The True Tradition of Houston

If I were one of the geniuses in charge of selling the stadium proposal to county voters, I'd cut a commercial with Irma Galvan -- quick.

You know Galvan: she's the Irma of Irma's, the very fine Mexican eatery down at the foot of Chenevert on the northeast edge of downtown. She's also the Irma who may be sitting pretty if voters give the county -- or whoever's in charge -- the go-ahead to build Drayton McLane a new ballpark a few blocks south of two properties she owns.

Galvan, who's known for her doting, personal touch with customers, is asking them all to vote for the downtown stadium. Hers is unabashed self-interest, of course, but Irma, unlike others with a stake in seeing the stadium built, isn't hiding it. And she's not sitting in the back of her restaurant, calculating the big score she could make off the real estate play that will accompany the stadium. She's continued doing what she's been doing downtown now for going on four decades -- working her butt off.

Yeah, she's got some ideas, nothing grandiose: maybe she'll keep her restaurant open nights, and maybe the empty building she owns at the corner of Franklin and Chenevert would be a good spot for a sports bar or some other stadium-related enterprise. But Galvan doesn't exactly need the stadium: she's already created a successful business, in an area most others had forsaken and without the benefit of tax abatements or a tax increment financing district or other special dispensation.

"I believe in downtown," says Galvan. "If the stadium comes, fine. If not, I'll still be happy."

As a colleague said, if it means Irma's would stay open nights, then perhaps it's worth voting McLane a new ballpark. Because if anyone deserves to turn a buck off of a downtown stadium, it's Irma Galvan.

Irma, in fact, is downtown. She grew up nearby in the Second Ward, attended elementary school at Our Lady of Guadalupe, then Marshall Middle School and Jeff Davis High, and after graduation went to work at the Purse & Co. wholesale furniture warehouse. She remained at Purse & Co. for 28 years, until it went out of business 13 years ago. That was shortly after her husband -- a cancer researcher at Baylor College of Medicine -- was murdered in a New Year's morning robbery on Cavalcade. His death left her with four kids to raise -- they all work at the restaurant now -- and two house notes to pay, she and her husband having rented out their old place in Denver Harbor after moving to a new home off of 290.

It was not a wonderful time in Galvan's life. After her husband died, she recalls, "I felt like I had nothing live for."

But she did, and after Purse & Co. closed, she went to work for Melvin Littman at the Furniture Warehouse up the street. She worked for Mr. Littman for five years, but found she wasn't bringing home the money she had made at Purse & Co.

As most of the businesses in the warehouse district folded or moved away, Galvan kept her eye on a dilapidated little building across the street from Purse & Co. It had once been home to Flying M Bar, then later a sandwich shop and grocery that kept erratic hours and didn't attract much business. Galvan saw something in that building, and in 1989, she opened Irma's in it. For a week Irma sold sandwiches, but she realized sandwiches were a loser and began offering Mexican dishes. Her clientele built up slowly but surely: first workers from the nearby courthouses, then the media and political types, and now almost anybody who finds themselves downtown can be found at Irma's. She bought that building three years ago, and has added a middle dining room, a patio and a second-floor apartment, all decorated with the special touch Irma says she picked up from working with decorators at Purse & Co. She's also bought a house at Lake Conroe.

Seven months ago, Galvan purchased the old Furniture Warehouse building down the street from her restaurant, with the vague idea of offering space for artists' studios there. The building isn't much to look at now, and when she bought it the Astrodome was still a worthy venue for baseball and nobody was talking seriously about a downtown stadium.

So why did she buy it?
"Because I used to work there," she says.
I got to thinking about Irma after reading in the Chronicle about how another face of downtown, Ben Love, is pining for a return to "the true tradition of Houston." I think he meant the days when a handful of people who ran everything got together in private, split their differences and made the decisions for everybody else. They may have served a greater good, but they also served themselves, and they didn't go out of their way to let too many people in on it.

That was a long time ago, even before Love's time, actually. Now the institutions that once helped fashion and enforce the consensus -- the banks, including the one Love used to run, and the big media -- are owned by out-of-towners. Blacks and Hispanics, even some women, have to be cut in for a share. Democracy has broken out, and it must surely rankle the Ben Loves and Ken Lays that a nodule like Barry Klein is accorded equal footing in with them in the stadium debate.

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