WE TEXANS TALK A LOT about how big we are, and how we are getting bigger. This is all right, since it is true. We are the only state with more than one of the ten largest cities in the country. In fact, we have three—Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.
For some, the prospect of such growth is exhilerating; for others, frightening. One of our stories this month should cause the exhilerated to think and the frightened to take heart. “Montrose Lives!” is a story about the rebirth of a downtown Houston neighborhood, and its blossoming into an area whose uniqueness and vitality rival those of any neighborhood, anywhere.
My grandfather built one of the original houses in the Montrose over 50 years ago, and my mother and I were born there. My grandfather thought Westheimer (then called Hathaway) would be a nice, quiet street to raise a family on. He celebrated the birth of my mother by planting a Magnolia tree in the back yard. Back then, I suppose it was the kind of quiet neighborhood he wanted it to be.
The process of a city growing to 20 times the size my grandfather knew made his quiet neighborhood into a buffer between downtown and the new developments stretching 25 miles to the west, and made his quiet street into a major east-west artery. Our two-story frame house is now an antique store right in the heart of the Westheimer strip, surrounded by sidewalk cafes, art galleries, strip joints and bars, both straight and bent.
If the story of Montrose had continued the way it was heading 15 years ago, then it would have become just another of those decaying neighborhoods slated to become parking lots. Instead, before Houston could devour its past, Montrose began a rebirth. There comes a time in the life of cities like Dallas and Houston when the magic of freeways loses its spell, and the new developments which they made possible became just too far away. Even the hardiest commuter may face that morning of truth when he decides that the daily prospect of 45 minutes in heavy traffic is just unbearable. That commuter, once that thought enters his head, becomes a candidate for the Montrose or other neighborhoods like it.
The restoration of Capitol Hill in Washington, and the continued surge of interest in redoing brownstones in New York are part of the same trend. All this isn’t happening just because of disgruntled commuters, of course. There is more than just physical separation between a city and its suburbs. With all their convenience, security and good schools, the suburbs and the technology built into them continue to increase our own isolation and self-sufficiency. Television brings inside what we once went to movies, circuses, plays and sporting events with other people to see; washing machines, telephones and air conditioning help us stay at home.
Montrose has the sort of feel cities used to have. People live near where they work. Businesses, restaurants, shops and homes are all jumbled together. Executives meet artists on the street, and vice versa. There is a surprising small town air to it all, right there in the shadows of downtown Houston.
It may be that the only way all of us are going to survive in a Houston or a Dallas of four million people is if we have the kind of rebirth of neighborhoods that is happening in Montrose. That kind of a neighborhood can grow up just about anywhere that people want it. It doesn’t take old homes and tree-lined streets, although they help. The trouble is, if we don’t stop destroying our past to build for a somewhat dubious future, then we are going to lose the links with our parents and our parent’s parents that a place with history like the Montrose, or say Swiss Avenue in Dallas, can give.
When I was growing up, the magnolia tree my grandfather had planted stood next to a fig tree, and we kids climbed the two trees, threw figs at each other (wasting the makings of memorable preserves) and hid behind their trunks through endless games of war.
I’d like to see those trees again, not a whole lot, just a sort of whimsical longing. About ten years ago the house’s new owners, in the process of converting it into an antique store, had the two trees cut down to make room for a parking lot. I can’t really quarrel with that. It’s their house now, and at least it’s a parking lot behind an antique store. It could have been a lot worse.
In the great scheme of things, and in the grand design of a city’s growth, the loss of two trees is probably a small sort of thing. But if everyone with roots in Houston loses their magnolia trees and their childhood homes to what we call progress, then we will become a sad, rootless people. If Montrose can survive its success, then maybe Houston will continue to enjoy its present while remembering its past.
Even we growing Texans need to look back every now and then.
Fortunately, you don’t have to live in Montrose to enjoy it, although it helps. Next time, follow our writers’ advice and take an easy walk or drive through the area. You may even spot Thorne Dreyer or Al Reinert in Prufrock’s, talking to Marge Crumbaker or another Montrose fixture, still trying to figure out what Montrose is all about. No one really knows, but we need more of it.