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Monday, May 27, 2024 — Houston, TX

‘Change is inevitable’: Rice Village through the years

Vivian Lang / Thresher

By Amy Li     4/10/24 12:04am

Today, Rice Village is frequented by students and local families alike for its collection of cafes, restaurants, boutiques and brand-name stores. At the time of its founding in 1938, though, the Village was an undeveloped, wooded area with a single dirt road. On that road — now Rice Boulevard — just two buildings stood: Rice Blvd. Food Market, which would be frequented by Rice students grocery shopping for decades to come, and an ice house.

Over the next few decades, new stores began popping up in the Village. A second grocery store, Weingarten’s Grocery, opened on University Boulevard in 1941. A map of Rice Village in the Sept. 12, 1968 issue of the Thresher showed stores providing university essentials like the Village Laundromat, a post office and Browz-A-Bit, which sold cards, books and buttons. The Oct. 25, 1973 issue of the Thresher offered a $1 coupon good for use at any of three adult cinemas in Rice Village, including Cinema West, Art Cinema and Academy Theatre.

By the late 1900s, Rice Village had become a hub for Rice students to do everything from buy groceries to find work.

“When I lived on campus, especially in the first two years of the 1980s, the Village was the most convenient place for almost everything: cashing checks, buying groceries, going to the post office, eating off campus,” Marty Merritt ’85 wrote in an email to the Thresher.

Jonathan Horowitz ’95 similarly recalls going out to eat, drink and shop in the Village with his friends.

“We would get sandwiches from Kahn’s Deli and shop at the small mom-and-pop stores along University and Rice Blvds.,” Horowitz wrote in an email to the Thresher. “Later, my friends and I would spend many nights each week trying the many beers at The Gingerman on Morningside and eating Chinese food at Fu’s Garden or Thai food at Nit Noi. Many key events in all our lives occurred in or around the Village.”

Many students also found work in the Village. Cathy Shin ’88 served gelato and espresso at Dolce and Freddo. John “Grungy” Gladu, who never attended Rice but has been an involved member of the Marching Owl Band since 1970, sold sports gear and printed custom T-shirts at the Rice Sport Shop.

“I got to witness making Beer Bike shirts and things like that because they did nearly all the Beer Bike shirts back then,” Gladu said. “It was local, it was cheap and they turned out a quality product. We cared about what we were printing.”

Others, including Ann Rosenwinkel ’86, indirectly found work through the Village.

“I put an ad up in the Weingarten’s to babysit because I was trying to make some money and I liked babysitting,” Rosenwinkel said. “I got a job with a doctor that lived in Southgate and I babysat for them on a regular basis.”

At the time, Rice Village was unique for its collection of locally owned, affordable stores. Students frequented these stores, and knew them well. Shin was particularly fond of the Blue Hand, a gift shop which sold trinkets until it was replaced by a flower shop about a year ago.

“There was a somewhat terrifying older French lady who seemed to run it … the whole place looked like the attic of a well-traveled eccentric relative,” Shin said. “There are things that you might guess had been there for 30 years, and other things that had just been brought in. It was great because even though things were really unique there, they were very affordable even to someone making $3.35 to $5 an hour working part-time in school.”

Other popular stores included Wellhausen’s, where many students got their diplomas framed, and World Toy & Gift, which stood right next to the adult cinema named Village Theatre and was owned by two Holocaust survivors. Half Price Books was well-loved by students and community members alike until it closed in 2021. Iconography sold funny postcards and rubber stamps until they moved due to rent increases. Rosenwinkel said one of her favorite locally owned stores in the Village was the Variety Fair 5 & 10, which closed in 2010.

“It was family-run, and they had an open cash register; it was filled to the brim with  everything under the sun,” Rosenwinkel said. “There was an old guy, I think that he must have found that his two daughters were just helping him live out the rest of his days doing what he loves.”

Beginnings of change

As the Village became a vibrant and unique community fueled by student activity, wealthier families became drawn to the area, Shin said.

“In the ’80s, there was the beginnings of a cultural homogenization and there was some fear of the different and unique, whereas the ’70s had embraced a bit of craziness and the seamy side of life,” Shin said. “It was the Reagan era, and being preppy was cool. Different, unique, funky, got replaced by clean, upscale, expensive.”

