Track 4: Diversity, Population Change, and Gentrification in the Preservation Dialogue
Houston commonly figures among the top two in the list of the ‘most diverse cities in America’. Being a ‘majority-minority’ city, its metropolitan region has the largest ethnic population of any major city in the nation. Of this group, Asian-Americans are its fastest growing ethnicity. Yet despite the current statistics and projections that this number will likely grow exponentially in the next twenty years, participation by Asian Americans in the formal preservation process has been limited. Conversely, there are no Houston landmarks or historic districts that attribute significance or connection to these ethnic groups. Known for a strong cultural identity that finds expression in food, attire, retail and religion; the buildings, sites and neighborhoods that speak to this Anglo-Asian identity have been largely indiscernible. In a city known for its suburban sprawl, ‘no-zoning’ stance and generic strip-mall vernacular, it is hard to detect architectural traces of its immigrant culture. While there is a ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Little India’, they look very different from their more historicized versions in other major American cities. Here, they are automobile-centric strip-mall adaptations of post-WWII white suburban enclaves. This paper will focus on one such urban area in Houston where shifting cultural identity, branding and public participation lead to important questions about involving a hitherto overlooked group in preservation. Is there a discernible South-Asian immigrant built heritage and is there room for it, if not now, then ten, twenty years ahead, in the preservation milieu of the city?
Known as ‘Mahatma Gandhi District’, the commercial and social hub of the South-Asian diaspora in Houston runs along Hillcroft Avenue, a major city thoroughfare. In 2010, some business owners wanted to rename the street itself to ‘Mahatma Gandhi Avenue’ but the bid failed to receive the required support, leading to a more informal district instead, visually identified via placards atop road signs. The research will map the South-Asian cultural presence in this area via a detailed spatial mapping of restaurants, shops and other South-Asian establishments. It will also chart the genesis of the roadway in 1950’s as part of Sharpstown- Houston’s first master-planned community designed for the automobile, to its transformation beginning in the 1970’s as the cultural spine of a burgeoning South-Asian population. Relying on ethnographic and archival research, the presentation will analyze how the present urban layout and architectural resources convey their cultural identity. How the competing demands to ‘blend in’ and ‘stand out’ play out physically? More importantly, it will offer a commentary on how American immigrant identity of the more ‘recent past’ manifests itself, and how can it be identified and studied in hopes of engaging a broader audience.