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    A family walks into Al-Quds as their daughter eagerly leads the way. Behind them, the landmark Mecca storefront sign, written in both Arabic and English, stands tall on Hillcroft Avenue. - photo by Jad Moghnieh

An intimate exploration of the diverse community within Houston’s Hillcroft neighborhood.

Houston has long been considered one of the most hospitable cities in the nation for immigrants, positioning them to thrive and build community. Nowhere in the city is this diversity and level of opportunity more apparent than in the streets of the neighborhood surrounding Hillcroft Avenue. The businesses and homes a few streets east and west of the eight-mile-long avenue can be referred to simply as Hillcroft. Small shops reflecting the ethnicities of their foreign-born owners attract diaspora from all around Houston and its suburbs to the neighborhood. The area is a microcosm of Houston’s diversity. 

My siblings and I came to the United States as children, and our parents would often take us to Hillcroft whenever we were feeling out of place or homesick. We would go grocery shopping at the Palestinian-owned store Al-Quds, also known as Jerusalem Halal Meats. At the time of its opening in the 1990s, Jerusalem Halal Meats was the first of its kind in the area—an immigrant-owned business selling international goods sourced from their native country. This market was the heart of the neighborhood, occupying a large strip center on the main avenue. Fragrant Middle Eastern herbs like za’atar sold straight out of the bag, olive oil from every Levantine country along the Mediterranean’s eastern shores, and the low hum of the Adhan prayer created a space reminiscent of what we gave up when immigrating to the US. The nostalgia in the aisles often prompted my parents to share stories about Lebanon and their childhoods. I remember feeling impatient when my parents inevitably ran into family friends and conversed with them for longer than it took us to shop. These days I appreciate that sense of community and recognize such interactions as invaluable opportunities to become closer to my parents and my culture.

Today, Hillcroft epitomizes the spirit of Houston’s diverse immigrant population. A car-centric commercial avenue, Hillcroft is home to stores and restaurants representing all of Houston’s largest minority demographics. The stretch south of Westheimer Road conforms to Houston’s commercial vernacular and is brimming with strip centers separating residential subdivisions from the main avenue. Signage written in Arabic, Spanish, and other foreign languages distinguishes Hillcroft from generic Houston neighborhoods. Although the architecture is basic and a palimpsest of old drug stores and strip centers filled with new businesses, today there is a palpable change in atmosphere. The architecture is secondary to the community and the interactions it facilitates.

All these spaces are teeming with symbolism and reminders of home. Cedars Bakery, where our parents would take us to for a traditional Lebanese breakfast on Saturday mornings, is still there. The famous bakery is decorated with images of cedar trees, large-scale murals of the Lebanese flag, and the Raouche Rock, a famous landmark off the coast of Beirut. Upon entering the newly renovated Jerusalem Halal Meats, there is a narrow opening to the right where they sell traditional Middle Eastern utensils and dishes. To the left is an even narrower aisle stocking traditional Middle Eastern clothing, prayer mats, and home decor with Arabic script that is impossible to find anywhere else in Houston. As you maneuver through the dense aisles packed with shoppers of all ethnicities, you eventually arrive at an opening. In this space, large stacks of bagged rice and other stored goods create partitions between a walk-in halal butcher, a neatly hidden restaurant marked by a large picture of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, and a makeshift prayer room often occupied by Muslim workers and patrons alike. This utterly unique space maps the trajectories and intersections of Houston’s immigrant communities.

Patrons of Cafe Layal enjoy traditional Arab food while playing card games late at night. – photo by Jad Moghnieh

Two women shop in the spice aisle of Al-Quds (Jerusalem Halal Meats). The walls behind them are full to the ceiling with traditional Muslim home decorations. – photo by Jad Moghnieh

Recently, the number of Arab grocery stores has quickly multiplied. Stores across and down the street from Jerusalem Meats include Mecca, a locale whose sign acts as a landmark for the neighborhood, reaching high into the sky and boasting the name of the holy site of pilgrimage in Arabic script, and Almadina, yet another grocery market named after a holy city. Rather than creating a competitive, capitalist atmosphere, these grocery stores anchor the community, and their close proximity creates a tangible sense of place distinct from the greater metropolis surrounding it.

