decided to change the path of construction for 288, and the revised plan had the new highway cutting through part of Riverside Terrace. That construction plan and the continued cycle of white flight, demolition of the older homes, and redevelopment into low income housing and strip centers, changed the neighborhood enormously. By the early 1960s, Riverside Terrace was an almost entirely black neighborhood, resettled by wealthy African American professionals. In the late '60s, Riverside Terrace's remaining white population began a movement supporting integration of the neighborhood and resisting selling their homes to real estate agents and developers trying to make an easy buck.

During that grass roots movement, white residents began posting signs in their yards that read: "This is our home. It is not for sale." - also the title of a 1985 documentary about the neighborhood. After 1970 the demographic changes of Riverside Terrace stabilized. It remained a predominantly African American neighborhood, and became known over time as "The Black River Oaks."

Although many of the original mansions were demolished in previous decades, replaced by less notable structures, many still remain. Sadly, some are in a state of decline and would need to be completely restored in order to be truly great again.

There's a lot of potential for Riverside Terrace to shine as another of Houston's unique Inner Loop neighborhoods . Its proximity to the center of Houston and everything that people love about those areas is a huge advantage. Riverside Terrace is about three miles from downtown, near Hermann Park, the Medical Center, and the Museum District, putting residents very close to the heart of Houston. Almost every neighborhood within a few miles of downtown is looking at gentrifying over the next decade or two, and that previously forgotten or overlooked neighborhoods will be seen as desirable again.

Very recently, the Weingarten mansion, which is an amazing building, went on the market for the first time in decades. The home is an architectural treasure but in need of complete restoration. There were fears by preservationists that it might be demolished so that four or five homes might be built on the enormous plot of land it occupies, but instead the mansion was bought by a wealthy family planning on restoring it. There are other homes in the area that are experiencing the same sort of attention, which might indicate that Riverside Terrace is experiencing a revival of interest in the remaining old estates dotting its landscape. Houston's Inner Loop neighborhoods are all experiencing rapid changes, and Riverside Terrace may be poised to rise again as an extremely desirable place to live, this time reflecting Houston's modern face - great things from the city's past mixing with modern elements and incorporating much more ethnic and racial diversity.


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