Pop Culture

Rainbow Crosswalk Arrives in Montrose Just in Time for LGBTQ Pride

A rendering shows the artistic plan for the rainbow crosswalk at the intersection of Westheimer and Taft.
A rendering shows the artistic plan for the rainbow crosswalk at the intersection of Westheimer and Taft. Courtesy of UP Art Studio designer Marco Guerra
Judy Garland famously sang about a dream of going over the rainbow in The Wizard of Oz, and now Houstonians who visit the heart of Montrose can do exactly that. The colors of the rainbow-colored pride flag now adorn the crosswalks at the intersection of Westheimer and Taft, making Houston the first Texas city to install a rainbow crosswalk in a show of support for LGBTQ pride.

The idea of installing the LGBT pride crosswalk came from a group named the Houston Pride Crosswalk Committee, who worked for one year to get the art installation approved by the city.

Radu Barbuceanu, a member of the committee, says, “It’s a big welcome door for anyone who needs a home or a family, and that’s here in Houston. That’s a big statement for the most diverse city in the country. We welcome everyone.”

After the crosswalk project received approval from the City of Houston as well as generous financial support from Pride Houston and other sponsors, nonprofits and community members, installation took place this past Saturday and Sunday.

Once word began to spread about the rainbow crosswalk, people started coming to the scene to watch the construction and take selfies with the colorful street in the background. One woman was spotted posing her dog in front of the crosswalk for a photo.

Montrose is a no-brainer for this type of art with the neighborhood's history of being a place for LGBTQ people to congregate and feel accepted. The rainbow flag originated with artist Gilbert Baker when he designed the first one in 1978. Its colors — red, orange, yellow, green, indigo and violet — are meant to represent all the genders and races that make up the LGBTQ spectrum, and the flag has become a global symbol of the LGBTQ movement.

This particular intersection has long been known as a popular place for people to hang out. For many years, the restaurant La Strada was famous for its packed Sunday brunch and second-floor DJ and dance party. Today the northeast corner of this intersection is the site of El Tiempo Westheimer 1308 Annex, featuring Mexican food and knock-you-on-your-butt margaritas. On the southeast corner is a tattoo and piercing parlor. Biskit Junkie resides on the southwest corner.

click to enlarge Joel Smith and Carrie Perez were among the many who stopped to take a photo at the rainbow crosswalk. - SAM BYRD
Joel Smith and Carrie Perez were among the many who stopped to take a photo at the rainbow crosswalk.
Sam Byrd
Other cities, like Atlanta, West Hollywood, San Francisco, Seattle and Miami, have rainbow crosswalks, yet Houston is the largest city in the country to have one. None, though, share the sobering backstory of Houston’s crosswalk.

The theme and site of the crosswalk were chosen at the request of friends of Alex Hill, a 21-year-old man killed in the same intersection after a hit-and-run crash in January 2016. Friends say Hill had finished his shift at a nearby restaurant and was on the way to meet them for a night out on the town when the incident happened.

Several events have taken place in the 18 months since Hill’s death, as his friends and family searched for justice and a way to honor his memory. Friends of Hill's say the police twice detained the wrong person before making an arrest after finding a car marked with Hill’s DNA. According to the Harris County Sheriff's Office, the suspect is now awaiting a court date next month.

Also during that time, UP Art Studio, the same group that oversaw the crosswalk's painting, created a mural on the utility box at the same intersection. It depicts Hill surrounded by friends, with a rainbow sunburst in the background to reflect Hill's place in the Houston LGBTQ community.

click to enlarge A mural of Alex Hill is painted on a utility box in Montrose. - COURTESY OF UP ART STUDIO
A mural of Alex Hill is painted on a utility box in Montrose.
Courtesy of UP Art Studio
Hill lived in Houston for just over a year after moving from South Carolina, and developed a close network of friends during that time. Several of his friends gathered at the crosswalk over the weekend to watch the painting happen, including Casey Ray and Landon Chapman.

Ray remembered Hill’s spirit, saying, “He had such a passion for making people happy and putting a smile on their face.”

Chapman remembers Hill’s tough-as-nails work ethic. “He moved here at age 20; he had done a year of college and had a 3.9 GPA while working two jobs," he says. "He was saving up money to buy a car and go back to school for his degree. He wanted to go into counseling and work with LGBT youth.”

Another one of Hill’s friends to watch the construction is Matt Brollier, who's a member of the Houston Pride Crosswalk Committee.

“Alex’s story has been repeated by 10,000 other people, whether it’s moving from a small town to a bigger city or moving across town or the journey everyone takes to accept themselves. Alex was one person, but I think his journey represents the same path of thousands of people,” Brollier says.

Hill’s story is similar to those of other people in another, more somber way. The Texas Department of Transportation reported 678 pedestrian fatalities statewide in 2016, a 21.5 percent increase from 2015.

Brollier and others hope these crosswalks will bring visibility to pedestrian safety. Brollier mentioned that other cities are just as car-dependent as Houston, yet the number of accidents is much lower elsewhere.

click to enlarge Workers braved the Houston heat to paint the colors of the Rainbow flag at the intersection of Westheimer and Taft. - SAM BYRD
Workers braved the Houston heat to paint the colors of the Rainbow flag at the intersection of Westheimer and Taft.
Sam Byrd
Like all streets in Houston at one point or another, Westheimer will face construction. This particular intersection is slated for roadwork in 2020, so this installation will last for two and a half years. The Montrose Management District will provide maintenance services for the crosswalk for the duration of the installation.

The Houston Pride Crosswalk Committee and Pride Houston will work with the City of Houston to develop a permanent installation as part of the road improvements in 2020. Pride Houston will serve as the fiscal sponsor for the permanent installation. Pride Houston is accepting donations on its website for individuals or groups looking to help fund the project.

The installation of the rainbow crosswalk is aptly timed, with construction finishing one week before the Houston Pride Festival and Pride Parade on June 24. The festivities are expected to draw more than 700,000 people.

This year's Pride festivities will take place downtown, but for years the parade was held in Montrose. The parade route included the same intersection where this memorial now stands, making this installation even more poignant.

Houston has been a little rainbow-happy lately. Lamppost banners once hung for decades in Montrose, but are now a relic of the past. Several years after being taken down from the streets of Westheimer, they are back in a new home. Pride Houston arranged for 32 sets of the pride flag banners for the month of June in downtown in honor of the Pride Parade and LGBTQ history.

Check out the rainbow crosswalk at the intersection of Westheimer and Taft in Houston's historic Montrose neighborhood.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd