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.
Kofi Drag queens come in all shapes and sizes, but it seems like the ones who take the stage at most gay bars around town try to emulate the skinny, big-breasted model of feminine beauty. Maybe it's the result of our society's love affair with Britney and Jessica, or maybe it's just the fact that these queens are unnaturally thin from all the partying attached to such a fabulous lifestyle. No matter, 'cause our favorite is Kofi, who's beautiful in all her voluptuous lusciousness. This gal's male alter ego is Jerry Nabors, a guy who's considered one of the sweetest in the community, but that doesn't mean he doesn't let it all hang out when he tucks it all under and starts acting like royalty. Kofi's a little sassy, you see, just like a queen should be.
White Oak Drive, between Studewood and Houston Avenue Heading east with Fitzgerald's behind you, you cruise down a typical neighborhood street. Then you take a turn and voilà: quaint San Francisco-style houses are stacked together on your left while ballparks adorn the bayou on your right. Head down one of the few hills in Houston and you've got a compelling view of downtown framed by freeways. Keep on rolling underneath Sawyer Street, making sure to check out the cute houses on your left and the lush vegetation on your right. It makes you realize how tropical Houston can be. Your journey ends a few twists and turns later at King Biscuit, where you can take a right on Houston Avenue and cruise into downtown. Damn, this sure beats taking the freeway.
Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention Air pollution shouldn't be a partisan issue -- at least, not for those of us who breathe. But in refinery-dominated Houston, clean-air advocates can be painted as whining hypochondriacs who just don't understand that a little bit of ozone keeps the economy well greased. Industry officials might hurl this and other imprecations at the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, yet it's much harder to refute the group's research. For example, this summer GHASP released a report indicating toxic emissions from Houston refineries and chemical plants are more than three times higher than what the industry reports. By using hard numbers and scientific studies, GHASP presents a strong case for better regulation of polluting industries. And its feisty membership arm, Mothers for Clean Air, is mobilizing enough local activists to make it happen. If Houston is to breathe new life into its economy, we'll need groups such as GHASP to make the city's atmosphere attractive for everybody, not just oil tycoons.
Revolution Yeah, we know what you're thinking: Surfing in Texas? Well, after years of being ignored in the Cali-based surf mags, Galveston-born Stephen Hadley launched Gulf Coast Surfer in 2003. That publication metamorphosed into Revolution, a free magazine with great photos, interviews and updates of those involved in the Texas surf scene. "The mag's publication is happening at a time when surfing has reached unprecedented levels in our region," Hadley writes in the premiere issue. "Instead of fashioning a surf community based on East or West Coast ideals, we are slowly creating a culture that is uniquely ours." No matter if you're a beginner, an expert or have never even seen a surfboard, check out Revolution and see why surfing is alive and well in the Lone Star State.
Jeff Skilling Hey, Jeff: Nobody's dissin' you for that little mess known as Enron. Hell, you jumped in as CEO and jacked 'em up -- shareholders, small-fry workers and anybody else you could boost -- for a few hundred million. But so did the rest of the gang. That act, er, innovative leadership, will play well in most corporate boardrooms across the country these days. What doesn't go over quite as well, either here or in the Big Apple, is your horror show while clubbin' in Manhattan. You had to get shit-faced, try to swipe license plates, talk to the heavens and cop a feel under female blouses in the name of searching for FBI wires. Your wife may forgive you for knocking her over when she was already on crutches, but we can't be as kind. Those Upper East Siders already think of Houston as a heathen backwater. As Kenny Boy might say, can't you at least Lay low for a while?
Sharon Bush Sit down, Anna Nicole, there's a new bad broad in town. Sharon Bush gives exes everywhere a bad name while elevating the whining-victim game to a new high (or low). Neil may not be the brightest Bush in the bunch, but even he couldn't put up with her. After 23 years, he called it quits last year. But Sharon didn't take the divorce lying down. She has called his new wife a naughty name, told people that the woman's infant son was Neil's love child (slander suit pending on that one), threatened to write a tell-all about the Bush family, talked to gossip columnists in New York and D.C. and spilled her tale of woe to at least two major magazines, neither of which wound up portraying her in a very friendly light. What's next, her own reality TV show? Divorce just brings out the best in some women.