The Montrose Century: One Neighborhood, A Kaleidoscope Of Cities, And The Woman Who Lived In Them All
When Nell Stewart looked out the window of her Montrose living room in 1942, she’d see young women much like herself placidly pushing strollers down the sidewalk.
Stewart differed a bit from her peers: she never married, never had children. In choosing to stay in the same neighborhood where she was born, though, and in continuing to live with her parents, she wasn’t very different at all. In the first four decades of the last century, living in or near your childhood home was the norm throughout America.
Then World War II erupted, and life in Montrose and the country changed forever. Over the next 70 plus years, Stewart, now 94, would witness her neighborhood transform over and over again, as the demographic and social changes reshaping the nation washed up to her front yard.
The daughter of a pharmacist and a homemaker, Nell Stewart grew up content and pampered. Today, she still exudes confidence. Tall, long-legged, and Katherine Hepburn slender in black slacks and turtleneck, she likes to poke fun at herself and, a little more gently, at others. Her white hair is effortlessly wavy. Inside her two-story gray house hang Texas landscapes Stewart herself painted in an attic studio. The whole interior is briskly edited, dustless, devoid of clutter.
“We were all the same; we all looked the same, were the same color, the same middle class,” Stewart says, recalling a childhood in the neighborhood where, soon after Montrose’s founding in 1911, her grandparents bought the house she occupies to this day. The Great Depression altered the community’s mood. Even families like hers, who hadn’t lost jobs, grew anxious and frugal. But it was World War II that radically transformed what Montrose looked like.
The first changes were exciting. “War workers were flooding into Houston from around the country to work at the refineries and factories,” Stewart says. “There weren’t enough places for them to live. So the neighborhood families would divide up the floors of their houses to make bedrooms for them, to earn money.”
Close to downtown, safe and spacious, East Montrose bungalows were a prime destination for these new Houstonians. Further south, between Westheimer and Main, the houses were bigger, but their owners didn’t need extra income. Further north, across West Gray, residents of Fourth Ward certainly could have used the money from renting out rooms. But segregation and the neighborhood’s cramped shotgun houses made boarders more rare.
The workers who crowded into Montrose’s chopped-up houses, meanwhile, transfigured the buildings themselves. Landlords packed tenants into rental properties, and then skimped on maintenance. Residential homes, hastily divided to capture the war windfall, never recovered their architectural integrity, becoming too warren-like or ramshackle to sell to the middle-class families who had made 1920s Montrose so stable.
As the war ended, the neighborhood got more hectic still. Returning GIs moved into the overcrowded city, often to attend the University of Houston, and squeezed into any remaining space in Montrose while they hunted for longer-term lodgings.
“Then they wanted to get married,” Stewart says. “The servicemen and their families started moving out. And that is when Montrose began to be a place that was not all one shape, one color.”
The 1944 GI bill, which provided money for veterans’ education, helped make suburban housing affordable, and the former soldiers began heading for the suburbs. By 1950, for the first time, more Americans lived in suburbs than in city centers or on farms.
“The GIs left, and the neighborhood really declined. Declined severely,” recalls Stewart. Friends and neighbors she had grown up with drifted to the suburbs as well. Into the battered, awkwardly divided houses they left behind poured another group: day workers lured by the cheap lodging.
“Montrose began a bad descent,” Stewart says. “There were a lot of winos. It became what you would call very low class. On the weekends, the front lawns would be covered with beer cans. It got so bad my mother wanted to move to the suburbs.” But Stewart’s father, attached to the neighborhood, talked the family into staying.
“I was doing artwork at the time,” Stewart recalls. “To get a north light, I worked on the second floor of the house, which had no air conditioning. So I had to keep the window open. The renters next door on the upper floor kept the windows open too. The language, the fighting, the cursing – it’s not what you wanted to hear. So I decided to memorize poetry to distract myself. I’d paint and repeat poems to concentrate.”
By the mid-1960s, another group of low earners set their eye on Montrose’s cheap rents. “The hippie era,” Stewart says with a grin. “That was so interesting. I liked it.” By then Stewart was in her forties. Her mother, whom Stewart had tended during years of heart ailments, passed away, and Stewart began working as a secretary at Woodrow Wilson Elementary. Despite her prim upbringing, she relished the sights of swinging Houston on her way to work. Houses that had previously housed hard-drinking male laborers became blissed out communes.
“I’m not as proper as I should be,” Stewart says. “I liked seeing them and talking to them. They were very friendly. Tortilla Flat used to sell hippie gear – the headbands, the beads. And they loved plants – loved them.”
How could she tell?
“They’d take anything you grew in your garden,” Stewart says. “Your plants were in danger anytime there were hippies around. If it was your plant, it was their plant too.” Throughout the 1960s the area’s alternative culture diversified and intensified. Other subcultures followed the flower children. A meticulously restored Welch Street Victorian, Stewart says, became a Church of Satan.
“How do I know?” she asks. “It said so on a sign in the yard.”
