East Downtown is a neighborhood that has seen enormous changes occur over its many year history, and it is quickly emerging as a hip and vibrant community in Houston's central core, attracting new residents from many walks of life.
East Downtown, or "EaDo" as it has recently been named, started out its existence as part of the Third Ward, one of the four original wards established shortly after the founding of Houston in 1836. Throughout the 1800s, what is now present day East Downtown was a posh area of Victorian homes and well heeled residents, but eventually it saw changes that negatively affected it as a residential area. When nearby train lines were installed through downtown, the neighborhood began to transition from its former status into something else - More of a lower income area with commercial properties, warehouses, and other industrial developments.
The area changed again in the early half of the 20th century, when Chinese immigrants began to settle into the neighborhood, lured in by the inexpensive real estate prices, and Houston's first "Chinatown" began to develop. The Cantonese immigrants continued to open a variety of businesses there, and the community was a thriving ethnic neighborhood for years, eventually attracting Asians from many other countries who also set roots in the area.
But as Houston's Asian population continued to grow, many Chinese began to settle in other areas of Houston and Fort Bend County, most notably neighborhoods such as Sharpstown and Alief, and in parts of Sugar Land.
This led to Houston's second Chinatown developing on Houston's Southwest side, and led many of the Asian businesses in the older East Downtown area to close and relocate elsewhere by the 1990s. East Downtown became a strange area that was hard to classify - An odd mix of abandoned warehouses and the old Chinatown, that was different than the true Downtown, as well as the surrounding African American and Hispanic neighborhoods bordering it on other sides.
I remember discovering the area as a teen in the '80s, going to punk rock shows at the legendary "Axiom" music venue and occasionally stopping in to shop in the old Chinatown. The area was not generally considered a great place to be walking around after dark back then, but my friends and I spent a lot of time there despite that reputation. Then Francisco Studios opened, and quickly became one of the main places local Houston bands rented to practice, and a lot of us active in the music scene were drawn to the area to use "The Maggot Colony" as it became known, as a place for our bands to hone their skills. I never really thought that the area would ever change in character anytime in the foreseeable future. It seemed destined to keep its status as a sort of strange wasteland of mixed influences, kept from expanding by being surrounded by other neighborhoods.
But like almost every part of Houston, almost nothing stays the same forever, and changes started to quickly occur in recent years. In 2008, the area's management district decided to rename the neighborhood, and after asking for suggestions, settled on "EaDo", a sometimes criticized choice, and began to work hard at promoting interest and development there. Upscale residential developments began to appear, at first sticking out against the rest of the landscape conspicuously, but it quickly became obvious that the area was redeveloping into a different type of neighborhood.
With the Dynamo soccer stadium, and plans for continued residential and retail development, EaDo seems to be going through a revival. Nearby East End neighborhoods are also seeing new influxes of people, and the entire area seems to be attracting young residents who might have once settled into places like Montrose.
As longtime member of Houston's art community Tia Hernandez puts it:"In my opinion, all the artists "in the know" have caught on to what was once our little secret ten years ago. EaDo and the East End is now what many of us semi-jokingly call "the new Montrose." It's where all the good stuff is happening right now and where all the cool people in Houston can find everything fun they want to do. From hipsters, freaks and geeks to emerging and established artists, theater goers, musicians, poets, burners, and everything in between, the Eastside has anything you could possibly be looking for. Quirky little art galleries, live music venues, eclectic theaters, trendy coffee shops, chill wine bars, laid back ice houses, and great restaurants including burgers, barbecue, Vietnamese and Mexican food and more.... the area is also practically paradise for craft beer lovers if that's what you're into."
It seems almost certain that the redevelopment of EaDo will continue, and that it and nearby East End neighborhoods will continue to attract both a new population of young residents seeking the close proximity to Houston's central communities, and a more bohemian lifestyle than can be afforded in places like Montrose these days, as well as upscale professionals wanting to live close to work in a gentrifying neighborhood located about as close to downtown as possible.
It's fascinating watching EaDo transition from the remnants of Houston's first Chinatown and the surrounding landscape of mostly abandoned warehouses, but that is happening, and EaDo and the nearby East End seem to be primed to become very hot Houston neighborhoods.