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Traveling in southwest Houston between the Riceville School Road and West Airport Boulevard intersection, you'll find three cultural centers, each representing different parts of the world, within a half-mile radius: a museum dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue and a Parsi temple.

That's the norm in the culturally dense Brays Oaks Super Neighborhood, which has become a microcosm of Houston’s diversity over the last several decades.

Nestled between four major Houston highways — Interstate 69, Beltway 8, U.S. Highway 90 and Interstate 610 — the area formerly known as the Greater Fondren Southwest region houses more than a dozen religious and cultural institutions and community centers such as the Zoroastrian Association of Houston, the India House, the Gujarati Samaj of Houston, three Orthodox Jewish synagogues, and the recently opened Eternal Gandhi Museum Houston.

Although these institutions settled in Brays Oaks at different times, many have said they were drawn to the area for two reasons: its accessibility and the opportunity to develop acres of land at an affordable price.

“Our prime attraction was, one, cost. That was the driving factor,” said Aderbad Tamboli, the executive committee chair of the Zoroastrian Association of Houston, an Iranian religion. “The other thing was it had to be close to the major freeway, because in Houston when you’re close to a freeway you can get anywhere pretty fast.”

Houston is often revered for its diversity and for being a global city. But the cluster of cultural centers in Brays Oaks takes it a step further, said Houston City Councilmember Martha Castex-Tatum, who represents the area in District K. “It really speaks to the diversity of our communities,” she said. “Really it’s reflective of the number of cultural groups that are reflected in our city in this area.”

A history of being ‘under the radar’

Brays Oaks has always been “under the radar,” said Etan Mirwis, a longtime investor, broker and president of Rockwell Management, which is based in Brays Oaks.

The neighborhood was originally part of oil magnate Walter William Fondren's ranch, until it was developed in the 1940s as a hotspot for young professionals.By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the area had transformed with a number of apartment complexes and businesses along the main corridor, Fondren Road. Tens of thousands of single and multi-family homes were rapidly built from 1975 to 1982, Mirwis said. “It was the largest master-planned community,” he said. “At the time, it was what Kingwood, Pearland is today.”

But then came Houston’s oil bust of the mid-1980s, and the city’s economy crashed, bringing the real estate market down with it. In Brays Oaks, property values began to decline and many of the apartment complexes started to deteriorate as management changed. Residential turnover also led to vacant retail spaces along the Fondren corridor.

“When everything fell apart in Houston, those people who had just moved in were the first to move out. They created a huge vacuum,” said Mirwis, who is also a longtime Brays Oaks resident. “The area developed a very poor reputation, and it took decades for that to correct itself.”

By the 1990s, the neighborhood began to rebound, and “in the last five to 10 years, I’d say that values have increased – from a percentage perspective – higher in Brays Oaks than probably any area in Houston,” Mirwis said.

Moving for culture

Although the vast majority of Brays Oaks residents are either Black or Hispanic, city data shows, Mirwis suspects that more people will move to the area in part due to the renaissance spurred from the neighborhood’s developing cultural diaspora.

“They want to be closer to those cultural institutions. That’s what they’re looking for, they want a sense of community,” he said. “Houston is very large and if you associate with a particular culture in this city, you want to ideally live near people who are also associated with that culture.”

That cultural appeal, he said, has been a “cornerstone” of what the Brays Oaks community stands for. “I think that they found that it was the perfect balance … where then their membership has the opportunity to live affordably in close proximity to where these institutions are,” Mirwis said.

Although the Zoroastrian Association of Houston’s center is located along West Airport Boulevard, the majority of the group’s nearly 600 members live in Sugar Land, Tamboli said, while others are “pretty scattered” in Spring Branch, Pearland, The Woodlands and even Clear Lake. “Nobody is within walking distance,” he said. “Everybody is a little bit out.”

