If Midtown is the new Sharpstown, what will Midtown look like in 30 years?
Text by Harbeer Sandhu
Photography by Mark Armes
It’s 38° at 3:00 pm. I am walking around an apartment complex in southwest Houston that has been identified by the Southwest Defense Network as being managed by shady slumlords. In this and many other complexes all over Houston, managers take advantage of poor, overworked, uninformed and in some cases undocumented tenants by charging them indiscriminate fees for arbitrary “violations” that are not even mentioned in the lease (such as locking a bicycle to a balcony rail — $30). They neglect maintenance and repairs, allow garbage to pile up, ignore complaints about rats, roaches and bedbugs, and even fabricate accusations of criminal activity to harass tenants into moving and thus forfeiting their security deposits. This happens all the time.
A man on a bicycle cart sells duros — fried, pinwheel-shaped, puffed wheat Mexican snacks. The complex is littered with abandoned shopping carts.
A woman pushes a shopping cart filled with garbage bags to the overflowing dumpster. It is 38° at 3:00 pm and I see at least one broken window bandaged with a piece of cardboard and some masking tape. This is the Gulfton Ghetto.
Gulfton’s dense nexus of apartment complexes was developed in the 1970s, during Houston’s oil boom years. You know this story: the economy in the Northeast and Midwest “Rust Belt” was depressed as the American auto and steel industries declined; meanwhile, skyrocketing oil prices pumped money into Houston. Upwardly mobile young people flocked here in droves, where they found high-paying jobs and thousands of young, overpaid people just like themselves. It was the swinging 70s — sex, drugs, and disco flowed like Farah Fawcett’s mane.
Real estate developers capitalized on the demand for housing by building sprawling “adults only” apartment complexes of one and two-bedroom units. Each new complex tried to outdo its neighbor in terms of amenities offered to attract hip, young, single professionals. One such complex offered 17 swimming pools, 17 hot tubs, seventeen laundry rooms and two club houses. As Alex Wukman notes in “Remembering the Forgotten City” (Free Press Houston, December 2011), the cost of building the nightclub, alone, in one of these complexes was $1.6 million (adjusted for inflation).
Do yourself a favor watch this vintage 1980s commercial on YouTube.
To us it’s funny. The hair, the music, the dancing. The line about “beautiful southwest Houston,” ha! And the hair…will laughing at ‘80s hair ever go out of style?
Unfortunately for the local economy, the oil boom did go out of style. Houston shed 200,000 jobs as quickly as it had sprouted them. The party ended rather abruptly, and apartment complexes that had been for “adults only” started allowing not just one but multiple families in single units. What had once been an exclusive, expensive, predominantly-white enclave became so desperate for tenants that managers stopped doing background checks and even opened up to refugee resettlement agencies.
To this day, it is not uncommon for experts to compare Gulfton to Ellis Island or refer to it as a microcosm of Houston. Walking down Hillcroft and looking at strip malls with taquerias next to pupuserias next to Afghan cafes next to empanada joints next to late night Pakistani diners next to Ethiopian grocers next to hookah bars and everything in between, it’s easy to see why.
Gulfton has become both the most diverse and the most dense neighborhood in Houston. In this city known for sprawl, Gulfton is as dense as Calcutta, says Wukman — and though it was built for singles, one third of its current population is under 18. You might not devote much thought to architecture and urban planning, but when a whole neighborhood is being used in ways that were not intended in its design, there is bound to be “discomfort.”
In their 1997 article “Public Life in Gulfton: Multiple Publics and Models of Organization,” Drs. Robert Fisher and Lisa Taaffe find that the lack of amenities for children such as schools, parks, libraries and recreation centers, coupled with the area’s density, helped gang culture take root in Gulfton. And though their research deals specifically with Gulfton, the same can no doubt be said about Sharpstown, Alief, Greater Fondren, Greenspoint and other densely-populated neighborhoods that sprouted almost overnight during the oil boom. With their strip-malls filled with restaurants serving global cuisine, check cashing joints, thrift stores, cell phone stores, kids running around everywhere, and even internet cafés (when was the last time you saw in internet café in the States?) the neighborhoods certainly look similar to the casual interloper. One thing that really stands out is the number of “game rooms” — they’re like the Starbucks of poor neighborhoods — suggesting that when 10 people are crammed into an apartment built for two, there is going to be a need for a “third space” just to relieve the tension of being so tightly packed. (Yuppies go to Starbucks to escape the alienation of living alone, and po’ folks go to game rooms to escape the alienation [and fights] of living with too many relatives.)
