Murphy's Law

Gentrification threatens to turn out the lights at popular upper Shepherd nightspots

According to West End legend, one evening Billy Murphy stood in front of his home on Inker Street and shook his fists in the direction of Jax Grill.

Murphy, an animated man, says he would never make such a gesture. But witnesses at Walter's Ice House, two doors down from his town house, say he did form that striking image of animosity against two nearby drinking establishments.

Ever since Billy Murphy and wife Debbie moved into their new town house two years ago, they and a handful of neighbors have protested the noise coming from Walter's Ice House and Jax Grill on Shepherd a block and a half to the east.

The neighborhood, across I-10 from the Heights, was once inhabited mostly by Latino families living in aging one-story homes. For 21 years, the Cadillac Bar has stood by the Katy Freeway. Then seven years ago Walter Cameron built his icehouse on the corner of Inker and Durham. Two years after that came Jax Grill. Only in recent years have developers started snatching up the old houses and replacing them with high-dollar town houses. That's when the Murphys moved into their place, which has a market value of nearly $250,000.

They came from a Dallas suburb where the commute to work often totaled an hour and a half. Houston would be different; it is only 3.6 miles from the town house to Billy's office, where he used to work as a safety director for a construction firm. Before they finalized the purchase, Billy and Debbie drove through the neighborhood on Saturday nights, and all seemed calm and decent.

But shortly after they moved in, the Murphys say, they discovered that the zydeco bands at Jax played so loudly that their own walls seemed to vibrate. So Murphy called Houston police. In fact, he called them over 100 times. He filed formal complaints with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. He wrote to the mayor and his city councilmember and spoke at a Council meeting.

HPD officers responded to his calls with sound meters and pointed them at the alleged violators. Each time, they concluded the businesses did not violate city ordinances. Not a single citation was issued.

Murphy alleged the officers didn't know the law or didn't want to enforce the sound ordinance, so HPD Captain D.W. Ready sent supervisors with the officers. Murphy continues to call police nearly every weekend. His behavior confounds Pam Arnold, who has managed Walter's for four years.

"You know, you moved next door to a bar," she says. "I just don't get it. It's not like we surprised them."

Arnold, a bright-eyed, talkative woman, says she tried to appease Murphy and residents of the three other households that complain. (The others declined to speak to the Houston Press, saying they feared retaliation.) To reduce noise, she installed Plexiglas over the icehouse garage doors and turned off the patio speakers each night at ten. To make it more aesthetically pleasing, she repainted the entire exterior in soft yellow and sea-green. She covered the asphalt patio with crushed granite and planted palms along the back fence, lining it with landscaping lights. Because the town-house builders had raised the level of the ground, each rain brought a flood of runoff from the homes onto the bar patio. So she invested in a drainage system. The improvements totaled more than $10,000.

Captain Ready says he met with everyone involved, sent officers to monitor the noise levels and did all he could to help Murphy -- yet Murphy remains dissatisfied.

In a letter, Murphy replied that the icehouse changes also included sand pits for playing horseshoes and that musicians continued to play past 10 p.m. (So guitars were returned to their cases and horseshoes were collected.) And while he appreciated the concern over the bar's aesthetics, appearance was not the issue. It was the hollering, cussing, littering, public urination, reckless driving and illegal parking he says he heard and saw.

Indeed, Murphy produced a meticulously organized binder to a reporter with 30 tabbed sections. They included photographs of beer cans and paper cups scattered in parking lots, and of upturned grass left behind by someone's poorly maneuvered vehicle. He took pictures of eggs thrown at his house. He suspects Walter's people did it.

"All we want is what is right and proper under the law," he says.

But Arnold says Murphy is trying to put her out of business. The bar has lost revenue by no longer hosting parties and crawfish boils. She has hired an attorney. And though the police have been professional and fair, she says, "The time that blue car is out there, no one is going to pull in. That's just the way it is."

Jax Grill has also lost thousands of dollars in business. Bands used to pack the patio every weekend night from 7 p.m. to midnight. But Murphy points out that the city's sound ordinance prevents bands from playing outside without permits, and certainly past 10 p.m. Because the city issues those permits only twice in a 30-day period, Jax moved the bands inside. Now they play outside only twice a month -- with permits. Yet without fail, Murphy calls the police every time.

"We bend over backwards, forwards and sideways to please Murphy and those people over there," says night manager P.C. Richard. "And they won't bend at all. To me, it looks like they're trying to close us down."

Central to Murphy's complaints is that the "lowlifes" that frequent Walter's do not come from hisneighborhood. "They come into our neighborhood for the sole purpose of drinking alcohol and having a 'party' to our detriment," he wrote the mayor's office. According to police reports, Murphy also told officers that he was "doing them a favor by buying the property and increasing the property value and running the riffraff out."

But bar patrons say that Walter's is just a neighborhood bar with a diverse crowd that includes carpenters, construction workers, bankers and lawyers who either work or live nearby.

"I think it's ironic, because one of the selling points for our townhomes was that there were restaurants within walking distance," says Walter's customer Pam Hinsly, a third-grade teacher who lives a block away from the bar.

Neighbor Brian Moon agrees. He has not heard complaints by anyone except the Murphys and their next-door neighbor. On several occasions only he and one other customer were sitting in the bar, the jukebox turned off, when the police arrived, stating that Murphy had called again.

Captain Ready says he has seen this situation in the past. "It's a matter of [no] zoning," he says. "A lot of these places were in existence long before the people complaining moved in."

Jax Grill has even hired HPD officers at night to ensure it does not violate any laws. But Murphy viewed that as police "having a very solid camaraderie" with Jax and Walter's, "to the detriment of surrounding residents."

"That is probably our fault because we are not providing free food to the patrolmen and they are not on our payroll," he wrote the mayor's office.

"I don't understand if it's that bothersome why only one person is complaining in the whole neighborhood," Ready says. "I'm trying in vain to give validity to his argument. But every time we go out there, we can't find violations."

A beleaguered Donna Parks of the mayor's office could not find any violations either. She wrote to Murphy that she has no records of arrests to support his accusations.

"I have no record of complaint by other neighbors to substantiate your claim [that] others in the neighborhood are abused by loud music…. I have no document or other information to confirm you represent the interests of your neighbors."

However, last fall TABC joined Murphy in his protest against the icehouse, because it appeared that its liquor license was under the wrong name. A TABC agent performed a lengthy investigation but did not uncover enough evidence to warrant charges by the district attorney's office.

Meanwhile, Walter Cameron, who built the business, got so fed up that he sold it. The icehouse has now been closed for nearly two months for remodeling, the addition of insulation and new interior paint. The business has put in an application for a new license under a new name.

Murphy filed a formal protest against that too; his declaration of war. The Jordans, who used to live next door to him, moved out after filing a complaint alleging that an icehouse patron threatened them and followed them in his vehicle. The neighbors that replaced them walked down to Jax Grill with Murphy a month ago to confront the manager.

Arnold hopes to reopen the icehouse in a few weeks but hasn't decided on a new name yet. The old Walter's sign still stands outside. Some patrons suggest calling it Murphy's Riffraff.

Murphy says he's not giving up. He and the three neighbors might even form a civic organization. "Then they're really going to have hell," he says.

"We'd like to buy it," Murphy says. "We want to put in a Starbucks drive-through or something like that."

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