A small group of Independence Heights residents sit together on a vacant neighborhood lot that might as well be a fenced-in porch. They talk like old friends and listen to old music while sipping on tall cans of beer, chewing on snacks and taking occasional puffs of a cigarette or vaping device.
The mood is slightly more serious a few feet away, where three older men talk smack to each other while taking turns slapping dominoes on their table. They pay more attention to the game than the suds sitting in front of them or the people who pop in to the impromptu party to see what’s going on.
It’s the perfect weekday evening to be relaxing outside – sunny and warm but not too hot – and a pair of trees on the property provide plenty of shade. Even if the weather were unfavorable, a group that includes Billy the Kid, Cowboy and J-Faye probably would have gathered anyway.
“This is what we do right here. Every day we be here,” said J-Faye, a woman who declined to provide her last name. “Rain, shine, sleet or snow, this corner’s gonna go.”
For years, perhaps decades, the vacant lot on 33rd Street between Rogers Street and Omega Street has been a popular hangout for longtime Independence Heights residents, particularly those of retirement age. Along with daily get-togethers and domino games, it’s where community members host cookouts and fundraisers for their friends.
But their days at the spot could be numbered, because the area immediately around it is changing and some of their new neighbors would prefer them to congregate elsewhere. According to multiple people there Monday night as well as two community leaders, police were called to the lot at least once this spring because of reported disturbances.
Tanya Debose, executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, said she isn’t sure who called the cops but suspects it was someone with a vested interest in one of the new homes built nearby. The neighborhood has begun to be gentrified within the last few years, which has some longtime residents feeling like unwanted guests in their own homes.
“We have good relationships with the people who are building within our neighborhood,” Debose said. “It’s just those that come in with the mentality of, ‘We bought it, we own it, we can do what we want.’
“No, they’ve got to understand, this community has a plan. We had an identity before you showed your butt up here.”
Independence Heights was incorporated in 1915 as the first African-American municipality in Texas before being annexed by the City of Houston in 1929. It has remained predominantly black as well as an affordable place to live.
But as land has changed hands and new homes and developments continue to spring up, property taxes have spiked in recent years. They figure to continue increasing, which is a concern to lifelong Independence Heights resident Henry Paige, the husband of Super Neighborhood Council 13 president Mardie Paige.
“We are fighting trying to keep our independence here and keep the prices down so that the citizens that have been here for a number of years will be able to live,” he said.
The Independence Heights residents who frequent the vacant lot on 33rd Street want to continue congregating there. Debose and Paige both said those residents have the permission of the property owner.
According to the Harris County Appraisal District, the 6,000 square foot lot has been owned by the estate of Gabriel Rosa since 2008. Its appraisal value is $150,000.
Lisa Golden, who lives nearby and often hangs out at the spot, said she keeps the grass mowed and that the group is good about keeping the property clean. There is a portable restroom on site, and Golden said everyone typically leaves before 10 p.m.
“If they can sit down in Midtown with a beer garden and drink beer, why can’t we sit up here and drink beer?” said Robert Miller, one of the domino players Monday night. “We don’t hurt nobody or argue with nobody or fight nobody.”
Michelle Ynostrosa, who for about a year has lived in a newly constructed home just east of the vacant lot, agreed that its regular visitors generally keep the space clean and are not bothersome. But she said they get loud at times, especially after drinking, which makes her “feel like I moved in next to a bar.”
“I have mixed feelings about it,” Ynostrosa said. “They were here first.”
Ynostrosa said she suspects the owner of the new home next to hers, which also borders the vacant lot and is on the corner of 33rd and Omega, is having a difficult time selling it. She also said she thinks the owner wants to purchase the vacant lot.
The property owner according to HCAD, Sassafras Construction Company, LLC, did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment. The Shawn Manderscheid Team with KW Metropolitan, which has a for-sale sign with a phone number in front of the home, did not answer multiple calls to that number or respond to a text message inquiring about the property. It is listed for $315,000 on the Houston Association of Realtors website.
Ynostrosa said she moved to Independence Heights from the Woodland Heights, where she sold her home after property taxes became too expensive. So she’s been on both sides of gentrification, which she described as cyclical.
“The neighborhood is changing,” Paige said. “For the good, for the bad, we’re not sure yet.”