George Crittenden has seen the highs and lows of Lancaster Avenue in east Fort Worth.

The 99-year-old remembers thousands of cars driving hastily along the street, and people walking to the nearest shops or neighborhood grocery stores.

He also remembers what he calls the “unexpected desertion.” The “For Sale” signs. The boarded-up doors. Tents outnumbering businesses. And the cars that never returned.

“Fort Worth wouldn’t be what it is today without the early days of Lancaster,” said Crittenden, who’s lived in Fort Worth his entire life and preached at a Baptist ministry close to Lancaster Avenue for 35 years.

East Lancaster Avenue’s history dates back to the city’s earliest days when horses and buggies were more common than automobiles. 

A stop sign at the intersection of Poplar Street and East Lancaster Avenue sits in front of one of Union Gospel Mission’s buildings. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)

The street has had a number of names during its history, often at one time, Linda Barrett, a librarian at the Fort Worth History Center, said.

In 1916, the street was extended and became part of Bankhead Highway, the first coast-to-coast highway in the United States. Other maps show it as Dixie Overland Highway. In Texas, it was officially State Highway 1. 

All this traffic transformed the street into a bustling center of culture and commerce in the early-to-mid 1990s, but desertion then led it to a desolate, crime-ridden neighborhood in the late-20th century. Now, a greater effort to revitalize the street is underway.

“Lancaster Avenue and its residents have seen it all,” Crittenden said.

In the Near East Side, abandoned buildings are prevalent. This one, on 1521 E. Lancaster Ave., is boarded up. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)

Increase in homelessness 

Since the early 1990s, a specific half-mile block on East Lancaster Avenue has significantly catered to more homeless than commercial visitors. Walk down this part of the avenue today, and you’d be certain to pass by three or four encampments and, some days, as many as 50 to 60 unhoused persons. 

Data specific to Lancaster Avenue isn’t available from the city of Fort Worth or homeless shelters and missions on the street. 

The latest numbers from Tarrant County Homeless Coalition showed a 22% increase in homelessness across the county compared to 2020. According to the report, 2,700 individuals are unhoused in Tarrant County. 

A homeless woman lays in front of one of Union Gospel Mission’s shelters, on 1321 E. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth, waiting for a vacant room. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)

In this specific half-mile block on East Lancaster Avenue, where the street intersects Interstate 30, every single building caters to the homeless community.

The Art of Living, 1505 E. Lancaster Ave., and Union Gospel Mission of Tarrant County, 1321 E. Lancaster Ave., often see lines out their doors.

Don Shisler, President and CEO of Union Gospel Mission of Tarrant County, says his organization provides a variety of resources to enrich the lives of families and individuals experiencing homelessness and empower them.

At Art of Living, a line stretches out the door on days the nonprofit provides assistance, and art therapy, to East Lancaster’s unhoused children, said founder Bryan Walsh.

On a late Spring day, with blankets and plastic bags in hand, about 20 people stood outside Union Gospel Mission of Tarrant County’s shelter doors, waiting and hoping for a room to become vacant. 

The goal of the two organizations? To empower Fort Worth’s homeless to seek out opportunities that allow them to get themselves off the streets. 

“If we can do this, opportunities will open up for everyone,” Shisler said.

All this to say: revitalization is imminent, Shisler said. Money is in place to fund the revitalization so many wish for, but how quickly – or whether – measurable change is imminent remains to be seen.

A sign declares “Light Improvements” on East Lancaster Avenue are to be had. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)

The future of East Lancaster Avenue

The Fort Worth City Council adopted the Near East Side Plan in Dec. 2007. It’s still very much in effect, even with a new administration, according to the Fort Worth city website. 

Revitalization is not a new effort.

But, most recently, the city has been working on the Eastside Transportation Plan, which is the most comprehensive plan to date with the highest possibility of bringing actual change, said Shisler.

In 2022, the plan was allocated $823,571 from the city to undertake community-driven planning activities and public improvements. 

The aim of the Eastside Transportation Plan has been to improve infrastructure, attract new businesses and promote economic development in the area. 

In the four years since the Eastside Transportation Plan’s adoption, the focus has been on investing in new sidewalks, streetlights, and other public improvements, like street art and murals, according to the master plan.

