Loud music. Noisy drunks. Beer bottles, pools of urine, an occasional undergarment left behind after a night of carousing.
Joanna Pasternak figures that such spillover from The Pig "Live," a bar that's catty-corner to the backyard of her home in the 2100 block of Colquitt, is just part of the price she pays to enjoy life inside the Loop.
James Thomas, who lives in the 2200 block of Colquitt, across Greenbriar from Pasternak, also appreciates the diversity of their area, where the broad-lawned subdivisions seamlessly converge with the nearby dining, drinking and shopping establishments to link two desirable worlds within walking distance.
But for Thomas, who is president of the Colquitt Court Civic Club, it was one thing to live with The Pig "Live." It became quite another to endure the ruckus that's accompanied the opening of nearly a dozen new bars and restaurants in the Richmond-Greenbriar area in the past few years. The proliferation of bistros -- six nightspots have opened in just the last five months -- produced a nightly deluge of the young and hip, whose first order of business before disappearing into the noisy neon Mecca was to cruise the surrounding neighborhoods for a place to park.
In late November, Thomas attended a meeting of the Upper Kirby District Association, an umbrella organization of some 150 businesses and 17 civic clubs in the bustling area. Before an audience that included Councilmembers Martha Wong and John Kelley and representatives from the city's Traffic and Transportation Department, Thomas joined other residents to ask that something be done to stem the motorized tide that was overwhelming their neighborhood.
And to everyone's amazement, something was.
"It was proposed that they put up No Parking signs on both sides of the street on these streets," Thomas explains. "And, lo and behold, the city acted much more quickly than we realized."
And much more quickly than many residents in the 2100 blocks of Colquitt and West Main would have preferred. Especially Pasternak. She and husband Alan awoke on December 28 to the sight of city workers erecting signs banning all parking on their street between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. The new rules presented immediate problems.
"We had a New Year's Eve party, and it was a disaster," Pasternak recalls. "We had to have people take turns standing outside all night to keep the wrecker drivers from towing away our cars."
Thus began the Great Sign Debate, an at-times bilious dispute between residents in the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Colquitt and West Main, which are at the epicenter of the nightlife explosion in the area. On the one side are Thomas and his allies, who say they were only acting to improve the neighborhood. On the other are their neighbors, like the Pasternaks, who argue that they were never consulted about the signs and, if they had been, would have objected to them being put up.
An underlying theme of the dispute -- one perhaps more central than who can park where and when -- is how residents are coping with the encroachment of commercial activity in the tight quarters of Houston's inner-city neighborhoods. Thomas and Pasternak have differing opinions on that issue as well. Thomas says the intrusion of those seeking good times in his neighborhood had become a burden he and his neighbors could no longer bear. Pasternak believes the variety of life inside the Loop far outweighs the occasional inconvenience.
"It's kind of what we like about it, and we've learned to deal with it," says Pasternak, who teaches gifted third-graders for the Houston Independent School District. "If you want another kind of life, move to Kingwood."
It is just such an aversion to outlying planned communities like Kingwood and other relatively pallid environs that continues to make life inside the Loop so appealing for many young professionals. But according to Stephen Harsin, a principal planner for the Planning and Development Department, the city is discovering it is ill-prepared to deal with the collision course on which a growing number of inner-city residents and businesses find themselves.
"It's really not all that unique a problem," says Harsin. "What you have is this influx of bars and restaurants that cater to late-night crowds, and the neighborhoods are getting tired of it."
Harsin says that because the city didn't institute a parking ordinance until 1989 -- and then included a grandfather clause that exempts many establishments -- the number of available parking spaces has failed to keep pace with the number of people who want them. In some areas, he says, there are barely enough spaces to accommodate the people who work there. That forces patrons and customers into the surrounding neighborhoods to hunt down parking.
Unfortunately, the city's transportation department has a backlog of requests from neighborhoods seeking a Neighborhood Traffic Study to help develop permanent solutions to the problem. In the meantime, one stop-gap measure the city is relying on a lot these days, Harsin says, is the placement of No Parking signs in an attempt to cut down on traffic in residential areas.
