By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Houston -- young, thoughtless, hyperactively transient and historically amnesiac Houston -- cradles one of these temporary places: the 2100 block of Lexington Street. But because its defining characteristic is that of the city itself, transience, leaving no monuments but memory, it will never be listed in any guidebook, will never display a historical marker. This is as it should be. To the extent that Lexington lingers as a state of mind, it's just mulch, decaying in the memories of the people who have, over the course of the past 70-plus years, made it what it was, what it is and what it will become, which is almost certainly something else entirely. To call it historic is absurd. To call it important stretches the definition. To recognize it with a small monument is the least, and probably the most, that can be reasonably asked, but its nature is too fleeting for stone.
To look at a map it seems insignificant, lost in the grid, the smallest section of a minor east-west street, not even rising to the relevance of a thoroughfare, abbreviated on both ends, trapped, isolated, laboring in obscurity, its structures and physical addresses brief footnotes to a neighborhood itself a forgotten, stranded reference.
But to the working-class renters and the speculating landlords and the budding strivers and the aimless graduates and the communists and the runaways and the artists and the hangers-on and the fallers-off and the whores and the junkies and the speed freaks and the rehabbers that have shuttled on and off the 2100 block of Lexington Street over the years, defining the place as it defined them, creating a culture, it is simply The Street. Its special contribution has been its music, born of a communal constellation of low-rent musicians and rock and roll bands.
They congregated here because the evolutionary arc of Lexington has long defined the block as one of those certain places. Think of this as one of its songs.
By 1928, Lexington appeared on maps as a nub between Driscoll Street and Shepherd/ Greenbriar. It was in '28 that the Houston City Directory marked the first appearance of addresses on Lexington's 2100 block. No one yet lived at 2103. S.H. (Sam) Brashear lived at 2115, with an H.R. Miller residing in the "rear," conceivably Lexington's first garage apartment. A street called Danville then ran where 59 runs now, parallel between Lexington and the SA&AP line, which marked the northern border of the tonier neighborhood developing around Rice, with its ostentatious North and South boulevards.
By 1935, Lexington reached eastward to Mandell, and the 1937-1938 directory shows a 2100 block filled out with nine residential addresses: those of Edward Seaman, Roy Brunt, Leroy Schecke, William Parker, Andrew Graves, Mary Barber (another "rear" dweller), Miles Burton, Henry Plaster and Paul Goodrich.
The development was called Albemarle Place, though the only two streets named Albemarle in Houston are far distant. Meredith James, a retired octogenarian land appraiser, remembers that it was customary in Houston neighborhoods developing at the time to "sort of arbitrarily pick an English word that sounds high-class." Turns out an Englishman by the name of George Monck, 1608-1670, retains currency as the First Duke of Albemarle in certain biographical dictionaries.
Appraisal district records show the street's first mini construction boom in the '30s, with a second round of home-building in 1945. There are several small apartment complexes on The Street today, a few up-and-down duplexes and two wooden one-story anomalies, but the defining forms are the old two-story bricks. While most county records define the lots as belonging to Albemarle Place, a few hang on to an identity as the S.H. Brashear subdivision. So old Sam Brashear, the first to move onto the block at 2115, roomer H.R. Miller in tow, back in 1928, must have been a developer. Appraiser James confirms it, and remembers Brashear further as a judge. His name has faded to a cryptic "S H BRASHEAR S/D" in the legal descriptions of three properties on the block.
Sixty-year-old Franklin Olson is the son of John Olson and the nephew of Albert Olson, which sibling team developed much of the Rice Village area and the Greenbriar Center (now Shepherd Square). Olson can't remember for sure if Lexington Street was ever part of his family's holdings, but he thinks John and Albert may have had a hand in building some of the 2100 block's houses. The brothers at least owned much of the land encircling it, including that which supported Lionel's Flame Room, an early upscale restaurant boasting a chef direct from Galveston's Balinese Room, which space has long since devolved. Phil's Diner came in later. The 59 Diner is there now.
