Kennedy Boulevard (Old Apopka Road), in Eatonville, Orange County, Florida, prior to roadway improvements. Photo: Everett L. Fly.
This article is part of a special series about preservation in Houston, edited by Helen Bechtel. The article was updated December 7, 2016.
In Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston depicts her childhood in Eatonville, Florida — the first all-Black incorporated town in the United States — as both Edenic and rough. It is a story more about the will of a people to achieve self-determination than one of subjugation by a White majority. Communities like that of Eatonville were built across Texas, as well — streets, houses, shops, city halls, and parks built by former slaves and their descendants — in landscapes we routinely drive by without noticing.
“I didn’t know Independence Heights was the first African-American incorporated community in Texas until I was 40, even though I have family living in the community, and I grew up in the church in Independence Heights,” says Tanya Debose, a lead organizer of the Preserving Communities of Color Workshop, a national gathering and weeklong series that culminated November 19 in Houston. The four-day, multi-venued event attracted more than 150 participants including students from Prairie View University and MC Williams Middle School.
The workshop helped expand the tent of the historic preservation movement. Preservationists, in our imaginations, busy themselves saving classical buildings fronted by columns and Corinthian capitals. The reality has always been more complex, but there is truth to the perception of a movement dominated by White elites preserving a Eurocentric history. For example, less than one percent of the National Historic Landmarks are connected to Latino history. (See Sarah Zenaida Gould’s essay in Bending the Future.)
“I don’t think our ancestors were trying to make history,” says Debose. “They were trying to make a home and they went through a lot of stress. My drive comes from wanting to build on those legacies.”
Astrodome interior taken 1999. Photo: Chris Dana.
This review is part of a special series about preservation in Houston, edited by Helen Bechtel, published in connection with two national preservation conferences in Houston in November.
Houston has long been thought of as a city that only cares about its future, a city that tears down its old buildings, a city that disregards its history. It’s hard not to believe that, especially when you check the list of lost landmarks: art deco icons such as the 1929 Turn Verein, the 1934 Southern Pacific depot with its monumental murals of Texas history, or the 1938 Jeff Davis Hospital — or the stunning midcentury modern 1949 Shamrock Hotel in all its glitzy décor, or the 1952 Prudential Insurance Building with its Peter Hurd mural, now relocated to Artesia, New Mexico. Perhaps most mourned by locals are the quartet of 1920s movie and vaudeville palaces — the Italianate 1923 Majestic (John Eberson’s first atmospheric theater), the Adamesque 1926 Kirby, the Louis V 1927 Loews State, and the marvelous Egyptian 1927 Metropolitan. Out of this list of the lost, only the Shamrock drew loud voices of protest from Houstonians.
And yet this reputation is itself a relic. Houston has turned a corner. After half a century of organizing, we now have a preservation culture and laws to protect parts of the built environment. This may be hard to believe, but I will argue that no other city in the country has such an opportunity to become ground zero for the future of the preservation movement. Now is the time to shift from lament to action.
This review is part of a special series about preservation in Houston, edited by Helen Bechtel, published in connection with two national conferences in Houston in November.
This week Houston serves as host city for two significant symposia on historic preservation: the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference, PastForward, and the Preserving Communities of Color conference, organized by the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance. For the next five days, preservation professionals, stakeholders, and enthusiasts will gather to exchange ideas, tour preservation sites, and discuss the future of the field as they mark the 50th anniversary of the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Houston’s unique history of urban development, which has now grown to support 22 historic districts reaching across the nation’s fourth-largest and most ethnically diverse city, makes it a welcome context in which the leaders of the field can strategize about the future of the preservation movement.
As our city prepares to host these exchanges, both seasoned and new preservationists alike could benefit from reading Bending the Future: 50 Ideas for the Next 50 Years of Historic Preservation and United States, an anthology edited by historians and preservationists Max Page and Marla L. Miller. Inspired by the occasion of the NHPA’s 50th anniversary, Page and Miller have assembled a comprehensive collection of essays — or as the editors call them, “provocations” — that collectively challenge the field’s status quo and make recommendations for the years ahead.
Follow OffCite’s Synthetic Nature series that supplements the forthcoming issue of Cite (99). Use the hashtag #SyntheticNature to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
As the Houston Bike Plan inches closer to approval by the city, now might be a good time to review all that it entails. For those who rarely venture outside the Loop, the map might contain a surprise. In the northeast corner of the city is a large green spot, an area so thick with lines it looks more like an inkblot than a network of high-comfort, off-street bike trails.
