R.I.P. La Strada

Political Animals

Feces-Filled Mail
BARC's problems detailed in e-mail

By Craig Malisow


continuing BARC problems

Internal e-mails among Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care's new administrators and volunteers from September 20 to October 9 show a newly independent city agency plagued with miscommunication and continued animal negligence — the same problems BARC suffered under its former leadership.

Hair Balls' preliminary review of nearly 500 pages' worth of e-mails obtained by former volunteer Margaret Gondo's open records request show that, two months into Interim Bureau Chief Gerry Fusco's reign — and many more months after a series of "Incident Command Teams" were dispatched by Health and Human Services Director Stephen Williams — the shelter still lacked the basic governance to keep animals fed and free from living in their own filth.

Per one volunteer's impassioned e-mail, cats have been left without food or water, to the point where one cat was gnawing on a bowl. (That cat was lucky — some cages allegedly had no bowls). Other e-mails complain of dogs being put out for adoption without being spayed/neutered; and one volunteer complains of a dog with a bad eye injury who was forced to wait for a week — allegedly with fragments of its damaged eye hanging out of the socket — before being treated.

(A December 1 e-mail, not part of Gondo's records request, concerns a volunteer's request to Fusco about the need for litterboxes. Fusco replies with: "We cannot continue to get deluged with requests about litterboxes or other similar requests when we [are] trying to increase live releases [and] develop better sanitation techniques," ostensibly expressing his belief that cats having no place to shit would not fall under the category of "sanitation.")

Much of the concern over actual problems — as well as a spate of rumors — came from volunteers who encouraged City Council to approve Fusco's $180,000 contract, an irony that was not lost on Fusco, per his September 27 e-mail to Elena Marks of Mayor Bill White's office (and BARC's current spokeswoman): "Somehow we have to do something to stop this. There is only so much I can take of this nonsense," Fusco wrote. "These are the same people who sang my praises. This is much more than one person should have to bear."

Although some of Fusco's e-mails express dismay over management not being "in sync" with volunteers, of "procedural problems that are pervasive at BARC," about a policy change in releasing euthanasia records made without his knowledge, and about "dismal" record-keeping in the shelter's computerized inventory database, he places much of the blame for BARC's problems on negative comments from the public.

On September 26, Fusco e-mailed Marks that "I will forward you an e-mail from a volunteer that must have seen a [blogger's] comments. I'm really tough, but this nonsense does have a way of wearing you down and works to demoralize one. No wonder BARC can't get on a sustainable path. Much of the public won't allow it."

Another highlight came on September 20, when a volunteer e-mailed Fusco and others about conditions in the north kennel:

"Saturday was pure hell at BARC...The cages [in the north kennel] themselves were abominable. Cages cannot become this filthy day after day. Some of these cages had not been cleaned the right way for days. There were feces in the corners of the cage, smeared on the cages and caked on the cages. We tried to just give food and water, but had to clean a few where the excrement was on the animals."

The volunteer continued: "The condition in the north kennel has definitely gotten worse in the last couple of weeks. I have never seen the cages in this condition...The city prosecutes individuals for having their animals with no food [and] water and lying in excrement. But we are doing the same thing."

Fusco replied later that morning: "I [saw] the cat ward and it was terrible. PLEASE...allow me the opportunity to fix this." Fusco goes on to tell two BARC employees, who were apparently in charge of the north kennel, "I will not put up with this...Either we scheduled poorly, or no one is doing their work."

Spaced City

R.I.P., La Strada
Another Montrose landmark closes its doors

By John Nova Lomax

In the final chapter of a long-drawn demise of a lower Westheimer institution, La Strada has shuttered. Numerous insiders and former patrons attribute the demise of the 22-year-old restaurant, notorious for its rollicking Sunday brunches, to a 2002 fire which closed the restaurant for more than a year.

"Before the fire, there was a spirit there — kind of a hybrid of mid-city urban chic and wild, flamboyant, screaming-queen fun," says former patron Melissa K. Cherry. "That spirit was gone after the fire. After the fire, they kind of got all velvet-rope exclusionary, and I think that hurt them."

Online, Cherry reminisced about the joint's glory days thusly: "Used to love Sunday brunches there! Tossing Jell-O shots and flying paper airplanes made from gay porn magazines along with spontaneous line dancing and roundhouse showtune chorales. Now it is a morgue."

In 2004, a B4-U-Eat reviewer had this to say about the post-fire Sunday brunch scene at La Strada: "Remember when Sunday was La Strada? Remember when the bellinis flowed, the beads flew and the crowd was as colorful as the confetti? The bellinis are now in plastic, the beads are outlawed and the channel was changed from Queer as Folk to Sex and the City. What fool decided to 'straighten' out Sunday?"

While Cherry didn't know quite how true her choice of the word "morgue" was, she says she was still shocked to learn that the place was closing. "I had some wonderful times there. At least those I can remember."

Mark Hanna, owner of local hospitality industry consultancy Customer First, was not shocked. "They never got their luster back when they reopened. That brunch-party scene kinda migrated over to Berryhill's [on Montrose]."

Hanna believes that a certain stagnancy in the kitchen also hampered the restaurant's efforts to get its 1990s mojo back.

"They did nothing foodwise for a really long time, no new chef, nothing like that," says Hanna. "There has been a lot of flux on the Houston dining scene in the last six to nine months, and La Strada didn't keep up."

La Strada opened in 1986. Ten years later, owner Aldo Catania opened a ­Galleria-area location, which closed in 2007. In 2002, a fire closed the Montrose location, and it didn't reopen until 2004. Last March, the Montrose location declared for bankruptcy over taxes owed to the state, citing assets of less than $50,000 and debts of $1 million to $10 million.

Catania could not be reached for comment.


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