Walter's on Washington owner Pam Robinson just can't catch a break. Seven years ago, when she was Pam Arnold, she managed Walter's Icehouse on Durham. After it had been in business for seven years, a Dallas couple named Murphy bought a condo nearby and began a campaign of harassment with the stated aim of shutting down Walter's and dispersing what Mr. Murphy called its "riffraff" clientele, so that he and his wife could buy the property and turn it into a drive-through Starbucks.
Robinson fought hard but ultimately lost. She moved around the corner and reopened a new club called Walter's on Washington on the eponymous gentrifying avenue. And everyone was happy for a few years. Robinson got married, took over and then relinquished Mary Jane's and Silky's, and then retrenched at Walter's, in a building that has been a live music venue for all but eight years since its erection in 1942.
And then Ryland and Scott Peveto moved in, new neighbors who turned out to be quite like the NIMBY Murphys (who ended up leaving town after they closed down Walter's Icehouse). After moving in right behind Walter's three years ago, they started phoning in a series of noise complaints to the Houston Police Department. Tons of noise complaints, including that spectacular one during an October 2006 Two Gallants show that culminated in what you could call a one-cop police riot Tase-a-thon extravaganza.
Walter's on Washington
And yet even after that debacle, even after multiple innocent Two Gallants fans were jolted with 50,000-volt electrical bolts, the noise complaints continued. The Pevetos claim that another type of voltage — reverberations from the bass frequencies from Walter's — rattle their stemware and shake their windows, which, to some, would be annoying. But it would still seem to be preferable to having another type of electrical frequency coursing through your ribcage, brain stem and spinal cord, but that's just me. I love palpable bass frequencies; getting Tased, not so much.
Robinson says she has tried to meet the Pevetos halfway. She says she has spent thousands of dollars soundproofing the club. She has tried to work things out with the Pevetos face to face. All to no avail. "I don't think they are being understanding," she says. The police have kept on coming, and that harms her business, she says. "If people drive up and see a cop car outside, they aren't coming in."
Additionally, Robinson's attorney Shannon Warren told me that the complaints are costing her money in other, more fundamental ways. The complaints have disrupted bookings. "The bands say, 'Have you taken care of that problem?' And she tells them she hasn't. They say, 'Well, we're not comin'. So she lost some club dates that she might have had, and we suspect that less patrons are coming, because you don't want to come to a place where you know that the police are gonna come."
So Robinson has decided to fight back. She filed suit against the Pevetos for tortious interference with contract, private nuisance, harassment, business disparagement, abuse of process and actionable civil conspiracy. They are asking for a temporary restraining order, a permanent injunction against the noise complaints, and damages.
The Pevetos aren't backing down — last month, they returned Robinson's volley by taking their tale of woe to the mayor and city council at a hearing in City Hall. A few days later, Robinson told that same august body her side of the same story.
"It was very frustrating," Robinson says. "I don't like hypocrites, and I sat there for over an hour listening to people go on and on about false burglar alarms. The council and the mayor were saying that someone needs to pay for this, that it was a waste of police time and resources. And I went, 'Oh boy, wait till I get up there and I tell them about my 212 false alarm noise complaints. They should pay, and the only one paying is me.'"
That's right. There have been 212 noise complaint calls about Walter's, and so far, according to Robinson's attorney, only one has resulted in a citation, and even that one was dismissed. (Robinson says that three were made when the club wasn't even open.) Additionally, both Walter's and the Peveto residence are mere blocks from one of the busiest rail-freight terminals in America. Why don't all those long trains running bother the Pevetos?
"At what point is enough enough?" asks Robinson, in Bob Dylan mode. "I think [city council] did understand my plight, that yes, it does interfere with my business when the police show up, even though we're not doing anything wrong. We're not squirming when they come; we meet 'em, we greet 'em, we shake their hand. We don't scatter like rats!"
"I should just be deemed not a nuisance and left alone," she says.
In recent years, as the Inner Loop in-fills, and neighborhoods that were once full of live-and-let-live working-class Hispanics (like Robinson's Rice Military area) or young hedonists (as in Montrose) are resettled by aging Yuppies, the noise complaint issue has become more and more problematic. The West Alabama Icehouse has been besieged with them. So has Rudyard's. Helios ceased playing all but the softest live music and changed names to AvantGarden. Under the Volcano's New Orleans brass band nights came to an end in early 2006 at least in part because of noise complaints.
It seems that all these people who claim to want to be where the action is in fact want to force their dreary suburban placidity on all of us. To them, a walkable lifestyle is one that enables them to hoof it to Starbucks, not neighborhood bars with bands.
There exists a ruse well-known to NIMBY busybodies and control freaks. Say a couple from Katy read a Chronicle article about "urban living," and, inspired, they decide to move into some frayed-but-gentrifying Heights or East End neighborhood. Let's say that to their dismay, they discover on their first Friday night in their new urban homestead that there's an old bar with a stage on the corner, and that bar gets crowded after dark.
Let's further say they don't like the cut of this establishment's jib. The regulars there don't look like their kind of people. They're a tad, well, common. They favor Bud Lite over Chardonnay, and they look to be fit only to cut your grass or repair your home theater system. Or maybe, as is the case with Walter's, they drink Lone Star and look like those "punk-rock" juvenile delinquents you stultified right out of Katy long ago.
And having those kind of people congregate on your corner is hurting your property values, your precious investment. What to do? How best to remedy this situation?
One such method well known to many of these ransacking suburban Huns is to phone in noise complaint after noise complaint. They log all of these and take them to the hearing when the bar's liquor license comes up for renewal, hoping that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission will agree that the place has become a nuisance, a hindrance to the entire neighborhood's prosperity. If they win the T.A.B.C. over, onward marches progress. Another swatch of the urban quilt is ripped out and replaced with Cinco Ranch fabric. Or maybe a Beverly Hills-style wine bar. Lord knows Washington Avenue needs another one of those.
Robinson says the city is pressuring her to drop her suit against the Pevetos. "They really want the city to mediate it," she says. "But that would be like having the fox watch the henhouse, wouldn't it? So that ain't happening. I'm proceeding. If they get in my way, I'll sue them too."
Sue the city?
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"Why not?" Robinson continues. "I don't need to now. They're not bothering me. But if they start harassing me...This is what my husband was afraid of. He said, 'Now it's just gonna get ugly.' And I said, 'It hasn't been ugly already?' It's been ugly since [the Two Gallants show in] October of 2006."
Robinson says she has a letter of endorsement from her next-door neighbors, people who have lived right next to Walter's and the prior incarnation of the club for well-nigh 20 years. "They wrote a letter stating that since we moved in, things have been wonderful because we soundproofed, we're very responsive to any complaints or concerns, and if we were gone, they would be sad, because there was no way they could replace us or find someone else better," she says.
Robinson wants the Pevetos to know they have a choice. They can learn to live with Walter's, or they can deal with her contingency plan for the property. "If Walter's closes, I'm turning this place into a 24-hour methadone clinic," she says. "And I will have it subsidized with your federal tax dollars. Don't think I won't. Addicts need help too."