Randal Hall is Editor, Journal of Southern History, and Associate Professor of History at Rice University.
Jackson Boulevard is short. Running from Waugh Drive to Montrose Boulevard and a stone’s throw beyond, it covers barely more than two east-to-west blocks. Even a near-sighted bookworm like me can see from end to end. I can stride its length in under five minutes.
As I walk this stubby boulevard, I see about me many layers of life and meaning. Jackson is a palimpsest, complicated in a way that the urban theorist Jane Jacobs might have liked, if she could have liked anything about freewheeling, car-focused Houston. The layout of the neighborhood and the street reflect the time of its origin, when Houston was striving for first-rate urban infrastructure at the turn of the twentieth century. Later, Houston’s countercultural movements took root in the neighborhood. I long thought of Jackson Boulevard as the closest Houston gets to an ideal place that welcomes a diversity of people and uses in its street life — but as I dug deeper the street’s history turned out to be more complex, and troubling, than that. A darker history of a segregated urban economy and society is hidden in plain sight. The joint lingering of progressivism and casually racist outcomes — a mix of optimism and hidebound conservatism — will occupy us on this sojourn.
Several layers have to be revealed as we go. Gentrification has reconfigured much of the neighborhood, but it has not yet blotted out all of the Montrose of old on Jackson. One recent legacy still relatively visible is Houston's "alternative" or countercultural scene. Kundalini yoga followers have taken classes since the 1960s in a fine old two-story house that is a Sikh facility, one of the last pieces of a once-thriving Sikh community on Jackson and surrounding streets. A commercial building that was until recently a resource center for young gay men of color sits empty. The building has fallen into disrepair, but it evokes a time not long ago, not even entirely gone, when the Montrose area was most important as the core of Houston's LGBTQ community.
The street is quiet. At least, that is, until you listen: then you can hear the sounds of change amid the continuity. So compact is Jackson that a little attention brings to ear the vehicles humming by on both of the busy cross-streets, Waugh and Montrose. Then there’s the clang of the security gate at the newly renovated twenty-six-unit development of fashionable one-bedroom apartments. Its owners describe it as a “boutique community.” There’s the beeping rhythm as dual-wheeled commercial pickups back up to deliver supplies for a range-hood business operating in a bungalow. And there’s the whine of a saw where another bungalow is being renovated, avoiding for the moment the fate of the one nearby that was torn down to make way, on a 118-feet-deep lot, for no fewer than five ectomorphic new townhouses, with their barking dogs and busy owners. Adjacent is a low-slung, sedate set of a dozen or so condominiums from the early 1980s. The remaining elevated pier-and-beam bungalows, whose rakish floors atop shifting soil now have more exciting topography than the coastal plain of Houston, are an earlier manifestation of the flood-resilient raised architecture returning to vogue after the floods of 2017.
Montrose scores high on the walkability score so loved by urban promoters, and pedestrians indeed make good use of Jackson. Their presence is a visual reminder of a past time when a more compact Houston emphasized walkability. Jackson's eighty-foot span, unusually wide for the neighborhood, allows for easy parking. Dog walkers traverse the broken sidewalks, as do diners and revelers headed to Rudyard’s Pub, La Mexicana Restaurant, and other nearby establishments. Importantly, in spite of the apartments and townhouses oriented toward young professionals, the neighborhood also has retained elderly residents, some of whom take on Jacobs’s idealized role of keeping an eye on passers-by to ensure safety and order.
Jackson Boulevard itself is old. Jacobs loved streets and neighborhoods that evolved, rather than started over, and that embodied a sense of times long gone. A good street was a record of the slow rise and fall of past lives and past uses. In looking back all the way to Jackson's earliest days, we can discern more phantoms that lurk around the edges of its busy street life now. At the turn of the twentieth century, we find a Houston that was just emerging into importance as an urban center: it was a city striving for top-notch residential infrastructure and public transportation while also, perhaps not surprisingly for its time, cultivating White reverence for imagined Confederate glories.
Jackson Boulevard lies in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Well, technically it is part of the Hyde Park Extension. Development of Hyde Park officially started in May 1904 when a group of investors (including Houston businessmen “Captain” Joseph Chappell Hutcheson, J. C. Hooper, W. I. Williamson, Hyman Levy, and H. C. Glenn) filed their charter of incorporation as the Hyde Park Improvement Company, with a capital stock of $50,000. They amassed about seventy-two acres of land west of the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railway line, just beyond the city limits, and on May 12, 1905, they recorded their plat (pdf) for the new Hyde Park subdivision. In October of that year, B. F. Weems and M. M. Graves platted a small area at Hyde Park’s southeast corner as the Hyde Park Annex. And finally, incorporated separately as the South Side Land and Improvement Company in March 1906, with a capital stock of $30,000, Hutcheson, Hooper, and J. C. Hutcheson Jr. snapped up fifteen and a half acres on the northeastern fringe of Hyde Park and created the Hyde Park Extension. On December 22, 1906, they recorded a plat with grids of houses on the north side of Fairview Avenue and both the north and south sides of newly designated Jackson Boulevard, angling from Euclid Avenue (now Waugh Drive) to the GH&SA Railway line, which ran on a north-south axis a few lots east of what is now Montrose Boulevard.
