Best of Houston 2014: One Week to Go Before This Year's BOH and Readers' Choice Awards

Next week, the results of our annual search for all things "best" in Houston will be revealed in the October 9 edition of the Houston Press.

We've munched burgers across the city, gone to all sorts of sporting events, and checked out promises big and small from politicians and officials.

In addition, we have your votes in our Readers' Choice 100 categories (99 items plus the one we forgot) to look forward to.

There's a lot to celebrate in Houston so we urge you to join us when we do just that next week.

The Changing Face of Houston - Downtown Then and Now

Photo by Alex
To a large degree, a city's downtown area is its heartbeat. In many places, downtown is the most significant part of town, filling many roles in the lives of residents, and serving as the public face of a city's image to those that visit. Houston's downtown is no different in that regard. Although until recently it was often criticized as being run down and dangerous, it has a rich history, and has changed in character many times since the founding of our city.

Since Houston is, on the surface, a very modern looking city, and an "old" building might be one dating back just 40 or 50 years, it is easy to forget that Houston was founded in the early 1800s, and our downtown area is the oldest part of town. There's a lot of history there, and it all began in 1836, soon after the end of the Texas Revolution. The Allen brothers, two real estate investors from New York, bought 6,642 acres of land to create a new settlement.

At the beginning, Houston was very dependent on Buffalo and White Oak bayous, with docks built where the two meet -- the area known today as Allen's Landing. The Allen brothers and others envisioned the bayous allowing Houston to become a center of shipping commerce, and designed the city around them. The reason Houston is called the "Bayou City" today is because of that early vision.

Initially the city was divided into wards, a popular form of political zoning in the nineteenth century. In the early 1900s, the ward system was abolished in Houston because of widespread political corruption, and the city eventually switched over to a different form of local government. Although the wards no longer officially existed as political districts by 1915, residents continue to identify certain neighborhoods with them, and they have taken on local cultural significance.

It's easy to forget, but up until the early 20th century, downtown was Houston. The sprawling city of far flung neighborhoods that we're all used to did not exist at that time, and even nearby neighborhoods like The Heights were considered separate from Houston originally.

In 1909, a new railroad station was commissioned to be built, as Houston had 17 railways at the time and was the main rail hub of the southern states. The resulting station was beautifully designed and built, serving Houston for decades, but some believe that the surrounding neighborhoods began to decline after it was constructed. Hotels and other businesses began to open in the area to service travelers, and over the years, they began to attract derelicts and other problems which adversely affected the nearby residential areas.

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10 Best Houston Toy Stores

Super Happy Incredible Toys Facebook
If you're like me then you do your gift buying for children online because have seen what happens when you take five-year-olds into a toy store? They develop the reach of Mr. Fantastic and have a grip like the bite of a great white shark. Between the wails, the "I wants", and the grabbiness of the tiny hands it's just easier to do it through the magic box.

Which is sad because there are some really first rate places locally owned and operated that you can buy toys in Houston. If you wish to brave it in the name of buying local, might I recommend...

10. Super Happy Incredible Toys
This is more for the big kid in all of us adults living in arrested development. If you've got a taste to recreate the glory days of Transformers Generation 1 or maybe that Castle Greyskull you remember so fondly then this is a good local place to start. They specialize in the vintage toys of the '80s and '90s, but there's plenty of modern fare to be seen as well. It's a great location to relive your childhood.

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The Changing Face of Houston - Oak Forest

Photo by Olivia Flores Alvarez
The Oak Forest sign welcomes people to the neighborhood

Today, the Oak Forest neighborhood, just north of Loop 610, is undergoing massive changes, just like many other older developments in Houston.

Construction of what would become one of Houston's largest residential neighborhoods began in 1946, and almost all of the earliest homes were sold to veterans returning from World War II. Oak Forest was the brainchild of prolific Houston developer Frank Sharp, who would go on to build Sharpstown a few years later. The postwar years in Houston were marked by a great amount of new development and expansion of the city, and Oak Forest was one of the new neighborhoods reflecting that trend.

Frank Sharp was a forward thinking developer for the time, and made areas of his new neighborhood available to accommodate resident friendly features such as nearby retail centers, and areas for churches to be built. The many businesses lining 43rd Street to this day are a result of Sharp's original vision for the Oak Forest community.

Sharp also planned for Oak Forest to have several of its own parks for residents to enjoy, resulting in the creation of four parks - Candlelight, American Legion, Oak Forest, and T.C. Jester. The first houses built in the development sold for $8,000 to $10,000, the equivalent of between $100,000 and $128,000 today. Quite a few of those early homes are still standing, although many of them have been renovated or expanded, and it's becoming more common to see them demolished so much larger modern homes can be built in their place.

Frank Sharp seems to have envisioned his developments as functioning communities where people could work, shop, and play, rather than as just tracts of land for him to quickly build and sell homes without concern for how well the future residents would live. He showed that same sense of planning later when he developed Sharpstown, and his vision seems to have kept Oak Forest going strong as a livable, resident friendly neighborhood almost seventy years from its creation.

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10 Best Successful Houston Kickstarters

For around two years now, I have been covering the best crowd-sourced projects by Houstonians, and this month, instead of the usual roundup, we're going to look back over some of those projects to see which were both awesome and successful. Stuff like...

