I just got off the line with a Houston writer. Like a lot of people, he wanted to know why I set the story in a small community that truly no longer exists. My answer: the people.
Unlike international thrillers with a focus on killer and hero, my novel is focused on the effects of the crime. Specifically, how does crime affect people in a tight community? Does it affect their future decisions, their property values? Does crime lead to more crime, vengeance and a backlash by law enforcement? What if the police go after the wrong suspect?
Most of all, I want to know how that individual FEELS when her neighbor gets slashed up in front of her. How far will she go to rid the community of a killer?
How far would you go? Would you welcome an FBI investigation into your private life and your neighbor’s?
Montrose or, “the Montrose” as many locals called it, was truly isolated within Houston for most of a decade. Average people from other areas were afraid of it—yet fascinated by its culture. Montrose became an island in the middle of a city. Teens “cruised” our neighborhood, but they didn’t dare get out of their cars. They only gawked at the “weirdos” on the street.
Then the police set up barricades on the weekends, preventing anyone from “cruising” down Westheimer who didn’t live in the area. That did end the cruising and some of the casual crime–but it also killed many local businesses. Tiny clubs that had once pervaded the area collapsed when their patrons couldn’t get there without crossing a police checkpoint. As you’ll see in the article from Texas Monthly, it was all by design.
That brings me to the second reason I chose this little Houston hood: the Montrose collapsed. Yes, the neighborhood still exists, but the COMMUNITY, most of the people who lived there before the barricades, moved away. It all happens fairly quickly in the book, but in real life the process took a few years. Rents in the community skyrocketed. Investors bought up entire blocks of forties and fifties bungalows only to bulldoze them and build three-story townhomes. minutes from downtown. THEY cleaned up.
No, I don’t fault anyone for stopping the neighborhood decline into a ghetto. What I’m examining in the book is the way it affected the mostly law-abiding people who lived there. Yes, there were criminals. Yes, some of our neighbors were dealing drugs, etc … but for the most part, we were just people reaching for our dreams. We moved there because it was cheap; we stayed because we were loved and accepted.
Low-rent types like the artists and the musicians in Distortion had to move. They couldn’t afford to live there anymore. When I first married, for example, my husband and I moved to Avalon, normally considered part of River Oaks, one of Houston’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Why? Because it was cheaper to rent an apartment there than in the Montrose.
Small businesses were driven out by high rents and new zoning ordinances. The landscape changed so drastically that I can’t find some of the locations where I once lived. They’re lost in the sea of those 3-story townhomes.