The developers of Hyde Park used high-quality urban infrastructure as a major selling point. In their opening announcement, they trumpeted, “It is the intention of the incorporators of this concern to have first-class drainage for the property and then to subdivide it into blocks, paving the streets and sidewalks, for a first-class residence addition.” The company contracted with J. H. Wallace for “nearly forty thousand square feet” of “cement sidewalks four feet wide,” reported as “the largest contract of its kind ever awarded to any one in Harris county, or probably in the state.” H. C. Glenn, who took a leading role in selling the Hyde Park lots, spoke with the Houston Post in late February 1906, boasting that $100,000 in sales had been made since the year began. He assured the reporter that restrictions meant “that the houses in Hyde park [would] not be crowded together.” Water was supplied from a 450-foot well drilled by the company and pushed through the water mains by pressure from a compressed air plant. Electricity would be extended to the new area: “there will be arc lights for the boulevards and incandescent lights for the residences.” Even the “remotest corner” could “be reached over the new cement walks.” Perhaps most important, the company arranged for the Houston Electric Company to bring streetcar service to Hyde Park on its “Louisiana car line”: The cars would “enter Hyde Park on Fairview avenue over the company’s private right of way, this being beyond the city limits.” The reporter summed up, “Sales have been made only to desirable people and this insures a good neighborhood.”
The elder Hutcheson, a prominent lawyer and former congressman, promised that the Hyde Park Extension would match the quality of its larger neighbor and namesake, and some of that initial layout has helped the neighborhood maintain its urban vitality. “Every street and sidewalk is to be paved after the same plan of the Hyde Park company,” he said, continuing, “The street car, which is under contract to extend into Hyde Park, runs alongside the proposed addition its full length, and no lot is more than one block from the car line.” The sidewalks endure, generally in declining condition but nonetheless still a major contributor to walkability. The wide streets and shade trees and a small park on Hyde Park Boulevard likewise still live on to make their contribution toward a livable urban setting, though Jackson’s potholes are sometimes heroic. The neighborhood is denser than in 1906, as some of the single-home lots turned into the condos, apartments, and townhouses that heavily pockmark all of Montrose and surrounding areas, but the density helps support the thriving local businesses.
There are also less obvious traces of past urban systems, evoking the decline of mass transit as an organizing urban principle. One can only imagine parts of the original street and railway patterns. Montrose Boulevard now isolates a few lots of the eastern edge of Jackson Boulevard. On the original plat for the Hyde Park Extension, Lincoln Street approached Jackson Boulevard from the south and dead-ended, with Jackson extending unbroken to the east. Lincoln Street, reincarnated as Montrose Boulevard, now punches on through Jackson. The railroad is long gone, but its presence lingers in the form of odd street patterns and industrial buildings on the east side of Montrose. That vestigial remnant of Jackson east of Montrose became attractive for development. A car wash, a door and windows supply shop, and an Auto Zone parts store fill the space of the long-lost houses. The street car line here, as everywhere in the city, is a distant memory, having lost out to jitneys and private cars. No longer can residents on Jackson Boulevard walk one block to narrow Fairview Street to a Houston Electric streetcar and then head directly downtown, where they once could even catch the company’s electric train to Galveston.
Larger-scale patterns of racial segregation from the time of Hyde Park’s founding have evolved but endured in Houston. When the reporter talking to H. C. Glenn in 1906 reassured readers that sales were made only to “desirable people,” an assumed aspect of his meaning was racial. In 1916, an ad for a home on Jackson claimed that Christian Scientists represented 98 percent of “the locality.” But like other suburban developments moving westward from downtown, Hyde Park barred sales to African Americans. Affluent White residents are still disproportionate in these convenient, walkable areas, while the city carefully channels subsidized housing into other neighborhoods.
One has to look no further than the plat for Hyde Park Extension to discern the values that shaped our segregated city. Even in its early years, Jackson Boulevard was rarely referred to by its full name of Stonewall Jackson Boulevard, but that name nonetheless had deep resonance for the neighborhood’s chief developer, J. C. Hutcheson. It was an homage to the lost cause of the Confederate southland.
