This is the first in our occasional “Developing Divide” series, in which columnist Maggie Gordon tackles gentrification in Houston’s East End. If you have a story to share about East End gentrification, fill out our form at the end of this story.
Published April 18, 2023
I live in the East End.
Let me be more specific: I am a white lady who lives in the rapidly gentrifying East End. My husband and I bought our house a little more than four years ago because we wanted to start our life as a family in a neighborhood we could afford. Since then, we’ve become engaged, painted and repainted walls, gotten married, built a Little Free Library out front, had a baby and walked our dog and stroller hundreds of miles around our little corner of our big city.
And all the while, the back of my brain has itched with the question: Am I part of a problem?
How do I – a New York transplant whose roots here run no deeper than those of the chaste tree growing in my yard – live in this place I love without changing its nature? Especially when I fit the profile of a gentrifier: a white, college-educated woman with no previous ties to the community?
I’ve spent the last four years asking myself these questions – mostly through the voice of my ever-present internal monologue. But in the months since I’ve joined Houston Landing, I’ve begun to ask them out loud. And I plan to continue doing so, in an effort to better understand the complexities of my changing neighborhoods and gain deeper insight to this moment in our city.
The first person I asked was Frances Castañeda Dyess, president of the East End Chamber of Commerce. A native of the East End, she’s lived in her neighborhood her entire life. Over coffee at Segundo Coffee Lab, she tells me that the lamentation of change is an integral part of living in the East End. The way the neighborhood looked when she was born in the 1960s is a far cry from the way it looked in both the 1920s and the 2020s, she notes. But that’s part of the fabric of the neighborhood.
The East End was built by change. Even in Houston, an ever-morphing metropolis continuously sprawling outward in concentric circles, the 16-square-mile slice of city east of downtown stands out for its ability to shift and reshape. Take Second Ward: Before it was officially designated one of Houston’s original four wards in 1839, the neighborhood just south of Buffalo Bayou was called Frost Town, mainly home to German immigrants. Then came the Italians. Anglos. And finally, in the 20th century, a sizable Latino population that continues to define the ward’s culture.
According to the latest edition of Dyess’ East End Chamber of Commerce’s neighborhood guide, 79 percent of East End residents are Latino; 11 percent are Black; 8 percent are white; and 2 percent are Asian. But that data is old: The footnotes say it was pulled from 2014 Census data. And we all know a lot can change in a decade – especially in Houston.
In the core of what developers call EaDo, the 77003 ZIP code is often referenced as one of the fastest gentrifying in the nation. Between 2014 and 2021, the share of Latino residents living there dropped from 51 to 34 percent as the white population increased from 23 to 31 percent. At the same time, residents’ median incomes roughly doubled, to $52,753.
Home prices doubled too, according to the Houston Association of Realtors, from $171,400 in 2014, to $340,000 in 2022.
That’s a hallmark of gentrification – a specific kind of change in which incoming residents with more buying power spur an increase in property values followed by displacement of legacy residents who can no longer afford their neighborhood.
And that is where the change starts to look different. Uneven. Dyess tells me about buying her house: When an older woman in the neighborhood passed away, she asked her executors to ensure the buyer would be someone she would have approved of. Grapevines did what grapevines do, and Dyess was able to buy a home on the same block where her grandmother had lived when Dyess was growing up. “That doesn’t happen anymore,” she tells me.
I think about this on my walk home from the coffee shop, as I pass the once one-story bungalow being built up to two levels, a chain-link fence wrapping the property covered in a promotional banner for the flipping company. “Beautifying the East End, a bungalow at a time,” the banner reads. Or, that’s what it should read; someone has struck out the word “beautifying” with silver spray paint. A couple of blocks further, I take a right at the small, hand-markered “We buy houses for cash!” sign sprouting from the ground.
“I don’t think developers understand the impact they have on the community that they build in,” Andrea Daniela tells me on a sunny day in January, as she and her colleagues at Concept Neighborhood, where she works as a commercial real estate broker, walk me around the car-free community they’re establishing in Second Ward.
Daniela grew up in the neighborhood. A classically trained mariachi singer, she considered moving to another city after graduating from college in 2016, along with many of her creative friends. “I wanted to live in a place that was more inspiring,” she says. Instead, she enrolled in a real estate development class at Rice University. “I stayed here,” she says. “To be part of the change.”
She points to an old bungalow near Concept Neighborhood’s anchor – The Plant – and explains her plans to open a mariachi restaurant there in the coming months.
“I believe evolution is inevitable,” she says. “It’s happening no matter what. But I also believe there is a way to progress that still respects the history and the culture of the neighborhood.”
Concept Neighborhood promises 1,000 units of workforce housing and plans to help people with deep ties to the area launch businesses through incubator-style leasing arrangements, which remove some of the upfront risks that often act as barriers for aspiring small business owners. But it’s not the perfect solution: Concept Neighborhood must turn a profit for its investors, not its neighbors.
Dyess and Daniela are right. Change in a city like Houston is inevitable. And it’s not always bad. When new people come to an area, they bring vibrancy. For so many decades, that spirit has been the backbone of the East End, which has served as a landing place for first-generation Americans from all corners of the globe.
But change needs to be conscious and conscientious. It needs to take into account where we seek to build our equity. There are those most concerned with building equity in their property and those most concerned with building it in their neighborhoods.
I want to live in an East End dedicated to the latter.
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