Houston Historical Tours leads a guided bus tour into the East End
Tour guide and history professor Keith Rosen
As part of his guided tour through Houston's East End, history professor Keith Rosen was taking a group of seniors to the Harrisburg neighborhood.
"This is the oldest part of what is Houston today, where the old plantations were located, in the 1820s, ‘30s, ‘40s," " he said.
The East End is roughly the area between US-59 to the west, the 610 Loop to the east, I-45 to the south and Clinton Drive to the north.
Some of its neighborhoods, like Harrisburg, actually predate Houston.
Rosen said until the early 20th century, the East End was populated by many different immigrant groups, including Germans and Italians.
But that changed with the Mexican Revolution in 1910.
"With this kind of political turmoil, lots of Mexicans left Mexico," Rosen said. "And they found a welcoming opportunity in Houston working not only on the Ship Channel but then in the related industries, such as, say, the railroads."
The East End is home to two of the city's oldest Hispanic neighborhoods — Magnolia Park and the Second Ward. Latinos make up more than 85 percent of the population there, according to the U.S. Census.
That becomes apparent when you see the numerous Spanish language churches, bodegas or markets, and taco shops.
On the tour, the bus stopped by a Mexican bakery. Rosen explained how it works: "You just start picking up whatever you like, putting it on the pan, no idea how much it's going to cost you, and then it'll go to the cashier and it'll cost you less of whatever you guessed."
Mexican panaderia (bakery) ‘El Bolillo’ on Wayside Drive
The tour participants, all members of a Houston church, followed Rosen's instructions and loaded their pans with some of the hundreds of baked goods. They were clearly excited and enjoying the cultural experience.
University of Houston architecture professor Susan Rogers has worked on some projects in the East End.
She heads the Community Design Resource Center and said what makes that part of town attractive today is its closeness to downtown coupled with its affordability.
"But the East End also has this kind of cultural strength, I think, that most other neighborhoods don't have," Rogers said. "I mean there are families and businesses that have been there for generations. There's this sense of community that you don't get in every neighborhood in Houston."
The East End is also a low-income area with few grocery stores, museums or other amenities. Abandoned factories and warehouses are abundant.
But in the last few years, the area has been the focus of a redevelopment effort.
"Livable Centers" is an initiative by the Houston-Galveston Area Council. As part of it, the Greater East End Management District has been working on a master plan to improve walkability and connectivity.
Light rail along Harrisburg
"Of course we had the light rail being constructed along Harrisburg," said Diane Schenke, president of the management district. "How do you make it so that people can easily access that light rail? Well, you need sidewalks."
East End residents are still waiting for the MetroRail to start operating, but the new sidewalks on Harrisburg Boulevard were opened to the public in 2011.
Wider sidewalks, along with a new Esplanade, are also part of the beautification of Navigation Boulevard.
Officials hope to boost economic development. On its face, it seems to be working. New residential construction is going up rapidly here.
But not everyone is embracing the changes.
This was part 1 of a three-part series on the changes in Houston's East End. Click here for part 2.