On the edge in Edge City

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

In the bathrooms, attendants man counters flush with cigarettes and perfume, quietly hawking their wares to high-maintenance customers. At the ladies' room, my companion waits in a line for five minutes, only to discover that the queue is not for a stall, but for the mirror. In the men's room, a handsome, clean-cut man in his mid-twenties is growling about some woman who has abandoned him for the dance floor. "I bought that bitch dinner," he implores a commiserating buddy.

If sex is the hardly veiled subtext in Richmond's more casual food-and-fun drink\her\hies, it's the hand on your ass at Blue Planet. My date suffers four butt-grabbing propositions while I am -- as one less-than-subtle suitor put it -- "missing the boat" in the bathrooms.

DJ, a beautiful, buxom black woman with a mile-wide smile and short, stylish hair, is stationed outside the men's room with her shoe\hshine kit and chair, and she seems perfectly acclimated to the hormonal feeding frenzy whirling around her. Men want to know her name and to be seen talking with her, for the air of familiarity with the club that she lends. She is passingly and convincingly affectionate with them all. She's been shining in this building for four years, through the transition from country bar to glam disco. "I used to have long braids," she tells me. "But this is a different group." She says she's slowly rebuilding her clientele after losing most of the boot-wearers in the changeover. I ask what sort of living she makes, shining shoes and boots at six bucks a pop.

"I buy myself a real prett new bra every week, I can tell you that," she says with a gleam in her eye.

After she finishes shining my boots ("I've seen worse," she says, with a look that says maybe she hasn't), she begins a short massage of my calves, a ritual with which she indulges all of her male customers. It strikes me as a pretty solid ploy for tips, considering the scene, but halfway through she winks at my girlfriend standing at her side. "They don't know I do this 'cause it's the easiest way to get the polish off my hands." And then, with a wicked smile back at me "ooh, baby, feels good." When she's done, I hand her a ten.

Cruising the Plastic Fantastic
If we call the Richmond Strip Houston's answer to Austin's Sixth Street, it's impossible not to notice the distinctive quirks that place it squarely within Houston's own special mythology. For one thing, it's never quite finished.

For all the nightclubs and discos and live-music venues and restaurants and titty bars that line this concrete corridor, there are still gaps, holes in the fabric filled with incongruous establishments like health clubs, office buildings, furniture outlets, ticket re-sellers and tarot-reading shops.

There's also the constant turnover. Buildings that house the present establishments often metamorphose at least every few years into new uses. Gold's Gym used to be a Best Products outlet. Rockefeller's West, soon to be Bayou City Theater, lived past lives as Texas Live and 6400, among others. When what the people want changes, as it invariably does, those who hope to cash in are forced to follow suit, and that gives the Richmond Strip an unsettled quality that is quintessential Houston, a young boom-and-sometimes-bust town that's still fighting a day-to-day battle with its own growing pains.

And then there's Houston's notorious allegiance to car culture spreading things out, necessitating that each establishment provide adequate parking for its auto-bound customers. There is, unlike on Sixth Street, almost no foot traffic on Richmond. Most of the clubs here don't charge a cover -- a strategy designed to encourage comparison shopping and shared clienteles -- but people don't just drive to Richmond, park, and stroll the avenue. Rather, they drive, park, sample, drive elsewhere, park, sample, ad infinitum. Depending on your point of view, the Richmond Strip is neither cramped nor cozy.

With the consumer offerings changing at such a rapid pace, and with the average customer traveling at 35 miles per hour, the establishments of the Richmond Strip have resorted to another quintessentially Texan device to draw the crowds: astounding size. Centerfolds is big enough to be a bowling alley (and who knows, may someday be). Billy Blues is built like a barn for more than just thematic reasons. Dave & Buster's offers an astounding 53,000 square feet of interior space and a parking lot to match. And since, as Garreau writes in Edge City, the farthest an American will willingly walk before getting into a car is 600 feet, D&B's offers customers an AstroWorld-style tram ride to the farther reaches of the concrete plot. Valet parking is the rule, not the exception, on Richmond. If everything is bigger in Texas, then the square footage of our playground, the sheer exuberance (if not tact) of our architecture, and our American insistence on convenience are no exceptions.

Of course, the space, pavement and cars discourage not only foot traffic, but the businesses that thrive on it. Size, as they say (and as nobody in Houston seems to believe), isn't everything. It's what you do with it that counts, and the sort of businesses that are generally thought to contribute to a high quality-of-life index -- secondhand bookshops, mom-and-pop restaurants, sidewalk cafes (sidewalks, for that matter) -- are conspicuously absent. The Richmond Strip is a setup that some find sterile, and many territorial Inner Loopers rely heavily on the word "plastic" in dissing the Richmond scene.

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