Houstonia, We Have a Problem
By Rob Block
If you were going to write a story about a neighborhood and why it is a great place to live, would you:
A. Talk to someone who lives there
B. Talk to a consultant for a real estate company that has an expertise in relocating people from other cities to Houston
C. Create a cute nickname for the neighborhood based on a sofa for sale on craigslist (without running it by any residents)
D. Use lots of language talking about “urban pioneers” and “to the valiant go the spoils”
If you are Houstonia Magazine, you picked B, C and D, and show no interest in doing any of A.
Houstonia Magazine’s April 2014 issue had the feature “Where to live now: The 25 Hottest Neighborhoods of 2014: An exclusive guide to the city’s 25 neighborhoods of the moment.” It includes neighborhoods in many parts of Houston, as well as developments in suburbs of Katy and Missouri City and other cities themselves like Seabrook and West University.
One of the neighborhoods discussed was “Northside Village,” by which they mean the Near Northside or Northside, where I’ve worked since 2011 and owned a home for just over a year. In three short paragraphs, it got a number of things wrong: from what Northside Village is, to where it is, to what people call it. Worse than not being very accurate, the entire feature, particularly the entry about Northside, promotes the language of gentrification: that there is a wild urban frontier that needs to be tamed by urban pioneers.
An Introduction to the Near Northside
The Northside is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Houston; its first plat is called AC Allen, after Augustus Chapman Allen, one of the two Yankee brothers who invented Houston in this swamp on the bayou. There was very limited development in the neighborhood until the Southern Pacific Railroad Company established the Hardy Rail Yards in the southernmost part of the neighborhood in the 1880s. The neighborhood was settled primarily by railway workers, most of whom were new immigrants, from Central and Southern Europe, Bohemian, German and Italian. Up until the ward system was abolished in the early 1900s, Near Northside was part of the Fifth Ward, as was everything North of Buffalo Bayou and East of Little White Oak Bayou.
Starting in the 1940s Mexican and Mexican-American immigrants came to the neighborhood, and after world war two it became a Hispanic enclave, as most Anglo families left for the new suburbs and other parts of town. Despite its close proximity to downtown it has been largely ignored by both private and public development. To be a neighborhood that immediately borders downtown on the other side of Buffalo Bayou, it is remarkably poorly known by residents of Houston. When I tell people from other parts of Houston where I live, I try to tell them it’s the neighborhood that contains Davis High School, Moody Park, Poppa Burger and Taconazo. If none of those ring a bell, I give up and tell people it’s between The Heights and Fifth Ward.
While this neglect has had a lot of negative consequences for Northside residents, many of whom are working class and poor, it has meant that large amounts of historic housing still stand, and that many families have been able to stay in the neighborhood for multiple generations. With the new light rail line entering the neighborhood along North Main and Fulton, the explosive growth of Houston’s population and the lack of available housing, people are starting to notice the neighborhood. If many of them adopt the same attitude as Houstonia Magazine, this is bad news for that neighborhood.
What is Northside Village?
Northside Village is the name of the Super Neighborhood Council #51 (SNC #51). Super neighborhood councils were created by Mayor Lee Brown as a way to try and centralize communication between civic groups and the city by forming rough neighborhood areas as an officially sanctioned body for civic clubs and residents to interact with the city. SNC #51 includes the Near Northside, Ryon, Silverdale, Lindale Park and North Central civic club areas. The original name for the SNC was Near Northside, and the change in name was promoted by residents from Lindale Park, the most affluent area of the neighborhood, who wanted people to think about Highland Village or Rice Village. While this became the name of the SNC, most residents have not heard and don’t use this name. Much in the same way that most residents of Rice Village area don’t call it University Place, most resident of the Galleria area don’t call it Greater Uptown, and most Montrosians don’t call their neighborhood Neartown/Montrose.
While Houstonia uses Northside Village to describe the neighborhood, they include the area between Elysian and 59, which is actually part of Greater Fifth Ward and they exclude the Lindale Park and North Lindale areas north of Cavalcade. What they did was redraw the borders to suit their interests. And their interests are to paint a picture of a neighborhood that is ready for “urban pioneers”
Near Northside as the Urban Frontier
Think about this: The Northside has about 30,000 residents. How does it make sense to say talk about “urban pioneers” when tens of thousands of people live here? The only way it makes any sense is if you don’t acknowledge that the current residents of the neighborhood are people with a right to inhabit the neighborhood.
Neil Smith’s book “The New Urban Frontier” explores the dynamics of gentrification, and in particular the parallel between the conceptual framework of the (Anglo) pioneers who settled the West (displacing the indigenous people), with that of the (affluent, mostly white) urban Pioneers, who are engaged in a similar project to “civilize” the urban frontier.
“Just as [19th century Historian Fredrick Jackson] Turner recognized the existence of Native Americans but included them as part of his savage wilderness, contemporary urban frontier imagery treats the present inner-city population as a natural element of their physical surroundings. The term “urban pioneer” is therefore as arrogant as the original notion of “pioneers” in that it suggests a city not yet socially inhabited; like Native Americans, the urban working class is seen as less than social, a part of the physical environment. Turner was explicit about this when called the frontier ‘the meeting point between savagery and civilization,’ and although the 1970s and 1980s frontier vocabulary of gentrification is rarely as explicit, it treats the inner-city population in much the same way.”