Lexington, as Olson remembers it, was from the start a small residential pocket with no room to grow, separated from Richmond Place by Shepherd, on the wrong side of the tracks to connect with Southampton's money, padded with retail property on the north. Lexington was subdivided and orphaned from planned development early, but it wasn't until U.S. 59 arrived that it started to get weird.
The stretch of 59 between Spur 527 into downtown and Shepherd opened as a ten-lane roadway in July 1961, furthering the goal one headline trumpeted as a "superhighway linking Houston to East Texas," and the 2100 block of Lexington began a slow metamorphosis. The 1967 City Directory lists 17 addresses on the block, with Edward Seaman and Leroy Schecke the only original residents, three decades after their 1937 appearance. The 1974 directory still has Schecke, but by now he's an obvious anachronism. Small businesses have started to move in around him. A home at 2120 shelters Screen Arts Company, Paper Clip Inc., and Rapid Printing and Advertising Company. A realtor lives at 2121 (today he owns 2116). Insurance agents do business at 2129. Jerry's Cabinet Shop operates out of 2133. The 1974 rolls identify 2140 as Studio Erotica.
Neighborhoods, like kids, don't always turn out the way they were first imagined.
The 2100 block was evolving into its own distinctive ecosystem, shaped by its location -- one that's not ideal for traditional residential living and not ideal for mainstream commercial use. Smack in the middle of everything, but isolated from all of it. Think of 59 as a river. Think of the divergent and opposing traffic flows of Shepherd and Greenbriar as creeks feeding the river (forget that one creek flows the wrong way). Think of 59 Diner and Star Pizza and Whataburger as occupying a small concrete island upstream. The result is The Street as eddy, swirling in the backflow, quiet water not going anywhere fast. The eddy, as any riverman knows, is where floating detritus collects, bobbing in weak whirlpools. And river detritus, as any scavenger knows, is a remarkably reliable source of random, unexpected treasure.
Another address operated for a year or two as a University of Houston frat house; another as an informal group house of Rice students. A house at the east end of the block was an operative armory, with a shooting room in the backyard and Wednesday-night meetings and Thursday-morning curb trash full of bullet-shredded targets. One house, The Nice Couple say, was rented to a woman with four sons who ankled one another out the windows when she was away. One day a different woman arrived at this house and asked Mrs. Nice Couple, out in her yard, to hold her baby. Mrs. Nice Couple held the stranger's baby while the stranger broke through a window and re-emerged herding her sheepish husband, his boots in his hand.
The same house later rented to gamblers, who nailed black boards over the windows and hosted the occupants of expensive cars at late hours. Mr. Green, the then-elderly "Mayor of Lexington," now deceased, regularly patrolled the block with his cane, and the blacked-out windows made him suspicious. When the cops arrived, the gamblers were gone. Moved out in the middle of the night.
And remember the time that girl was so mad at her boyfriend in those corner apartments she smashed her car through the brick wall and told the cops she'd do it again?
As a place to live, The Nice Couple agree, The Street has been "safe, convenient and quiet."
Rich Prader, now in San Francisco, rented on the street at various addresses since 1983. His property manager was J.R. Delgado, then-bassist with the then-popular Party Owls and later manager of The Axiom, punk-rock central for much of the '80s, who has lived on Lexington off and on from 1983 to now. Both remember neighbor Ronnie Bond of local punk pioneers Really Red and his rooms stacked with vinyl. Prader noticed a hippie chiropractor on the corner whose teenage daughter ran the block naked, and a house across the street full of skatepunk kids from Clear Lake. He scammed liquor from the frat house and sneaked food from Whataburger and sometimes when he stumbled downstairs in the mornings he'd find three or four strangers passed out on his floor. They were mostly California bands on early tours through Texas. The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Suicidal Tendencies and D.R.I. and Jello Biafra slept on Lexington floors. Prader remembers one night playing cards in his kitchen and hearing a fight escalate outside. Then it was a gunfight, and a bullet whipped through the wall and lodged in the Sheetrock between the refrigerator and his head.
