Houston History: Montrose
The history of Montrose is as diverse as the residents that now occupy the area bound by Southwest Freeway, Allen Parkway, Shepherd and Midtown. Once a planned community predecessor to River Oaks, the area has become the bohemian heart of Houston.
Oil tycoon J.W. Link founded "The Montrose" in 1911. To kick things off, Link built his own mansion on Montrose Boulevard and four wide boulevards with extensive landscaping. A streetcar, the Montrose Line, ran through the neighborhood. Link’s home eventually served as the first building of the new University of St. Thomas.
The area grew quickly, with many notable Americans in its orbit. Howard Hughes called the area home, Clark Gable studied in the neighborhood and Lyndon Johnson taught school at the local Sam Houston High School.
In the late 1960s, Montrose became the center of Houston’s counterculture movement. The area’s cheaper rents at older duplexes and apartment buildings attracted street musicians, gays and hippie communes. The corner of Westheimer and Montrose became the site of regular demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Underground newspapers and radio stations became to spring up, creating "radio row."
The inaugural Westheimer Colony Art Festival in 1971 kicked the counterculture into high gear. With 30 to 40 gay bars, by the end of the 1970s Montrose had become the center of LGBTQ culture in Houston. The city's gay pride parade became a staple of the community.
The counterculture hub has had its confrontations with the rest of the traditionally conservative oil and gas capital of the historically conservative Texas. One of the neighborhood's radio stations, KPFT, was bombed twice by the KKK. As the community grew throughout the 1980s, tensions began to flare. AIDS tore through the community. Some Houstonians stopped patronizing restaurants in Montrose, believing they would acquire AIDS from gay waiters. Some area funeral homes did not want to accept the bodies of men who died from AIDS.
The 1991 murder of Paul Broussard after he left a Montrose nightclub was a wake-up call. Savagely beaten and stabbed by 10 teens from The Woodlands, Broussard died after treatment was delayed as police and medical personnel were slow to respond to calls from Montrose in the height of the AIDS crisis. When gay rights activists discovered the Houston Police Department was not working to solve the murder, a large protest was organized. The community marched through the street and in front of the mayor’s house for several days in what became Houston’s longest-lasting gay rights demonstrations. The display prompted a tip from one of the assailant’s girlfriends, leading to the rest being apprehended.
LGBTQ culture has become more mainstream, which has brought new challenges. Like many "gayborhoods" around the country, the area is dealing with gentrification. The new millennium has seen neighborhood staples and mom-and-pop shops begin to close and stylish restaurants and bars began to take their place. Luxury condos and townhomes are popping up throughout Montrose, making it difficult to find affordable housing. The area’s hip eccentricity has pushed rents. A one-bedroom for under $1K is now a rare sight.
In 2014 the gay pride parade was moved to Downtown Houston to accommodate larger crowds. The move is a sign of how Montrose is evolving. Like the parade, LGBTQ culture has outgrown the confines of Montrose. Increasing acceptance and a rapidly decentralizing LGBTQ community has the area changing faster than ever before. And yet crossing the rainbow sidewalks during this weekend's pride celebration, seeing the vast array of different people, it appears the Montrose community is as vibrant as ever.
CORRECTION, June 30, 8:51 a.m. ET: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Broussard was murdered inside a Montrose nightclub. Broussard had left a nightclub and was murdered in a nearby alley. The story has been updated.