Now Available: Evolution of a Community

“Changing Times” by Debbie Z. Harwell, Editor

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An artist’s vision of Houston in 1980, painting circa 1920-1930. Photo courtesy of the George Fuermann “Texas and Houston” Collection, Digital Library, University of Houston Libraries.

In the 1920s or 1930s, an unknown artist painted this futuristic vision of Houston in 1980 that is at once fantasy and truth. Houston has evolved to include elevated freeways that encircle downtown as the artist anticipated, although they do not cut through the skyscrapers like a Disney monorail. Likewise, oil wells are not towering over downtown, but oil companies – Humble, Gulf, Shell, Tenneco, and Pennzoil – built many of the iconic structures that defined our skyline as it evolved.

This issue’s cover photo from 1987 shows Houston’s reality in the same time period. After the Civil War, Freedman’s Town in Fourth Ward evolved into a bustling black residential and business district until urban renewal and gentrification began whittling it away in the late twentieth century, despite its historic designation. In what remains, downtown still looms just a short distance away.

This issue looks at ways our community has evolved in its attitudes, politics, neighborhoods, and culture. The features open with Dr. Stephen Klineberg reflecting on thirty-eight years of Houston Area Surveys conducted by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. These surveys have traced the shifts in our demographic makeup, how Houstonians reacted to those changes, and what they mean for education, our economy, and quality of life. The remaining features look at change in specific communities: Three generations of the Judson Robinson family exemplify their life-long commitments to protecting the rights and opportunities of African American and other marginalized communities; Roxanne Quezada Chartouni’s photos of Fourth Ward from 1987 capture a moment in time that illustrates the neighborhood’s rise, decline, and transformation; and New Hope Housing has created communities for Houston’s homeless and those lacking affordable housing, to give them a new lease on life.

The department articles, likewise, represent change over time. The article on Kellum-Noble House reflects both the home’s physical transition since its construction in 1848 as well as the city’s evolving attitudes toward historic preservation. Sakowitz played a major role in Houston retail over nine decades, starting downtown and expanding to the suburbs. Today its evolution is sadly evident in the repurposing of its downtown shopping palace as a parking garage. The Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas Collection in the Carey Shuart Women’s Research Collection at the University of Houston Libraries documents the organization’s history in providing reproductive and general health care to women and men across the region. Lastly, marking the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, the Suffrage Centennial Book Club highlights a monthly book and film selection related to the fight for suffrage and women’s rights.

Debbie Z. Harwell, Editor

Houston has seen many changes in its 183-year history and will see many more. The year I was born Houston’s population was approaching one million, but the city still had  a small-town feel. I remember when Westheimer was a two-lane road, and going to my cousin’s house in Memorial was like taking a day trip to the country. My uncle ran a gas station in an area that sits inside the loop today but was then near the end of the road on San Felipe (pronounced San Fill-UP-ee in those days). My family moved from Montrose to Westbury in 1959 and watched construction rip through several rows of homes the length of a (City of) Bellaire neighborhood to build  Interstate 610 and make our commute easier; at the time I was too young to understand the consequences “progress” inflicted on others. In the 1960s we saw the opening of Houston’s first indoor shopping mall at Sharpstown, the world’s first indoor sports stadium, and our first twin-screen theaters at Gulfgate, Meyerland, and Northline malls, so we no longer had to drive to downtown to see a movie. Nevertheless, Houston was still decidedly segregated and Anglo.

Today times have changed. We have numerous freeways, buildings and neighborhoods pop up so fast it is hard to keep track of their names, open-air shopping centers  are trending again, our sports stadiums have retractable roofs, theaters with only two screens are considered “historic,” and large numbers of Houstonians embrace diversity instead of shunning it. We have come a long way – that is evolution.

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