Delgado remembers an early Lexington band called The New Day, a Cure-wanna-be group who affixed the vinyl flower decals to the front door of 2135, establishing it thenceforth as the Flower House. Rusted Shut's drummer lived on Lexington in the late '80s, and the band practiced in the garagelike Boathouse, formerly Jerry's Cabinet Shop.
Kevin Blessington, then with Elevator Up, lived in the Flower House from '89 to '91 with Chad Condon of Circus Glass and E-Colie, Jeffrey Moore of Field Day, and Greg Moore (no relation) of Dry Nod. Rent was $600 split four ways. Blessington remembers Mr. Nice Couple sneaking into the Flower House from his gig as a baker at Whole Foods and delivering the gift of stale bread. The living room was a permanent rehearsal space, and 3 a.m. practices generated no noise complaints. A Whataburger, Stop N Go, Kinko's, record store and coffee shop were within walking distance. No car was needed to live on Lexington. High-rent neighborhoods all around buffered the low-rent enclave. For all the strange crap going on, Lexington was safe. Nobody locked their doors, like the whole street was behind an invisible gate, or deep in the country somewhere.
"There were a lot of people hanging out with nothing to do," Delgado remembers, "but it was the only place I know with that consistent party atmosphere. You just walk around on the street. Like a group house, but it was a group block."
Skotak, by all indications, didn't mind. He was glad to have his properties rented. He was in essence a slumlord, doing just the bare minimal repairs but otherwise letting the property deteriorate. Money, if there was ever to be any money, was in the land, not the structures. But Skotak renters over the years have called him slumlord far less than they've called him den mother, which he uses proudly himself, or father figure. The rent was cheap, and so were the expectations. Skotak would spruce up a house by painting only its facade, but he'd let the rent slide in an "emergency." He was one of those bill collectors who would, as the commercials say, work with you. It was a fair deal.
Nick Cooper moved in in September '88, more or less. Many Lexingtonians share an inability to recall dates precisely. He was at the time the drummer and whip-cracker of Sprawl, a band formed at Rice that quickly became Public News's Band of the Year. The Sprawl House, at 2129, became a hub of rehearsals and parties. Cooper, still at Rice, left town for the summers, and he'd come back to find that Sprawl saxman Clay Embry, now with Austin's Brown Whorenet, had moved two more people in while he was gone, or that Andy Nelson, now an actor with Infernal Bridegroom Productions, had let the utilities lapse. If you were to draw a map of all the people who lived in the Sprawl House at various times and chart their movements from room to room or from the Sprawl House to other houses on the block and then back, you would end up with something like a small-scale chart of Continental Airlines' daily flight patterns. If you tried to include all the people who once woke up on a couch there and later claimed to have lived at the Sprawl House, you would understand something of the underground cachet the band, and the house, carried at the time. Sprawl played the downtown Axiom club to crowds invariably harboring some girl or another with a fresh Sprawl tattoo. After last call, singer Matt Kelly would announce party on Lexington, and the club would move en masse to The Street.
The Sprawl House itself was a pit, an overgrown rehearsal room filled with instruments, recording equipment, last month's garbage and the ubiquitous 40-ounce Big Gulp cups from the Stop N Go that pulled duty as 89-cent hangover cures. When a downstairs toilet backed up, neighbor Mike McCracken nailed the bathroom door shut and left it to fester. Founding Sprawl guitarist Dan Robinson and then-girlfriend Kelli McLaughlin lived in an upstairs room -- they're now married and expecting a baby in San Francisco -- and Kelli remembers trying to keep at least that one room livable. When she took a vacation she locked her door behind her. When she returned, squatters had broken in and taken up residence. "My mistake," she says, "is thinking I was going to have a nice place. My mistake."
