By Chris Lane
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Ever since her youth, Dawn Fudge has been dazzled by the legends surrounding a small establishment tucked away in an industrial corner just north of downtown.
She knew the rumors about the Last Concert Cafe and the colorful woman who opened it in 1950, Elena "Mama" Lopez. "We always heard about it growing up in the East End," she says. "There were those little rooms where the politicians used to take the girls. I don't know if it was ever a whorehouse, but I've heard enough stories to believe that it was."
Decades ago came the threat that the construction of Interstate 10 north of the central business district would turn the Last Concert into a concrete freeway. "Mama called in her cards with the politicians, and the highway was rerouted," she says.
Now, a band of bohemian residents perceive an even bigger threat than any I-10 thoroughfare through their eclectic Warehouse District neighborhood. Downtown is bearing down on them -- a big, revitalized, revenue-hungry central Houston bounding across the Buffalo Bayou boundary from NoDo. The invasion, some neighborhood activists fear, will leave them subsidizing the main downtown zone, or will redevelop the small community right out of existence.
Fudge, who now owns the Last Concert, says she found out about the invading forces only a few weeks ago. The Downtown Management District advised the warehouse neighborhood that it will now be charged a special assessment fee -- a new property tax -- because it's been annexed into the district, which has spearheaded redevelopment in the traditional downtown sector to the south.
The quaint Warehouse District faces its own worst fears -- of becoming pop-trendy, a victim of its location. The funky Last Concert may be lost in a sea of chrome, potted palms and escargots.
"Hey, we're free spirits, we are artists. Let us do our thing, and leave us alone," Fudge pleads. "We're not opposed to progress, but don't kick the little guys out."
The Warehouse District was more blue-collar than bohemian in Lopez's tenure at the helm of the Last Concert. "In Mama's day, the neighborhood consisted of houses, beer joints, pool halls, and it was industrial," Fudge remembers. That section of the Warehouse District is north of Buffalo Bayou and just south of I-10 and west of Main Street near the UH-Downtown campus.
When Fudge grabbed at the chance to buy the cafe in 1984, she was working as a compliance officer for an investment firm. Fudge got fired from her regular job six months after the purchase, so she needed cheap living space. She found it across the street from the Last Concert in the 1400 block of Nance.
"The really adventurous lived in the warehouses; there weren't any lofts," she says. "Every sidewalk was broken from the forklifts. Over the years, we've cleaned it up."
Even with the increasing number of artists' studios and small projects, the area remained in the relatively calm shadows of a downtown stirring from a long slumber. But then the scores of hip new NoDo establishments cut into the Last Concert's business. And it began attracting about as many complaints as crowds. Gentrified loft dwellers called police about the noise from the cafe's open-air concerts, and others griped about its lack of off-street parking for patrons.
As frustrations mounted, the sudden news came about the new tax and addition of a management district. "We had a hell-raising meeting here at the cafe," Fudge says. "All of the residents were here. I didn't even know that we had been annexed into downtown.I've never heard so much emotion in my life."
While the artisans of the warehouse area issued their call to arms, the annexing forces were welcomed by others, primarily property owners eager to cash in on the expansion of the downtown redevelopment boom.
"I'm very, very much for it," says Reggie Bowman, a realtor and owner of Warehouse District property. The management district is viewed by business interests as a vital ally in improving the newly annexed area.
The management district was formed in 1991 and has been credited with helping revive the pulse of what was a largely dormant central downtown. Special state legislation created a district of about 705 acres in central downtown, funded by a 12.5-cent tax rate that now requires property owners to pay $125 for each $100,000 of assessed value. The assessments generated about $3.8 million for projects and staffing last year.
District director Bob Eury says the addition of the warehouse area increased the size of the overall district to 1,173 acres. The $100,000 in extra income generated enabled the district to lower the tax rate from last year's 16 cents, without any decrease in revenue. Asked about motives for the expansion, he says his agency merely wanted to include all of downtown in the district.
The staff serves as head cheerleader for the central downtown revitalization effort. The district does marketing, oversees landscape projects, handles the special trash pickup duties, cohosts many events boosting downtown's image, manages the planned $58 million Cotswold Project, coordinates transportation improvements and works with agencies to streamline private deals and developments. It mows vacant lots, adds street lighting, signage, ornate sidewalks and various capital improvements.