Though raised a proper churchgoer, Stewart nevertheless was intrigued by her new neighbor. “He did nude weddings,” she says. “And he trained his children well. They went to Wharton Elementary and they would threaten the other kids if they wouldn’t give them their lunch money. They said they would turn them into black cats.”
Along the wraparound front porch, the Satanist installed a collection of outsized nude photos. The Satanist had moved in prior to her mother’s passing, and though Stewart would have liked to take a look at the nudes, when she went out walking with her elderly mother she was always steered in the opposite direction. “She refused to walk there,” Stewart says. “I would have been interested. I just had the sense, this is not my world here.”
It was, of course, a sense that pervaded much of the country. For a while, Stewart attended a strict Baptist church, one that preached the earth was no more than 2,000 years old. Then one day she saw the minister and a group of other men from the congregation lined up at the Satanist’s house, staring intently at the naked pictures.
“They kept saying ‘Tut-tut!’ and not moving an inch,” Stewart says. “I thought: you humbugs.” She left that church.
By the mid-1970s, Montrose had become a magnet not just for offbeat subcultures, but also for a gifted generation of artists and musicians revolving around the music venue and restaurant Anderson Fair. The milieu included Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, and dozens of others. In her fifties by that time, Stewart had little contact with them. But the next newcomers, Houston’s gay pioneers, became her fast friends.
“The gays!” Stewart says. “We have to talk about the gays.” Until the 1970s, she says, she didn’t really understand what homosexuality was. She didn’t think much about the friendly new tenants she began to see in the area, many of whom were attractive and well-groomed young men. What she did notice was how nicely they kept their yards. Stewart quickly made friends with the three fellows who moved in next door, knowing only that they were excellent neighbors.
“They were very nice. They always did things for me, ” she says. “I really was naive. My whole generation was so naive. I was 18 or so before I even realized there was such a thing. But I kind of figured it out: I had some neighbors who were more familiar with another side of life – one of them was a lady who cleaned houses for one of the gay men. She enlightened me about some of the pictures she saw in his apartment.”
While her church-going is now by television, Stewart insists she is still conservative. “But my gay friends are so good to me. If anyone wants to be nice to me, I’ll accept,” she says. “I’ll tell you one thing: gay guys love old ladies.” Several gay men in the neighborhood indeed pamper her, one checking on her almost daily, installing her computer, and taking her shopping so often he knows her grocery list by heart.
Maybe because of this openness, Stewart also struck up friendships with the next wave of Montrose settlers: recovering alcoholics who filled a constellation of aftercare houses. By the mid-1990s, Montrose’s transient population and low rents made it a magnet for transitional group housing of all kinds, both state and private. The residences for sex offenders and ex-felons kept a low profile. Houston Aftercare, a private rehabilitation firm patterned on Alcoholics Anonymous, took a different tack: its founder insisted that the clients help out in the community.
“It was a really good era for the neighborhood,” Stewart says. “They had a night watchman. They did a good job of policing the neighborhood. There was always someone nearby to do odd jobs like clean my kitchen floor or put my garbage cans out for extra cash. It was a blessing for me.”
After meeting Stewart, Houston Aftercare’s owner assigned a rehab client named Curtis to paint her house – for free.
“He resented it terribly,” she says, laughing. “But he was told he had to. He didn’t do a great job, but it was free. I bought him a T-shirt. He was like, ‘big deal.’” But something in Stewart’s manner endeared her to Curtis, a young African-American. She persuaded him to do a few odd jobs; he asked if he could store some of his tools in her garage as he tried to launch a handyman business. Stewart allowed him to do so. In return, “my tall black friend,” as Stewart calls him, became a devoted helper. Twenty years after they first met, he returns to Stewart’s house from his current home in the suburbs to do repairs and take her on errands.
The friendship has survived long after Houston Aftercare and most of the other halfway houses in the neighborhood vanished, driven out by rising costs and gentrification.
“They’re all gone now,” Stewart says. She shrugs. “Montrose has always been changing. It always will.”
From Stewart’s vantage point, Montrose’s current gentrification is of a piece with the periodic changes she has seen here since the Depression. She is philosophical about it. It doesn’t mean she approves.
“Some changes I have liked, some I haven’t,” Stewart says tartly. “The neighborhood is coming back, except for the big old ugly things. That’s what I call the new development.”
She is much happier about the upgrade to what she calls the “Satan house.” Dilapidated since its scandalous heyday, the Victorian was bought by a professional couple a few years ago and underwent a costly renovation.
Today, when Stewart looks across the street, the house appears much as it did when she was a little girl almost a hundred years ago. In a neighborhood where so much has changed, the newly familiar view is a little dizzying. But it’s not the only part of Montrose that seems to have turned back in time even as the rest of the neighborhood hurtles ahead.
“Young people are coming back, bringing children,” says Stewart. Looking out the window, she spies fathers and mothers pushing strollers down her sidewalk. When she sees the women, Stewart murmurs, she also sees into the past.
“I tell myself,” she says, “there goes my mother.”