Writer/director Dallas Box came highly recommended by local movie industry star Joe Grisaffi, and his upcoming short, Rotten looks amazing. It follows a couple who begin to serial murder in order to rekindle the sexual aspect of their relationship. Box says we can expect a very Lynchian approach, with dream worlds making up a big part of the short. The movie entered pre-production this month.

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The Changing Face of Houston: Sharpstown Then and Now

Photo by Matthew Rutledge
Frank Sharp's solution to connecting Sharpstown to Downtown today.

The Sharpstown area has changed a great deal over the decades since its creation, and those changes reflect the way Houston has continued to evolve, a city constantly in motion. Originally the vision of developer Frank Sharp, who also created Oak Forest, construction of Sharpstown began in the mid '50s and was completed in 1961. At the time, the neighborhood was recognized as the largest subdivision in the United States, with its own mall and a golf course.

It's easy for modern residents to forget how small Houston was half a century ago, but Sharpstown was considered a suburban escape from the hassles of living in the big city, while still conveniently only 15 minutes or so from the downtown area.

The development allowed for schools, recreation, and retail areas as well as nice post-war homes (a new concept at the time), making Sharpstown one of the nation's first master-planned developments, and the first such community in Houston.

Frank Sharp was concerned about easy transport between downtown Houston and his new neighborhood development, so he donated land to the state of Texas, which became the Southwest Freeway. This ensured that Sharpstown would be connected to the heart of Houston, and that deliveries to the new mall would also be reliable. Back then the mall was named Sharpstown Center, and offered shoppers perks such as air-conditioning, something that was not standard at the time.

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9 Types of Houston Drivers We Could Do Without

Photo by Lindsay Shaver
Houston is enormous, and has a vast road and highway system to get everyone from point A to B. We've also never really embraced public transit systems in the Houston area. Sure, we have the buses and a rail system that doesn't really do much as of yet, but Houston is definitely a city where most people are driving their own vehicles to get around.

This puts a lot of cars on the road, and Houston has the dubious honor of being one of the most dangerous cities in America for driving. All of us come across certain types of drivers who make commuting around town risky, and we'd probably collectively applaud if they were magically banished from Houston's roads.

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10 Real Houstonians We'll Need the Most in the Zombie Apocalypse

Night of the Living Dead
Many people have a zombie plan because they're a little insane. Me? I have a zombie plan for the whole city because I'm a lot of insane. It's all well and good to talk of fleeing north where the undead will freeze or fortifying an apartment building by destroying the stairs, but where's your pride and your sense of community? If we as a city have any hope of staying safe and sound in the event of a Brooks Level 3 or higher infestation of the living dead, there are ten people that we definitely need to make sure are brought to the safe zones as soon as possible. These include...

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9 Things to Do in Houston That Will Make You Feel Like a Kid Again

Photo by Flattop341

It seems that, once people hit a certain age, they often grow nostalgic for the types of activities and places they once frequented when they were younger. I'm still waiting on someone to invent a DeLorean-based time machine, but until that happens those of us looking for a way to step back into the past can still indulge in many of the activities that we enjoyed at an earlier time in our lives. Fortunately for us, the Houston area has lots of old school delights to enjoy.

9. Dairy Ashford Roller Rink - 1820 S. Dairy Ashford Road

There's something timeless about roller rinks, and while their heyday is definitely a thing of the past, there are still a few of them scattered around. Dairy Ashford Roller Rink is one that's operating today, and offers private parties, times and areas for toddlers and their parents to skate, as well as later time slots for adults to skate on certain days of the week. If you spent time racing around an indoor oval on skates, then this place will likely bring those memories back to life.

Photo by Andy
Pictured: "Fun"

8. Joystix Classic Games & Pinballs - 1820b Franklin Street

Located downtown, Joystix is one of the few places that can give a person the feeling of walking into an authentic classic arcade. Joystix fixes, sells, and rents classic arcade games and pinball machines, but it also opens up its showroom for folks to have private parties or events. With more than 250 classic games in the huge showroom area, it really does feel like a person just stepped back into the 1980s.

Photo by Mike Fisher
A cheetah at the Houston Zoo is among the animals guests can see up close.

7. Houston Zoo - 6200 Hermann Park Drive

Houstonians are fortunate to have a great zoo to enjoy, and it offers a fun and educational experience to people of all ages. Like a lot of people from the Houston area, I've been visiting our zoo since I was a kid, and my visits now always manage to take me back in time. Walking around the 55 acre park is a relaxing way to spend a day, and offers visitors the chance to see all sorts of animals up close and personal.

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The Changing Face of Houston: Spring Branch Then and Now

Photo by Patrick Feller
Parts of Spring Branch still put residents close to the natural environment.
Spring Branch has a long history that would probably surprise many people new to the area. Like many of Houston's older neighborhoods, its character has dramatically changed over the years, and it has evolved with its own unique qualities.

It was originally settled by German immigrants fleeing oppressive conditions back home, who sought the opportunity to own land in the newly formed Lone Star State. Many of those immigrant families set roots in an area near Buffalo Bayou that they named Spring Branch, and operated dairy farms, sawmills, and other ventures as they acclimated themselves to the climate in this part of Texas, which was very different than what they were used to in Germany.

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