June 12, 2013

The Birth of a City

How does a city become a city? Some cities start as settlements that slowly (or quickly) grow into the large metropolises we see today, while some are built according to a specific plan. The City of Houston began when the Allen Brothers purchased 6,642 acres of land in August 1836 with the plan to build a great city. The brothers named the city after Sam Houston and commissioned surveyor Gail Borden to lay out its streets. This photograph shows a reproduction of “The Original Plan of Houston” created by Borden at the behest of the Allen Brothers in 1869.

Original Plan of Houston map  

While Houston’s economy struggled during the turmoil of the Civil War, once Texas was readmitted to the Union Houston continued to grow and expand from its original plan. Here we can see an aerial view of Houston and its southward expansion during the mid-1870s.
Aerial map of Houston

As Houston continued to grow it often swallowed up surrounding areas that had started out as independent municipalities. Houston Heights was one of the earliest planned communities in Texas. Though it began as a suburb of Houston for those looking to live outside the city and its ever-increasing population density, Houston Heights was annexed by the City of Houston in 1919. The map below shows historic Houston Heights shortly before the turn of the century in 1890 when it was still its own municipality.

Map of Houston Heights

Another area that started out as a city of its own was Magnolia Park, originally laid out in 1890. Magnolia Park began with a non-Hispanic population, but began attracting Mexican-Americans and Mexicans fleeing the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. It was incorporated as a city in 1913, but was annexed in 1926 and is now one of the oldest Hispanic neighborhoods in Houston. This map shows the Magnolia Park and Central Park subdivisions as they appeared in 1918, prior to annexation.

Magnolia Park and Central Park subdivisions

By the 1930s and 1940s Houston was starting to become the city we know today. What was once Houston Junior College transformed into the four-year institution known as the University of Houston. By this time Houston had grown to have the largest population in Texas and had developed a vibrant, multicultural atmosphere after attracting large populations of immigrants and African-American residents. This map shows a town plan of Houston in the late 1930s superimposed with infrastructural planning such as water purification stations, storm drainage, sewage treatment plants, public buildings, schools and more, designed to accommodate Houston’s swelling population.

Houston, Texas - Town Plan with Superimposed Information

Today Houston remains Texas’ most populous city and is home to over 2 million people. The University of Houston Digital Library features many resources for learning more about the history of Houston and its development throughout the years, including the Historic Maps Collection and Historic Houston Photographs Collection.

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