Fight the Power

Could there be a fun, pro-music political action committee in Houston? Why the hell not?

When you get right down to it, Houston is really just all about one thing -- The Car. Every day, we seem more and more like a city fit only for refined oil and crude people. And why not? Our city's economic engine is oil, so life here in this sprawling concrete bungle seems like nothing so much as a nonstop orgy of petroleum consumption.

The Katy Freeway widens to breadths approaching that of the Nile. Downtown and Midtown -- once graceful Southern mixed residential/business districts not unlike the older and nicer parts of Galveston and New Orleans -- now look like chessboards, with enormous high-rises shooting out of a patchwork of parking lots and garages. Our public transport system is among the puniest of the major American cities, and despite the best efforts of preservationists, the ongoing slaughter of history continues. Every week, it seems, another quirky small business shuts down, is demolished and replaced by another strip mall containing a branch bank, a Subway, a CVS and some sleazy little shop that peddles cell phones.

We heard a lot in the past ten years about the re-urbanification of Houston, about how the city was getting denser and suburbanites were returning to the city's core. It was, we were told, to be an urban renaissance. Pedestrianism would flourish and so, we all assumed, would the city's nightlife. The Richmond Strip -- Houston's car-clogged and violent half-assed stab at a nightlife zone -- was a thing of the past, a dinosaur of Houston's Mesozoic Era. The future was downtown and Midtown, where people would stash their cars on the periphery of a compact party zone and walk from bar to bar in the warm night air. We would become a 24/7 city of genial good times -- random outdoor concerts and long, leisurely, wine-soaked meals at sidewalk cafes, not unlike some Mediterranean metropolis like Madrid or Rome.

That was the plan in about 1998 or so, and it has never worked, except for the weekend of the Super Bowl, during which the local powers-that-be suspended a bunch of the city's ticky-tack laws and overweening car culture in the service of creating the obligatory good-timing Potemkin Village that the Super Bowl's horde of fans demands. People of every race thronged the streets, and (shudder) they carried beer with them. Noise complaints were laughed off. Concerts raged right up until midnight, right there in the streets. Out-of-towners compared Houston favorably to New Orleans. The world didn't end despite this unprecedented breakdown of order in the streets of downtown. And then it was over, the laws and ordinances were enforced anew, and a couple of years later, downtown is as dead as it ever was back in the Oil Bust '80s.

And instead of an urban renaissance, what has happened is more like a suburban invasion. The suburbanites have brought their boringly efficient, car-obsessed, dreary way of life with them, and now they have imposed it on all of us. These people refuse to tolerate outdoor concerts that go past ten p.m. at places like Miller Outdoor Theatre and any concerts at Rice Stadium, ever. They build condos on top of long-established bars, move in and shut down and/or harass them into extinction. It has happened to Helios and to Pam Robinson at both locations of Walter's -- on Washington and on Durham. Just off Kirby, both Hans' Bier Haus and the Big Easy have been hassled in recent months.

Is it any wonder that so many of our talented young people move to Austin, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles? (See Letters to the Editor.) Is it any wonder that all of those cities have much more thriving live music scenes than we do?

Enough. I've bitched about this stuff enough. Now it's time to do something about it.

The way I see it, the artists and musicians who made Montrose the creative hotbed it was from about 1965 to 1995 have two choices -- fight or flee. In either case, they need to organize.

If they choose the latter, and they can't or don't want to leave Houston, they need to move en masse to a new neighborhood. What's been happening the past ten years is that ex-Montrosians are scattering all over town -- to the East End, Westbury and Garden Oaks and Oak Forest. They need to pick one neighborhood and colonize as a group. Perhaps the reopening of No Tsu Oh could be a bellwether event in this trend -- the area just to the east and north of downtown is as good a place for a Montrosian colony as any, even though the march of condos is already apace around there.

The other option is to fight tooth and nail. That's the path local writer and activist (and former Press correspondent) Jim Sherman has chosen. Sherman covered issues like this for Public News in the late '80s and early '90s, and he says that what's going on today is even worse. Back in the '80s, he says, homeowners' associations, especially in unrestricted neighborhoods like Montrose, were feeble, usually consisting of, as he puts it, "a couple of meddlesome little old ladies allied with a very judgmental gay couple." Then, in the late '80s, Mayor Kathy Whitmire got in a pissing match with HPD that resulted in the police going on a years-long de facto strike. Crime skyrocketed all over Houston. Civic groups thrived, as locals clung desperately to order in their neighborhoods.

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