The Houston Heights’s Cajun Invasion
Is the Houston Heights turning into a Little Louisiana?
Consider this—Houston might actually be the biggest city in Louisiana.
This is a controversial statement, I know, but bear with me. Houston experiences the same sweltering and sticky climate that afflicts New Orleans and Lafayette. Our Bayou City braces for the same natural disasters—hurricanes and floods—as the Bayou State (Houstonians barely know the tornados that afflict northern and western Texas or the ice storms that paralyze Dallas). Like South Louisiana, the Houston area has seen large-scale sugar and rice production. The I-10 corridor is lined with oil refineries from east Houston all the way to Lake Charles. You can still hear Cajun and Creole music regularly on the radio on noncommercial stations like KPFT and Majic 102, a commercial R&B station.
I could go on, but here is the kicker to my bold declaration. I invite you to drive past the Spanish moss-draped live oaks and swampy prairie landscapes west of Houston on Interstate 10. I promise, it won’t feel as though you’ve entered “real Texas” until you hit the Peach Ridge Road exit out by Brookshire, where the ground finally starts to get a little roll to it. That, and not the Sabine River, is where you are finally truly leaving Louisiana.
According to the “best guesstimate” of Jim Gossen, chairman of Houston-based Sysco Louisiana Seafood, Houstonians now annually consume more crawfish than the entire state of Louisiana. “That’s a guess of mine, but it’s got to be a tremendous amount,” Gossen says in his South Louisiana drawl. “As many trucks as I know that are coming here from as many farms, it’s gotta be pretty incredible. Houston’s metro area is about six-and-a-half million people, and there’s only what, four-and-a-half million in Louisiana? Everybody that has a farm [in Louisiana], they have trucks coming this way.”
Gossen’s HQ is just across Loop 610 from the Greater Heights area. The Lafayette native has been there a long time, but it seems Louisiana is finally coming to him. In the years since Katrina and over the course of the last oil boom, the Houston Heights has famously gentrified, but it’s more subtly become Louisiana-ized, a city within a city that is starting to vaguely resemble New Orleans and nearly mirror Baton Rouge.
My wife and I moved to Timbergrove Manor, a neighborhood just west of the Heights proper, in 2010, five years after Katrina and just as the fracking boom was picking up speed. In those days I was biking through the Heights daily to and from work downtown, and I started to notice that increasingly, second-story porches were sprouting purple-and-gold LSU flags, black-and-gold Who Dat banners, and the occasional Fleur-de-Lis. There were also an inordinate number of late-model cars with Louisiana plates, often festooned with LSU and Saints bumper stickers. Little Louisiana touches were everywhere. A tree in the front-yard of a house a couple of blocks from ours sprouted a weird LSU face, and as I was wheeling our garbage bin out to the curb one afternoon there was an unaccounted for Abita bottle cap in my driveway. Gradually it dawned on my wife, who comes from New Orleans stock on her dad’s side, that we were suddenly living in an ethnic enclave of sorts.
By that time, the Heights was already home to two prominent couples blown to Houston on Katrina’s winds. In the aftermath of the 2005 storm, John and Dee Dillman trucked their voluminous second-hand book collection, one accreted over decades in the French Quarter book trade, to the Heights, where they opened as Kaboom. At the same time, Magazine Street boutique owners Chris and Kay Thayer landed on the Heights’ artsy West 19th Street, where they opened up shop. The following year, they gathered Houstonian merchants and launched the Houston version of New Orleans’s established White Linen Night, a block party where attendees where light linen clothing, a collective sartorial statement about the sticky Gulf air. Today the blocks-long street party of art, food, drinks, live music, and shopping is the summer tent pole of the Heights’ increasingly lively social calendar.
Over the past few years I’ve asked a few Louisiana transplants why the Heights caught their eye, and every one answered with some variation of “it feels like home.” And there’s a good reason for that. In the early aughts, Houston developers were already demolishing many of the aging bungalows and cottages that once defined the Heights and replacing them with tall, skinny, faux-historic Garden District-style homes, often painted in pastel shades. They looked suspiciously similar to New Orleans abodes.