A Virginia native born in 1842, Hutcheson grew up in a wealthy plantation family that owned dozens of slaves. Joseph Hutcheson served in the Confederate army under Stonewall Jackson’s generalship early in the war. After hiring a substitute for a time, Hutcheson returned to the army and remained in service until the Confederacy’s surrender. He idealized his time fighting for the Confederacy, and the experience colored even his home life. His second wife, the former Elizabeth Palmer Milby, was elected the first president of Houston’s first chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The Robert E. Lee Chapter formed in November 1897, and President Hutcheson soon initiated a campaign for a statue in Houston to commemorate Confederate veterans. Her effort came to fruition in 1908.
On January 19, Robert E. Lee’s birthday, the chapter unveiled its monument in Sam Houston Park. The group’s secretary described its debut: “[W]hile the band played ‘Dixie’ and Dick Dowling’s color bearer waved a Confederate flag, the bunting fell from the monument. A cry of joy and delight and deep feeling went up from the crowd. There, on a base about twenty feet high, made of huge boulders of Texas granite piled up one on the other, was the bronze figure of a man, standing with folded arms, looking out into the future. From the arms fall a broken palm, speaking of the many Confederate victories on the battlefield, and a bare sword, whose point rested on the base. From the shoulders of the figure wings of wonderful beauty fall — it was ‘The Spirit of the Confederacy.’” A plaque at the base read, “TO ALL HEROES OF THE SOUTH WHO FOUGHT FOR THE PRINCIPLE OF STATES RIGHTS.”
Following the unveiling, “Captain” Hutcheson himself gave the main address of the ceremony. General Stonewall Jackson and the righteousness of the breakaway states of the Confederacy were major themes. A reporter summarized his remark that “Stonewall Jackson leaped from obscurity to fame, and like a very incarnation of war passed into the firmament of glory, a fixed star in its heavens.” Hutcheson articulated the statue’s meaning for its supporters in Houston: “The spirit and genius of the Confederacy reflected by the war was that devotion to personal liberty and to local self-government which determined the people of the South to maintain them both or die in the effort so to do.” Those who survived the war, although “impoverished and maimed, constructed a new South, endowed with the principles of law, the spirit of liberty and enriched with a wealth of commerce and prosperity which eclipses all examples of the world.”
For his eager Houston audience, Hutcheson softened the harsh lines of southern history with an overpainted haze of myth. When delegates in Texas decided on the state’s secession from the United States in 1861, the convention prepared a “declaration of causes.” In outlining Texas’s history and its reason for breaking its bond, the convention made clear that defense of slavery lay at the core of so-called states’ rights. The delegates explained that Texas entered the United States “as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.” Their objection to the federal government was its perceived threat to end the spread of slavery into federal territories: that effort was “a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States.”
By 1906, when the Hutchesons attached Stonewall Jackson’s name to their boulevard, and 1908, when Hutcheson lauded Jackson, the federal government had long abandoned its attempt to forward justice for African Americans. Slavery had ended, but both custom and law severely limited the freedom of African American southerners, including Houstonians. The Jim Crow South was far from the prosperous utopia Hutcheson claimed, even though the White leaders of cities such as Houston were doing rather well. Some veterans of the U.S. and Confederate armies even gathered for joint reunions to celebrate the valor of their youth in support of imagined noble causes. That is why a Lincoln Street could comfortably dead-end at Stonewall Jackson Boulevard on the plat for the Hyde Park Extension.
But it is the ever-changing political process that has allowed critics of “The Spirit of the Confederacy” to restore a factual sharpness to gauzy mythical images and to campaign now for the monument's removal. The younger Hutcheson (1879–1943), an active partner in the Hyde Park Extension, later had his own significant career as a lawyer, mayor of Houston, and a judge. He was serving on the Fifth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals when he and two other judges ruled against Thurgood Marshall and his allies as they fought black voters’ exclusion from the Democratic Party primary, the device that ensured white supremacy in southern politics. Fortunately, the Supreme Court reversed Hutcheson and his colleagues in the pivotal Smith v. Allwright decision (1944). Not until 1948 did the Supreme Court, in Shelley v. Kraemer, invalidate the racially restrictive covenants that enforced de jure segregation in neighborhoods such as Hyde Park.
Itself a palimpsest of past laws, de facto segregation has lingered to mar Houston and so many other cities, but the political structure now is at least more open. The city’s mayor is an African American Houston native, and his predecessor was a gay woman who once lived on Jackson. In today’s polyrhythmic city, Houstonians of many races have spoken out against Confederate memorialization and in favor of high-quality and equitable urban infrastructure, yet there are voices opposing both those positions. Both progressive and conservative precedents can be discerned in the layers of history and myth still to be seen, faintly, along the eclectic Jackson Boulevard. But if a new urbanist or a homegrown Jane Jacobs were to stroll along Jackson toward the nearby Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, or sushi restaurants, perhaps in their global lines she would see hopeful new sketches atop the ever-changing portrait of Houston's urban life.