White Linen Fight
Jackie Harris has her machete out again, if only figuratively this time. Years ago, Harris brandished one literally. Tired of having patrons parking in or blocking her driveway, she strode with cold ferocity and with great blade in hand into the cantina next to her Sunset Heights bungalow and asked them to kindly stop. That solved that problem, but still, the cantina's unsavory clientele, alleged Mexican Mafia-connected owner and the all-night thumping from the jukebox irked her. Once she found out the putative owner had never registered the deed, she engineered a takeover, and the cantina has since been reborn as mod Yale Street wine bar the Boom Boom Room.
And on a blazing white-hot July evening, at a table out in front, that's where Harris, the creator of the Fruitmobile (Houston's very first art car), talks all about the latest target of her fearsome ire. That would be Mitch Cohen, long the man behind the First Saturday Arts Markets on West 19th Street in the Heights and now, the Man Who Would Be King of White Linen Night, the relatively new and increasingly popular summer shindig in Houston's most quaint, Austin-like neighborhood. (As Lights in the Heights is to winter in Woodland Heights, so White Linen Night is to summer in Houston Heights.)
Harris has been a burr under Cohen's saddle pretty much since the morning after last year's event, which like this year's installment was held on the first Saturday in August. While Cohen has been a part of White Linen Night since the event's inception in 2006, he says that 2010 was his first at the helm. Last year Cohen teamed up with art gallery owner Lori Betz. She is president and founder of Houston Art and Culture, a mentoring and scholarship-awarding nonprofit. Betz believed that HAAC could serve as an umbrella for White Linen Night, enabling alcohol sales in some of the dry precincts of the Heights.
BLOG POST: Cover Story: White Linen Fight In The Heights
Last year Cohen became CEO of Houston Arts and Culture, which made him White Linen Night's chief cook and bottle-washer, all while simultaneously running what is likely the largest and most lucrative installment of his for-profit First Saturday Arts Market. Cohen says the event exploded in popularity last year, with somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 braving the blazing heat.
While many businesses in the Heights enjoyed red-letter nights, some, like the Boom Boom Room, did not. In fact, several felt downright screwed.
Harris says she paid Cohen $100 to participate and in return was promised shuttle service, parking-lot flags, printed promotional materials and inclusion on the event's map. She says she also laid in extra staff and spent an extra $3,500 stocking her bar with ice, coolers and glasses.
She had misgivings almost immediately. It seemed to her the event was too sprawling. It was no longer walkable. Where once the event was firmly ensconced on 19th Street, the city-within-a-city's quaint main drag, last year Cohen decided to cast a much wider net, one that took in the area's fringes, from White Oak Boulevard on the south, to Durham/Shepherd on the west, within earshot of the thrumming traffic of the North Loop at the top, and Studewood/North Main on the east.
When none of the promised maps, flags or flyers appeared, Harris's misgivings curdled into anger, if a mild one at first. It was when she finally tracked down a copy of the official event map that she started boiling over into something approaching rage. The Boom Boom Room, and several other participating businesses in her neck of the woods on the fringes of the Heights, were not even on the map. And then the final straw: She says she stood in front of her bar on the big night and watched as the shuttle buses came up Yale tantalizingly close to the Boom Boom Room, only to lumber back west a block or so down the street.
"And we didn't have nary a customer," she says. "Not a one until we got slammed as usual at ten o'clock. But that was after White Linen Night was over. In the past, we had gotten business from it."
In the days and weeks that followed, she heard similar tales from, among others, her neighbors at the pasta-and-cheese restaurant Jus' Mac, Texan-proud boutique Urban Western and, worst of all, from Pepper's Hamburgers and Tacos, a hole-in-the-wall taqueria on Durham whose owner Harris had personally encouraged to participate.
"We were all pissed. None of us had any business, and we'd all spent a bunch of money. Last year was so hard for businesses everywhere, so many of my friends went out of business, and there were these teeny little businesses that paid their hundred dollars and were left off the map."
Harris confronted Cohen, wanting to know why all the promised materials had not arrived and why so many businesses were left off. She demanded to see the financials for the event and says now that Cohen refused. She wanted to know if he had collected cash from food trucks and alcohol vendors, and if so, if he could account for it. Cohen has denied receiving any money from those sources, and no one that the Houston Press contacted said they had given him any. Even though Harris managed to get her $100 back from Cohen, she says she has reported him to the IRS and has publicly told Cohen that she has taken the case to the FBI.
Harris casts Cohen as a greedy, bullying egomaniac who believes he is not just White Linen Night but the embodiment of the Houston Heights.
The new treasurer at HAAC, Beth Guide, says the initial proposal Cohen gave the board this year had no numbers in it. "Back in May, he gave us what he called his 'vision' for White Linen Night," says Guide. "But it was all rainbows and unicorns, lollipops and sunshine."
Cohen, who says he has never withheld numbers from anybody, says he is the victim of a vendetta. His friends and supporters agree. The man who likes to call himself "The Overlord" says the flak just comes with the rare air in the lofty skies. "Anyone in the position I am in, fingers will be pointed at me. I am at the top. I am trying to put on this massive event that no one has expected to get this big."
Fittingly for an event that has become so strife-torn, White Linen Night was born of a storm. Specifically, Hurricane Katrina, whose floodwaters sent not only the Big Easy's poor this way, but also more than a few prosperous merchants, some of whom settled in the Heights. With its historic homes, mom-and-pop restaurants and boutiques, and oak-lined streets, the Heights bears a passing resemblance to certain Crescent City districts, and it was there that the refugees took White Linen Night, name and all, from New Orleans.
It's a cool idea for the hottest time of the year: Attendees are invited, for one night, to embrace the muggy climate at its most energy-sapping by donning blinding, lightweight ivory attire and coming out after dark to businesses that normally adhere to traditional American nine-to-five schedules. For a single night, the Heights adopts a Mediterranean schedule and way of life, with thousands coming out to enjoy a Madrid-style, wine-propelled evening paseo from boutique to restaurant to gallery to coffeehouse to food truck to vendor's booth to music stage. For some Heights businesses, it's Black Friday in August.
Especially last year, when by all accounts the event truly exploded. At an interview at Berryhill Tacos, which was also attended by White Linen Night publicist Sara Jackson, Cohen admits to being overwhelmed by the festival's growth, in numbers of people, general logistics and geographic scope.
"I would say the biggest issue I had last year was that it was too big and I wasn't prepared for the spreading out to two different locations," he says, referring to the twin nexuses on West 19th and White Oak. "There were a few oversights. I didn't plan ahead for a few things that could not have been foreseen before they happened, primarily the delivery of water, and the shuttle service was overwhelmed. But that was not something we could have foreseen. We had ten, no 17, shuttle buses, and after a certain point there was just so many people in the neighborhood that people wouldn't get off."
Lauren Barrash, owner of the Wave shuttle service, says that White Linen Night was one of her company's most challenging nights ever, and that includes several rodeos, one Final Four and the NBA All-Star Game. She says the problems began in the Northwest Mall parking lot, where Cohen had arranged remote parking. He was supposed to have had volunteers manning an orientation booth there, but Cohen says the volunteers flaked. Commuters to the event, many of them strangers to the Inner Loop, had no clue how to proceed. "There was supposed to be water, tents and brochures, but none of it was there," Barrash says.
Barrash also says that Cohen furnished her with a needlessly complex system of color-coded shuttles and confusing north-south routes that required transfers. (Had she gotten her own way, she would have had circulator routes.) Many of these streets were clogged with people, she says. "Some routes were impossible for my drivers to navigate safely," she says. "He had half as many buses as he needed, and he needed to educate his customers better. My drivers ended up being the information booths. We did the best we could with the instructions we were given — we had water and good music on our buses, and some people told us they were riding them for fun."
