A ramp arcs over the Hillcroft Transit Center, photos by Rose Kuo
In this Hear Our Houston audio tour and contribution to Unexpected City, Raj Mankad, the editor of Cite and OffCite, takes us on a tour of the triangle-shaped area bounded by Highway 59, Hillcroft, and the Westpark tollway. First he braves the feeder road, pointing out a school next to a strip club next to an international bus station, before taking you deep into the ethnic mish-mash of Houston. Referencing a recent Houston Press article on “Little India” and his own experience, he shares an unlikely vision for a less ugly and more pedestrian-friendly city. Rose Kuo photographed the walk.
Read below or click on the link below to listen to the tour:
Hillcroft and 59 Walking Tour
by Raj Mankad
I am at the Hillcroft Transit Center near the intersection of Hillcroft and 59. This spot is simply amazing. On one side you have I-59 and then cutting away from it is the Westpark Tollway, and then forming another side is a huge utility corridor with power lines running down it. And all around the site are these off ramps that are arching in different directions, connecting the highways, connecting the transit center. There’s a whole lot of motion, a lot of energy. I like to think of it as the navel of the city, the bellybutton of Houston.
The transit center itself is strangely beautiful. I like the way there is this fabric stretched over steel frames. Designed by RdIR Architects, it looks a little bit like clouds floating over the prairie except the prairie has been covered over with concrete. It is a little bit hard to get out of the transit center because it is designed for cars of course and buses. And I have to leave through this gate that is all fenced in.
I am walking down the feeder road that is next to I-59. There is a big, big highway next to me. Nine or ten lanes just on this side. That makes 18 all the way across not counting the HOV lanes that are elevated above. And you know these are the defining megastructures of Houston, these highways. They slice and dice up the city. Some days when I am on the highway or by the highway like this, and there is that permanent scream of the wheels tearing down, screeching across the pavements, I think, this is ugly. Why do I live here? But I also love this area right here. Even though this stretch is atomizing and alienating, I think there is a lot to be enjoyed. It could be improved. Maybe we shouldn’t’ just dismiss the place.
What amazes about the strip mall to my right is that there is a high school in it. Liberty High School. I went to the website once of Liberty High School just to see what it is about. A lot of cute kids. A lot Latino students. A lot of testimonies saying they were really happy at this school. A small school. Administrator knows their students’ names. But you know it makes me wonder why anybody would choose to put their kid in a school that is right on the edge of the freeway. It is not like there is some kind of buffer or some kind of park in between, it really is right next to the freeway.
Next to the high school is Michael’s International. At Michael’s International, you will not find handicrafts made by villagers. It is “dollar days” as the sign says here. It says, “Dollar days are here. See what a buck buys you.” It is a strip club with a free buffet, Mondays through Friday, 11 am to 2 pm, so you can come for lunch or you can come for dinner from 4 pm to 8 pm. I could go in now and get a free buffet but I’ve never been in there. The parking lot is packed. There are some of expensive cars. A lot of Hondas.
Now I am crossing the intersection of Harwin and I-59. Last time I came here, there was a street sign that had been tipped over and at the top of the sign it said “Gandhi District.” I thought it was hilarious because this picture of Gandhi was pointing accusatorily at the strip club. The Mahatma Gandhi red light district. That is the thing, this part of Houston is known as Little India to some people. A Houston Press article called it that. And I happen to be Indian. And I have spent a lot of time here. Before our marriage, Miah and I would come here about every weekend for months so we got to know it pretty well.
Each time I walk this route I learn so much more about it that I want to try again because this place is so complex and I want to learn more about it. Like right now, I am passing a Whataburger and a hotel. And I wonder about the proximity to the strip club, I really do wonder what goes on in that hotel.
Now I am next to a Discount Tire, next to which is another is a whole set of International Bus Companies. Every few minutes a bus barrels in here, not a METRO bus, but a bus that is coming straight from Mexico, like Monterrey, or Tampico, Morelia, San Louis Patosi. People are standing here with a big pile of bags. A bus pulls up. People get out. They are basically stepping out across an international border. This is an international border. They are stepping out of Mexico into the United States right here.
