Urban Jungle Jim

Downtown's alive again -- thanks in part to a pioneering artist named Pirtle

Even before then, Pirtle's whisper-quiet front yard had started to whirl with action. Scores of cafes, clubs and bars arrived in the area. The Rice Hotel reopened as lofts, as did a half-dozen former office buildings. Boutique hotels materialized. The convention center expanded and added a massive hotel. Two pro sports stadiums popped up, and the light-rail line was gliding by his front door.

In the almost ten years since Pirtle's avant-garde haven took hold, the central city has undertaken some $4 billion in new projects. Extensive road construction contributed to one shakeout, but redevelopment has roared back with a frenzy.

For Pirtle, nostalgia tinges the here-and-now realities. He regrets even disturbing the "time-machine trip" of a perfectly preserved pawnshop and clothing store dating back 50 years. "Don't touch it -- it's perfect," he told himself. "And I touched it. And I fucked it up." But he knows he had to move on, that change was inevitable.

Others note that he's insisted that tenants keep the authentic themes of the Kiam. The Downtown Management District's Jodie Sinclair commended his preservation efforts and noted that a district goal is to maintain the area's vibrant diversity.

Pirtle has kept the block from becoming another nameless facade hiding prettified apartment units. "He's more interested in creating a culture than being a consumer of it," Hubscher says. "He's not selling out for the big bucks."

If homogenized development overruns downtown, if the creative elements relocate elsewhere, so be it, Pirtle says.

"It wasn't as if this was a vibrant area to begin with, and they came in and chased all the artists off," he says. "Only the funky places like Warren's and La Carafe were here, and they're still here. And they'll be here long after all the rest has moved on."

Houston, he reasons, is concrete, with the green weeds of genuine art continually poking through. "When the artists are driven to the edge, what becomes the edge again? Who knows? Maybe Sharpstown will become the new arts center."

Most important, he says, Houston has kept its wide-open-frontier mentality. And that means performance art can serve up omelettes of regurgitated eggs, or goats can crown a polyester-encased house.

This city lets you savor the freedom, he says.

"Creativity flies. As long as you don't hurt others -- then go for it. This city has been so, so nice with freaks. It's incredibly tolerant. You're free to go and be yourself."

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