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The dry Heights

What’s a guy got to do to get a drink around here?

Heights dry map

Eighty years after the repeal of Prohibition – the anniversary of which came and went with hardly a toast last week – there is a sliver of Houston where the booze is still banned.

And for more than 100 years, that’s been just fine with the residents of the Houston Heights.

Back when it was a city on its own and not a historic Houston neighborhood in the shadows of the skyscrapers, Heights Mayor David Barker led a campaign to rid it of the saloons that were springing up on 19th Street.

One of those saloons had become famous due to Jennie Yon Yon, a monkey who would ascend into the sky every Sunday afternoon in a hot air balloon to entertain the festive crowds.

It was never, it seems, a moral issue pitting pros against antis. The good people of the City of Houston Heights simply wanted to protect their property values, says Sister Mary Agatha, an Incarnate Word teacher who grew up there, in the book she wrote on the neighborhood.

The boundaries of this island in alcoholic seas are not neat. But they basically follow an elongated area between the North Loop and I-10, bounded on the east by Studewood and on the west by North Durham.

There are irregularities to this rectangle, though, which have spread confusion over the years.

“The question of boundaries affected by the law comes more frequently to the Heights library for solution than any other purely local inquiry,” Sister Mary Agatha tells us. The Heights was annexed by Houston in 1918 and one would have thought that 15 years later, when the repeal of Prohibition opened the beer taps across the country, that would have applied to the dry Heights.

It didn’t. The legal underpinnings of that reality, however, were not resolved until 1937, when the Texas Supreme Court said the Heights was dry and would remain so until the people within the original boundaries of the neighborhood voted to make it other.

This is a subject that has been discussed in some depth – see, for example, Houstorian from 2007 and this Houston Heights newsletter from 2009; the Leader News had a story in November as well – but it’s one of the quirkier things about Houston’s history, so it’s always interesting. One of the irregularities as I understand it is that at least in some places, the eastern border is Oxford, not Studewood. This is why so many bars and restaurants with full bars have popped up on White Oak just west of Studewood, but very little has happened past where Onion Creek is. I’m not sure if this is the case at 11th Street or not; Berryhill has a full bar, but I’ve heard that they’re on a site that used to be an icehouse and they inherited a grandfathered exception to the dry regulations as a result. Like the story says, it’s confusing. I seriously doubt anything will change about the status quo. Residents of the neighborhood don’t want any more places that sell alcohol near them. Several of the existing bars and restaurants on White Oak encountered resistance from nearby residents that were concerned about noise and drunks, and some contention remains to this day. There are ways around the restrictions. Some places do BYOB, some operate as “private clubs” for which you have to buy a token membership before you can imbibe. One way or another it all works out.

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2 Comments

  1. Lonnie Allsbrooks says:

    This law can be changed and will be within the next 2 years. A local option election occurred in 1938 and barely lost(which clears the rumor of having a local option election). The other change is all of Houston would be able to vote and not just the voters in “dry area”. After all my research, no records have been found at Harris County proving a local option election occurred in Heights or is it documented in the Heights minutes. This law should Not be in place!!!

  2. David Manuel says:

    The eastern dry-area boundary is a straight line which cuts through the block between Oxford and Beverly, which is more noticeable if you click on the map. So Berryhill is simply a few feet outside it and into the wet area, as is Onion Creek and everything east.

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