At the intersection of Hillcroft and 59, I turn right on to Hillcroft. This is where you start to really feel like you are in Little India. There is India Grocers. There is a place called Poshak that sells shoes, bangles, and fabric. And you start to see the restaurants. There is Udupi Café and Krishna Chaat House. Order a mango laasi, order some paani puri, order a paan.
Now I am by the Hillcroft Shopping Plaza. It was built since I moved here ten years ago. There are so many different shops. There is Savoy Jewelers. There is Kohinor Diamonds. I really love Divya Products, they have all these little gods and goddesses. I like to take my kids in there. There is Insurance sales, there’s a dentist. Really this part of Houston is more of a downtown, more of a main street than anywhere else. And it is just to the north of Gulfton/Sharpstown, the densest neighborhood in Texas.
We have come to an older strip mall. Probably one of the first strip malls built around here. This is where Bombay Sweets is, which is well known in the Indian community because the buffet is ridiculously cheap. For four dollars, students come out here and stuff themselves. Maharaja Jewelers. Indian jewelry is usually 22 karat gold so it really shines on our dark skin. Patel Brothers, that’s a grocer.
At Harwin and Hillcroft I try to make it across before the light turns and before I get run over. Now I am at the Plaza at Hillcroft and Harwin, another shopping complex that is new. It is amazing to think that after World War II, this was still farmland and Frank Sharp speculated that there would be a lot of growth. He basically gave land to the city to build a highway, which became the Southwest Freeway. It was the first instance of developer-led highway building and the beginning of the cozy relationship between big developers and infrastructure projects that shape this city since we don’t have a true general plan and we don’t have zoning, and so on etcetera. But it was just a suburb, it was an outer suburb of Houston, single-family homes. And now you have these big shopping complexes, this density of commercial activity. It is amazing to think this was the edge of Houston not so long ago.
Now I am at Hillcroft Park Center. That’s another old strip mall. It is the home of Raja Sweets, which was the first Indian businesses here according to an article in the Houston Press. Raja Sweets was started by the Gahunia family, Yogi and Resham Gahunia in 1985. And now I am going to go behind Raja Sweets. There’s a little drive that bisects the little strip mall. I am going between Sari Sapne and 22 Karat Jewelers. Sari Sapne is where we got my Miah’s wedding sari. A beautiful red sari with intricate embroidery.
Behind the strip mall is the Hillcroft Office Park but office park doesn’t really get across what it looks like. It looks more like storage sheds that have been
adapted into little businesses. And this is really amazing to me because there are at least four places of worship back here. There are also two tailors. My tailor doesn’t speak much English. He speaks with me in Gujarati and my Gujarati is broken, but I enjoy practicing with him. There are two beauty salons. Apsara Beauty Center is one of them.
The Shirdi Sai Jalaram Mandir is across from a Muslim prayer room, a masjid. The mandir is devoted mainly to Sai Baba, who was a man of unknown origins. Many people think he was born a Muslim but he is revered by Hindus and Muslims. He lived an ascetic life. Very simple. He didn’t accumulate wealth. He gave away what was given to him. And there are countless miracles associated with him. There are miracles that apparently happened right over there in this simple office park of little concrete buildings with flat roofs.
I reach the Center for Gayatri Consciousness, another place of worship. There is a printer, an ambulance company, mattress sales, and another temple right here, a Shiva temple. I love this temple’s name, Sanatan Shiv Shakti Mandir and when you go in there, there is a huge Ambaji and next to that is a Shiva ling, which is this abstract representation of Shiva. It is phallic shaped. It is a phallic form, but when Hindus are worshipping they are not thinking of it is that.
I cross an alleyway behind the office park to the utility corridor. It is getting dark. A little terrifying. But this spot has great potential. The walk I have made from the METRO transit center felt so perilous with all those cars speeding by on the highway, but if I could have just cut through this utility corridor. All this land, this really huge wide swath of grass with power lines running down it, is public land. At least a chunk of it is owned by METRO and the transit center is actually going to be the terminus of the University Line if it gets built.
I just passed an evangelical church that I just passed and am back at the transit center with its cloud-like form floating across the concrete prairie. I can just see this utility corridor having a pedestrian right of way, a little bit of walking land from the transit center to all these shops bypassing all that highway noise and traffic, escaping that chance of a car jumping the curb and killing you.
View Hillcroft Walking Tour in a larger map