The Changing Face of Houston: Sharpstown Then and Now

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The Sharpstown area has changed a great deal over the decades since its creation, and those changes reflect the way Houston has continued to evolve, a city constantly in motion. Originally the vision of developer Frank Sharp, who also created Oak Forest, construction of Sharpstown began in the mid '50s and was completed in 1961. At the time, the neighborhood was recognized as the largest subdivision in the United States, with its own mall and a golf course.

It's easy for modern residents to forget how small Houston was half a century ago, but Sharpstown was considered a suburban escape from the hassles of living in the big city, while still conveniently only 15 minutes or so from the downtown area.

The development allowed for schools, recreation, and retail areas as well as nice post-war homes (a new concept at the time), making Sharpstown one of the nation's first master-planned developments, and the first such community in Houston.

Frank Sharp was concerned about easy transport between downtown Houston and his new neighborhood development, so he donated land to the state of Texas, which became the Southwest Freeway. This ensured that Sharpstown would be connected to the heart of Houston, and that deliveries to the new mall would also be reliable. Back then the mall was named Sharpstown Center, and offered shoppers perks such as air-conditioning, something that was not standard at the time.

Sharpstown was considered a good suburban neighborhood during its early years, with attractive neighborhoods and a high quality of living for its residents, but in 1971 and '72 the area's reputation was somewhat tarnished by the Sharpstown Scandal, which tied Frank Sharp and high level governmental officials to rampant stock fraud. As the years continued, large apartment complexes were built in the area, and some of them were not maintained well, which led to some areas of the neighborhood looking blighted and attracting crime.

In the late 1980s, I was transferred to Sharpstown High School, and spent a lot of time in the area, hanging out with good friends whose families had lived there since the '60s. While the older residential neighborhoods were still mostly nice, the large roads like South Gessner and Beechnut had started to get run down and seedy. It didn't feel "dangerous" for the most part, but there was gang activity and other hazards that made long term residents feel uneasy. By the late 1990s, many people felt that Sharpstown had become a shady, crime ridden neighborhood. Whether that perception was entirely fair is up for debate, but the neighborhood's best years looked like they were in the past.

In the words of Michael Walker, a friend who grew up in Sharpstown in the '70s and '80s, "The neighborhood just felt different, it seemed like things were on a downslide by '92 or so."

That image of the neighborhood seemed to be shared by a lot of its residents, and many people began to move further out to newer suburbs around town. But despite that exodus to newer communities, a lot of others, including large numbers of Hispanic and Asian minorities, had begun to settle in Sharpstown, growing the area into a very diverse neighborhood today. Once a majority white community, Sharpstown now has a large mix of African Americans, Hispanics, Chinese, and Vietnamese people along with Anglos. This has affected the neighborhood in many ways, and reflects the international nature of modern day Houston. The area's minority communities have enriched Sharpstown with many cultural contributions as well as numerous shops and restaurants, which attract people from all over the city.

I won't lie, part of me is sad that Sharpstown Mall, which was my teenaged crowd's mall of choice way back when, had gone so far downhill in recent years, and is now reborn as the Latin American themed PlazAmericas, but that's just my own nostalgia reacting to change. The community has diversified, so it follows that the mall would go through changes as well. I think that's one of the things that makes Houston an exciting and interesting place to live.

I feel it's human nature for many people to assume that once a neighborhood has seen a period of decline, it is doomed to be a "bad area of town" indefinitely. But neighborhoods in Houston don't always work that way. It's easy to forget, but Montrose and The Heights were once considered pretty risky places to venture into. Now a person would be hard pressed to find a traditional home in either area for less than $500,000.

And besides an interesting ethnic mix of residents, Sharpstown has another feature going for it, which may see the area into another era of prosperity and rebirth. It's so close to downtown and the Inner Loop. It's funny to consider that Frank Sharp's vision of a master planned community outside of town is now considered so close in, but with the Galleria area about ten minutes up the road, and downtown and Montrose just a little further, Sharpstown might quickly become a cool neighborhood to buy a house again. Many of those old homes and quiet streets are just as charming as they ever were, and if some of the main roads still look kind of dicey, I'd remind people that Shepherd and Durham aren't exactly picturesque where they cut through The Heights either.

Quite simply, Houston changes constantly, and Houston neighborhoods seem to change fast.


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