Generous Helpings

Is Oak Forest the Friendliest Neighborhood in Houston?

To hear residents tell it, theirs is the suburb that gives and gives.

By John Lomax April 7, 2014 Published in the April 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

To hear residents tell it, theirs is the rapidly gentrifying northwest Houston suburb that gives and gives.

Image: Rebecca Mock

So you’re in your car anxiously waiting out the long minutes in the Starbucks drive-through until you can finally seize that life-giving elixir that is a venti iced coffee. At last you get to the window and the barista tells you, “The lady in the car in front of you has taken care of it.” Huh? “It’s on the house.” You look for the lady but she’s gone. In lieu of thanking her, you pay for the car behind you, and the chain of giving goes on in perpetuity, or until an inveterate scrooge shows up. 

What have you done? Embraced the Pay It Forward movement, the sweet little trend that just keeps gaining steam nationwide. And here in Houstonia, the trendiest neighborhood, at least by that measure, may be Oak Forest. 

To hear residents tell it, theirs is the rapidly gentrifying northwest Houston suburb that gives and gives. Oakie Gina Stewart Grayum told us that an unbroken chain of 174 cars recently paid it forward at the Starbucks on West 43rd and Ella, and the manager himself said that such chains are near-daily occurrences, although the length varies. 

Meanwhile, to celebrate her mother Cindy Bamsch’s 65th birthday, Oakie Mandy Derryberry enlisted a small army of her mother’s friends to perform 65 random acts of kindness, and then rounded up four generations of the family to do 71 more. Riding around in a minivan, they left dollar bills and sidewalk chalk for kids to find in area parks, delivered care packages to homeless shelters, and dropped off notes of appreciation and gift certificates for manicures at the homes of single mothers. (Bamsch and Derryberry feel a deep connection with the latter. Bamsch’s husband, a Houston cop, was killed in the line of duty one month after he got the news that his wife was pregnant with Derryberry.)

You could say these are isolated incidents, that Oakies are just good at PR. But residents, both newcomers and old-timers alike, don’t think so. For some reason difficult to pinpoint, they have somehow found themselves living in a place unlike any big city neighborhood they have ever known. 

Brenda Thompson says she finds the “old-fashioned community” spirit in Oak Forest to be almost identical to the one of her childhood in rural East Texas. Elsewhere, being neighborly means a curbside half-wave and tight smile to the woman across the street whose name you don’t know. But to live in Oak Forest is to hear the Cheers theme song 24/7. 

Melissa Law was born to a third-generation Oakie, although she and her friends called it “the bubble” when they were growing up, a place where everyone looked after everyone else. She believes that Oak Forest has always been unique among neighborhoods. It was settled not by a hodgepodge of transplants from hither and yon, but folks who already had strong ties before they got there, in this case Catholic Czech- and Polish-Texan migrants from rural areas west of Houston. St. Rose of Lima church and school, which counts the late Patrick Swayze among its alums, was the neighborhood focal point, and still is, some say. 

Law remembers a neighborhood of friendly conversations over chain-link fences, homeowners who cut their own grass, backyard vegetable gardens, freshly washed sheets flapping on clotheslines, and children who played outside until the streetlights came on. “We were raised to look out for one another, to be good neighbors, and to treat everyone with respect,” she says. 

Yes, the old Oak Forest is gone. Oakies, like everyone else, heeded Robert Frost and built better fences, which ended the impromptu backyard confabs. The threat of stranger danger and the lure of video games keep kids indoors, encased in McMansions much larger than the ranch homes they supplanted. Residents work longer hours, don’t putter in their gardens anymore, don’t mow their lawns themselves. The old Czech and Polish bloodlines have long since been diluted. 

And yet, Oak Forest goes on being as generous as ever. What is the source of this peculiar alchemy? 

As it happens, Law now lives in Meyerland, which has given her a bit of perspective on her old stomping grounds. She thinks that quality of schools may be key. On her new street, Law says, neighbors send their children to 10 different public schools, a consequence of the local one being subpar. Most Oak Forest parents, meanwhile, are quite happy to send their kids to well-regarded Oak Forest Elementary.

And while other communities lament the atomizing, isolating Internet, Oakies, who are social animals by nature, have harnessed it for their own ends. 

Lots of neighborhoods have Facebook pages, of course, but this one is different. First, it’s larger—it has 4,098 members, or roughly 10 times as many as nearby Timbergrove. Then there is its freewheeling scope. Meyerland’s page, Law says, is used to convey information only. Comments on posts, which might be expected to foster community (not to mention make for a livelier page) are not accepted. Given this fraying of the social media fabric, Law wasn’t surprised when the drive-through crew at her Meyerland McDonald’s looked at her askance the one time she tried to start a pay-it-forward chain.

Then there’s the Oak Forest page, which makes for entertaining and informative reading no matter one’s neighborhood. On a randomly selected February day, residents used the page to seek help identifying a flying squirrel in the yard, consider appetizer suggestions for a King Ranch chicken dinner, thank a pizzeria for donating trays of lasagna to teachers at a school in-service, offer an enormous plush toy octopus to the first taker, bash a liquor store clerk for poor service, and confide that New Orleans’s world-famous Rebirth Brass Band was coming to play a semi-secret show at Plonk Bistro. 

Law has no doubt Oak Forest will remain the same supportive, close-knit community she’s always known it to be. The only thing she worries about, in fact, is the oaks. The neighborhood “has roots as deep as the biggest oaks,” she says, sounding downright druidical. “They really need to stop clear-cutting those lots,” she says. “We have to keep the oaks in Oak Forest, or it won’t be the same.” 

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