Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Nature of the Beast

There was an article in last fall's edition of National Parks magazine titled Where They Cried, about a  remnant of the the Trail of Tears near Mantle Rock in Kentucky that is now preserved as a National Historical Trail.

Of course that sort of thing, the forced displacement of one people by another, is still going on around the world but at the time I read the article I reflected on the morality of what the Euro-Americans had done to the original inhabitants and was glad that sort of thing doesn't happen here anymore.

But then the other day I came across a photograph that's had me thinking about when we, my wife and I, lived in the Montrose district of Houston; and today I realized, with a bit of a shock, that we, along with a great many others, had been forced out of our home by other people that wanted it for themselves! Though on a much different scale, it was much like Jackson and his cronies kicking the Cherokee out because they wanted the gold in Georgia for themselves. So I was clearly wrong, that sort of thing is still happening here!!!

We had moved into the district in the mid 80's because it was close to work, but we soon came to love the eclectic little community. It was much like living in a free-spirited and tolerant little town-slash-haven smack dab in the middle of the big city.

It probably wasn't for everyone, but at the time it suited us just fine.

All the quirky little craft and resale stores mixed in with tiny restaurants that seemed to come and go by the week, flanked by sometimes flashy, sometimes seedy nightclubs and threaded through with tree lined streets of new and old and small and big houses, all of this dotted here and there by little pocket-parks.

The three generations of a Vietnamese family, where only the kids actually spoke English, that ran a neighborhood convenience store out of the garage behind their house a half block down from us. (If you hadn't been exposed to the culture before, to their normal style of speech, you would swear that they were fighting and yelling at each other every time you walked in the door!)

The two old, run-down single-story brick houses that shared a single yard on the corner across from the Vietnamese place that always had so many Hispanic men living in them it looked like there were renting them out by the square foot. (The men were mostly hard working Latinos that were sending every spare cent home to the families they left behind for anywhere to 9 months to years at a time.)

It wasn't unusual to look out a couple times a year and see the kids in the house next door lined up against the fence while the gang task-force took photos and recorded tattoos, but the neighborhood was also full of friendly, weird, happy, helpful people as well.

When we first moved there every school morning there would be 50 or more kids talking a half dozen different languages, chattering and laughing and waving as they walked past our place on their way to the elementary school a couple blocks away. The day-laborers would be clustered by the sidewalk waiting for the vans and trucks that would take them to where the contractors would be. Nannies and parents and shoppers and dog walkers would be crisscrossing every which way, stopping randomly to socialize and catch up with each other.

But by the time we left it was unusual to see anyone at all on the street as we headed out to work.

In between those two extremes the Yuppies had decided that they were tired of the long commutes and wanted to live closer to downtown. They were ready to give up the malls and mega-stores of the suburbs and head back into the city. They claimed they were attracted to Montrose by it's character, but they started out from day one systematically squashing that character.

The variety of  one and two-story brick houses built by Italian masons in the 20's were torn down one by one, or sometimes block by block, and replaced with homogeneous, angular four and five story town-houses sporting multiple balconies too small to put a chair on and hiding behind locked gates. The quirky little shops were bulldozed and replaced with city versions of their beloved mega-stores. Instead of patronizing the local clubs, which apparently catered to all except Yuppies, they legislated and ordinanced and harassed them into oblivion and put up gentile, pretentious, and highly overpriced, wine bars in their place.

It seemed like overnight the sidewalks, front yards and pocket-parks emptied, the streets filled with beemers and benz and lexuses and the faces you did manage to see were all white.

What put us on notice that the end of our stay had arrived was the morning we walked out and found a cop ticketing the homeless vet in our driveway. This guy looked, and often smelled, pretty rough, but if you took the time to talk to him you would realize he was intelligent and kind and only standoffish because he didn't deal well with conflict. He had been a POW in Vietnam and just couldn't tolerate having walls around him anymore. He supplemented his disability by collecting aluminum cans early on garbage day before the truck showed up. For years we had been setting our cans out in a separate bag to make it easier for him but now this cop was in our faces telling us that,  regardless of our intent, once garbage hit the curb it was the property of the city. (And I'm pretty sure someone, with phone still in hand from calling the police, was peeking out from behind their $150 blinds on the third floor of their $400,000 town-house watching all this with timid satisfaction.)

After the cop left we offered to pay the fine for him but he wouldn't accept. We offered to leave the cans just inside the gate for him from now on too, but he told us not to bother because he was going to have to move on and find somewhere else to live.

We did too, move on and find somewhere else to live. Run out of our home by people that wanted our space for their own.

It's the nature of the beast.


  1. You might as well be describing Little Five Points in Atlanta or Elliston Place in Nashville. An infiltration of fat wallets and thin hearts beckoned by greedy developers who offered the cool factor of sleek lined, sharp angled geometry sans the depth and richness of theology. "I have just one word for you, my boy. Plastics". Thank you for reminding me of funky city haunts from my own past. It's always a pleasure looking back...

  2. What a great but a sad post. I can picture the neighborhood, although I have never lived in the city. Something similar happened to me in 1983. Long story short, the one story beach house I rented is still there on Carlsbad Blvd, in Carlsbad CA ... just across the street from the Pacific Ocean. That neighborhood was great from 1977-1984 ... now taken over by 3 or 4 story timeshare condo's ... a small beach town turned into a tourist trap.

  3. I guess now that the gays and hippies of Elliston Place, Montrose, Little Five Points and countless other places have become more mainstreamed (Though Kim Davis, who's 'Christian' beliefs apparently don't include the tolerance and charity of the very entity she claims fealty to, may contest that statement.)they don't need their private little enclaves as much as they did back in the day, but yes, it's sad to see the loss of these unique places.

    And there is always a bit of risk in revisiting past homes. My childhood home is still there, the core of it pretty much unchanged, including the rock wall my father built to contain the landscaping around the house, and, if anything, the neighborhood is prettier now than back then, but the garage I 'helped' him build (I'm not sure how helpful I was at 7 years old.) has been torn down and replaced with a larger, and dare I say, less elegant, two story version. How dare they!!!

  4. I appreciated your blog. Our little town of Silver City is quaintly funky, no two homes alike, each with it's unique artistic touches and housing their own unique people. Our population is as diverse and since we have a university we also have many interesting people of all disciplines. We wouldn't trade it for any place else. It's too bad you special place that was so vibrant lost it's charm and sense of community. Thanks for your thought provoking writing. I realize how much I value our community.