The Kingwood Greenbelt, as we know it, is composed of paved bike and pedestrian trails that weave throughout forested interstitial spaces behind rows of suburban homes with large lots. All destinations in Kingwood are easily accessible via the Greenbelt, with the crossing of a street at grade only necessary at rare intersections, since there are underpasses under most major thoroughfares. For the young, the trails provide easy access for visiting friends and getting to schools or convenience stores. Adults use them more for jogging, biking, or walking the dog. The Kingwood Park and Ride, located in Kingwood’s Town Center and providing bus service to Downtown Houston, is bisected by several sidewalks that feed into the Greenbelt.
“Sharp,” located at 6822 Rowan Lane, is open to visitors daily for a period of a few months. Click here for a map.
On the 10-block shuttle bus ride from the remote parking to the latest house-conversion project by Havel Ruck Projects (Dan Havel and Dean Ruck), the driver felt that he needed to warn me. “People that weren’t expecting it were startled. It’s like arriving at a fire.”
“Sharp” is one of Havel Ruck’s conversions of an existing house, in place, in its setting. In its last life, it was a typical suburban house, a ranch on a slab with a yard. It had caught fire.
In my sophomore year, I began to feel that the Rice campus did not fully accommodate its students’ often unpredictable oscillation between stimulation and decompression. Instead, the university favors spaces programmed for productivity. The traditional academic quad, planned to inspire intellectualism, fails to accomplish the type of communal space for students and teachers seen at Jefferson’s University of Virginia Lawn.
Even Rice’s new wave of architecture, such as Brochstein Pavilion and “Twilight Epiphany,” the James Turrell Skyspace, exerts a level of control over the user—one interacts in Brochstein and meditates in the Skyspace.
All things considered, though, we have one of the most spectacular campuses in the country, a result attributable as much to the landscape as to its institutional monuments and architectural edifices—your first look of Lovett Hall is made memorable by the oak branches that gradually unveil the monolithic Sallyport. Moments so glorious are made almost commonplace with all of Rice’s greenspaces, yet nature in this context tends to feel ornamental or sacred, to be seen and not touched.
For a larger, high-resolution version of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) map of Houston, visit this link.
Why are we so compelled to define neighborhoods as “good” or “bad”? Is there one definition of a “good” neighborhood — is it universal? Can a low-income neighborhood be a “good” neighborhood? I often wonder, and frequently challenge, whether these labels accurately depict a place and its people or whether they are self-fulfilling prophecy that makes it easy to invest or divest. The question comes more clearly into focus by understanding the history of neighborhood classification, of “good” and “bad” labels, and why they are too often directly associated with income and ethnicity.
I grew up in a little box at the end of some Sugar Land cul-de-sac. Now, as a senior at Rice University, I live in the moldering attic of a pleasantly gnarly bungalow in Montrose. But with a view of the Menil Collection and HEB from my window (if my room had a window), I would say the whole arrangement is really quite nice. One month here and I already feel I’m in Jane Jacobs’ utopia — pedestrians, bicyclists, and local haunts for company. Still, every time I bike over 59 and all those cars tapping their brakes back to their perfectly tended quarter-acre plots, I momentarily drift downstream to my childhood in Sugar Land.
In the Kitchen, patrons point their phones toward the bayou. Instead of Instagramming their meals, diners at the small restaurant in the Dunlavy train their cameras past the chandeliers to the sprawling live oak that envelops one of the restaurant’s fully glazed façades. The interior fades into the periphery and focus shifts to Buffalo Bayou Park. The reflected glare of the chandeliers is the only reminder of the shell at the edge of the building before the green patchwork of leaves and branches. But a turn of the head reveals open sky looking down on Lost Lake — the re-created pond whose banks failed in the 1970s. Broad-shouldered highrises loom on the horizon.
These are the impressions of the Dunlavy. It delineates the border of bayou-side development. It is a perch through which to view Houston’s most iconic landscape — a bayou box seat. It is a hovering mass behind the trees — an eyebrow at the banks of the bayou. What you see depends on where you stand.
Photo: Kate Cairoli.
My husband and I and our 1-year old daughter visited Copenhagen for two weeks while he worked from his company’s office. We tried to imagine ourselves living here in this happiest of cities. We studied the faces of residents, peered through windows of coffee shops and bakeries, borrowed bikes and joined the masses in bike lanes, rushed outside when the sun was shining and stayed outside, layered in blankets and jackets, when the fog and rain rolled back in. We sized up their biking habits and wondered if Houston, an equally flat city, could embrace some of this culture.
After two weeks of poking and prodding, scoping and scrutinizing, I came up with an unscientific analysis of three steps toward embracing biking in our city.