EAST OF DOWNTOWN
BY KATHRYN MCGRANAHAN AND DL HAYDON
Art by Blake Jones
Sundown on the Columbia Tap Trail found Andre Rend between Lamar and McKinney Streets. Rend, originally from Los Angeles, moved to East Downtown in 2004 and when his rent increased by 40%, Rend saw not trouble but opportunity. He now owns two properties and is thinking of purchasing another, just a couple blocks from the trail. Rend watched East Downtown go from a forgotten and neglected corner of the city to one of the most booming parts of the Inner Loop (but his wife still wants a decent grocery store).
East Downtown (also contentiously called EaDo) is a trendy district built on the bones of our first Chinatown. It borders Third Ward, East End and the George R. Brown Convention Center. The triangle-shaped district was an all-but-abandoned area that is now bursting with townhomes, bars, restaurants and businesses.
CHINATOWN & EADO “PROPER”
About thirty years ago, the area’s East Asian population began to move their businesses to Southwest Houston. Kim Son’s headquarters, the elegant golden Vietnamese restaurant at the corner of Highways 59 and 45, is a reminder of EaDo before EaDo. Other remaining Chinatown landmarks are the Texas Guandi Temple and several operating businesses, many with faded Chinese characters on the walls and asian clay-roof tiles on the rooftops.
A street artist named Zen, who works in and out of the nearby Aerosol Warfare gallery, frequently places his dark and sultry calavera images in downtown, EaDo and East End’s Denver Harbor. When asked about the infamous “EaDo” nickname, he said he heard it first from Aerosol Warfare’s owner, Gonzo247.
“Some people don’t like it, some people do like it. It’s just a name,” Zen said. “Just a nickname.”
Ryan Soroka of the 8th Wonder brewery, located in the heart of EaDo, says the push between urban redevelopment and heritage is “the cost of urban living.”
“The city is going to develop beyond the one you grew up in,” he said, “but if you want to live in the city, if you want to have places to walk to and restaurants and an urban atmosphere, [this is] the cost of that.”
East End, unlike EaDo, is not a warehouse wasteland waiting for new condos and bars. It has been predominantly Hispanic and working class in recent memory, but it wasn’t always that way. Before the current crop of residents arrived, the area was populated by Italian and Greek families, and before that, in 1913, the Houston Daily Post called it a “model suburb.” Howard Hughes even lived in Eastwood as child.
Today, East Enders are divided between those who accept gentrification as a passing fact, others who are excited by it, and still others who would like to see it retain its affordable, working class character.
Hayley and Atticus, 21-year-old students who didn’t want to give their last names, were drinking from the Moon Tower Inn’s famous list of microbrews. They said even after moving to New Orleans, Houston still feels like their city.
“It makes me happy to see new stuff coming up, that’s always fun, but it’s a certain crowd that it attracts, I guess,” said Hayley, who once lived in a nearby warehouse off of Commerce St. “And that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing.”
“I get the perspective of coming back after six months and seeing what’s changed,” said Atticus. “It’s crazy.”
Precinct 6 Constable Victor Trevino, a native East Ender, is optimistic. “The East End has always been diversified. We have not just a historical Hispanic community, but Chinatown, an Italian community and the Polish community that surrounded Denver Harbor. I see it in the new residents wherever they come from, whether its West coast or East coast.”
Joseph Mandola’s father, Frank began the eponymous restaurant on Cullen Boulevard in 1978.
“In the ‘40’s to ‘60’s, this area was mainly Italians,” he said. “Lots of Mandolas. There’s a lot of pride that comes in [the deli], from old people who have withstood all the changes to the new young professionals coming in.”
He still lives in the East End himself, “because it is of its own. No Best Buys, no corporate stamp.”
Though East End is overdue for a revitalization that brings money, swagger and city improvements to the neighborhood, tensions rise when that “revitalization” blends in with EaDo’s-which is known for its “corporate stamp”. And many of East End’s trendy new spots, such as Voodoo Queen and Moon Tower Inn, are in sight of EaDo’s vague border.
Nearby Bohemeo’s began as a haven for art and music, but by the time Keith Adkins and Jessica Soller got to it, it had become a neighborhood hangout with a community focus.
“There’s no place really like it,” Soller said. “The original owners are big proponents of the East End. They were proactive about reaching out to community groups, and now we’re established and accessible. We’ve hosted everybody, from Communists to campaigning officials. There’s nothing else like this here, in the East End, that can accommodate everybody.”
Barrio Dogs founder Gloria Medina Zenteno is part of a different transformation. Zenteno started Barrio Dogs to promote animal education in a part of town known for stray packs and neglect. They often host fundraisers at Bohemeo’s.
“I see strays everywhere, and not like in other neighborhoods,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing or saying something about this? Why isn’t the city focusing on our community?’”
Activists like Zenteno, it goes without saying, will develop the East End their own way long after it stops being trendy.
UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
Meanwhile, back in the triangle, the East Downtown Management District maintains a vision for a “well-planned, high quality community.” This includes commercial development and a residential neighborhood. Another high-rise hotel to feed the convention center is rumored to be in development. The Management District website features buzzwords like safety, security, well–maintained streets and pedestrian areas.
“Throughout this effort,” eadohouston.com reads, “the bottom line will be our commitment to enhancement of the District for our constituents.”
Who those “constituents” are is what’s changing.
David L. Davis of Continuum Performance Art, along with his colleague Caitlin Scott, moved out of Montrose after their respective city blocks had been purchased and their apartments set for demolition. While Scott found rent in East End, Davis ended up in Third Ward, though he noted that Second Ward (another name for part of East End) is alive and well.
“When I go out there and talk to people who have lived there,” Davis said. “They’re like ‘Second Ward.’ They identify with that. They’re proud of being Second Ward. It’s a strong neighborhood.”
To hasten this collision, $250,000 townhomes, most of which look like metallic LEGOs, have spread like fairy rings all the way from EaDo to neighboring East End. Simultaneously, continuing a decades-old trend, artists and makers keep transforming the area’s warehouses from industrial use to artistic purposes or living space. Creative organizations, from TX/RX Labs and Makerspace Houston to Sharespace, have set up in the area over the years. They signal another kind of resident in the old-school East End: a blend of eager new Houstonians and Heights/Montrose refugees who just want a cool place with cheap rent.
“The best thing you can do is get to know your neighbors and get involved in your community,” Scott said. “There’s also the issue that we live in a society where segregation is a problem. It’s not just a segregation of ethnicity, there’s also a segregation of economics. Because of the economic system behind gentrification, it intentionally displaces people. It’s not just the hardship of having to find a new home, but the hardship of finding a new community.”
by Guest Author