Although the old adage is sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees, sometimes it’s the other way around. At least that was the experience of Joey Sanchez and his wife on a bike ride from downtown to Herman Park which took them through midtown. On Caroline Street, they took notice of the blue tile mosaic along the curb that marked the street name. Once Sanchez started to look for the tiles, they were everywhere. And the Blue Tile Project was born.
As Marks Hinton noted in his book Historic Houston Streets: The Stories Behind the Names, there are still streets in the Houston Heights and elsewhere that have their name and block number in tile on the curb at the end of each block.
Hinton said that the city used this form of identification from the 1920s to the early 1950s because “it was cheap, attractive, durable and easy to read.” But because drivers in faster moving automobiles needed something more visible, street poles on signs became the norm.
Sanchez reimagined a new life for the tiles but first he wanted to catalogue them for the city, so he is getting the word out on social media and visiting neighborhood groups, like at the recent Oak Forest Homeowners Association meeting.
“I’ve seen over 750 submissions [of tiles],” said Sanchez, “and Oak Forest is the furthest north I’ve received. T.C. Jester has some that travel pretty far north.”
It makes sense for Oak Forest to be the northern boundary for the tiles since Frank Sharp started construction on the development in 1946.
Oak Forest resident Lucy Fisher Cain said she’s noticed the tiles on Brimberry, Oak Forest and Nina Lee. She attended the recent meeting and said that people were receptive to the project.
“I was excited because it is fun to highlight Houston’s past and have young residents be a part of the city’s history,” she said. “Being a native Houstonian, I love Houston and our past history.”
The photos that tile spotters send in are featured on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and Sanchez says that each platform is developing its own Blue Tile community. The locations are being mapped as well.
So what’s after the documentation phase? Sanchez hopes that people will reimagine with him what can be.
“It doesn’t have to be a corner where they show up,” he said, noting the Blue Tile street sign that the Alley Theatre recently erected.
There’s a campaign in the works to raise money through Kickstarter or other means to get the blue tiles in other places around town. Sanchez has a tile manufacturer and tile masons in the wings to supply tiles to those who may want to lay them into the curb in their own neighborhood.
“It’s comparable to the cost of spray painting your number,” said Sanchez. “If we could revamp a whole neighborhood, it would be exciting and unique.”
The last step would be a local business initiative where homegrown businesses would get the tiles as a certification of their Houston-ness.
“It starts a conversation – ‘what is truly local?’” said Sanchez. “If you were established here in Houston, you’re local to Houston.”
Sanchez envisions the tiles at coffee houses and local boutiques.
“Keep Austin Weird and I ♥ NY are both local business initiatives that turned into something else,” said Sanchez.
Formerly in oil and gas, Sanchez recently moved into a position as a public policy analyst at the Greater Houston Partnership. The new gig will hopefully help his passion project gain visibility.
“I see [the project] as a connecting agent,” he said, noting that it would allow neighborhoods to retain their individuality while sharing a common thread.
“Let’s fly the flag of Houston,” he said.