After a summer that Sprawl spent in New York and the Sprawl House functioned as a sublet flop for friends, Dan and Kelli moved out to a Montrose rental. Shortly thereafter, Kilian Sweeney, a UH student just starting up his band De Schmog, moved into 2140 across the street, the old Foxy Lady, broadening the circle. Now there were a Rice band and a UH band on The Street, mimicking the division of frat/group houses from the '70s. Not long after Sweeney moved in, Delgado's Sugar Shack was named Band of the Year in Public News, and uncomfortable with the acclaim, Sugar Shack decided to play a free party on Lexington to boost its street cred. It was the first party newbie Sweeney went to on The Street, and it was a hell of an introduction to the scene. Axiom booker and KTRU DJ Julie Grob, who lived on Lexington from '89 to '94, places the party at the Flower House, maybe 400 people, maybe five kegs. Sugar Shack played in the living room, and the crowd surfed -- as was the style at the time -- inside the house. Talk to anyone who lived on Lexington during the golden age, and sooner or later they'll get around to telling you, unprompted, about that party. Some of the details are expectedly fuzzy, but there's one vision permanently lodged in every recollection, like a totem of the age: When they woke up the morning after, Lexingtonians found footprints all over the Flower House ceiling.
Dry Nod House was established between the Commune and the Sprawl House, with a second-floor deck on the rear for backyard shows. The Flower House had members of at least five bands living under its roof. De Schmog practiced open-doored at home, and UH photographer/Lexingtonian Mark Lacy found a "Hong Kong Studios" sign in his attic and hung it in De Schmog's window. Some old guy walked through the front door one night and watched patiently until De Schmog finished rehearsing before asking singer Diane Koistenen if she was, you know, ready to go upstairs. She later rented her own house on The Street.
Cooper ran his Rastaman Work Ethic label out of his house. He released two Sprawl CDs, a compilation called Texas Funk and a collection called Axiom Live. Sweeney maintained Disclexington Records for De Schmog releases. De Schmog once recorded an album on Lexington, playing in Sweeney's house and recording to Cooper's bedroom studio on the other side of the street. They strung cables through the trees across the street and hoped for no tall trucks.
Nearby were the Neighbor Dave House, the friendly occupation of the brick downstairs duplex where Skotak now offices, and the corner apartments wrapping around the Greenbriar side. All were filled with people who knew each other and left their doors unlocked and dropped in at 2 a.m. if their own house was empty. Most adhered to local custom holding that any beer in any refrigerator was fair game, but a can stashed in the crisper was important to the person who placed it there and was not to be touched. Jim Rizkalla, a then-drunk artist who lived in the Flower House until '96, was shunned for days after breaking the unspoken rule. But even so, every transgression seemed to come with its forgiveness. Mr. and Mrs. Nice Couple especially grew fond of Jim.
"Boy, he could bury that beer," recalls Mr. Nice Couple. "We used to find him passed out in the morning on that hard concrete stoop. You know, like he didn't quite make it all the way home. [Mrs. Nice Couple] went over a couple of times and tucked a pillow under his head."
"I just couldn't stand," she explains, "to see his head on that hard stoop."
Jim, likewise, didn't much like to see that kind of thing, and after losing a malt liquor-drinking contest, he invited Pappy, a homeless Korean War vet from under the 59 overpass, to take up residence in the Flower House's front yard. Torches were installed and a chaise longue set out, and Pappy lived in the open-air Tiki Lounge for a week until roommate Grob asked Jim to ask Pappy to leave.
There were others, too many to name, embarked on too many journeys to relate, trailing too many anecdotes to repeat. This is just a song. A hundred verses lie undiscovered and unsung.
These all appeared to converge in 1991 when seemingly every Skotak-dependent resident and band joined to mount an Axiom production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Jay Maulsby played J.C., Matt Kelly played Judas, and De Schmog, Sprawl and Joint Chiefs took turns sharing a drum kit and the Sprawl horns.
Lexingtonians played several packed nights in Houston and took the show to Austin. There are still a few fan videotapes floating around; watch them with a participant and you can still get a sense of the elation.
