Fight the Power
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.
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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.
In Sherman's analysis, Mayor Bob Lanier's brokering of a peace treaty/pay raise for the police should have spelled the end for the neighborhood associations. Key words: "should have": "Everybody with a life dropped out of the civic club," he opines. "What remained was a small, judgmental, power-mad lunatic fringe which was perceived as 'the voice of the neighborhood.' Anyone seeking office or re-election pandered to this minority -- hence the noise ordinance, the ban on drinking in parks and the push for zoning."
These people -- whom Sherman in his best Bill Safire-esque prose calls "nitwitted NIMBY neighborhood Nazis" -- are running amok now. "Make no mistake -- much of what happens in Houston is to appease a small, active group of serious control freaks. They cloak it in terms of quality of life and property values, but the real motivation is that making other people do things they don't want to makes them pop a woody. Also, a surprising number of nNnN 'community activists' are recovering alcoholics who enjoy denying others the pleasures they can't indulge in."
And, Sherman says, voter apathy takes care of the rest. As Sherman puts it, "Especially in local elections it is very hard to get people to the polls, and the extremists wind up with power and input way out of proportion to their numbers and the actual collective will of the neighborhood." (Back in his Public News days, Sherman studied the work habits of retired councilman Frank Mancuso up close and personal for a week or so. Eventually Sherman said, "Frank, it looks to me like you guys really just work for about 25 people in your district who you don't want stumping for your opponent, and as long as you keep them happy you get re-elected." According to Sherman, Mancuso took a puff off of his cigar and said, "Actually, it's more like ten or 12.")
So Sherman says the time has come for knock-down-drag-out civic combat. He doesn't want to fight City Hall -- he wants to join it, to pack it with candidates friendlier to the old Montrosian/Washington Avenue way of life -- specifically, that aspect of it that loved loud music and long nights in the bars. The Puritan Roundheads have had their day here; now it's time for the fun-loving Cavaliers to ride again.
Sherman says the club owners need to band together -- to that end, he proposes a political action committee to be helmed by Pam Robinson of Walter's and Lelia Rodgers of Rudyard's. Between them, and with the cooperation of the city's bands and other venues like the Proletariat, Fitzgerald's, the Continental Club and Super Happy Fun Land, this group could raise mad cash through a series of benefit concerts. That money could be steered to the PAC, which could then fund one or more pro-music candidates for city council.
"With enough money, a ham sandwich could get elected to Council in Houston and probably serve the full three terms," Sherman notes. "And if the club owners and bands would unite in raising a record amount of money for electable, well-rounded pro-music candidates, it would bitch-slap the pols who are whores for the nNnNs and open the eyes of fence-sitters."
Sherman has a couple of candidates in mind. So, as it happens, do I, one of whom is Allen Hill, the tuxedo-wearing, long-distance running leader of the Allen Oldies Band. I called him at his day job -- he does marketing and public relations for the Orange Show -- and he definitely sounded intrigued by the prospect. "I would be the first council member who wouldn't need a microphone," he says. "And I'm already one of the loudest people in town. I could just get louder."
You can almost hear him warming to the idea over the phone. "I think something like this is necessary, whether it's me on the council or not," he says. "It needs to happen. This top-down BS needs to stop. It's really important. Does Houston want to have an identity or does it want to be anonymous and bland?"
Will this city be a fun dwelling place for people, or an enormous glorified office park fit only for cars? It's up to you.
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