It was also in the mid-’80s that Rice began to purchase land in the Village area. Merritt described how Rice used this land ownership to determine what buildings could be demolished or built.

“When a moratorium on the demolition of historic buildings expired in 1991 at the end of then-Mayor Jim McConn’s term, the owner of the land, Rice University, promptly allowed Weingarten Realty to tear down the whole block to develop the Village Arcade,” Merritt wrote. “This is probably the real beginning of the active solicitation of national chains such as The Gap into Village properties.”

More recently, in 2014, Rice acquired the Arcade building from Weingarten Realty. In an email statement to the Houston Chronicle at the time, Rice Management Company president Allison Thacker noted that the Arcade is a core investment for Rice’s endowment.

The increase in land value and insurance rates over time also drove up rent in the area. Many of the small houses from the ’40s and ’60s have since been replaced by larger homes, Horowitz said.

“It’s definitely evolved over time — just as Houston has overall,” Horowitz wrote. “The Village has become larger, more affluent and more commercial. Many more national chains and high-end eateries are there, as they are more likely to be able to afford the rent. There’s also more residential living opportunities in the Village now, which changes the demographic of those who frequent the stores and restaurants. Even charging for parking made a difference in who would go there and how frequently.”

Rising rent has not only seen more affluent inhabitants of the Village, but has also raised prices at local businesses.

“It’s not nearly as affordable now, although I don’t think it is unique in that regard,” Merritt wrote. “Businesses have to be highly profitable to survive, and that usually translates to high prices.”

Gladu noted that one of the biggest changes was the loss of both Rice Epicurean Market — once named Rice Boulevard Food Market and now an urgent care center — and Weingarten’s, which was demolished in 1984 during Rice Village renovations.

“It’s weird,” Gladu said. “There were two groceries. And now you practically live in a food desert.”

Rice Village today

Just last November, Lululemon opened a new 4,600-square-foot location on University Boulevard. Construction on The Chaucer, a 12-story luxury condo offering residential units starting at $1.5 million to $4.5 million, is set to begin in September 2024 next to Hungry’s restaurant on Rice Boulevard.

The Village currently consists of over 900,000 square feet, of which approximately 300,000 is owned by Rice.

“Rice has continued to add new tenants, update building facades and create verdant public spaces that contribute to the collective energy and atmosphere that makes the Rice Village community unique and popular,” the Rice Real Estate Company wrote in an email to the Thresher.

Changes in affordability have caused some Rice students to frequent the Village less often, especially with closer food options available in the Texas Medical Center.

“[Rice Village is] too far, and the places available are not very affordable,” Kamisi Adetunji, a freshman at Will Rice College, said. “It’s just not convenient, and then the places there are not necessarily worth it for me to go all the way there.”

Rising rent has driven affordability changes over the past several decades, but Chelsea Morin ’19 said prices have recently been steepening at an even faster rate. She describes taking the Saturday night shuttle to Rice Village to have cheap dinners with friends, especially as a freshman just a handful of years ago.

“There were definitely changes I noticed as a student. And then, afterwards, as an employee, I also worked for Rice for two years after graduating,” Morin said. “I'd say gradually over that time, there are less affordable options for students … I do feel like that’s accelerated in the past few years.”

With recent changes to the Village, some alumni say they don’t go to the Village nearly as often as they used to.

“They've pretty much eliminated all of my favorite places,” Gladu said. “There's very little quaint left in the Village.”

However, some alumni who live in the area still visit Rice Village often. Horowitz, who has lived near Rice for 34 years, said that it’s rare for his family to go a month without doing something in the Village. Others recognize that the Village’s shifting landscape is simply inevitable.

“There were a few stores that seemed locally owned but overwhelmingly it seemed pretty corporate from what I remembered,” Ho Anthony Ahn ‘92 wrote in an email to the Thresher. “I realize change is inevitable and people should get used to that. I have my fond memories with my friends after concerts. It was a wonderful respite from all the studying and practicing one had to do when you were a student there.”

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