Why Does Houston Seem Young?

This article is part of a special series about preservation in Houston, edited by Helen Bechtel, and is a collaboration of the Rice Design Alliance and Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

Another year has passed but Houston is forever young. Or so it seems. Whether we love or hate living in Houston, our arguments about the region tend to come back to the same assertion: Houston is young. Our youth explains so much, after all, like how few pedestrian-friendly streets there are and how unfinished the city feels.

Except that Houston is, in fact, old. At least for a city in the United States. It was founded in 1836. Chicago was incorporated in 1837, San Francisco in 1849, Seattle in 1851, and Denver in 1858. Those younger cities seem older, though. Why do their streets have long stretches of storefronts and walk-up apartments? Why do they have old markets filled with tourists buying tchotchkes? Why do their neighborhoods seem layered with histories? Why not us? Why does Houston seem young? One reason has to do with when and how the city grew.

“By the turn of the twentieth century, Houston was a provincial city even by Texas standards,” says Stephen Fox, a fellow of the Anchorage Foundation who teaches at Rice University and the University of Houston, and is author of the Houston Architectural Guide. Other cities, though incorporated after Houston, grew faster in their early years. Chicago reached the “big city” threshold very quickly with a population of more than 2 million by 1910. That same year, San Francisco’s population reached 416,912. By contrast, Houston had a modest 78,800 people. As a result, the footprint of early twentieth-century Houston is small in comparison to its big-city peers today.

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Illustration: Sarah Welch.

The Mobility Challenge: A Personal Essay

This post is accompanied by a pocket-sized zine, designed by Evan O’Neil and printed by Mystic Multiples on a risograph, that you will be able to find at Houston-area coffee shops and transit centers. We want you to share your story of the city with us by emailing rda@rice.edu or posting to social media with the hashtag #DesignHouston. Follow RDA at @RDAHouston on Twitter and Instagram.

The two kids and I depend on our Metro Q Cards and sturdy shoes.

We did have a car. The weekend before school starts, I am driving west on I-10 after retrieving my two children from summer in Alabama with their father. It’s been years since my air-conditioner worked, so I take the trip between sundown and dawn, windows down to stave off the August heat. Traffic is sparse, mostly semis and speeding pickups. The refineries loom along the way, their scaffolding bright with yellowed light, thick white smoke churning into the night air.

I’ve passed the first round of them and am surrounded by dark, mosquitoed fields when my old done-for Jeep starts to smoke. I pull off on the shoulder, at least 60 miles from Beaumont, before the Jeep bleeds out every last ounce of its transmission fluid. It wasn’t worth fixing the last several times I took it to the shop, and I’m a single parent on a graduate student stipend, so the most reasonable thing to do, when we get back to Houston?

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Bering Ditch. Courtesy: Dennis Alvarez

Landscape and City Building are Inseparable: An Introduction to Cite 99

This is the introduction to the new issue of Cite (99), which is now available. OffCite’s Synthetic Nature series supplements the new issue. Use the hashtag #SyntheticNature to view related content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Landscape and city building are inseparable — that may seem obvious, but we like to think of “nature” as something outside of humanity and specifically outside the city. Every street, every park, every building, every feral vacant lot, every bend in the bayous is a choice we make. We choose to shape. We choose to leave be. If we aren’t thinking deeply about our goals — diversity, equity, resilience, democracy — about what is right, then we risk deluding ourselves. We often get caught in rhetorical traps when talking nature in Houston. Design approaches that seem noble, like restoring native species, can be wishful thinking at best and alibis for perpetuating injustices at worst unless we keep our highest objectives in mind.

How are we doing when it comes to those highest objectives?

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Evelyn’s Park: Bellaire’s First Front Yard

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.

Opened in 1910, Teas Nursery occupied a healthy 5-acre lot at the intersection of Bellaire Boulevard and Newcastle Drive for nearly a century, until the Teas family sold the land in 2009 to the Rubenstein Foundation. Philanthropists and longtime Bellaire residents, the Rubensteins, in turn, sold the land to the City of Bellaire.