Another problem came in the form of Pink Street, a cordoned-off area of White Oak featuring 18 booths raising awareness for breast cancer research and treatment. Here also was some of the booze, and Barrash says that was where all too many of her riders were headed, as bees to nectar. "So many people were going there, nobody was getting on or off anywhere else." (In Barrash's experience, all Houston events, no matter how high-minded at their inception, eventually devolve into boozefests.)
Though the night was more difficult than any other in the Wave's history, Barrash says that her hard work was not rewarded financially. She says she lost money at the end of the night. Among other expenses, she had to subcontract vehicles.
Barrash and Harris weren't the only merchants who took baths that night. One angry Heights merchant who sounded off to the Press last year declined to comment this year, explaining that she had since sold her business and thought it would be unfair to the new owners. In two other cases, business owners Harris claimed were upset refused to say so on the record and cited the very same reason for clamming up: They believe that this paper has some unaccountable anti-Heights bias. (For the record, we don't: We turn over rocks and kick over anthills in every neighborhood. What's more, this writer lives in and loves the Heights.)
One merchant who would talk was Kimberly Revis, owner of mobile bakery/cupcake truck Custom Confections. She was told she could park her truck in the parking lot of a furniture store near West 19th Street. (While Cohen didn't charge her any money to participate, she says he did solicit a contribution to go toward "marketing costs," since his was a charity event.) She can't remember exactly where it was, but says it was about four blocks from the action, as she would find out, much to her dismay. She arrived at her allotted spot around 11 a.m. and started baking — as a mobile custom bakery, Revis cooks on site. She says she spent hours in that sweltering truck, whipping up 800 brownies, 300 cookies and 700 cupcakes, and by the time it was all over she had sold fewer than ten of them. Her grand total: $15 in sales for the evening. (Revis says her husband scouted the area and saw rival cupcake trucks with lines of people dozens deep mere blocks away.)
Revis says she donated scores of baked treats to a fire station at the end of the night, but since there were only six people there, the rest wound up in the trash. "I've never had to throw so many cupcakes away," she says.
Given the cost of supplies, child care and generator costs, Revis estimates her loss on the evening as totaling between $2,000 and $3,000. "I felt like the kid in gym class who got picked last for the team."
Urban Western, a Texas-centric clothing boutique, also had a bad night. A man who wanted to be identified only as James, the manager of Urban Western, says that Cohen broke his promises to him. He says he never saw any Wave buses. White Linen Night also hosts a fashion show in which boutiques that pay a premium (last year Urban Western paid a hefty one) can have their stuff strutted on a catwalk. "The models just threw all the clothes in a bag and left," says James. "It wasn't too good for us."
Last year, Urban Western was located on North Main, and it has since moved to Heights Boulevard near I-10, not far from White Oak. Even though James believes that White Oak was promoted at the expense of North Main last year, he doesn't believe he will be participating this year.
"Last year I donated $1,000," he says. "People were like, 'You did whaaat?' I just chalked it up to a learning experience."
Jackson and Cohen say it's not their fault if businesses have bad nights. "For them to say White Linen Night promised them X amount of dollars is a bit of a stretch," says Jackson. "We don't promise to bring huge crowds to anyone," Cohen agrees.
And then there was Pepper's, the little taqueria whose owner, Flor Amado, Jackie Harris had encouraged to participate. She had high hopes for a big night but got no business from the event. Small wonder, because Cohen had not put Pepper's on the map or furnished her with any of the parking-lot flags denoting Amado's taqueria as a participating business. "I gave him my information on time, and he did not put me on the map," Amado says. "He offered to give me a refund, and then he didn't give it to me, so I started asking for it, and he said, no, he could not give a refund. I won't do White Linen Night this year."
Cohen says that the HAAC board would not allow him to give any more refunds besides the one Harris was able to extract. As for the map mistake? Nothing more than a "graphical error." He claims that only two businesses — presumably Pepper's and the Boom Boom Room — were left off the map. (Harris says there were several more.) "The map was massive," Cohen says. "That was one of the things I tried to do this year, was to downsize so that there was not so much work involved. Things like that are easy to overlook."
Other business owners saw their bottom line diminished last year but refuse to blame Cohen. One such is Teresa O'Connor's Studemont Street boutique Hello-Lucky. She says she got her money's worth from Cohen even if business was off from previous years. She says her $100 got her several e-mail blasts and other promo stuff. Cohen worked hard and deserved to get paid, she says. As for the decline in business, she says it was on her. She delegated too much last year, and this year she plans to take charge more with her own DJ and her own cool drinks. She also plans to do more of her own promotion.
After a series of e-mails and phone calls spanning weeks late last year, Harris helped bring about a schism between Betz and Cohen, HAAC and White Linen Night. "I told Lori, 'You need to distance yourself from him immediately. I think he's using your organization to profit. That's illegal. I'm turning him in,'" Harris said.
Betz didn't know Harris, so initially she did not respond to the machete-wielding artist's concerns. "At first, I thought she probably thought I was some crazy woman with an ax to grind," Harris says. "But now I realize she was asking herself, 'What really is going on?'"
Preparations for this year's White Linen Night began in earnest on May 11, when Cohen held a preliminary budget meeting with new HAAC treasurer Beth Guide. By that time, Cohen says, some of his supporters were gone from the board, and Betz and Guide were openly hostile to him. A week later, he resigned from HAAC. He says he took guidance from a lawyer with Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts, a legal-aid service for artists, actors and musicians.
"They advised me to resign and work as a contractor helping with this event as a fund-raiser. So I did resign and continued my business the same evening, and everything after that was delayed and canceled." Guide denies this version. She says she and Betz asked Cohen to resign the minute she learned that Cohen proposed to profit from his art market at the nonprofit White Linen Night.
At the May 31 HAAC board meeting, Cohen submitted his numberless proposal, the one that had Guide talking about rainbows and unicorns. Cohen says he wanted to go back to the basics and have the event be by and for the Heights merchants, while Guide and Betz wanted it to be a citywide cash cow for HAAC. Cohen says that clashed with an earlier agreement with Heights merchants. Guide disputes the idea that any such agreement had been made and would eventually point out that Cohen had already taken in $2,000 in sales of booths at his for-profit art market.
The real fireworks began when he sent over the budget proposal. It included a request for $22,500 in salary out of a $45,000 overall budget, with the stipulation that Cohen could keep all the money from his art market while HAAC would foot the bill for all expenses — lighting, generators, and tents and the like.
Saying that the contract was not just a bad deal but also illegal, in that it allowed Cohen to make a profit at his art market, which was based right next to the nonprofit Linen Night, Betz refused to sign and asked to renegotiate. Betz and Guide's position was that at that time things could still be salvaged if Cohen would lower his salary and bring the arts market money in through the front door so that his expense could be paid out of the overall take. (Exactly how much Cohen hoped to pocket from the arts market is unclear. He told the Press he had sold 55 booths at $100 a pop. "I do make some money on the art market however with power being so expensive that may not be the case this year," he wrote in an e-mail to the Press. Remember, he once had hopes that HAAC would be paying for that power.)
Instead of renegotiating, Cohen took the deal off the table and went in search of another nonprofit. "I just felt like the differences in the direction of where we were going was not going to work for the benefit of the event or the neighborhood," Cohen says.
Three days later, Cohen had found another umbrella group in the Houston Heights Merchants Association, a nonprofit with whom Cohen had long partnered on the First Saturday events. Along with event volunteer Sandy Castillo, Cohen sent out a letter to dozens of prospective event sponsors stating that HHMA was a 501(c)(3) group and that their participation would be tax-deductible. As stated in the letter: "Your donation is tax-deductible within the fullest extent of the law."
The trouble is, HHMA is not a 501(c)(3); it is instead a 501(c)(6) group. Any contributions to White Linen Night would be tax-exempt, not tax-deductible.
