By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
On a recent Saturday, a couple of firemen were washing a truck outside the fire station on downtown's western edge. It was a hot day and they were wet and shirtless, and glad to stop their work even to answer such a strange question as, "You guys ever heard of Vinegar Hill?"
They looked at me as if I had asked them to point out Dogpatch.
"No," they said. "There's no Vinegar Hill around here."
I moved on, once again consulting my guidebook as I strolled. Since it was a Saturday, downtown was empty and I didn't have to worry about bumping into people or being run over by a car as I walked and read. Yes, according to Sig Byrd's Houston, "South of the [Preston Avenue] bridge ... lies a wide grassy hollow called the Slab, where produce-truckers park their tandems and melon dealers operate in season. And overlooking the Slab from a steep, weedy bluff on the west is the beetling brow of Vinegar Hill." This was the place, all right.
Back in the late '40s and early '50, Vinegar Hill was one of Sig Byrd's best-loved beats. Once celebrated, yet now all but forgotten, Byrd wrote the Stroller column for the original, daily Houston Press. Byrd ranged for copy far and wide in the Houston of his day. He listened to the alcohol-treated stories of the merchant sailors in the bars on 75th Street, near the Ship Channel. He ate chicharrones and drank Jax beer with Don Antonio and the Laredo Bar regulars (who knew him as Don Segismundo) just off Navigation. He hung with the Fifth Ward's assorted cats. But it was downtown and its environs that Byrd had a particularly strong feeling for. It was possible to make a human connection with downtown then. The way Sig Byrd wrote it, at least, it was impossible not to, not if you had any feeling for raw, unadulterated humanity.
Vinegar Hill was particularly fertile ground for stories. Byrd said it was "a kind of arrogant slum ... scowling down on a good portion of the proud new city itself." Little did Byrd know that even this "new city," already considered thick with skyscrapers, would itself be leveled in a matter of years. In his eyes, and in his voice, Vinegar Hill appeared eternal.
Preston Avenue dies a natural death each sundown, and then, when the traffic dust has settled and the fetid smell of the bayou creeps up the dead-end streets, the avenue comes alive again. But in a curious way. The old pensioners from the walk-up hotels, the laborers from the Market, a few railroad men, the winos who live under the bridges and in the flophouses, the scufflers and hustlers, the dingoes, bums, punks and slobs, all the characters and squares of skid row, gather in the electric twilight before the bars and in the doorways of closed stores and watch the drab mystery of the downtown night unfold.
This is the kind of writing one used to find in a Houston daily. And this is the kind of writing that -- under the Sig Byrd byline, at any rate -- used to seem appropriate for a city that some claim has no heart, has no center. Byrd found that heart. But then again, maybe Byrd himself was that center.
I looked for Vinegar Hill a while longer, or at least for someone who remembered the name. But the bayou and the bridge itself are all that's left. Skid row has been replaced by the mighty Wortham Center's backside. A case-carrying musician exited its stage door, evidence of the irony and the passage of time. He was the sole person on the block. Nearby loomed the shadow of the Lyric Building's cellist. The triumph of kitsch over skid row is a particularly ambiguous one.
At the Heights Bailey Studio you can find photos that show we lost quite a downtown when Houston decided that the future lay in the suburbs. But they are empty pictures; Sig Byrd's Houston adds the stories to go with those evocative faces. Stories that go beyond the images, really. Byrd saw beneath the surfaces of things and people. Sig Byrd saw souls, and he gave this city one. Alone among Houston writers, Byrd made Houston exist whole and complete in a reader's mind, the way more thoroughly described cities such as San Francisco or New York or Paris do.
Sig Byrd's physical city has largely been destroyed, but it still lives and breathes in his book. It's sad that the book is long since out of print. It's sadder still that its author lies forgotten in his north Houston grave.
Sigman Byrd grew up all over Texas. East Texas. Fort Stockton. North Texas. According to his sister, Mary Chadick, who lives in a southwest side retirement home, the Byrds moved so often because their father, Virgil, a public school principal, was "old-fashioned." She says that in an early version of "no-pass, no-play," he insisted that athletes pass all their classes before participating in sports. He kept getting fired for taking this stand, and the family had to keep moving. Mary says she saw something of her father in her older brother. They both had "big IQs" And they both knew when they were right, and refused to compromise. And they generally believed they were right all the time.