The Brays Oaks location initially concerned some members. “It was not a really desirable piece of land,” said Aban Rustomji, who has been a member since 1979 and chairs the library committee. But having a physical location at all was a great improvement from how the association operated in the past, said Rustomji, who recalled when she and a small group of members bounced around to different members’ homes to have fellowship and convene on religious days.“I came to the association when there was no building,” she said.

In the late 1990s, her late husbandwas among a handful of founding members who built their own meeting hall, utility room, kitchen and prayer room “brick by brick” with just sweat, tears and equity, she said. Subsequent phases allowed the center to expand, and most recently a new fire temple, the first 24-hour continuous wood-burning fire in North America,opened in 2019.

Decades later, Tamboli is pleasantly surprised that they are one of many cultural facilities in the area. “We didn't realize that was how it was gonna end up,” he said.

A ‘hidden gem’

But still, Council Member Castex-Tatum said she thinks the area is a “hidden gem.”

“That is primarily one of the reasons that many of these cultural centers are doing intentional outreach and inviting elected officials and community groups to use their community rooms, their community spaces and also participate in the programming that they are providing,” she said.

“The Turkish House is one of our most popular voting locations,” she said, referring to the Turquoise Center. “And I think they are very intentional about trying to attract the larger community into their cultural spaces, which I love because it really fosters community among all of the cultures.”

When the India House opened in 2008, it was initially conceptualized to be a community center solely for the Indo-American community, said executive director Vipin Kumar.

But a series of “miraculous donations” shortly after they became incorporated in 2003 changed the game, and they realized it was better to pour into the community that poured into them, Kumar said.

“The scope of the project changed from merely being a community center to [a] community service center,” Kumar said. Today the India House offers cultural activities, a health clinic where anyone can receive treatment and a food distribution program in partnership with the Houston Food Bank.

Kumar said the “well-oiled system” that operates today on nearly 10 acres at 8888 West Bellfort Boulevard was a dream 20 years ago when the nonprofit became incorporated. “No consideration was given to [the] neighborhood or anything. This was the cheapest land available, and we believed that wherever we are we'll make it gold.”

‘New kid on the block’

In August, the first museum in North America dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi opened in Brays Oaks, making it the “new kid on the block” among a sea of cultural centers, said Atul Kothari, a trustee and cofounder of Eternal Gandhi Museum Houston.

The interactive museum aims to teach Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent conflict resolution to inspire visitors, especially youth, to be catalysts for change in their own lives and communities, and highlights peace leaders worldwide, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mairead Corrigan, among many others.

The desire is to have “bus loads” of students visit the museum for a field trip, Kothari said, at least once before they graduate from high school. “We wanted to be on the freeway so that way it’s a lot easier for school buses to come and go, rather than to maneuver through downtown,” said Kothari. “This is in Harris County, but it’s at the border of Harris County and Fort Bend County. So the school systems in both counties will benefit by sending their children here.”

The reason the museum is located in Brays Oaks, he said, has a lot to do with the price of the land. At $10 a square foot, the 3-acre plot of land off of Beltway 8 was too good a deal to pass up. “There was no great plan or thinking behind that. That’s where we found the land that we could afford and it was right along the freeway,” Kothari said. “It came to us; it looked right and we went for it.”

Compared to other parts of town, “that’s a very good price,” said Mirwis, the real estate investor. “If you went into Meyerland, you're talking about double the price, maybe triple the price per square foot,” he said, adding, “You won’t find any real significant tracts of land,” like you can in Brays Oaks.

Hi there! I’m Monique Welch, one of Abdelraoufsinno’s Diverse Communities reporters, and I focus my reporting on Black, Asian, Asian American, or Pacific Islander, LGBTQ+ and People with Disabilities communities in our area. What stories do you think I should cover? You can also reach me by email: [email protected].

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Monique Welch covers diverse communities for the Abdelraoufsinno. She was previously an engagement reporter for the Houston Chronicle, where she reported on trending news within the greater Houston region...