Sitting in a boring business meeting in 1975, my mind began to wander. How to lease up the new two-story office building I had just completed on Richmond Avenue? Then the idea came: I’d plant a little grove of trees in the long, dull esplanade that lay in front of the building to make it more inviting.
So that’s what we did, my partner John Kirksey and I, with shovels and some young pine and oak trees.
The newspaper did a story on this mini grove, and I was contacted by the late attorney and civic leader Carroll Shaddock, who saw the story and whose organization Billboards, Ltd., was well on the way to reducing Houston’s scourge of tall signs from 15,000 to 1,500, a project which took many years and much hard work.
Carroll was fascinated by the idea of planting trees on a barren Houston street, and he was looking to give birth to an organization focused on adding something to the city, in addition to taking something away (i.e., the billboards). It was noted that although Houston does not have beautiful mountain ranges or other topographical features, it DOES have a climate that can grow luxurious trees, creating neighborhoods like those found in and around Rice University and the Museum District.
Carroll asked me to serve on the board of directors of his redirected organization, and Billboards, Ltd., became Scenic Houston. Also on the board were numerous other civic leaders from branches of city government and private citizens who wanted our city to be more attractive. I was a member of this board for over 30 years.
Carroll and the young organizations identified candidates for city council and mayor, and took them to lunch before before the elections to tell them about the various efforts on billboards and trees and ask for their support. Most of the candidates got on board with the beautification goals before they were elected and supported them ongoing after they began to serve.
Trees For Houston, a new organization specifically dedicated to planting and maintaining thousands of street trees was spun off, financed by private and corporate contributions. Trees were not just planted willy nilly and forgotten, but instead, long thoroughfares on all sides of the city were chosen and green corridors were planted to as to make a statement on a given street. Provisions were made for watering trucks to see the young trees through their early months while they were getting established.
Kirby Drive and Broadway from the Gulf Freeway to Hobby Airport are just two of many thoroughfares which have been enhanced by the efforts of Trees For Houston.
In the meantime, various projects by Scenic Houston, including specifications for walkable streets and parks—“Streetscapes”—were being noticed by other Texas cities, and they came to Houston for guidance in setting up their own programs. Scenic Texas was formed, which now encompasses towns and cities across the state. Instead of being the state poster child for haphazard no-zoning growth, Houston’s reputation slowly began to change.
Individual Houstonians, with dreams, energy and money have made a difference. Other world cities such as Paris, Vienna, Manhattan, and elsewhere, which are known for their open spaces, broad avenues, wooded parks and tree-lined esplanades, must also have been the result of individual citizens, years-or centuries-ago, who dreamed large. Houston and other Texas cities are following their lead, starting with dreams like tiny acorns.
And not only did our building lease up, but over time, other property owners the length of Richmond Avenue have planted this long throughfare with thousands and decorated it with urban sculpture.
Our original grove was at 6009 Richmond Avenue. Go see it and imagine it without one tree, as it was in 1975.
About the Author: Ray Hankamer is a retired hotel and office building developer, who as general partner of Southwest Inns, Ltd., operated at the peak 14 hotels and five suburban office buildings, mostly located in the Greater Houston market.