"That way the residents don't have to worry about people parking in front of their homes," he says. "The only problem is they can't park, either."
It is just that kind of short-sightedness that angers Joanna Pasternak.
"If it was done either by a city survey that showed it was a safety problem or if they had asked the residents, that would be one thing," she says. "But the way they did it blew it up into this big problem."
Depending on who you talk to from the anti-sign contingent, the root of that problem is either Thomas, Martha Wong, the Upper Kirby District Association or Laura Puzio, who until last week was president of the Westlawn Terrace Civic Association, which represents the 2100 blocks of Colquitt and West Main.
Puzio, who recently quit her position because "a lot of ugly things were said to me," says she can't understand why Pasternak and others are so upset. She says everyone involved in the sign decision acted in good faith, and the city promptly issued parking permits to accommodate residents.
Still, she acknowledges, "the issue has gone beyond convenience. They feel that Big Brother has come in and done this to them. They feel sorta victimized."
Mary Jo Poindexter, who lives in the 2100 block of West Main, says Puzio doesn't get it.
"Nobody on our block or in the 2100 block of Colquitt was consulted," Poindexter says. "But James Thomas was definitely consulted and he was at the Upper Kirby meeting."
Thomas acknowledges that he has wanted parking banned on his street for some time. And he admits the only people he talked with about it were of a like mind. But he says there was really no system in place to poll all the residents, who despite living in a four-block area are represented by three different civic associations.
That may be true, Pasternak responds, but it doesn't explain why the signs are still up, despite two petition drives, two neighborhood meetings and an opinion poll, all of which revealed that some blocks have a clear majority of residents who don't want them.
One of those who opposes the signs is Harry Fisher, a retiree who has lived up the block from the Pasternaks on Colquitt for 11 years. Fisher says a few years ago the city restricted parking to the north side of his street. But by banning parking altogether, he's afraid bar patrons frustrated by the lack of parking will exact revenge on the homeowners.
"The more we antagonize these people, the more they're going to do things to fight back," he says. "If we just let things cool off, why, they'll park and maybe throw a couple beer cans down and, what the hell, I'll go out in the morning and pick them. And that'll be the end of it."
Some bar owners think that if residents keep insisting that parking be banned on their streets, they won't have to worry about having too many bars around because many will be forced out of business. Patrick Jackanich, owner of The Pig "Live," says when he bought the bar in 1991 he also bought an abandoned building next door, tore it down and put in a parking lot. He says he has also posted signs in his club asking his patrons to respect the neighborhood and has hired someone to pick up trash in the neighborhood every night.
"We weren't having trouble until September, when all the other clubs started opening up in the area," Jackanich says. "But the city's reaction was outrageous. Banning parking on both sides everywhere made the problems worse. It drove a lot of our customers deeper into the neighborhoods."
Jackanich also admits that the signs have "been brutal" to his business. "It has hurt me dramatically, and it's starting to hurt everybody. People are getting towed and they aren't coming back."
While that undoubtedly makes some people happy, James Thomas says it's not his intention to get rid of The Pig "Live" or any other neighborhood bar. He only asks that their customers park somewhere other than in front of his house. "I'm happy," he says. "I don't have drunks on my street at three in the morning."
Neither does Joanna Pasternak. But the idea that the signs are hurting business bothers her. She says she enjoys using her house as a meeting place for friends who drive in from outside the Loop before walking up the street to eat or have a drink.
"But we can't do that anymore," she says. "We've said three times that we don't want this, but it's being shoved down our throats."
Laura Puzio, the former president of the Westlawn Terrace Civic Association, says all residents on Colquitt and West Main have been sent ballots to vote on the signs. That could result in parking being banned on the 2200 block of Colquitt and permitted on the 2100 block, while over on West Main, parking might be available on one side of the street.
It won't be an ideal situation for everyone, Puzio says, but, the politics of parking has likely made uniformity an unrealistic goal.
"There is so much diversity in the types of people that live here," she says. "It's definitely been a difficult thing to decide what makes a good neighborhood and what should be done to make it better.