Today, the Oak Forest neighborhood, just north of Loop 610, is undergoing massive changes, just like many other older developments in Houston.
Construction of what would become one of Houston's largest residential neighborhoods began in 1946, and almost all of the earliest homes were sold to veterans returning from World War II. Oak Forest was the brainchild of prolific Houston developer Frank Sharp, who would go on to build Sharpstown a few years later. The postwar years in Houston were marked by a great amount of new development and expansion of the city, and Oak Forest was one of the new neighborhoods reflecting that trend.
Frank Sharp was a forward thinking developer for the time, and made areas of his new neighborhood available to accommodate resident friendly features such as nearby retail centers, and areas for churches to be built. The many businesses lining 43rd Street to this day are a result of Sharp's original vision for the Oak Forest community.
Sharp also planned for Oak Forest to have several of its own parks for residents to enjoy, resulting in the creation of four parks - Candlelight, American Legion, Oak Forest, and T.C. Jester. The first houses built in the development sold for $8,000 to $10,000, the equivalent of between $100,000 and $128,000 today. Quite a few of those early homes are still standing, although many of them have been renovated or expanded, and it's becoming more common to see them demolished so much larger modern homes can be built in their place.
Frank Sharp seems to have envisioned his developments as functioning communities where people could work, shop, and play, rather than as just tracts of land for him to quickly build and sell homes without concern for how well the future residents would live. He showed that same sense of planning later when he developed Sharpstown, and his vision seems to have kept Oak Forest going strong as a livable, resident friendly neighborhood almost seventy years from its creation.
Of course, almost no area of Houston has withstood the passage of time without ever going through any changes, and Oak Forest is no different in that regard. Longtime resident Elizabeth Mendez remembers how Oak Forest was 50 years ago,"My family bought our house in the early 1960s. At that point Antoine was a bayou and beyond that it was just pasture land. The bayou was filled in and became Antoine, one of the major streets in the area. Until three or four years ago, there were still spots of pasture land. Those have been disappearing and are almost completely gone."
I also have memories of Oak Forest, although mine are of the late '70s, when my father bought a home there. At the time, Oak Forest seemed like a pleasant and quiet working-to-middle class community, but an armed drug addict knocked on my dad's door one afternoon and kidnapped him and my step mother, forcing my clean cut businessman father to rob a hardware store for drug money. A few months later, an armed thief was chased and cornered by police when he holed up in a garden shed in my dad's backyard. Despite having a nice house in a seemingly nice neighborhood, we moved shortly after that.
Whether those experiences were complete flukes or reflected a high crime rate, I do not know. As a kid, I never felt unsafe in Oak Forest, but the neighborhood seems to have had problems with crime during the early '80s. Its proximity to areas like North Shepherd, which seems to struggle with crime, might have been responsible for some of the problems that affected Oak Forest during that time period.
But in recent years, Oak Forest has gone through the same cycle of rebirth which seems to be a reoccurring trend with many of Houston's older central neighborhoods. After years of moving further and further out to newer suburbs, many people are realizing that the old neighborhoods have a lot of charm, and are conveniently close to the types of activities and jobs that they want. The resulting recent migration of people into Houston's core has had many effects on neighborhoods like Montrose, The Heights, and also Oak Forest. New trendy restaurants, bars, and other businesses have opened, and home prices have been steadily climbing. In short, Oak Forest has become a very hip housing market. It makes sense, many of the older homes are still nice, having large yards for an inner Houston neighborhood, and the quiet, tree lined streets are still charming.
Of course, one of the more obvious and controversial aspects of older neighborhoods suddenly becoming popular is that developers swarm in and in many cases start buying older homes to tear down, so they can replaced with huge McMansions that many feel erode the cohesive look of a neighborhood. It can be fairly jarring to be driving down a street of older postwar homes, and then suddenly see an enormous Mediterranean style stucco and tile behemoth built inches from the property lines, looming over everything else. Not everyone's idea of an ideal home is the same, after all. Scanning the homes for sale in the neighborhood seems to indicate that some older homes are being sold as "tear downs" for lot value for around $250,000 and original homes that are still in good condition start at around $300,000 now. I expect to see that trend continue.
Many people who have lived in the neighborhood for decades are understandably wary of some of the ways Oak Forest is being redeveloped. As Mendez puts it: "I don't like the fact that our houses aren't even being considered for remodeling. The new buyers are knocking the existing houses down and putting up new houses. Some of the houses might not be in great shape - with old electric or no central air - but some are. They've been kept up and they had interesting designs, lots of detailing in the brick outside, unusual windows. They're worth keeping. For a lot less money than it takes to build new, they can redo these houses and end up with something interesting and unique.
"We had the first demolition on our block a couple of weeks ago. That's just the first one of lots, I think.
"About ten, 15 years ago, there were for sale signs in front of lots of the houses in the neighborhood. People would buy the houses, move in and remodel, update. Now they buy the houses, knock them down and build something that looks like it belongs in another neighborhood. It's like they're not even trying to fit in with the neighborhood."
Fortunately, while that type of development is happening all over central Houston and in Oak Forest, the neighborhood is large, and so far at least, it hasn't been transformed into something completely unrecognizable yet.
The redevelopment and rising home prices has resulted in some long term residents leaving the area, in some cases feeling like they're priced out. But there doesn't seem to be any shortage of new residents eager to buy into an area with small town appeal, but so close to everything that makes the central area of Houston so alluring.
It is almost certain that the gentrification of Oak Forest will continue for the foreseeable future, and that it will continue to be a popular neighborhood for new generations of residents. Frank Sharp's vision of building livable communities like Oak Forest seems to still be as desirable today as it was in the late 1940s.