Documenting South Asians’ impact on Houston’s cityscapes

Immigrants who hail from South Asia, the Middle East and South America have created new communities in Houston while transforming abandoned structures in the city into vibrant hubs for commerce and community gatherings.

The city’s rapid growth has been fueled in part by these and other immigrant groups who are making their own unique mark on the city’s culture, history and architecture. However, their contributions aren’t widely known outside their communities.

“This kind of urban revitalization often flies under the radar,” said Priya Jain, Texas A&M assistant professor of architecture, who is tracing the architectural impact of urban, immigrant culture. “It doesn’t get talked about in glossy magazines, but it plays a big role in keeping a city active. Previously vacant, defunct or abandoned properties get rehabilitated with a new life. Suddenly those areas are buzzing with activity.”

Jain is tracing the architectural impact of immigrant culture and also learning what buildings, built or repurposed, are significant to individual cultures.

“As an immigrant myself, I wonder how we tell the stories of these people and the impact they’ve made,” said Jain, a first-generation immigrant from India who came to the U.S. 16 years ago.

Jain, also the associate director of Texas A&M’s Center for Heritage Conservation, along with researchers Sarah McNamara and Kazuko Suzuki of the College of Liberal Arts, is studying immigrants’ impact in Houston with a $32,000 T3 Texas A&M Triads for Transformation Research Grant.

Hidden Influences

Houston is well-known for its suburban sprawl and “strip mall vernacular,” where buildings’ functionality is often more important than its aesthetics. This type of growth and building style means it’s that much harder to trace individual groups’ influences and preserve buildings that are important to immigrants’ cultural histories, said Jain.

“While Houston has its ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Little India,’ they look very different from their more historicized versions in other major cities,” she said.

Jain is gathering data from a fast-growing subgroup, the South Asian community, many of whom have made their homes in what was originally known as the Hillcroft area on Houston’s southwest side.

This “remade” place was originally a white suburb in the 1950s and ‘60s, said Jain. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, after those residents moved to newer suburbs, immigrants moved in and started to make their own mark.

“They took over these older buildings, sometimes repurposing them, but also built new buildings and created their own spaces, merging the old and new, trying to blend in and keep their cultural identity intact,” said Jain.

One significant example is the district’s Pakistan Cultural Center.

Previously a grocery store, it was converted into a community space with conference rooms, a library, prayer halls and sports and recreation rooms. It’s now an important location for Pakistanis to come together and share their heritage, said Jain.

Signs of Change

In 2010, the city of Houston, in recognition of South Asian-Americans’ impact, designated an area along Hillcroft Avenue, a major thoroughfare in Houston with a large concentration of South Asian ethnic stores and restaurants as the Mahatma Gandhi District.

Some community members also petitioned to rename that part of Hillcroft Avenue, to Mahatma Gandhi Avenue. “There was a lot of pushback and it never happened,” Jain said. “But there was a slight compromise. ‘Mahatma Gandhi District’ signs were put up and it now kind of has both identities at the same time.”

A Knowledge Gap

Documenting recent immigrants’ impact on the built environment is a new and understudied research area, said Jain. “While it’s great that scholars are starting to catalog the stories of immigrants, architecture’s role in that story is largely missing. We haven’t talked about what kind of spaces these immigrants have built or what cultural value they ascribe to them.”

To learn more about Houston’s South Asian community, Jain and her team will interview these immigrants, who largely moved to Houston after the 1965 Immigration Reform Act and catalog their place-based experiences.

“We’re going to ask them where they lived when they first moved here, where they worked, and in what neighborhoods,” Jain said. “Where did they buy their first homes here and where did they find financing … how did they develop their spaces and were they trying to blend in or stand out?”

Jain said they will also survey participants about their knowledge of historic preservation and what they feel should be a candidate for preservation in their community.

“The intent is to map what forms immigrant identity takes in a city like Houston and how that fits into our architectural history,” Jain said.

The work could also help residents take ownership of their role of preservation processes and empower communities to preserve their heritage.

Lost to History

Because Houston’s immigrants have only been present for a few decades, their impact on the city and its architecture hasn’t been recognized by most historic or cultural preservation efforts or organizations.

Traditionally, Jain says, in the U.S. buildings are not considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places or similar lists that recognize historical importance until they are at least 50 years old, which could prevent more recent culturally important places from being protected.

“A lot of people assume that the rule is 50 years because that is the point at which buildings start to deteriorate,” Jain said. “But that’s not true. Buildings start to deteriorate within 10–20 years. So even with 50 years, we are going to lose a lot of buildings before we even have a chance to understand the social and cultural significance of these places.”

Jain said this is a known problem in the global historic preservation community that some countries are trying to address. There are places, like the Houston Space Center, that immediately get added to the National Register because its role in the country’s history is well known.

However, many significant structures get demolished without intervention or the opportunity for people to fight for preservation.

Jain said the quick, 2017 demolition of the iconic Hall of Nations in New Delhi, India, enraged the design and preservation communities locally and throughout the world.

“But because that building was only 40 years old, the government demolished it in a week,” Jain said. “They didn’t have to go through any regulatory process. There was a big uproar.”

Protecting History

Culturally important sites in Houston could still be relatively young today, but will soon be candidates for preservation, said Jain.

To help prevent losing such structures to history, Jain serves on The Society of Architectural Historians Heritage Conservation Committee, an international group that petitions for significant buildings around the world that are threatened. They issue advocacy and position statements and try to bring attention to endangered structures to support their preservation.

“These buildings truly are threatened and there is a real need for us to change our mindsets and policies to recognize that cultural and historical importance does not have to be tied to an arbitrary age value,” she said. “We can transcend that and consider other overriding factors.”

New Stories

Researchers in Washington D.C. found that people who can trace their roots in communities over time could have better emotional well-being and a higher sense of belonging.

“The arguments for preservation are not only cultural but also social, psychological and environmental,” said Jain. “A lot of preservation efforts begin at the local level. It really has to come from the people and begins with engaging the diverse communities that make up our cities and suburbs.”

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Priya Jain

Assistant Professor; Associate Director, Center for Heritage Conservation

979.845.7521 Email Priya Jain

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