Weaving through Waco Drive

Story by Rebecca Flannery

A journey from one end of Waco Drive to the other provides a survey of the city’s historical imagery. From the wide-open spaces of Hewitt and Woodway, to the mid-century, faded residences from 40th to 4th Street, to the splintered government housing on the opposite side of the Brazos in East Waco – with every turn of the wheel, cultural, ethnic, and economic partitions arise.

While all the residents have a unique story from each segment of the Drive, the separations in socioeconomic situations seem to group certain families together. When thinking of Woodway, affluent communities come to mind. In contrast, the community in East Waco is historically of a lower socioeconomic background. While these stereotypes seem to segregate Waco Drive, families all along the road have several more commonalities than expected. Situations like these lend themselves to the age-old mantra; “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Josh and Jess McCormick live at the end of Waco Drive in Woodway with their two sons, Jake and Drew. The couple met and dated while at Baylor, where they both graduated in 2002. Because they were offered jobs in Waco after graduation, they said they had no reason to leave the city.

“We’ve always seen Waco as a great place to live and were always wanting a reason to stay,” Josh said. “Things went so well with those jobs early on, we never really had any need to move.”

So, buying their first home in 2003 next to Richland Mall was a no-brainer for the McCormicks. Five years later, Toph and Melissa Whisnant moved to Waco, in the middle of Waco Drive.

“I was finishing seminary at Truett and Melissa had a good job,” Toph said. “We didn’t think we’d actually be here too long.”

Toph and Melissa Whisnant stand in front of their house off Waco Drive. Photo by Rebecca Flannery

The Whisnants were attending University Baptist Church during the time they were planted in Waco. They both said the church was one of the main reasons for staying in the area.

“Our friends refer to it as ‘The Waco Suck,’” Toph said.

He explained that eventually, people find something that sucks them in and keeps them in Waco – whether it’s a job, church or a relationship. While they said they never thought they’d end up staying, they’ve now lived here for seven years with no plans to uproot anytime soon.

Over in East Waco during this time, Anita Rice had been maintaining a business since graduating from McLennan Community College in 1994.

“My sister’s friend was doing this at the time [when I graduated from MCC],” Rice said. “She encouraged me to try it, and I thought, ‘The only time I’ve done someone’s hair was in high school.’”

After earning a cosmetology certification, Rice worked at Kathy’s Salon, right down the road from Motions. She rented the space for years before buying the building – which she deemed Motions.

“We’re always busy here,” Rice said. “We have the best customers in Waco.”

The McCormicks, Whisnants and Rice all consider Waco to be their home as they drive daily down Waco Drive to get where they need to be. They make their livelihood and invest in relationships all over town, but will ultimately return to their respective corridors along the Drive. As time goes by, they experience the joy, the fright and the accomplishments that come with living and working here.

Jess and Josh McCormick dinner as their kids look on. Photo by Anna Jane Riehl

For the McCormicks, moving to Woodway was influenced by a desire for exceptional education opportunities for their children.

“Our decision to move was really based on our family situation,” Josh said. “Our oldest was three years old and we realized Kindergarten wasn’t too far off.  Most of our friends in Waco who have kids were looking for private schools or hoping to be selected for good charter schools. Jess and I both believe in the importance of education and want our children to be in the best situation to excel.”

Moving to a neighborhood in Woodway transitioned them into an area for zoning at Midway ISD – one of the top-tier public schools in the state, according to their website.

For the Whisnants, who have no kids, zoning is not much of a priority. Something they did seek out, however, was a safe neighborhood.

In the spring of 2013, the Whisnant’s house in Dean Highland was broken into and left for them to find ransacked. Melissa said it was one of the most horrific experiences they’ve ever been through.

“They had gone through everything,” Melissa said. “I just felt so violated knowing they took their time going through every room of the house, through my drawers and taking my grandmother’s jewelry.”

When they moved to their current house off of central Waco Drive, they made safety their first priority. They installed an intelligent security system and have put it to good use. Since living in the new house, they’ve had one attempted break in over the course of a Christmas holiday.

“It was a very common occurrence in our old neighborhood,” Melissa said. “Houses along that street got broken into all the time.”

Anita Rice shows off her hair salon, Motion, located off of Waco Drive. Photo By Rebecca Flannery

About four years ago, a series of new residents filled apartments near Rice’s salon. She said due to the change in management of the complex, the vetting process was most likely overlooked, and slowly a group of kids began hanging around the front of her shop.

“That was the only thing I can think of where we felt the slightest bit unsafe,” Rice said. “They never threatened us, but our customers were uncomfortable at times with all of them standing out there.”

Rice said because of the leadership in the area, the potential of trouble was eradicated swiftly. The area’s councilman heard of the situation and cleared the air for both parties.

“We always lock our doors, even during operating hours,” Rice said. “It’s not because anything has happened. We’ve never been broken into. It’s almost just a reflex at this point. The customers know to knock on the door to be let in, that’s just the way we operate.”

The McCormicks speak well of their neighbors. Friends both pre and post Baylor graduation litter the suburb, they said. With that comes the special gatherings centered on the neighborhood kids.

“This is the kind of place where you almost always get a wave and a smile,” Jess said. “It’s great to have a neighbor that will love you, your kids and even your pets. We have one neighbor that has a Halloween costume party for the neighborhood kids, and we always enjoy Christmas card and cookie deliveries to our block.”

The McCormicks explained that Woodway also has a family center, festivals and a number of fundraisers that support their community. While community engagement is widely encouraged through the neighborhood association, for central Waco it’s often left to individuals to collaborate events.

“We won yard of the month once,” Toph said, laughing. “We weren’t even trying, nor did we know that was an award to win. But we did.”

Melissa said that was the only time they’d heard about the Brookview neighborhood association – a part of the city-mapped boundaries of where they live. According to the City of Waco website, the association is meant to define its own purpose, determine its goals and strategies and develop its own neighborhood plans. This, however, is not always made clear to the tenants in the area.

“We value getting to know our neighbors,” Toph said. “One of the first things we did when we moved in was introduce ourselves around the block.”

Melissa mentioned the neighbors and they watch each other’s houses when they’re gone, watch their pets or water their yards. But as for get-togethers or block parties, it hasn’t happened yet.

“The closest thing we got was when the blood moon was out,” Melissa said. “It was a weird occurrence, but we were all outside together just looking at the moon.”

Of the neighbors surrounding her business, Rice said they’re the kindest you’ll ever meet. With community-wide block parties at local churches and back-to-school drives for the kids nearby, she said the heart of their neighborhood is centered on one another.

“I would say the people in East Waco are just as friendly, if not more, than everyone else on Waco Drive,” Rice said. “I don’t understand why there’s a stigma, if there is one anymore. These are some of the most lovely people I’ve known.”

Her customers are loyal and will refer friends and family to her business in the blink of an eye, Rice said. They look out for one another and pass on kindness like it’s their job. Walking around her shop while she points out the integral parts of a salon will convey that kindness. Just don’t snap pictures of anyone sitting in a chair until their hair is good and ready.

Together, these stories paint a picture of how different locations affect the quality of life in a city. Of course, there are thousands more people in Waco, incredibly diverse in status, race and occupation. However, noting the subtle differences in the lives in Woodway, in Brookview and in East Waco, we’re able to see no matter where someone may be located, the people they surround themselves with will always matter more than what stereotype is associated with their geography.