The Changing Face of Houston - The Old Sixth Ward

Photo by Chris Lane
Houston's wards are the oldest neighborhoods in the city, and were originally formed in 1840. The wards were arranged along geographic lines, and, in the 19th century, the ward system established areas for political representation - a precursor to today's City Council Districts.

Originally there were four wards, each with its own industry and function in Houston society, and the type of work a person did usually dictated what ward they lived in, rather than how well-heeled they were. For that reason, poor laborers were often neighbors to wealthier professionals as long as they worked within the same basic industry. As time wore on, the Fifth Ward was added to accommodate Houston's growth and surging population, and, in 1876, Sixth Ward was created from a section of the fourth. The Sixth Ward had boundaries at Union Street and Washington Avenue to the North, Glenwood Cemetery (a plantation at the time) to the West, Capitol Street to the South, and Houston Street on the East, and was home to many individuals who worked in the railroad industry.

In the late 1800s, Washington Avenue began to see an increase in commercial activity, with new businesses opening up, and lots of people began to settle in the area which was known as Uptown, a distinction from the nearby Downtown. Many of those new residents were German immigrants bringing their cultural contributions to the Sixth Ward.

Then, in 1906, Houston's form of local government changed, and the ward system was abolished among charges of political corruption. The wards live on today in name only, as a form of cultural identity for many Houstonians living in those oldest neighborhoods, although they haven't had official status in more than 100 years. Many Houstonians use the wards to identity certain neighborhoods, and would probably be surprised at their political district origins, and by the revelation that the wards haven't been on an official city map since the 1920s.

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10 Most Controversial Houston Billboards

We still do a remarkable amount of advertising on billboards because frankly there's not much else to do while the city apparently tries to better 290 by smashing it with hammers. Most of these are amusing and simple. Cows misspell words so you'll eat at Chick Fil A and Jim Adler will glare at you until you sue someone for something just to get that stare out of your head.

Then there are ads that were more or less like trying to sell your point with a wasps' nest.

Green Pharmaceuticals is a company that makes sleep aids called SnoreStop, and in 2013 it started a campaign called #betogether designed to show rarer forms of loving couples in America embracing and presumably living more harmonic lives now the that ear-shattering mouth rattles of their partner had been silenced. The campaign ran in Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Salt Lake City, New York City, and more. One of the billboards in the campaign showed a young American soldier cuddling with a Muslim woman wearing a wedding ring. They were based on a real-life veteran named Jamie Sutton and his wife, Aleah.

If you've been on Facebook these last several months then you know that depicting Muslims as anything other than wild-eyed beheading maniacs will unleash the Kraken. As one commenter on a KTRH story about the billboard put it, "Like a military man is ever going to love a woman who's own people kill him in their own country. What liberal lala land do the people that made this live in?"

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The Changing Face of Houston - Riverside Terrace

Photo by Al Rutter
Large houses such as this one make Riverside Terrace a notable Inner Loop neighborhood.

Just southeast of downtown, near the University of Houston, and bordered by Highway 288 on the west and the Third Ward to the south, lies Riverside Terrace, an often forgotten older Houston neighborhood with an interesting past.

Decades ago, the city was not the diverse melting pot that it is today, and Houston's affluent Jewish community was prohibited from moving into the wealthy River Oaks neighborhood because of societal prejudice. But those prominent Jewish families included some of Houston's richest business people, and the mansions they built in Riverside Terrace reflected that status. Families such as the Fingers, Sakowitzes, and Weingartens built enormous homes on huge lots that were the rival of anything in River Oaks at that time. Many of the early neighborhood houses were built by notable architects such as John Staub and Bolton & Barnstone and were designed in the late art deco style popular in the 1930s and '40s. In a bit of irony, Riverside Terrace became locally known as "The Jewish River Oaks," since it rivaled the estates in the wealthy neighborhood they'd been excluded from.

As time went on other styles emerged in the area, including mid-century modern homes built in the 1950s.

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Taking a Chance: Rebecca French and FrenetiCore Carve Out a Space in the East End

Houston is a rambling, gambling town and this year Best of Houston celebrates those in the community who are taking a chance.

Rebecca French, choreographer, dancer and co-founder of FrenetiCore, has faced more than just naysayers in the 14-plus years it has taken her to establish her performing arts organization.

There were timid bankers who wouldn't loan FrenetiCore the $150,000 it needed to buy its own building in the East End. "We would just get lumped in with all the other non-credit-worthy applications. Nonprofits and churches -- nobody will lend either of us any money," she says.

There were area thugs who didn't like the idea of French and company moving into the East End. "Mobsters harassed us for a while," she says. "They'd paint-balled the building. It was six straight months of people slashing my tires and paint-balling everything."

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10 Most Shameful Things to Admit in Houston

Photo by Horacio Maria

Every city has its own identity, some opinions and values that a lot of its residents collectively seem to agree with, and that extends to Houston. Yes, this city is one of the most diverse places in the United States so opinions are all over the place on most subjects, but there are still certain things that are often seen as weird if a person admits to them.

