The True Tradition of Houston

If I were one of the geniuses in charge of selling the stadium proposal to county voters, I'd cut a commercial with Irma Galvan -- quick.

You know Galvan: she's the Irma of Irma's, the very fine Mexican eatery down at the foot of Chenevert on the northeast edge of downtown. She's also the Irma who may be sitting pretty if voters give the county -- or whoever's in charge -- the go-ahead to build Drayton McLane a new ballpark a few blocks south of two properties she owns.

Galvan, who's known for her doting, personal touch with customers, is asking them all to vote for the downtown stadium. Hers is unabashed self-interest, of course, but Irma, unlike others with a stake in seeing the stadium built, isn't hiding it. And she's not sitting in the back of her restaurant, calculating the big score she could make off the real estate play that will accompany the stadium. She's continued doing what she's been doing downtown now for going on four decades -- working her butt off.

Yeah, she's got some ideas, nothing grandiose: maybe she'll keep her restaurant open nights, and maybe the empty building she owns at the corner of Franklin and Chenevert would be a good spot for a sports bar or some other stadium-related enterprise. But Galvan doesn't exactly need the stadium: she's already created a successful business, in an area most others had forsaken and without the benefit of tax abatements or a tax increment financing district or other special dispensation.

"I believe in downtown," says Galvan. "If the stadium comes, fine. If not, I'll still be happy."

As a colleague said, if it means Irma's would stay open nights, then perhaps it's worth voting McLane a new ballpark. Because if anyone deserves to turn a buck off of a downtown stadium, it's Irma Galvan.

Irma, in fact, is downtown. She grew up nearby in the Second Ward, attended elementary school at Our Lady of Guadalupe, then Marshall Middle School and Jeff Davis High, and after graduation went to work at the Purse & Co. wholesale furniture warehouse. She remained at Purse & Co. for 28 years, until it went out of business 13 years ago. That was shortly after her husband -- a cancer researcher at Baylor College of Medicine -- was murdered in a New Year's morning robbery on Cavalcade. His death left her with four kids to raise -- they all work at the restaurant now -- and two house notes to pay, she and her husband having rented out their old place in Denver Harbor after moving to a new home off of 290.

It was not a wonderful time in Galvan's life. After her husband died, she recalls, "I felt like I had nothing live for."

But she did, and after Purse & Co. closed, she went to work for Melvin Littman at the Furniture Warehouse up the street. She worked for Mr. Littman for five years, but found she wasn't bringing home the money she had made at Purse & Co.

As most of the businesses in the warehouse district folded or moved away, Galvan kept her eye on a dilapidated little building across the street from Purse & Co. It had once been home to Flying M Bar, then later a sandwich shop and grocery that kept erratic hours and didn't attract much business. Galvan saw something in that building, and in 1989, she opened Irma's in it. For a week Irma sold sandwiches, but she realized sandwiches were a loser and began offering Mexican dishes. Her clientele built up slowly but surely: first workers from the nearby courthouses, then the media and political types, and now almost anybody who finds themselves downtown can be found at Irma's. She bought that building three years ago, and has added a middle dining room, a patio and a second-floor apartment, all decorated with the special touch Irma says she picked up from working with decorators at Purse & Co. She's also bought a house at Lake Conroe.

Seven months ago, Galvan purchased the old Furniture Warehouse building down the street from her restaurant, with the vague idea of offering space for artists' studios there. The building isn't much to look at now, and when she bought it the Astrodome was still a worthy venue for baseball and nobody was talking seriously about a downtown stadium.

So why did she buy it?
"Because I used to work there," she says.
I got to thinking about Irma after reading in the Chronicle about how another face of downtown, Ben Love, is pining for a return to "the true tradition of Houston." I think he meant the days when a handful of people who ran everything got together in private, split their differences and made the decisions for everybody else. They may have served a greater good, but they also served themselves, and they didn't go out of their way to let too many people in on it.

That was a long time ago, even before Love's time, actually. Now the institutions that once helped fashion and enforce the consensus -- the banks, including the one Love used to run, and the big media -- are owned by out-of-towners. Blacks and Hispanics, even some women, have to be cut in for a share. Democracy has broken out, and it must surely rankle the Ben Loves and Ken Lays that a nodule like Barry Klein is accorded equal footing in with them in the stadium debate.

But even with the hundreds of thousands of dollars they'll round up to make the footing unequal, the Great White Fathers have a tough sell. To make it easier, the first thing they should do is start filling in the many, many details missing from the stadium proposition, even if they're making them up as they go along.

