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State marker brings recognition to Frost Town neighborhood

By Chris Moran
Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2010

Houston's first subdivision is buried beneath a freeway, a home only to the homeless.

Frost Town was born of land speculation and transformed repeatedly by the arrival of Germans, ex-slaves, Mexicans, railroad tracks and overpasses, according to the keepers of its history.

The freeway did it in as a place to live. In the early 1990s, a century and a half after the neighborhood's founding, the last remaining homes were bulldozed to make way for the expansion of U.S. 59.

The story of the neighborhood under the freeway on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou gets a rare public airing today with the unveiling of a historic marker. Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia has arranged for the installation of a post and plaque embossed with a three-paragraph summary of Frost Town's history.

“Growth has been at the foundation of Harris County and Houston since the Allen Brothers landed,” said Garcia, whose office is coordinating the marker unveiling Saturday. “The thing about growth is that we sometimes forget to preserve our past. I am proud that in this Precinct 2 park we are able to ensure that Frost Town will not be forgotten.”

No unwelcome changes

Artist Kirk Farris said the marker represents one more small step on his quarter-century quest to ensure that the story of the neighborhood does not disappear as the homes did.

He championed the creation of James Bute Park on top of the 15 acres of the original Frost Town.

At his prompting, the city of Houston's Archaeological & Historical Commission designated Frost Town as its only protected landmark, giving it government protection against unwelcome alterations.

Farris has painted the names of long-gone streets trompe l'oeil-styleon wooden posts to mark what once were intersections.

He arranged for a 30-foot stretch of gravel to be laid over part of disappeared Arch Street leading to the new historical marker.

Garcia sees the marker as infrastructure for historical tourism. Farris said it helps save the neighborhood from oblivion.

“If you name an object, you know what it is,” Farris mused. “It's a chance to save the remnants of our first subdivision and to preserve the archaeological integrity of the subdivision.”

Known by other names

That subdivision took root shortly after a Tennesseean named Jonathan Frost arrived in Houston to join the army. He served long enough to fight in the Battle of San Jacinto, was awarded an honorable discharge and retrieved his family to make a home along Buffalo Bayou in 1837.

He bought 15 acres of land from the Allen Brothers at $100 an acre, land they had bought for $1.42 an acre just the year before.

Frost died soon after the sale, and his family carved up Frost Town into dozens of lots and sold them.

Enough German immigrants arrived in the neighborhood in the 1840s that, according to some accounts, it became known by a second name — Germantown.

After the Civil War, an influx of freedmen populated Frost Town. By the early 20th century, Mexican immigrants arrived and took jobs in Houston's growing industrial base. Hispanics then became the dominant ethnic group, and by the 1930s the neighborhood had acquired yet another name — Barrio del Alacran.

Divided by roadways

But as Houston grew, so did its infrastructure, and Frost Town's location near downtown put it in the path of rail and road.

The Galveston, Houston and Henderson railway bisected the community in 1861 as the South was desperate to move goods from inland to the seaports as part of the war effort.

An elevated overpass of U.S. Highway 59 was constructed in 1953 and the Crawford-Elysian overpass linking downtown to north of the bayou in 1956. These roads cut through the heart of Frost Town, drove some residents out and wiped away some of the old subdivision's streets.

Even before the overpasses displaced and divided parts of the neighborhood, Frost Town had become less habitable with the addition of a power substation and — for a time in the 1930s — a Ku Klux Klan base on the edge of the community, according to Farris.

Haven for homeless

Today, dozens of homeless people congregate in James Bute Park for the food and prayer services doled out by a church ministry.

Farris, meanwhile, continues trying to bring Frost Town back.

He started by painting the McKee Street bridge in teal and purple, mowing overgrown grass and pushing local officials to reverse the neglect.

Eventually, Farris said, he wants to see the original Frost Town street grid relaid in gravel through the park and, perhaps, even have an old house moved onto one of those streets to provide a glimpse of Houston's beginnings.

For now, the marker says what the house would say — that there used to be a neighborhood here.

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