Best Of :: People & Places
Sig Byrd's Houston In the '50s and '60s, Sig Byrd was a columnist for the old daily Houston Press and later the Houston Chronicle, and his beat was the human tragicomedy. Byrd was irresistibly drawn to the city's lowlife; in his words, the "curious assortment of hard-bitten merchants, working men and women, wineheads, goofball addicts, [and] desiccated trollops" that congregated in the "scrounging retail stores, flophouses, brothels, and honky-tonks" along the skid rows that were Preston and Congress streets. Though Byrd's Houston existed 50 years ago, it might as well have been the Middle Ages. Who today remembers that the entire 400 block of Milam was once a den of sin called Catfish Reef, or that in the '50s there were still blacksmiths beating on red-hot metal in a place near the Preston Street Bridge called Vinegar Hill? Who recalls when people would say something was "lagoo-oon" when they wanted to call something cool? While virtually every other book about Houston concerns the deeds of great men -- Sam Houston, Jesse Jones, Roy Hofheinz and the like -- Byrd explored the deeds of the forgotten souls who lived on the fringes or did the grunt work, and in doing so, he wrote the finest book about Houston and one of the best ever works of Texan nonfiction. It's a tragedy that it's out of print, but you can almost always pick up a copy online. It's well worth the hunt.
Downtown lofts "Adaptive reuse" is the fancy phrase used by builders to describe the process of renovating old buildings for new uses. It's a simple idea that's finally taking hold downtown, where old shells of former banks and office buildings are gutted and reconstructed for the adventurous urban dweller. We're not talking about the highway-adjacent, corrugated tin cans that promise "loft living." We're talking about the real thing: the big, atmospheric lobbies, thick rock walls, concrete floors and skyline views you'll find at the Southern Pacific Railroad building (now the Bayou Lofts at 915 Franklin) or the Rice Lofts (909 Texas). And using spaces that are already there minimizes new, "ground-up" construction (drab condos and look-alike town homes), cutting down on sprawl and highway congestion.
Metro light rail Okay, there are the accidents (mostly the fault of Houston drivers) and the occasionally backed-up traffic, but any new addition to the city that can increase mobility, cut pollution and get people back downtown is a winner to us. And with plans in the works to bring more development (housing, stores and amenities) to the light rail corridor, by 2006 you'll be able to pick up groceries, get to your doctor's appointment, hit the gym and meet your date for drinks at the Icon all in one afternoon, without ever using a car or freeway. Is this Houston, or are we dreaming?
Art Car Parade This year's parade, the 17th, featured a dragon, a cadre of Elvises and a giant George W. Bush thrusting his pelvis into a big globe. Whether you like the downright wacky entries or the ones with a little more edge, you can't help but admire the art car owners' craftsmanship and questionable sanity. Every year, hundreds of Houston's car artists unveil their winged, painted and appliquéd creations for the thousands of folks who line Allen Parkway. Every wagon, hearse and monster truck is tricked out (not to mention the occasional scooter and bike) in this true Houston original. It's best to get there early to find a shady spot and watch what happens when Henry Ford meets Salvador Dalí.
Delaney Hall The "What would Jesus drive?" bumper stickers aren't likely to be succeeded by "Where would Jesus hang?" varietals, but the question is nonetheless worth asking. If the Lord were to pick His favorite Houston building, He might choose Delaney Hall, the new earth-friendly addition to the Emerson Unitarian Church. The brick building will soon become the first church in Texas to meet stringent Leadership in Environmental Design standards, which have become the benchmark for eco-friendly architecture. The structure takes a load off Mother Earth with auto-shutoff faucets, carpet made from recycled materials and a metal roof that reflects light to reduce cooling bills. It uses 30 percent less water and energy than a conventional building, despite being built on a tight construction budget, says Rebecca Bryant of Ray Bailey Architects. Even the landscaping is earth-friendly: The native varieties planted here drink less than imported varieties, and they attract butterflies to the adjacent playground.
Marfa Call it a triple threat. For more than a hundred years, folks have seen unexplained lights near Marfa, putting the small West Texas town on the map of Agent Mulder types. Just under 50 years ago, director George Stevens filmed Giant there, forever cementing the place as a shrine to Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean and Dennis Hopper. And then 20-something years later, artist Donald Judd set up shop at the site of a former military base in the same area, creating sprawling installations that would forever change the face of the local landscape -- and the world of contemporary art. Now the entire town is awash in galleries, commemorative plaques and paranormal junkies. It's almost too much to take in at once.