While this framework may seem far-fetched, the language that Houstonia uses to introduce this article is straight out of this textbook. “Let Houstonia be your Sacajawea, expertly guiding you through the thicket…” The iconography of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the first trip of Anglo pioneers through the west to the Pacific Coast is how they frame their expertise in the “thicket” of Houston.
As the Lewis and Clark Expedition travelled through the Pacific northwest, they took the liberty of naming the rivers and mountains that the encountered in the wilderness as they traveled through the land of Shoshone, Cheyenne, Lakota, Nez Perce and dozens of other indigenous nations. They named rivers after president Jefferson, members of his cabinet, members of their party, girls back east that they hoped to marry, pets on the expedition, and they named a creek hungry creek during a period where they were hungry. Houstonia Magazine has taken similar liberties as our guides through the urban thicket by creating the name Tampico Heights for the Northside.
According to Houstonia “Thanks to the taquerias and shaded, walkable streets some locals call the area ‘Tampico Heights.’” As someone working with many residents of the neighborhood over the last 3 years, I have never heard this name used. After talking with dozens of people, many of whom have been in the neighborhood for generations, no one has heard this name used. When pressed, Houstonia writer John Nova Lomax has commented on the Houstonia website that the claim that the term has casually been used on Craigslist and on Reddit. The only reference on Reddit before Houstonia’s article is by a user named Mendokusai_yo, who describes his location as in between Cavalcade and North Main, which happens to be near the Tampico Refresqueria on North Main near Airline-notable for being part of the heights. The Craigslist reference was someone selling a couch and the listing has been removed from their site, making it hard to verify where this actually is. When pressed on twitter if he had another Reddit source John Lomax acknowledges that “I honestly don’t remember where I first read it or heard it. I do know the difference between Beach Park and near Northside.” Still, he believes that this constitutes two sources, and that two sources justifies saying that some locals call it Tampico Heights. Editor Katharine Shilcut in the same thread says that she stands by what John Lomax wrote.
The fight over neighborhood names is a familiar issue for people who live in urban parts of Houston and are concerned about gentrification. This thing called midtown has expanded to push out poor black residents from Fourth Ward/Freedman’s Town and western parts of Third Ward. EaDo is being used to redevelop a large section of Second and Third Wards and is creeping further east. Slapping “Heights” on something has a particular history of rapid gentrification. Terms like Washington Heights and Memorial Height are being used to sell townhomes in Rice Military and along Washington Avenue, and Sawyer Heights is being used to sell a new version of First Ward that is devoid of historic houses and poor people. This is part of the marketing strategy of the real estate industry all over the country. Neil Smith talks in detail about the real estate industry using East Village instead of Lower East Side was crucial in the gentrification of this neighborhood of Manhattan that had been abandoned by the city and private capital, and had a high population of Puerto Rican and Black residents.
In the case of Houstonia Magazine, it seems to be more of a case of journalistic sloth than a conscious real estate marketing ploy. However the whole framework of the article that opens with, “WITH GENTRIFICATION now having leapt beyond the Heights and into Lindale Park and Brooke Smith, the next play for urban pioneers is Northside Village,” and ending with “And to the valiant go the spoils: two and three-bedroom houses, minutes from the heart of Houston for under $200,000.”
It is clear that this article is being written from a perspective that sees this neighborhood as an open frontier and makes no space for the perspectives of the current residents.
Neil Smith talks about this framework: “The frontier imagery is neither merely decorative nor innocent, therefore, but carries considerable ideological weight. Insofar as gentrification infects working-class communities, displaces poor households, and converts whole neighborhoods into bourgeois enclaves, the frontier ideology rationalizes social differentiation and exclusion as natural, inevitable. The poor and working class are all too easily defined as ‘uncivil,’ on the wrong side of a heroic dividing line, as savages and communists. The substance and consequence of the frontier imagery is to tame the wild city, to socialize a wholly new and therefore challenging set of processes into safe ideological focus. As such, the frontier ideology justifies monstrous incivility in the heart of the city. ”
Should we expect better from real estate reporting? Probably not. The way real estate is discussed in America, particularly in a city without zoning or much interest in its history, the media is not going to talk about a sense of a neighborhood social fabric, economic justice, collective well being or the idea that housing is a human right.
Should we expect better from John Nova Lomax and Katherine Shillcutt? Yes, they both have a lot of knowledge about Houston, and a track record of writing very interesting stories about this city and the cast of characters that call it home. That they feel the need to defend the use of a Craigslist sofa to apply a name to a neighborhood without talking to a resident about it, and then cheer on the creation of Tampico Heights bumper stickers and label people who have a problem with this enemies is beyond disappointing, and I hope they are embarrassed. Hopefully this attempt to set the record straight and attempting to hold them accountable may influence how they talk about my neighborhood and other neighborhoods like it in the future.
Rob Block is a resident of the North Central area of the Northside, and worked for 2 years on the GO Neighborhoods program, which organizes residents around quality of life improvements. He is currently a student in the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.
This is a longer version of a story in our June print issue.
by Guest Author