The Fort Worth Sister Cities mural welcomes visitors, passersby and unhoused persons into the Near East Side district. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)

Walking around the area, it’s clear that some efforts are being made, Linda Barrett, a librarian at the Fort Worth History Center said. Murals around the district and other public art installations have made the area more appealing, she said. 

Sidewalks and street lights have also been recently improved.

Still, more work is needed.

“When the area is cleaned up further and the issue of homelessness is a bit more contained then Lancaster might once be what it was,” Barrett said, optimistically.

Shisler emphasized the need to get unhoused persons around the area out of tent communities.

“Camping’s a big problem… that’s when you begin to see unhoused people with health problems,” he said.

Like Barrett, Shisler believes the Eastside Transportation plan can bring Lancaster Avenue back to its “glory days.” Others, like Crittenden, aren’t so optimistic. 

“It will never be what it once was,” Crittenden said. “They can doll-it-up, and make it look all pretty, but it will never be that commercial hub again.”

But — the city wants to listen to residents like Crittenden, and leaders like Shisler, while cleaning up this area of East Lancaster.

The city is currently collecting feedback from residents about the plan to help determine recommendations, said Kelly Porter, assistant director of transportation and public works for the city of Fort Worth.

“This is where we can come together and figure out what happens. There’ve been a lot of things in the past that have been said about what’s going to happen. This is the process we have to go through to get to the point where we’re trying to figure out what it’s going to be,” Porter told the Fort Worth Report earlier this year. “This is going to be hopefully us buying into a vision – a shared vision – but it’s going to be data-driven.”

Part of the “Community in Harmony” mural on the Texas Can Academy – Fort Worth Lancaster building. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)

Years before the transportation revolution

In 1947, the Majestic Theater, located at the corner of Commerce Street and E. 10th St., just two blocks off of Lancaster Avenue, often would have a line of vaudeville showgoers stretching down the block. 

The theater attracted visitors from as far as Dallas. 

For many years, Fort Worthians welcomed many from Dallas into their ever-growing cattle town. Before the days of Interstates 30 and 20, and even Texas Highway 121, the only way into Fort Worth from Dallas was by way of the street that is known as Lancaster Avenue today.

“Lancaster was, really, Fort Worth’s first major highway,” Barrett said. 

The state designation made East Lancaster Avenue part of the primary automobile route to Dallas until the late 1950s. 

“The traffic coming from Dallas did help to grow Lancaster and its surrounding area,” Crittenden said, adding the crowds of visitors helped his parishioner base at his old ministry flourish.

But – the construction of I-30 siphoned all the traffic from Lancaster.

A For Lease sign is plastered on 1324 E. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth, as the building is preparing to turn into apartment-style lofts. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)

The demise of East Lancaster Avenue

The year is now 1957. 

Traffic subsided. Commuters stopped driving on Lancaster Avenue in favor of I-30. Businesses were shuttered and went elsewhere.

The construction of I-30 siphoned about 17,000 cars a day off East Lancaster Avenue, according to Advancing East Lancaster. The city effort hopes to develop a plan to increase accessibility and create opportunities for economic development along the avenue.

The commercial businesses that once catered to commuters were now supporting the small number of nearby residents. But they didn’t survive for long, according to newspaper archives at the Fort Worth History Center. 

The Majestic Theater shut down in 1973. Multiple restaurants and motor hotels followed, accelerating Lancaster Avenue’s decline.

“Once businesses left, it was a perfect opportunity for those who ultimately had nowhere to go,” Barrett said. “Once the cars, and the commuters, switched routes to I-30, Lancaster [Avenue] became a sort of no-man’s-land.”

Still, as leaders within Union Gospel Mission and The Art of Living attest, many continue to hold hope for the avenue’s revitalization. And efforts once staggered appear poised to gain cohesion and focus with the influx of the grant money.

The avenue, and highway, that once changed the city of Fort Worth is ready to become part of another change, a cleaner and safer era.

Editor’s Note: The Fort Worth Report talked to George Crittenden in March of 2023. He has since died at the age of 99. The story has also been updated to reflect which specific part of Lancaster the story is reflecting on.

Matthew Sgroi is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Matthew Sgroi is the 2022-23 Fort Worth Report multimedia fellow. He can be reached at or (503)-828-4063. Sgroi is a current senior at Texas Christian University, majoring...