Now, there are live oaks and crepe myrtles — trees we consider quintessentially Houston — that grew, if not out of the pots, then out of what the nursery started. And soon, Evelyn’s Park will open here as a memorial to many things, but, namely, to the Rubenstein family’s late matriarch. Overseeing the family’s vision is Evelyn’s Park Conversancy, with the mission of “connecting us to our city, to our surroundings, and to each other.”

SWA Group, the park’s landscape architecture and master planning firm, materialized this mission. Central to SWA’s design process was bringing Bellaire its first community park. Sure, single-use facilities like swimming pools and tennis courts come with Bellaire’s high property taxes. But “there’s no way for the community to develop their own dialogue about creating different activities” in Bellaire’s few public spaces, says SWA Group Principal Scott McCready. The plan, then, was to construct a gradient of programs that would bring a representative cross-section of residents to the same place.

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“There is no one nature”: A Conversation with Emma Marris

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.

Allyn West: When we think about “nature,” you argue, we tend to think about “pristine” landscapes ostensibly free from human interference or intervention. You call this “the Yellowstone model,” in which a site is protected from “all human use” — except tourism, of course. But you argue, finally, that “the cult of pristine wilderness” is both culturally and ecologically harmful, because it leads to there being “only two possible future states for most ecosystems: perpetual weeding and perpetual watching, or total failure.” What’s a more productive way, then, to think of “nature”?

Emma Marris: First of all, I should point out that the closer people are to nature, the more nuanced their view tends to be. Working conservationists and serious outdoors-people know that there aren’t many places that are untouched by human influence. But for many people — including myself when I was younger — the touch of humans tends to make spaces seem very much less natural. (I didn’t realize then how much intensive management places like Yellowstone require to keep them looking so natural!) I think this is dangerous because as the population grows and the climate changes, it means fewer and fewer places will “count” as nature — and fewer and fewer people will have the means and time to spend time in those places. Nature will become a luxury good for elites and the rest of us will just check out.

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Postcard from 1111 Lincoln Road

I saw the most beautiful parking garage in the world. Located in South Beach, just across the causeway from Downtown Miami, it was designed by Herzog & De Meuron and completed in 2010. It cost $65 million. Inside, there is one site-specific Monika Sosnowska sculpture and 300 spaces — it costs four times more per hour to park here than other South Beach garages, but some drivers like the exclusivity. “I wouldn’t even think of parking anywhere else,” Douglas Sharon told The New York Times in 2011.

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H-Town As Found: “A New Seeing of the Ordinary”

Funded in part by a 2016 Rice Design Alliance Initiatives for Houston grant, Boggess will document buildings in Houston’s industrial East End in danger of demolition to prompt a dialogue of exploration and speculation about what will become of our built history throughout the coming year. You can share your thoughts and photos of buildings you care about saving with the hashtag #htownasfound, and follow her on Instagram @jaeboggess and at her blog.

Having grown up in Houston, I will not deny that I have a love/hate relationship with this city. It is likely perceived by most out-of-towners as a confusing amalgam of freeways and suburban sprawl that, despite a relatively strong economy over the past century, lacks a deeper historical and cultural significance in our nation’s collective consciousness. Perhaps owing to its relative youth, having experienced most of its growth after World War II, Houston seems to lack a strong historical identity. Development patterns have relied more on market forces than on conventional urban planning. Automobile-oriented infrastructure has facilitated expansion outward from the urban center, leaving older disused buildings at the city’s core in the dust: out with the old, in with the new.

Eight years living in the northeastern U.S. and Europe helped me appreciate how the built environment of an older city like New York, or even small-town New England, can offer a multi-layered picture of its history embedded within the contemporary urban fabric, asserting a unique sense of place appreciated by residents and visitors alike. Like many Houstonians, I am excited by the growth and densification that I have witnessed since moving back to my hometown, but I am apprehensive about how this will ultimately impact our built environment if efforts are not taken to rescue existing structures and protect communities from the homogenizing forces of new development.

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Kennedy Boulevard (Old Apopka Road), in Eatonville, Orange County, Florida, prior to roadway improvements. Photo: Everett L. Fly.

“Managing change starts with memory”: Preserving Communities of Color Workshop

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.”

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Astrodome interior taken 1999. Photo: Chris Dana.

Past Forward: How Houston’s Preservation Movement Turned the Corner

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.

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Bending the Future: A Review

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.

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