From kindergarten through eighth grade, I spent most holidays and big chunks of each summer in my grandparents’ house at 5302 Institute Lane, in what is now called the Museum District. By ninth grade, I’d moved in full-time.
It was in that three-story, copper-roofed brick home built during the Harding Administration, which miraculously still stands despite my family’s best efforts to destroy it, that my grandparents raised their own seven children and several grandchildren, housed a parade of various lodgers and tenants, and gave shelter to a motley crew of bulldogs, assorted mutts, cats, and rabbits.
Through most of my childhood, my aunts, who were much closer in age to me than they were to my mother, would take me a few blocks down Bissonnet to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to see the paintings or a movie—The Red Balloon was a favorite—or a few blocks the other way to now long-gone Butera’s Grocery, where my Grandpa Moe’s charge account saw to it that we were never without Italian-style po’ boys, Cokes, and candy. Feasts in hand, we would often head home on the red brick sidewalks under the live oak canopies of North or South Blvds. In spring, their mighty branches were studded with night-heron nests, in high summer alive with the rickety rhapsody of a cicada symphony. Some nights we could hear the lions roaring at the zoo from our third-floor sleeping porch.
In high school, my neighborhood branded me as something of an exotic. When asked where I lived I would start to explain and people would cut me off with, “Oh, so you live in West U.” I would offer a rambling denial, explaining that it “was more sorta Montrose, kinda near the zoo, kinda near all the museums.”
“Yeah, West U.”
Absolutely not, although it wasn’t until 1989 that the area acquired the Museum District moniker, courtesy Mayor Kathy Whitmire’s official designation. Still, some persist in calling it West U to this very day.
Years later, I found myself back in the house on Institute Lane, or rather the garage apartment behind my grandparents’ house, which by then had seen much better days. Thanks to a leaky roof my grandfather chose not to repair, the ceiling collapsed in one bedroom and then another—miraculously, none that were occupied. A small electrical fire broke out in the attic bedroom around the same time, and in 2000, my aunts finally persuaded my grandparents that it was time to sell the old place.
Today, all the single-family houses on Institute are fetching more than a million dollars. If you’d told that to my grandpa Moe back in the ’70s, walking his pack of fat, unleashed mutts down to the vacant lot that abutted Temple Emanu El, he would have choked on his Salem.