The Dance of the Little Old Men

loteriacards

We got used to a new vocabulary. One filled with names borrowed from prestigious neighborhoods on the East Coast or conjured, like Cinderella’s ball gown, whole cloth from thin air. The Trey Ward of Lightnin, Gatemouth and Shady’s became the Midtown of trunk shows and whatever-the-hell cook shops and eating-houses are.

Some of us tried to fight it. Petitions were circulated, speeches were made, and marches were held. For a few years, we talked about ‘how important this area is to the city’s rich cultural history.’ In the end, it didn’t matter. Money wanted the land, and money gets what money wants. Then it spread. Segundo Barrio got a stadium and new neighborhoods, with names like Capitol Oaks, popped up seemingly overnight — like daisies growing from cracks in the concrete. Metro put in a couple of rail lines and the tortillerias and abogados de inmigracion gave way to wine bars, bistros and $5-for-a-tall-boy bars that cater to the children of privilege.

After a few years, even the old timers started saying that the Telephone Road cantinas and Canal Street churro stands aren’t in the East End, they’re in ‘EaDo.’ Except they aren’t, gentrification may have brought more pale people to McKinney and sent refugees fleeing from Montrose’s rising rents to underpriced apartments off Rusk, but redevelopment hasn’t spread as far as the realtors and the management districts like to pretend.

At least it hasn’t reached Bentke’s convenience store on Canal and Milby yet. Bobby Bentke, who owns the place, has lived in the side of town he still calls the East End for 60 years. His family was part of the first wave of immigration into Houston’s eastern streetcar suburb.

“When I was a little boy this neighborhood was mostly German and Polish families,” Bentke said, as a cabron with paint splattered work boots put two forties on the counter. By the end of the 1950s, just as many Hispanics lived in Second Ward’s bungalows and craftsman-style homes as gringos, Bentke said.

“Growing up I had as many white friends as I did Hispanic,” Bentke said as a drywall contractor, judging by the white splotches on his pants, placed a six-pack of Busch on the counter. “But over the years there were fewer and fewer white people around, after a while almost all of my friends became Hispanic.”

As interstates and air conditioning redrew Houston’s landscape, the city ran away from Downtown and left the East End to suffer, Bentke said.

“In the 1970s things got really bad,” he said. “It got to the point where a gunshot didn’t even get you out of bed at night.”

Anyone who lived through Louie Welch’s, Fred Hofheinz’s, Jim McConn’s and even Kathy Whitmire’s Houston can remember the wild dogs roaming Harrisburg, the homes turned into speakeasies along Navigation, the prostitution and the violence.

No street embodied the rough and tumble nature of the East End better than Telephone Road, decades later the stretch of State Highway 35 that runs from South Lockwood out to Pearland can still be called infamous.

“There are a lot of pretty Asian girls along here who’d love to suck your dick,” Al Rutter said, a plume of cigarette smoke punctuating his words and mixing with the smells of DEET and grilled meat wafting from the back room of Sheffield’s Ice House.

Rutter has worked at one of the petro-chemical plants that dot Houston’s Southeast Side for just about 25 years. Despite all the revisions to Houston, Telephone Road has stayed the same, Rutter said. He added that, over the years, the street has lost some steps from the jarabe that made it so interesting to begin with.

“Some of the best cantinas closed down because of legal trouble or because the owner died,” Rutter said, shouting to be heard over the bar band working through changes in Oye Como Va.

Luke, Sheffield’s freelance odds and ends store, interrupts and opens his duffle. He’s got three Zippos for $15, a C battery Maglite for $20 and cologne for $35, but he promises that the cologne is “guaranteed to get you laid.”

Luke won’t give his last name, but he will talk about how the neighborhoods along Telephone Road have changed.

“Everybody says Telephone Road is bad, but I can’t remember the last time I heard a gunshot,” Luke said.

For some East End residents change comes in fits and spurts, a Walmart here, a Payless there. Sometimes the signs of gentrification are literal, like KFC replacing Timmy Chan’s Chicken and Fried Rice. For Bill Zavouris, who bought the Dinner Bell Cafeteria in 1987, the biggest changes to the East Side aren’t what’s come, but what’s gone.

“There used to be a group who worked for Hill Steel Company,” Zavouris said. “They had a club called ‘The Over the Hill Gang.’ They’d come in and eat, but they don’t meet anymore because they all passed away.”

Zavouris adds another sugar to his coffee while his son, Peter, helps the cooks set up the line for the lunch rush. The Dinner Bell prides itself on doing things “the old fashioned way,” Zavouris said.

For years, The Dinner Bell was one of the only places to eat in the East End and was a favorite of the Hispanic, black and white hard hats that gave the East End its working class reputation. However, the area’s reputation is disappearing as fast as the population, Zavouris said.

“Condos and apartments are moving in from the west,” he said. “Property taxes are going up and that’s putting pressure on everyone. I’m already hearing that landlords are starting to raise rents because $400 doesn’t cover the taxes and repairs to 100 year old houses.”

Zavouris pauses for a moment to catch a Fox News update about Donald Trump’s trip to Iowa and sips his coffee. The smell of meat loaf drifts in from the kitchen.

“This neighborhood will turn around like the Heights did, but it will take some time,” he said. A heavy set, white haired man in a United Steel Workers Local 13–1 tee shirt replies, “I fucking hope not.”

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