Old Fort Worth neighborhood, divided by Interstate 35, renewed piece by piece
12/11/2013 12:00 AM
12/11/2013 7:58 AM
When Interstate 35W sliced through the near east side of Fort Worth in the late 1950s, neighborhoods were severed and lives uprooted in many close-knit minority communities.
Today, Rock Island Bottom has disappeared, and much of The Hill downtown has been razed and redeveloped.
Greenway Place, north of The Hill and the Bottom, has been renewed.
The five-street 1940s-era neighborhood on the west side of I-35W at the Carver exit has fared well, thanks to an active citizenry.
“It’s very accessible to downtown, and we’re sitting off by ourselves,” said Mary Jo Homer, who lives in a Greenway house her parents purchased when she was 15.
A Fort Worth native, Homer left for California after graduation from I.M. Terrell in the late 1950s. She remained on the West Coast until her husband and her parents had died.
“I was left this little bungalow,” she said. “I wasn’t really happy about moving back to Fort Worth, but it was too expensive to take care of myself in Northern California.
“I got over it and I’m happy here now,” she said.
That was 13 years ago, and Homer joined with other Greenway residents to restore the aging neighborhood to respectability.
“We founded a nonprofit and turned the neighborhood around,” Homer said. “We were one of the first winners of the Model Blocks program.”
Streets were repaired, houses refurbished and new ones built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, which constructed about 25 new homes in Greenway.
The Hill’s most vital area today is The Hillside on the north end of downtown off East Fourth Street, a 172-unit planned rental community created in 1997 with stylish duplexes and triplexes that resemble a comfortable 1950s suburb with trees, parklike areas and vintage streetlights.
The area’s older houses were mostly demolished for its construction, leaving some vintage churches and other buildings for character.
Baptist Hill, so called by early residents for its concentration of churches, overlooked the Bottom and connected it with the Hill. It includes Terrell — now an elementary school — and the Butler Place public housing community.
Rock Island Bottom
The shotgun-style houses and minority-owned businesses that made Rock Island Bottom a thriving African-American community in the early part of the 20th century are long gone.
But “The Bottom,” tucked between I-35W and the Trinity River’s West Fork, is gently remembered by many.
People who lived there could walk to their jobs in the city as service workers, hotel staff or laborers.
“There has not been [reconstruction] and we’re waiting for it,” said Sarah Walker of the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Association. “At one time there was a draft, but it didn’t materialize.”
Rock Island Bottom, named for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad tracks that ran through it, was just east of The Hill, an African-American community which was also decimated by the interstate construction.
“The flood was in ’49 and the community survived,” said Walker. “But then Mr. Eisenhower’s vision came through and it destroyed the neighborhoods, not just in the black community, but all over that part of town.”
Now only two buildings still stand of the old Rock Island community, she said: an old white stucco house and a former motel.
Walker remembers the quality of life in the modest community. “It was neighbors knowing one another, neighbors who were not in gated communities, a place where they didn’t have cars. Where they had to ride the bus.”
Children played outdoors all day, and adults watched out for them and corrected their behavior, Walker said.
“The majority of our lifestyle was wake up, get that bowl of cereal or oatmeal, and then hit the street,” she said.
There is still a sense of community among the Bottom’s survivors.
“The one thing that I’d really like to do for next year is have a [community] reunion,” Walker said. “We had one eight or nine years ago, and there are still people around.”
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