“There are just rows and rows of Gothic Revival and Italianate houses now,” says Patty Smith Jones, a veteran real estate writer who is a New Orleans native, but has lived in Houston since 1978 and moved to the Heights in 2005. The homes sold as fast as they were listed, and—Houston’s oil woes notwithstanding—developers continue to build them today.
Baton Rouge native and recent LSU grad Ryann Roussel moved to Houston two years ago after her boyfriend got a job in oil and gas. She’d been living in New Orleans “and loving it,” and her work occasionally sent her to suburban west Houston’s sterile, modern Energy Corridor. That first impression—the Houston stereotype of strip malls, office buildings, traffic jams, chain restaurants and vast parking lots—made her dread the move. “I didn’t really think Houston had any charm,” she recalls.
The Heights changed her impression of the whole city. “I remember the first time I went to the Heights, saying that it reminded me of New Orleans, because of the style of the houses . . . the shotgun style, and they are very colorful,” Roussel recalls. “Finding the Heights made me feel like I could see myself staying in Houston for longer than I had previously planned. I don’t know if that’s because it reminds me of Louisiana, but it is very charming.”
San Antonio is the home of Schilo’s Delicatessen, the Beethoven Maennarchor, and the Prince William (née Kaiser Wilhelm) District. As local newsman Robert Rivard once put it, “The German imprint on San Antonio is everywhere, if you look for it, and all but invisible if you don’t care.” The same can be said of Louisiana’s imprint on the Heights, an influence that’s becoming increasingly harder to ignore.
Take the area’s food and drink scene. An outpost of the Crescent City’s PJ’s Coffee chain sprouted up a couple of years ago in a strip mall on Durham Drive, strategically placed to catch Heights-dwelling Louisiana-bred commuters just before they hook it onto I-10 en route to work downtown.
The PJ’s franchisee is New Orleans native Jessica Taylor, a post-Katrina Houstonian who couldn’t find an iced coffee like the ones she had previously enjoyed. She says her plan to snare Louisianans on the way to work hasn’t worked out as well as she had hoped, possibly because so many of them have come here from Baton Rouge, where PJ’s has a quiet presence, rather than New Orleans where it (and several other local chains) have made almighty Starbucks just another player in the caffeine biz.
Soon after PJ’s arrived, a Gumbo Jeaux’s restaurant opened alongside the coffee spot—so now you can stock up on both gumbo and cafe au lait in one swoop. On the way home, those same commuters can also pick up boiled crawfish and a cornucopia of Gulf seafood at Mel’s Seafood Shack on North Durham Drive, which is owned and operated by Louisiana-bred sisters Melissa and Melinda Faust.
Rollicking White Oak Drive, the area’s party street, has seen BB’s cafe (“the original home of TexOrleans cooking”) stabilize a formerly jinxed location on the corner of Studemont Street. And the Boil House, owned and operated by two south Louisiana natives, ladles out the best crawfish I’ve ever tasted (not to mention boudin empanadas and jalapeño pecan pies) from a ramshackle shed on East 11th Street. (She shanty structure adds to the aesthetic, making it look like some sort of Crawfish Embassy.)
And last but not certainly not least, there’s the case of the Boot, to me the ultimate symbol of Heights-area Louisianification. Since 1939, the Boot’s site had been occupied by the Shady Tavern, a quintessential Southeast Texas-style ice house. Set in a sylvan glade that provided its name, it was an uber-Texas place to kick back with a longneck or three, tell tall tales, maybe catch a game, toss a washer or two, and bring your mutt. If you tried really hard, you can trick yourself into thinking you were out on an FM road out near Brenham. But one day a couple of years ago, one of the last true icehouses in Houston’s western Inner Loop was just gone. In moved the Boot, which takes its name not from western footwear but instead the shape of the state of Louisiana. Founded by the three Duplechin brothers (whose roots, as you might suspect from their name, are in South Louisiana), they wasted no time in overhauling the Shady Tavern’s “menu” of stale corn chips and nuts. In came top-notch gumbo, jambalaya, boudin, and dressed po’ boys served on NOLA’s famed Leidenheimer bread. Abita took pride of place over Shiner and Lone Star. Chili cookoffs gave way to Cajun-style pig roasts.