During Ramadan, the energy in these businesses is unmatched, and the sense of community is strengthened. On Fridays, the call to prayer can faintly be heard coming from within the beautiful Al-Hadi School and Islamic Education Center, a building designed with pointed arch windows resembling traditional mosques. Landmark restaurants like Cedars and We’re-Dough—Lebanese bakeries widely popular in the community for their Middle Eastern flatbreads called manakish—are consistently packed throughout the week, though not during the day. 

Many restaurants adjust their business hours to accommodate Muslim customers observing the holy month. Families come at sunset for iftar, to break their fast together. The younger members of the community stay throughout the night, socializing and playing cards as they wait to eat again before the sun rises during suhoor. Pastry shops, in particular, are heavily booked during the holiday. A Sweet Factory, Houston’s first Lebanese patisserie, was recently renovated by Tajara Group, a Lebanese-owned construction company, demonstrating the interconnectivity of the community. The demand for A Sweet Factory’s traditional filo dough baklavas and knafeh, as well as a variety of other assorted pastries, is so high during this time of year that families place large orders days in advance to ensure they are stocked up at home and for gatherings. 

Cedar Bakery, brimming with community members late at night during Ramadan. Every weekend night, the bakery is packed during Suhoor as people prepare for the next day’s fast with friends and family. – photo by Jad Moghnieh

On the last day of Ramadan this year, I visited my barber, Yazan, the Palestinian-American owner of King Hair Salon on Richmond Avenue. I wanted to get a fade before Eid al-Fitr, the holiday commemorating the end of Ramadan, but during the day, the shop was predictably busy. I came back around iftar to find him praying with a group of young men in the parking lot while the shop was still lively. He spoke to me in Arabic during my cut and told me that he had been cutting hair since he was 15 years old. He grew up in a Jordanian refugee camp, and his seven uncles owned multiple barber shops. Eventually, he moved to the States, bouncing around from New Jersey to Chicago before ultimately deciding to settle in Houston. We spoke about Hillcroft and why he chose to open a business here. Yazan explained: “There’s a big Arab community here. A lot of young Arab men come to us, Alhamdulillah. We’re all friends. They come and hang out—sometimes staying up as late as 1 a.m., drinking coffee, smoking. It’s tradition—you know how it is in the land—barber shops are where we gather, socialize, and joke around. They’re not just customers that come for shaves and go.”

Expert barber Yazan lines up a client’s hair at King Hair Salon. – photo by Jad Moghnieh

The flow of people in and out of the neighborhood is the pulse of Hillcroft, as many of the business patrons and workers do not live in the area. I spoke to another person with ties to the neighborhood—Rania Elkhatib, who works as a staff psychiatrist at the University of Houston. She noted that she visits Hillcroft weekly with the intent to “relive home and spend money in a conscious effort to support the community but mostly to support [herself] with that mental space.” She went on to explain that what matters to her “is the relationship with the space on a psychological level and how [that] relates to a collective consciousness.” 

Rania continued: “I always run into friends. I get to buy good quality products, cheese from Palestine or chocolate from Lebanon, but really it is about being in those spaces. What’s on my mind ends up being on the mind of a lot of people I see there. There’s something you don’t have to explain, an authentic understanding of each other even at the level of the business transaction. An instance of this is when I went to Al-Nimer Nuts and I told the owner, ‘I want my coffee three-fourths black and one-fourth gold,’ and he responded, ‘Oh the Lebanese way.’ … [He knows] the Palestinian way … is one-fourth black. There’s nowhere else in Houston where you can go and expect to be understood that deeply. It’s nice to feel this familiarity. That familiarity is the collective consciousness.” This link between consciousness and the physical experience explains Hillcroft’s importance to the community and its ability to draw people in from all over Houston.

To Rania, it feels “like [she is] traveling [on] a mini-trip—it’s a sampling of home.” She sources all of her meat from Lebanon Halal Meat because “the people who work there know exactly how to prepare kafta.” Before they opened, it used to take Rania hours to prepare the traditional meat kabobs at home. “They know the nuances,” she explains. “If [I] want Kibbeh Nayeh from Jnoub (South Lebanon), they know how to fix it. If [I] want Kibbeh Nayeh from north Lebanon, they know how to fix it, and they know the subtleties down to the spices.” 

