It was Easter when I first met Fred and Grace. My husband, Chris, and I had been dating for a few months and we were in Houston for the weekend. I had heard stories about Chris’s grandparents and was nervous. We drove down I-45, exiting near Gulfgate Mall into a part of town I hadn’t seen since I was a child when I’d go to see my own grandmother. I recognized the chaos of roads and my childhood flooded back. I saw streets dotted with mechanics’ garages, old hardware shops, and convenience stores, and the air smelled of dirt and grass and fresh cornbread and fried everything. A block or two from the freeway we were already deep into the neighborhood: a modest community of post-war era homes built during Houston’s boom years. The large live oaks shaded the streets and, despite the kids hunting Easter eggs outside, it seemed like a sleepy street, the kind of street where you’d expect grandparents to live.
Hereford Street is changing, though, along with the rest of Sims Bayou Estates, one of the many distinct communities that grew up along the young Interstate-45 in the early 1950s. Without the Gulf Freeway, these neighborhoods would not have thrived, probably would not have existed. Now, as transit begins to change and the city invests in light rail and HOV lanes, these communities are changing too. A new generation of Houstonians buying starter homes is beginning to replace the post-war generation who raised children here. My husband’s grandfather, Fred Parrott, is one of the neighborhood’s oldest residents. The son of German immigrants, he turned 92 this year and still lives in the house he bought with his late wife, Grace, in 1950.
Fred always comes out the back door, waving and smiling, and opens the chain link gate. I’ve never been in through the front door, or even walked through the front yard. Instead we always walk around the back, where Fred converted the back porch into a breakfast room, and take the giant step up (I think it is close to a fourteen-inch step) into the house. The smell of dust and coffee and long life linger in the walls. Fred always has old things of Grace’s to give to me: scarves or earrings or shoes or handkerchiefs.
Grace was an avid collector and painter. The living room has four wooden hutches filled with tea sets, crystal pieces, and Hummel figurines. There are stacks of canvases piled in corners. Freestanding shelves filled with cookbooks cover every spare bit of wall. And the sleek beech dining table gets lost next to a matching desk under piles of framed photographs and papers.
One of the kitchen doors is completely blocked by piles of boxes, forcing you to walk back through the built-out porch to get into the L-shaped kitchen. On the other side of the blocked door a breakfast table is crammed between a wall and the refrigerator, next to the conveniently located washing machine (the dryer is in the garage behind the house). The three-bedroom house has one small bathroom with aqua tiles covering both the walls and the floor. I think the bathroom is only clutter-free room in the house.
He gets us some diet sodas. After we move things around so we can sit comfortably on the old mid-century couch in the living room Fred begins sharing some of his early memories of Houston.
Before the Freeway
Riding the city streetcars was Fred’s first urban experience when he moved to Houston in 1938. After graduating from Texas A&M University, Fred came to Houston for a job at the Sinclair Refinery on the east side of town. He hitchhiked his way from College Station to the Heights where he rode the old Houston Electric streetcar line into Downtown. “I saw Heights Boulevard with this great streetcar and it was this grand street, you know? And I thought, wow, now this is a city!”
There were no freeways then. Fred lived at a boarding house on McGowen and rode to work in a “cattle car.” The refinery he worked for had its own trolley cars sent out to pick up the employees and bring them to the plant. Fred remembers the chemical plants and refineries growing in the early 1940s with the onset of World War II and more and more people coming to Houston for the work. The city leaders of the day saw the trend too and began planning for Houston’s inevitable growth.
After getting married in 1944, Fred and Grace lived in a one-bedroom garage apartment in the East End. Even though Grace grew up on TC Jester and longed to live in a historically glamorous part of town, they needed to be close to Fred’s work. Without the highways, it was important to be close to major streets and transit routes to get to and from work. Their friends all lived close by, most of them working at the refineries like Fred.
One night the Parrott’s had two couples over for dinner. Fred and Grace didn’t have a dining table large enough for six people so Fred took apart their bed and brought it into their living area, covering it with wood to create a makeshift dining table. During dinner Fred embarrassed the society-conscious Grace by bringing pots and pans to the table to spoon up “seconds.” The couples stayed late that night, even though the husbands had to work early the next morning. Fred laughs whenever he tells the story. “I kept waiting for them to leave, they didn’t know we were sitting around our bed, but I did. I knew that after they left I still had to stay up and put the darn thing back together!”
Putting it all Together
The story of Houston is the story of its roads. We design our streets and then let development follow. In 1837, with the original city plat, the Allen brothers not only decided where Houston would be, but they also laid out its roads. When the Hogg brothers wanted to create a new development for the city’s wealthy, they began by proposing Allen Parkway. And in the 1940s, when Houston was booming, Houston Planning Director Ralph Ellifrit used the construction of the state’s first freeway and major thoroughfare plan to control development for decades to come. In a city famous for its resistance to zoning, control is difficult, but our sprawl has been managed over the last 70 years by the strategic planning and placement of our freeways.
In 1948 Houston officially opened the first section of freeway in the state, the brand new Gulf Freeway. It was a small section, connecting Downtown and Telephone Road, following the old Galveston-Houston Electric Railway line. From 1911 to 1936 the Interurban Railway moved passengers between Houston and Galveston. When the line began it was the only direct route between the two cities and by the 1920s was the fastest interurban rail in the nation. After the line stopped service, the Houston Electric Company took over a portion of the line, from Downtown to Park Place, for city streetcar service.
