On the edge in Edge City

Brad Tyer finds fun, more fun and big fun on the Richmond Strip

I'm hanging out on Richmond Avenue -- horizontal, face down, strapped and buckled into a body-length harness usually employed by hang gliders, staring bug-eyed through 150 feet of empty space at a small patch of pavement behind the Yucatan Liquor Stand. I'm here on assignment, charged with the seemingly cushy job of providing an overview of the self-contained entertainment district that has sprung up on this outside-the-Loop strip of Richmond, bordered by Hillcroft on the north and Chimney Rock on the south. I've got quite the overview. I usually don't take my assignments this literally.

I'm up here in awkward familiarity with a 23-year-old man named Terry, whom I've just met. He's strapped in at my right, in a harness similar to my own, and we're both dangling by the same cable, having been cranked to this height by a pull wire connected to the tower peaking one foot behind our outstretched feet. When Terry pulls the ripcord -- a job he seemed intent on procuring -- we'll plummet in a pendulous arc, anchored by the cable's attachment to another tower across the pavement. We'll hit 55 m.p.h. somewhere near the bottom of the arc, about ten feet off the pavement, and continue our high-speed swing past a chain-link fence that looms like the business end of a garlic press before we clear it, and out into black night. And then back. And then forth. And so on, until we've slowed enough for an assistant to reach out with a pole and drag us to a halt.

To have an overview of the Richmond Strip is to experience vertigo.
"God damn!" whoops Terry, when we're on our feet again.
"Damn!" I reply, with an unexpected and newfound sense of camaraderie.

"I'm gonna buy you a drink!" Terry tells me, with great enthusiasm, and I simply nod in thankful acquiescence. I need a drink. And in Houston, for thousands of young adults with discretionary income, the Richmond Strip is the place to get one.

It's also the place to get fed, tained, and if the sparkle in the eyes of most patrons has any basis in fact, the place to get laid. The Richmond Strip has developed over the course of the past decade into a true entertainment district, a place to be and be seen, Houston's urban-sprawl equivalent of Sixth Street in Austin or Beale Street in Memphis or New Orleans' Latin Quarter -- part local destination and part tourist trap, offering sensory overload in exchange for dollars.

Inner Loop hipsters and suburban hermits alike hold a certain disdain for the Richmond Strip, either because it lacks a certain element of soul, or because its flashy pace and distance from more distant 'burbs makes it foreign, but it's not at all surprising that it should have planted itself here. Houston is what author Joel Garreau, in his book of the same title, calls an "Edge City" -- a metropolis on the forefront of a national city development trend in which jobs and retail are moving away from traditional downtown areas and out toward the suburbs, to where most of the people already live.

Houston is an archetype of the trend, with ten well-developed edge cities expanding the city's frontiers with semi-urban pockets from Clear Lake to F.M. 1960. Three of these, identified by Garreau as the Galleria area, the Greenway Plaza area, and the Sharpstown Mall/Highway 59 area, contribute to a high population density in the relatively small geography surrounding the Richmond Strip. A statistically significant chunk of Houston works and lives within a 15-minute drive of the Strip (one of Garreau's criterion for designation as a "mall"). The area's high density of apartments makes it a logical residence both for post-college adults moving into their first homes and first jobs, and for newcomers to the city.

The Richmond Strip is their playground.

Fun: Where the shark bites
On the Strip, the Yucatan Liquor Stand in particular seems to be the place to get tanked. According to the bar manager on duty the evening of my first visit, the most recent records from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) indicate that for the month of September, the Yucatan's sprawling environs played host to a higher dollar amount of alcoholic consumption than any other watering hole in Houston.

The favored drink, a fresh-faced female bartender tells me, is a concoction called the Sharkbite. Since the Sharkbite is served in a Mason jar of approximately the same proportions as a small goldfish bowl, and since my evening's festivities are just getting started, I ask for a sample taste. The Sharkbite is sweet, a combination of dark and light rums, grenadine, and pineapple and orange juices. It is not a drinker's drink. It is, as bourbon fans and career drinkers are fond of saying, a frou-frou drink, designed for maximum ease of inhalation in a light-footed party atmosphere. Drinking on the Richmond Strip is not a means to any standard alcoholic ends. It is, rather, a too-obvious corollary to the strip's fundamental mantra: Have Fun.

That's why Terry and his girlfriend, a 23-year-old woman in a maroon velvet dress, like to party at the Yucatan. It's fun. It IisI. There are two huge, fully stocked bars in the main room, and outposts on the patio. There are tables and chairs, to which you can have snacks and bar-oriented food delivered. Baby-back ribs and the chicken scraps drenched in bright-orange spicy sauce, known as buffalo wings, are eternally popular. There is a dance floor, filled on a Friday night with young people in their twenties and thirties -- mostly white, but also black, Asian, Hispanic -- trying frantically to keep up with the paradoxical changes of mood tossed out by the resident disc jockey. One minute, maudlin country music fills the hall, the next, a throbbing disco beat. Periodically, a band called Slippery Fish takes the stage to play covers of pop favorites, with a heavy emphasis on just-slightly-behind-the-curve trendiness. Side-by-side versions of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots songs crowd the set, and each draws people to the floor. The dancers -- with the occasional exception of the learned country kickers -- are uniformly unexpressive, bobbing with heads and shoulders while feet remain anchored to the floor.

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