At the June 29 HAAC meeting, Guide got right to the point. Calls and e-mails had been coming into HAAC questioning their involvement with White Linen Night, she announced. After consulting with Will Colgin, their legal counsel, HAAC decided that it was time to publicly walk away from the popular Heights party night.
"Basically they were not comfortable with the way it was being promoted," Colgin later told the Press. "It was being promoted as an opportunity for people to receive tax deductions. The structure within which it was placed — it was not appropriate to advertise it that way...I was concerned that any further involvement under that current structure was, in my mind, just not appropriate."
While Colgin was elaborating on that point at the meeting, Sara Jackson, White Linen Night's flack, reportedly "cut him off." Heights businesses were confused about this year's White Linen Night. How would she be able to break this news to them, that, in fact, the last board meeting had been opened with the claim that the whole event's structure was illegal?
Guide refused to back down — she stressed the point that the contract Cohen had proposed constituted, in the beady eyes of the IRS, illegal double-dealing. Nonprofits could have their status revoked for such conduct, Colgin explained.
Betz also believed that Cohen was blurring the lines between nonprofit and for-profit in his solicitations. She told the meeting that she kept seeing the names of various nonprofits strewn about the event's literature even though little if any money would be going to them. She believed it was misleading both sponsors and the public.
Guide wanted to know why almost every penny of last year's event went to overhead, with so little left over for charity, and why Cohen planned the same for this year in the proposal he submitted.
Harris chimed in that she believed it was all about money. She said she would never participate in another White Linen Night until Cohen was gone.
Eventually, the meeting came around to the letter Cohen and Castillo had sent to sponsors three weeks earlier. Neal Sackheim, director of the HHMA, pointed out that he had told Cohen and Castillo that his group was a (c)(6) and not a (c)(3). (According to an e-mail the Press received, this happened on June 13.) Sackheim said that Castillo had been misinformed when she sent out the letter and that it needed to be fixed immediately. Guide then asked if a correction had been issued. Jackson said she had issued a press release correcting the error. Betz asked when, and Jackson said "Tomorrow." (The earliest notice the Press could obtain indicates that the mistake was not rectified via e-mail until July 4, though it had been fixed on the White Linen Night Web site earlier. Cohen admits it was a mistake not to be more proactive earlier and also a mistake to send the retraction only to businesses that had committed to sponsorships instead of the whole original mailing list. Another mistake was apparently never corrected. Cohen claimed on the letter to have been "event director" of White Linen Night since 2003. The event began in 2006, and he did not take a leadership role until 2010. Asked about this glaring misstatement of fact, Cohen said that Castillo was "new.")
Guide reiterated that you couldn't offer a tax deduction on a 501(c)(6). Betz reminded them all that the letter had informed the potential sponsors that they could do so. Betz asked Colgin what doing that was called.
"Fraud," he said.
Undissuaded, Cohen marched on, now touting White Linen Night as a for-profit event, albeit one with some proceeds going to breast cancer charities, the Spay-Neuter Assistance Program and a fund to restore the historic Heights fire station.
To enable alcohol sales on dry West 19th Street, he had hoped to bring the 501(c)(3) Spay-Neuter Assistance Program aboard, but after he and its director met with the TABC on July 23, that plan was scuppered. "After meeting with the TABC about the the laws governing a temporary liquor permit in a 'dry' area we have decided against any alcohol sales on 19th Street," Cohen wrote. "As a beneficiary, SNAP was only going to keep funds raised from the beer sales. It's regrettable but we think better for the event." Cohen added that SNAP might have an awareness-raising "presence" at the event.