Tommy Duplechin doesn’t know how many of his customers are Louisiana natives, but he says that sometimes it seems like every one of them has some sort of tie to the state. “Maybe their grandparents are from there,” he says. “Just some kind of tie.”
And if they don’t, as often as not, some Cajun or other has guided them there. Duplechin says the word-of-mouth advertising of his Louisiana-bred customers is worth its weight in crawfish. “Say you’re a native Houstonian, and you want to know where to find the best po’ boy,” Duplechin explains. “You are going to ask your Louisiana friend or neighbor, and you will trust that person.”
While I loved the Shady Tavern and was sorry to see it go, it’s impossible to convince me that what has gone up in its place is not an improvement. But the Boot is more expensive than Shady was, at least if you choose to eat there, and therein lies a point. The Heights has gentrified drastically over the course of this century, and as always, gentrification has its discontents. Some with deep roots in the 120-year-old community loved the Heights just the way it was from about 1950 to 2000—shabby-genteel in some areas and blue-collar in others, placid even at the expense of being a restaurant desert. It’s hard to believe now, but only a decade ago, people were lamenting the “lack of restaurant diversity in the Heights.”
That enhanced quality of life has played a role in inflating the area’s price tag. Since 1998, the price per square foot of a home there has more than tripled, and property taxes have skyrocketed right alongside them, pricing out many long-time residents.
Count Hayden Greenwade among those who pines for the older, cheaper, quieter Heights. Greenwade’s family has lived in the Heights for five generations. Until last summer, the local high school bore the name of confederate postmaster John H. Reagan, one of his direct ancestors. And though he was a chef for 26 years, Greenwade rails against the Heights’s new status as a foodie nirvana. He now sees the Heights as “a glorified food court” and says that he wants to “live in a neighborhood, not a dining destination.”
Writer and musician Chris Lane is another disenchanted Heights old-timer. He grew up there in the seventies and early eighties, a time when the neighborhood was regarded by outsiders as unsavory at best and downright dangerous at worst. Lane moved out for a time and moved back in as an adult. More recently, he left for good.
“All that seemed to happen was my neighbors were replaced by richer, usually whiter faces, and a lot of the gritty charm got sucked out by gentrification,” he says. “After a point, my taxes got so high, that it no longer made sense to stay. So I’d guess that in some cases, people like myself felt dislodged by that gentrification, and don’t like the homogenizing effect it’s had on the area. For someone with little personal history going back any time at all, and the money to live well there, I’m sure the Heights seems lovely.”
And the anti-gentrifiers have a point. Why should they have to embrace wholesale change to a neighborhood they have called home for decades, or leave it altogether? But it’s just a simple fact that in a city as starkly free-market city as Houston, if there is a demand for it, your neighborhood is going to change whether you like it or not.
Not that the Cajun invasion of the Heights is completely new. Gossen has been in the area for years. Jax Grill on Shepherd has been a hotspot for zydeco dancers for almost a quarter-century now, and the parish hall at tiny St. Anne de Beaupre church just east of the Heights still hosts occasional zydeco dances as well. Heights restaurants like Liberty Kitchen and Bernadine’s, though owned and operated by proud native Houstonians, never shied away from a little Louisiana in their seafood-heavy menus. (Not to mention that two Treadsack employees, the company that owns Bernadine’s, celebrated their wedding with a second-line jazz parade through the heart of the Heights.) That sprinkling of Tony Chachere’s has long been all over Houston, a city where crawfish and oyster seasons are now as eagerly anticipated as they are across the Sabine.
As Dallas has its hordes of Sooners, and Austin its invading army of Californians, so Houston has its Cajuns and Creoles from South Louisiana, specifically in the Heights. But if gentrification must come, there are worse forms in can take than a sort of displaced South Louisiana town. Yes, the Heights is gentrifying beyond the means of many long-time residents, but the Heights is being reborn with a specific identity, a sense of place—even if that place was just the next state over all along.