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5 Houston Skateboard Shops That Rock

Photo by Tony Alter
Skateboarding was a large part of teen culture when I was growing up in Houston during the 1980s. The city was understandably famous for having some of the best street skating in the country, with all of its concrete, huge parking lots, and other infrastructure that could be repurposed into a skate-able environment by young people with the guts to risk life and limb jumping curbs and flying off of makeshift ramps.

There was a well established link between skate culture and punk rock, and that was my main attraction to skating. It was exciting and fun, but I was never going to be good at it myself. Three decades later I still own a couple of boards, but I'd probably bust my aging ass if I tried anything any more ambitious than a lazy straight line ride down the block. Despite that knowledge of my limitations, I still like to walk into a skate shop occasionally. A good independent store puts me in touch with my youth, and it also confirms that skating and skate culture has rolled along fine, probably more popular now than it ever was.

You can buy just about anything on the Internet these days, and the are also big chain stores that sell skate gear, but we're fortunate in Houston to have quite a few independent shops run by folks with a passion for skating and the local skate culture. To me, it's far cooler to walk into a brick and mortar store and spend some money locally than it is to buy something, sight unseen, from a giant internet company. Besides being better for the local economy, it puts the consumer in direct contact with people who share their interests, and who can steer them in the right direction and answer questions face to face.

Photo by Chris Lane

5. Surfhouse - 1729 W. 34th Street

Surfhouse lies on the edge of the Oak Forest area, just outside the 610 Loop, and is Houston's oldest skate and surf shop, having been open since 1967. The inside looks like a jumble of old and new, with modern gear sitting next to posters dating back four decades when the shop was relatively new. I bought a locally manufactured board at Surfhouse about 15 years ago, and they have always been friendly and helpful. There is an obvious excitement about skating and surfing permeating the walls of this store, and it's well worth taking a trip.

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Who's Afraid of Big, Bad Amazon? Not the Women of Fashion Truck Collection

Photo by Daniel Kramer
Sarah Platt, Lillie Parks, Coryne Rich, Vanessa Mala

Houston is a rambling, gambling town and this year Best of Houston celebrates those in the community who are taking a chance.

Coryne Rich, the woman behind the Shoe Bar fashion truck, says she's got something Amazon and Etsy don't -- a curated collection specifically meant to reflect the tastes and needs of Houston shoppers. Sure, those giant retail websites have thousands and thousands of choices, but that's not always a good thing. With so many options, shoppers are sometimes forced to scroll through page after page of suggestions before finding what they want. With Rich's Shoe Bar, shoppers have a fashion-savvy expert offering personalized advice, along with wares shoppers actually can touch and -- gasp -- even try on. (Take that, Amazon!)

"There's a special place for boutiques in the retail world. Boutiques offer...a shopping experience Amazon or Etsy can never duplicate," Rich says. 

Rich, along with Sarah Platt of Urban Izzy, Lillie Parks of Park Boutique and Vanessa Mala of Height of Vintage, is a member of the Fashion Truck Collection team. Each of the women initially started her own fashion-truck business, and each had plans to move into a brick-and-mortar storefront eventually. But they all found solo ventures daunting. 

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The Changing Face of Houston - Glenbrook Valley

Photo by Marco Torres
Many of the houses in Glenbrook Valley are amazing examples of Mid Century Modern design.

Houston grew a great deal during the years following the end of World War II, with many new neighborhoods being developed during that time period. When Interstate 45 was built in 1948, Houston began to expand south, with the opening of Hobby Airport, and proximity to NASA, Ellington Field, and the Ship Channel fueling much of that growth.

During the nine years between 1953 and 1962, the suburb of Glenbrook Valley was built along Sims Bayou in Southeast Houston, on pastureland that had once been part of the enormous Allen cattle ranch.

At the time, Glenbrook Valley was viewed as a desirable place to live, a showcase of modern living, which garnered national attention during its early years. The neighborhood was designed as a cohesive planned community and composed primarily of mid-century modern and ranch style homes, which were both considered the pinnacle of style during the postwar period. Early on, the neighborhood got a lot of attention and was even featured in Better Homes and Gardens magazine. The atomic age, mod design that many of Glenbrook Valley's homes displayed really stood out as a pronounced style new to the Houston area, and the subdivision easily attracted people interested in settling there. Many prominent Italian American families were early residents, and some of the homes featured unique features such as prayer nooks to accommodate their observance of the Catholic faith.

The neighborhood was quiet and was considered far enough away from the noise and hassle of central Houston to offer a high quality of life to its residents, but close enough so it wasn't inconveniently isolated. Many of the single family homes had huge yards and were stylish without being too showy. The developer of Glenbrook Valley was a man named Fred McManus, who envisioned the neighborhood as another River Oaks, which had also been developed along a bayou.

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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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