Cohen learned in mid-July that he was being investigated by the Press. He called to arrange a meeting the next day and brought publicist Sara Jackson along. We talked for about 30 minutes. He admitted to some mistakes and claimed there was a vendetta against him. Jackson and Cohen also urged me to listen to a recording of the testy June board meeting — they insinuated that Guide made them look bad in typing up the minutes. "The meeting minutes that are posted on the Web site are inaccurate, filled with commentary and innuendos in relations to what was said by many people in attendance at that meeting," Jackson wrote in an e-mail." (I did listen, and it was hard to hear what Cohen and Jackson were hearing.)
The newly resurgent neighborhood paper The Heights Leader published a tough story about White Linen Night in the week leading up to the event, characterizing last year's event as a Mardi Gras-like drunk-a-thon complete with shoplifting, wine-sloshing, pot-smoking, mannequin-groping hordes of twentysomethings wreaking havoc on the Heights. An apologetic Cohen said he hoped the event would be scaled back this year. He said he intentionally scaled back advance publicity for the event, and that the PR blitz would neither be as broad nor begin as early as it did last year.
He also told the Press that he wouldn't be furnishing printed materials this year. Asked why the lowest tier of participation for businesses this year was $125 instead of $100, when print costs were $5,110 out of a $45,000 budget, Cohen had this to say:
"The bigger the event, the more everything costs. The cost increases with the amount of people that come out. It costs a lot of money to close down 19th Street. Shuttle buses are expensive, and primarily because I agreed to cut back on the number of vendors that were on 19th Street, like politicians. They paid a lot of the bill last year."
It's difficult to reconcile. Is the event going to be bigger or scaled-back?
Also in the week leading up to the event, Cohen posted that pre-emptive strike against this story. In that missive, he blamed the lack of advance publicity on "the unnecessary drama" of May and June, that it had "been an unfortunate roadblock to WLN progressing on a normal time-line. We were late in getting information out to sponsors, businesses, and our patrons."
So was that the reason for the slack early PR campaign, or was it intentional?
In any event, there ended up being no shuttle service beyond pedicabs at this year's event, and White Oak was not closed off. West 19th Street was lined chock-a-block with Cohen's art market, save for M-Squared Gallery, where an unsanctioned party extended from the gallery to the off-street parking lot, where hipster DJs Glasnost and a food truck held sway.
West 19th Street was the scene of at least one awkward confrontation. Betz told the Press that Sara Jackson had gotten in her face, asking her sarcastically if she was having fun at the event she had severed ties with. "For an event's publicist to do that to somebody in the street...that's a little crazy," Betz chuckled. "The woman has no class."
Cohen's curating of music on the street itself was more than a little questionable. The loudest band on the block at the art fest, one that fairly well drowned out the ones on either side of it, was a two-piece group ensconced in front of Jubilee boutique. In his flame-streaked shirt, the singer-guitarist closely resembled celebrity chef Guy Fieri, while his guitarist bandmate's flowing blond locks put one in mind of Sammy Hagar. The duo serenaded art-loving passersby with dramatic renditions of classic rock chestnuts such as Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" and Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." These dudes were hilarious (in a Tenacious D sort of way), but it was hardly the sort of musical fare you would select to encourage an art-purchasing atmosphere; a stroll through the artists' stalls of the Seine this was not. It seemed more fitting to a night at a San Leon beer joint or Houston's Club No Minors.
It all goes back to what Barrash, the Wave's owner, said: Every Houston event, no matter how high-minded in its inception, devolves, over time, into a beer-bash. Even in the theoretically dry, arts-minded Heights. White Linen Night under Cohen's direction seems less like an art festival or showcase of chi-chi Heights merchants than a mere excuse to stroll, cycle or even drive through some of Houston's most historic districts in a rockin' summer-drunk haze. And then hit the bars.
For her part, Betz believes White Linen Night has strayed far from the event's roots. "We wanted this event to be for the community, not just one person." She and Guide believe that the event could be even better than it is were it handled by a professional event planner, one who did not have a vested interest in an art market.
As for Harris, she is keeping her machete sharpened for next year. "I want to get a bunch of my friends who run businesses together and throw a big party, the week before White Linen Night," she says, cackling.
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