I asked Fred about I-45, what life was like before the freeway; it’s a life I’m not sure I can even imagine. He remembers lunchtime conversations at work about the plans for the new “Interurban Expressway.” It was exciting, he recalls, and the proposals for the highway were in all the papers. Before I-45 was built, he and Grace would drive to Galveston using Old Galveston Road (Highway 3), going through every little town. He laughs about how long it would take them and remembers how exciting it was to have a real freeway being built in their city. Houston was at the forefront of modern transit, and they were a part of it.
Soon after the opening of I-45 in 1948, people began moving into new neighborhood developments located along the highway. Sims Bayou Estates was originally planned to be a development with large estate-sized lots, bounded to the northeast by the freeway and to the south by Sims Bayou. Houston’s mayor at the time, Oscar Holcombe, had a brother-in-law who was working on a development on the west side of Telephone Road. According to Fred, the city had slated a public park to be built in the area, much of the acreage coming out of Holcombe’s brother-in-law’s development. But, Holcombe stepped in and took the land from Sims Bayou Estates instead, enabling his brother-in-law to profit from the park rather than losing land. Today, Reveille Park sits along the bayou, forming the southern boundary of Fred’s neighborhood.
Like many of the post-war neighborhoods that developed in tandem with the construction of I-45, Sims Bayou Estates provides easy automobile access to the highway. The first lots developed in Sims Bayou Estates were not along the bayou, but along the highway.
When Fred and Grace bought their house on Hereford Street, it was the area of town to be in. Grace only wanted the best, and Fred gave it to her. The construction of I-45 brought new development, modern homes, and new retail opportunities. In 1956, Gulfgate Mall, Houston’s first shopping mall, opened along I-45, and had all of the best department stores, like Sakowitz and Houston-based Weingarten’s grocery store.
During the 1950s and 1960s many of the people living in the area worked at the refineries, most of them engineers like Fred. The people in Sims Bayou Estates worked together and lived together, they knew each other and looked out for one another. One afternoon Grace saw a suspicious looking man prowling around one of their neighbor’s homes. She immediately pulled her shotgun out of the closet and ran across the street to scare the thief away. Evidently it worked. I suppose the image of a 1950s housewife angrily brandishing a shotgun could scare anyone, and she made it back home unharmed. Fred and Grace always knew their neighbors then.
Building the New, Updating the Old
As the freeway changed and developed though, Fred remembers the neighborhoods changing too. The Gulf Freeway was built in stages closely following the same path as the old Interurban rail line. At first there were no barriers separating the opposing lanes of traffic. The white lines weren’t even painted on the road until 1956. The road was officially complete in 1952, but even then it was not all freeway between Houston and Galveston. It wasn’t until 1972 that the last at-grade crossing was removed and I-45 was truly a freeway the entire way from Downtown to Galveston. After that, the city began making improvements on the original sections. The freeway already needed to be updated, and the existing short on-ramps were re-designed to provide a safer merge lane.
When Fred and Grace first bought their home, all of the neighborhoods around them were similar: new modern homes filled with the new “wealthy” middle-class. Changes to the freeway structure began to change the neighborhoods though. Fred doesn’t remember I-45 always being built up the way it is now, but he does know that one day the highway became a dividing line in the larger community. Eventually the new freeways being built in other parts of town became dividing lines within the city.
During the 1950s and 1960s the southeast side of Houston was the fastest growing area of town. The opening of the first section of Highway 59 though, in 1961, led to the development of Greenway Plaza and Sharpstown. Sharpstown Mall, the city’s first all enclosed, air-conditioned mall, opened the same year. Soon after, work on the 610 Loop provided an opportunity to develop valuable land and the Galleria opened there in 1970. The construction of these freeways and new developments led to a shift in growth trends away from the southeast side of town and over to the west and southwest. Even after the roads and freeways were deemed complete though, construction continued, changes were made, plans were updated.
The Lure of the New
The neighborhoods along the original stretch of I-45 will change again over the next few years. As Metro builds the light rail line in the East End and Gulfgate becomes a viable shopping center again, developers are studying the area, much like they were in the late 1940s. Fred and his friends might not be around to see it though. As we sit in his house, still decorated with 1950s mod furniture and filled with hundreds of Grace’s paintings, Fred tells me about this friend that passed away or that friend who went to live with her children. Someone else bought the house; a landlord is renting it out, but doesn’t really keep up with it. Another friend’s son is trying to sell her house, but it looks like nothing is happening for him. And Fred’s own son keeps hinting that Fred should move out to Kingwood to be closer to him.
Houston keeps working on its freeway system. The city has updated Highway 59 to ease the traffic for those commuting from Sugar Land and Kingwood. Interstate 10 has been expanded as people flock to the west side of town. Commuters can easily move further out along the highway. But a younger generation of workers are moving closer in, looking at the light rail lines instead of the highways to make their housing decisions. So, as the first generation of residents disappear from the developments along the east side of I-45, maybe the new, more modern modes of transit will lure the next generation of families to fill in the gaps.