But since Irma told me to vote for a new ballpark, I'll consider it.

I will not, however, vote for anything smacking of that inane suggestion by the Chronicle's Fran Blinebury for a dome on which laser imagery of the sky (you know, the real one outside) could be projected through the miracles of "tinted pillow insulation and fiberglass technology."

"Think bigger, better," advised Blinebury in his moonlighting role as a shill for Disney Imagineering -- bigger and better meaning a "facade" of the downtown skyline beyond the outfield fence and a "true-to-life artificial atmosphere" in which trees could grow beneath the dome.

I have no idea what he was getting at, but the general "bigger and better" idea jazzes the powers-the-be at the Chronicle, which wants the new stadium to be "exciting, futuristic and cutting edge" and has -- uh uhm -- "reservations" about a retractable roof.

Why not be really daring and raise that non-retractable dome over the deck of Highway 59 -- the stretch of land between Union Station and the freeway looks too confining for a stadium, anyway -- and have eight lanes of traffic running through a mezzanine. You could charge a premium on personal seat licenses in the vicinity, and offer a sponsor's giveaway whenever a Bagwell homer cracks the windshield on a passing 18-wheeler. That would be "true tradition of Houston," wouldn't it?

The Council debate over providing the uniforms and instruments for Calvin Murphy's baton-twirling "Marching Thunder" kids was a ripe spectacle, from the mayoral wife's effusiveness at the outcome (spending extravagantly on gaudy outfits being something she apparently feels strongly about) to Rob Todd's recollection of how he and his wife, over coffee early that very morning, had discussed Tiberius' (yeah, rockin' Tiberius!) admonition on the "duty of a good shepherd."

And who will forget John Kelley's reminiscence of the limited recreational opportunities available to him as a boy, when he had to rustle up a stick and an old tin can for a game of "shinny."

Hey, don't laugh -- he didn't grow up to be a crack-smoking welfare cheat, did he?

Although the initial cost for the uniforms seemed absurdly high ($18 for a kids' cummerbund? $50 for leotards?), I found it difficult to get exercised one way or another about the issue. Sheared of the symbolic freight, at bottom it seemed to be, as Joe Roach observed in much politer terms, another example of the Lanier administration's here-it-is, approve-it-quick and damn-the-cost approach to parks and recreation -- an approach explored at length two weeks ago in these pages by Bob Burtman.

But there was something else going on, as you may have noticed by the 8-7 vote in favor of the spending. The vote broke almost cleanly along racial lines, with all of the African-American and Hispanic councilmembers (save for Orlando Sanchez, if he counts as Hispanic) favoring the $430,000 expenditure, and all of the Caucasians, save for the mayor, voting against it.

Some of the pro-Calvin rhetoric was full of bloviating sanctimony worthy of Marian Wright Edelman (although it is possible that donning one of these spangly outfits will leave a child feeling so good about herself that she winds up on Houston City Council), and it obliged several of the opponents to make it known that they are in no way "anti-children."

But much of the anti-Calvin rhetoric -- on talk radio, in letters to the editor and in Council chambers -- was loaded with racial undertones similar to those that shadowed the national debate over welfare reform: you know, about how these little kids were being given something that would inevitably stunt their moral growth and leave them forever dependent on government handouts.

There's merit to that argument, but as Jew Don Boney and Michael Yarbrough implied, the same could be said of the city's "guarantee" to pay Drayton McLane up to $15 million for PSLs he can't sell at his new ballpark, or to the taxpayer-subsidized transformation of the Rice Hotel.

"Here we are about to choke on a gnat," Yarbrough said of the Marching Thunder apparel, "and we swallowed an elephant two week ago."

He was talking about Council's approval of the Rice Hotel deal, but I guess he was too politic to say white elephant.

That deal, which will result in the creation of apartments for rich people who can afford the $2,000-a-month rent, received a shamefully small amount of media coverage, at least compared to the attention showered on the essentially meaningless Marching Thunder debate. And, of course, nobody -- not the budget-conscious councilmembers, not the gumbeaters of talk radio, not the letter-to-the-editor writers -- bothered to raise the rhetorical question they later posed to Calvin's kids: I mean, if you want to build out some trendy downtown lofts, or live in one, WHY DON'T YOU GET A PRIVATE SPONSOR TO UNDERWRITE YOU, INSTEAD OF DEPENDING ON THE GOVERNMENT FOR A HANDOUT?

You know why.


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