"That," says Maulsby, "sort of cemented my relation with all the tendrils of that scene. That's the first time I really realized it was a defining label, whether you lived on The Street or not."
Too much talk about Lexington-as-communal-state-of-bliss will get you laughed off that or any other block -- a little goes an awfully long way -- but something happened there. Location and time and cheap rent and a "benevolently disinterested" landlord and safety and foot access and the nearness of like minds conspired to make The Street more than just a place.
"It wasn't all romantic," says Brad Moore. "But still, it was pretty fucking crazy."
In retrospect the fire has come to be seen as the first spark of The Street's inevitable decline. Lexington-as-ecosystem depended on a perfect balance of environmental influences. The system could apparently -- and certainly did -- absorb copious quantities of beer and booze and acid and pot and speed and coke and hash and what-else-you-got, but it choked on heroin, which established a presence during the smack chic of '92. No one talks details, but anyone who lived there will date the beginning of the end with the spread of needles. That was hardly all, though. Lexington had done nothing but change for 70 years, and there was no reason for it to stop now.
Part of the equation had always been the steady supply of young poor creative people who knew each other, and the Lexington eddy had done a sterling job of washing them all up on the same beach, but the fundamental design flaw of young poor creative people is that they get older.
Julie Grob, a five-year veteran, thinks of it this way: "It was a phase in my life. Confused after college, not knowing what to do. It was comforting having friends like a family. I got tired of the crappy stuff. The drinking wasn't always so cute. There were more drugs later on. It just didn't seem as happy as a bunch of kids in a funk band. But I had a lot of fun for someone who was miserable a lot of the time."
Two years ago, after finishing up a development project in Midtown, Richard Skotak moved his office from the Galleria area to a duplex on Lexington. Skotak and his wife live in a planned community near Pearland that he describes as Stepford Wives, and he likes The Street's character. Skotak is well into middle age, and he talks fondly of "The Sprawls" and admiringly of trumpeter Dave Dove practicing for hours on end. These are smart kids, he says, could be successful at anything. He respects them for doing what they want. Still, the block has quieted since Skotak moved in. Older poor creative people have trickled away, Cooper excepted, faster than young ones are trickling in, though there's rumor of some new baby band in one of the houses. Now there are a few more families, a few more single adults, and one lady who has taken to calling the cops with noise complaints.
Last semester, a Rice student named Julie Bachir who roomed briefly above Skotak's office got an A on a '70s-heavy history of Lexington in a political science class. She interviewed residents, dug up microfiche and put a chunk of it on the record: more evidence of the legend and another sign of its fossilization.
Part of the pall is cast by the giant red-white-and-blue For Sale signs posted up and down the block and the Talking House transmitters informing the AM-equipped curious that for $1.6 million, they can purchase 66,933 square feet of the 2100 block of Lexington. It's been on the block for four months -- Skotak's holdings and a few others bundled in -- and it's hard to say what its best use might be. A McDonald's or a gas station would have to lure customers onto Lexington because of the feeder access problem. It's hardly prime residential real estate. Skotak would like to see some sort of urban village concept deployed, but he suspects the land more likely will be dozed for storage lockers. Whatever.
"I'm tired of it," he says. "The upkeep is getting to be too much. The taxes in '82 were minimal. Now they're $25,000."
It's too bad, Delgado says. Houston sucks that way. There aren't that many pockets where you can just go wild.
There are certainly no monuments to this one. Just graffiti -- a giant Sprawl caricature from the King of Parking CD, "Flower House" -- etched into the once-wet cement of a few driveways and curbs. And as Lexington enters its next evolution, it's easy enough to imagine that the whole block may get dug up like Danville before it and covered with a parking slab. No good reason not to. Archeologists will not reconstruct these things. Eventually maps may enter the Texas Room with no 2100 block of Lexington, no S H BRASHEAR S/D, no Albemarle Place. Casual observers of the future, unless they've heard the songs, might never know there was ever a place there.