Fortunately, many volunteer and non-profit social service organizations have stepped up to fill voids and oversights created by developers. Local artist Carrie Schneider taught art to school age Burmese refugees at her own expense for years, until this year, when she was able to establish the Sunblossom Residency with a grant from the Houston Arts Alliance. Schneider can now pay artists to teach classes in the de facto refugee camp that is the Sunblossom Mountain apartment complex. The Community Cloth works with adult female refugees to help them make and market their traditional handicrafts for an additional source of income (while building community) for an all but unemployable segment of the population. The Southwest Defense Network hosts Know Your Rights workshops and helps tenants fight back against exploitative slumlords.
In Alief, Texans Together helped start a community and volunteer-run resource center in one of the worst complexes in arguably the most dangerous neighborhood in town — The Mint. In that space over the past five years, residents have led and/or attended AA meetings, domestic violence survivor workshops, choir, HIV testing, after school programs, tutoring, resume workshops, used the computer lab, and built a playground and a community garden. Last April, Texans Together launched their second such initiative in Alief, and the YMCA runs similar programs (Caring Community Centers) all over Houston.
Houston is a boomtown. Again. And housing stock is in short supply. Again. Look around — everywhere we see cranes dotting the horizon, cement trucks and bulldozers holding up traffic, and the sound of nail guns and heavy machinery back-up beeps on gigantic high-rise and mid-rise developments. All day, every day.
“Sharpstown was the Midtown of the 80s,” reads a comment below the YouTube video of the Colonial House commercial. This begs the question, though — if Midtown is the new Sharpstown, what will Midtown look like in 30 years? Will it resemble what Sharpstown, Gulfton and Alief have become in the time since the previous boom?
Swing by the Colonial House complex — now called Lantern Village — and tell me it doesn’t look like a prison. Guard shacks where every coming and going is recorded stand at each of the four entrances to the sprawling complex, and all the gates and fences are lined with menacing razor wire. In stark contrast to its ad of 30 years ago, it does not look the least bit inviting.
Those who think that such blight and depreciation can’t happen on such valuable real estate so close to downtown would be wise to look to Detroit and then ask where the new high-paying jobs are located. A lot of them are in the exurbs: The Woodlands, the Energy Corridor, Baytown, Atascosita, etc. Exxon, for one, is about to move its whole headquarters from downtown to the Woodlands. Will this become a trend? It is not inevitable, but it is certainly possible, and you better believe that the Grand Parkway is spurring more housing developments in those areas too. Why would people choose to commute to the exurbs from downtown, 80+ miles daily, assuming they can even afford that with gas prices steadily rising?
So, what will happen if the current building boom downtown goes pop? One major difference between what happened in Gulfton and Sharpstown and Alief 40 years ago and what’s happening with new developments in Montrose, the East End, and other inner-loop neighborhoods is that when Southwest Houston was being developed it was built on virgin land — farmers sold their land for a profit and some plants and field mice got displaced, but long-standing human community ties were not severed. The same cannot be said of new developments, which are breaking apart well-established communities. How tragic would it be if the “blighted” Freedman’s Town — a historically significant community built by newly-freed slaves — was razed to build yuppie condos (too late — it’s done!) only to see vacancies and falling property values and “blight” return — but without the community ties that coalesced over decades if not generations? That would just add insult to injury.
So, without centralized planning, how do we prevent this from happening? Rice University’s Stephen Klineberg says “enlightened self interest.” It’s in all our self-interests to build and maintain healthier communities — to invest in green space, transportation, and education — the commons — for a better future and for a better present. If we go at this together, our city will continue to attract the best and the brightest from all over the world, but if we sit back and hope that it will all just work out, well, we’ve seen the results of that already, tell you what, and it ain’t pretty.
[UPDATE: Here is a photo of that mid-rise development on W Dallas @ Montrose that wrapped around the Magnolia Cemetery and infamously went up in flames last week.]