It was the first of its kind in Houston, one of the first in the country; a master-planned suburban community of schools, parks, a golf course, swimming pools, shopping, and of course, houses, lots of houses. It covered almost ten square miles of Texas coastal plain southwest of downtown Houston. At the dedication in 1955 the national media turned out to cover it; picture white men with note pads wearing brown suits and fedoras. It was named Sharpstown after the man who conceived and developed it, Houston businessman Frank Sharp.
The houses Frank Sharp built in Sharpstown were inexpensive, good quality homes, well-suited for young, post-war families, like ours, who were then beginning to move to Houston in large numbers. This migration was attributed, in part, to the recent widespread availability of air-conditioning. If you have ever felt the subtropical heat of a Houston summer, you don’t need to be told why that was important.
My parents bought one of Frank Sharp’s houses in 1959. It was on a corner lot, one story, three bedrooms, built in the style now called “ranch”. The Turney family lived across the street from us. The Ache’s lived around the corner, and the Hedrick’s lived on the next block, across Fondren Road from the empty field where Houston Baptist College would eventually be built. (That field was our Neverland, and it was a dark and terrible day when the bulldozer’s and the earth movers came.) In each of those three houses lived a boy about my age who became a friend and fellow member of the bicycle posse that protected our neighborhood.
The 1950’s are commonly painted as a tranquil and prosperous time. Some might argue with that, but by the early sixties there was no argument that the mood had turned, and not for the better. The Soviets were rattling sabers in Europe and Asia, proclaiming themselves winners of the space race, putting missiles in Cuba. Fear of a nuclear attack was palpable. Fallout shelters were common in buildings large and small, and for a price, anyone could have a private bunker buried under the grass of their own backyard. Bomb drills were as common as fire drills at school, though I never quite understood how kneeling in a hall with my arms over my head was going to save me from the blast of a thermonuclear explosion. When President Kennedy was killed in 1963 it was almost too much for the collective conscience. “It can’t get any worse,” the people cried. And for a while it didn’t, but then Vietnam exploded and cities erupted in riots.
Against this backdrop I lived in blissful ignorance; a child of the homogenous, pre-civil rights suburbs in the American South. The neighborhood, my school, the ball fields where we played, the pool where we swam, the theater where we watched movies; all were exclusively white. Diversity, integration, inclusion, whatever you want to call it, was the big, sleeping dog most people were content to let lie. My people were, anyway. I can’t say how the rest of the population felt about it. The only black person I saw with any regularity was the woman who cleaned our house once a week. Her name was Corrine and I thought she was pretty, in an exotic sort of way.
If our neighborhood had any diversity at all it was supplied by two gentlemen who lived around the corner, next door to the Ache’s. Together they shared a home, a sense of style and a turquoise Avanti. They received, on an annual basis, a House Beautiful Award for their immaculate lawn and landscaping. Our parents always referred to them as “the bachelors” whenever we were around. It was years before it occurred to me there might have been another explanation.
We lived in Sharpstown for six years. On our last day there I remember the Turney’s standing in the street, waving and growing smaller as we drove away for good, and I remember how my mother cried. Time would not be kind to Frank Sharp’s creation, and by the 1990’s Sharpstown had achieved a reputation as a place to be avoided. The young professionals moved out and the crime rate soared. Houstonian’s I met through the years described it as a graffiti-spattered, gang-infested wasteland. “You wouldn’t recognize it,” they all assured me. They told me Sharpstown Center, the first air-conditioned indoor mall in Houston, was virtually derelict. It was just a few blocks from my old street. So I was understandably apprehensive when, on a visit to Houston in 2005, I decided to see how our house had fared in the forty years since we moved away.
I took the Southwest Freeway and drove southwest, of course, from downtown. Passing the old Sharpstown mall, I noticed it had been renamed PlazAmericas, from which I drew
a couple of conclusions, rightly or wrongly. I took the Fondren Road exit and drove past the hated college before turning left into my old neighborhood. I was expecting the worst, but instead of boarded up houses and broken windows, the thing I noticed almost immediately was how normal everything looked. There were no menacing people lurking about. There were no appliances on front porches or junk cars on lawns. There was some graffiti, but not a lot, and some of the houses had been neglected, but they were the exception, not the rule. For the most part the homes were well kept, the lawns were trimmed and the streets were clean.
Two turns later I parked my rented car across the street from our old house. Judging by the lack of activity around me I had arrived at the quiet time of the day, and I didn’t seem to be drawing any attention, but I left the engine running, just in case, and for good measure I locked the doors. I sat there and considered the house, trying to appreciate the difference between what it was today, and what it once had been. I saw right away that it was in very good shape, better than most of the homes around it. Someone was taking especially good care of it. The St. Augustine grass my father had been so obsessed with was lush and recently cut. The tree I had helped plant in the front yard was now an enormous, fully grown oak. I noticed the three pine trees we had planted in a row on the side of the house were all gone, but given the dislike of pine trees I had acquired in subsequent years, I considered their absence an improvement. I saw that the streetlight on the corner, home-base for countless games of hide-and-seek played after supper on humid nights, was overdue for a new coat of silver paint.
My attention went to the bay window on the front of the house, the window of my parents bedroom. In 1961 my father put masking tape on this window, and most of the others, in advance of Hurricane Carla. He also filled the bathtub with water for drinking if we needed it. It turned out we didn’t. But we did go without power for three days. After the power came back I watched a TV reporter reveal how the hurricane had caused large numbers of snakes to turn up in Galveston. My mother decided we should wait a while before going there to see the storm damage.
Other memories came bubbling up as I sat parked across the street, random thoughts without any noticeable cohesion and certainly no profundity. I remembered seeing the contents of my father’s wallet spread out one afternoon on his dresser. Everything was soggy and faded. Inks had bled and run. Apparently a mistake in nautical tactics had been made at sailing practice; they had jibed when they should have tacked, or something to that effect. The price they paid was a dunking in Galveston Bay.
I remembered watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and growing a lemon tree in the backyard from a seed. I remembered turtles and snakes I had brought home from the field, and the lizards I caught on bushes in the yard. I remembered seeing the Turney’s dog die in the street, hit by a car, and how blood leaked from her confused and terrified eyes. I remembered the fearsome clouds of Blue Northers, and summer downpours that overwhelmed the storm sewers and flooded the intersections.
I sat parked across the street from the old house with the engine running for about ten minutes. In a way the time I spent there seemed disrespectfully short, given the significance of what the house represented in my memory, but we live in a world when the sight of a stranger parked on a residential street in an unmarked car can cause people concern, and even though I had seen almost no one, I was still a little nervous about being challenged. Any conversation about my presence there was virtually guaranteed to be complicated by a language barrier, and who knows what direction that might have gone. Not wanting to find out, I took a picture to email to my parents, then I put the car in gear and drove away. This time there were no Turney’s in the street waving goodbye.
I drove around most of the blocks I remembered, and before long I was in front of Sutton Elementary School, where I had knelt in the hall with my arms over my head all those years ago. It seems incredible that there was a time in America when schools taught children how to protect themselves from atomic bombs, and even more incredible that we believed, probably with good cause, there were foreign governments looking for any excuse to launch the missiles that carried those bombs. I hope for the sake of my children, and my children’s children, that the lessons we learned from that era render those drills nothing more than curious historical footnotes, and that we never have to see their like again.