Ali Idriss, who goes by Abu Mohamad, is the owner of Lebanon Halal Meat. He immigrated to Houston from Dearborn, Michigan, a city known for having a well-organized Arab diaspora similar to what is developing here in Hillcroft. He felt those communal similarities on a trip to Houston in 2017; however, there was not yet a dedicated halal butcher in the city. He and his wife decided to stay and opened a small meat market in the back of a grocery store called Al-Arabi. They eventually opened their own store across the street in 2019. Since then, they have been selling quality halal meat and poultry as well as preparing traditional Lebanese recipes.

In Hillcroft, the Arab community coexists among so many other immigrant communities, none more prominent than the Hispanic community. Heading south on the avenue, toward Westpark Tollway, there is a street called Windswept Lane. This relatively short road, overflowing with street vendors and food trucks, is witness to one of Houston’s most active and walkable communities. On Windswept are dozens of Hispanic stores and restaurants. The intersecting streets are filled with residents grilling and selling food, clothes, and produce, all under the shade of canopy tents. After turning onto Windswept from Hillcroft, a dense strip of residential apartments and small businesses leads you to a series of busy football pitches and the street’s main focal point, the Houston Flea Market. The market appears to be the heart of this community and straddles both sides of the road, with an indoor market to the north and an outdoor market to the south. The outdoor market is particularly unique to see in Houston and feels like an important cultural space. Low-hanging fabrics provide shade from the brutal Houston sun and stitch together the narrow paths between the linear stalls. The market is bookended by a large steel canopy on one side and a carnival space on the other. Between those ends, you can find just about anything imaginable: furniture, electronics, tools, huarache sandals in any color, Catholic figurines, children’s toys, birds, dogs—the list goes on and on. Within days of Lionel Messi’s move to Miami, pink jerseys were hanging from the rafters. I bought a Mo Salah jersey from one of the stalls, and when I asked the merchant who his favorite team was, he clutched the Guatemalan national jersey. Everywhere you look, families are outside socializing, and it’s clear that community is strongly valued. This community is also abundantly visible on Hillcroft with stores and churches interspersed between Arab businesses. It is clear that there is a similar phenomenological connection being experienced in these spaces and the ones more familiar to me.

A mother shops for pets with her young boys at a stall inside the Houston Flea Market on Windswept Lane. – photo by Jad Moghnieh

I am presenting Hillcroft through my eyes and my memory of it as it was while it is still here. An increase in rent prices recently led to the closing of a dollar store in the same strip center as Jerusalem Halal Meats and A Sweet Factory—reminding us of the constant looming threat of gentrification as well as the inevitable changes Hillcroft will undergo. Hopefully, by documenting this neglected part of Houston’s urban history, these changes will be more akin to an evolution and will attract more small business owners interested in maintaining the qualities that make this neighborhood feel like home to so many different people. There are many ways to support the people of Hillcroft, such as donating to humanitarian organizations like HEAL Palestine and Bridge to Baladi or simply by working with or shopping at the local businesses. 

Growing up in the Arab community in Houston meant frequent visits to Hillcroft. My mind’s eye perceived it as an Arab neighborhood. Despite the immense diversity in the neighborhood, as a child I unconsciously filtered out everything else. That is the beauty of this neighborhood. It allows immigrants from any ethnic background to feel a sense of community and ownership of the area. In contrast to other, more defined neighborhoods in Houston, Hillcroft is not predominantly composed of one specific ethnicity. Rather, it is a cluster of several different immigrant populations working in close unison. So many different communities thrive in Hillcroft without assimilating to a dominant culture. This overlapping diversity creates an interpretable community, one unique to each person flowing in and out of the neighborhood. Here, embracing diversity does not come at the loss of one’s personal identity. The importance of this area is unparalleled to the people it represents and serves. Its physical presence creates a space of psychological familiarity and comfort, providing us with a place where we do not feel like the others. A space where we hear our languages being spoken proudly. A place where Americana architecture fuses with immigrant stories. It’s a home within a new home.  

Jad Moghnieh is a Lebanese designer and project manager at Tajara Commercial Construction. He lives in and photographs Houston.

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