Wild on Washington
They come in from all over the city and beyond, drawn by the music, the drinks and the high-energy scene. Most are white, favor hair gel and sharp-looking clothes and want to party with people who are exactly like them.
The City of Houston is watching. Washington Avenue is a favorite spot for cop cars to lay DWI traps and for tow-truck drivers to boost their paychecks. Mayor Annise Parker thinks if handled right, Washington can avoid some of the more outrageous problems that affected Houston's last real nightclub row, the Richmond Strip.
"There is still some opportunity for some flexibility and innovation over there," she said in an interview in her office recently.
Long stretches of the road offer no crosswalks or signals, meaning those going clubbing take their lives in their hands when they dart across the street to get to the next best bar. Parker acknowledges the problem, but says a traffic study needs to be done before any decision is made about popping in new signals there. The city is even thinking about getting in on the action and opening up some parking lots out there, she said, a detour from its usual practice of staying within the downtown area.
Not all the residential neighbors are happy, complaining of late-night fights and public urination on their yards, their houses, even their pets. Restaurants are there, too. They want the business, but would, of course, prefer their customers be earlier in the evening and less likely to vomit unexpectedly.
Three Houston Press writers worked together and apart to survey the Washington Avenue scene. Assistant Music Editor Craig Hlavaty covers clubs for the Press. Freelancer Shea Serrano has written and lived Washington for the last two years in his Nightfly column and other writings for us. And fellow Mike Giglio often writes about drinking and its consequences, and had the special privilege of having his car towed while at a birthday party on Washington.
Each brings a slightly different perspective that, pieced together, gets somewhat close to the spirit that is Washington. — Margaret Downing, Editor
By Craig Hlavaty
Alison Cramer, an engineer in her mid-twenties, and her girlfriends usually don't hit Washington's bars and clubs until at least 10 p.m. most Fridays and Saturdays. When they do, they are looking for a specific kind of guy.
"Typically girls are looking for guys that will come up to them and ask to buy you and your friends a drink, but not be too forward about it," she says. "Guys need to come up and be chill. Any guy that is screaming 'Come talk to me,' or looks like he is trying too hard, we will not go for that."
Cramer and her friends are part of a growing phenomenon. Over the past two years, this formerly sleepy, taqueria-dotted stretch of road has become the Bayou City's version of Austin's Sixth Street, only devoid of stray crusty-punks scrounging for change.
Washington's main drag runs from TC Jester all the way to Houston Avenue, plus one block (give or take) to the north and south. This three-mile expanse of wine lounges, faux dives, sports bars and shadowy dance haunts hosts a teeming mass of men and women dressed in their off-the-rack best. Somehow, miraculously, everyone smells the same.
Washington's "drink-end" begins in earnest on Thursday, when the first set of car keys hits the ever-present valet's hand at Pearl Bar and the first vodka and soda — a "skinny bitch" — or hefty pint of Shiner Bock starts sweating in your left hand. It's like one of the frenetic scenes in Requiem for a Dream when the chemicals take hold, but with way more credit-card debt, Aggie class rings and smeared lip gloss.
The next two days are a whirlwind of questionable hookups, wobbly dancing to shoddy Lady Gaga remixes, hungover brunches spent peering at rapidly cooling Mexican food through blackout sunglasses and a nagging feeling that maybe, possibly, you should stop all this and go home and call your Mom.
But just as soon as that idea flies over your mind like a humanitarian aid drop, the sun is setting and the last thing you remember is telling the bartender to keep your tab open.
You wait in line to get into the bar. You wait in line to get a drink. You wait in line to piss that drink out sometime later, once you have "broken the seal." You wait in line to get your car from the valet. Don't use a valet, and you might have to wait for a cab to go get your car from one of the city's many impounds.
Long lines are an enticing cachet for many people who venture onto Washington. A line to get into a club must mean it's the place to be, right? The lines outside Ei8ht and the new kid next door, Brixx, are all the advertising both clubs would ever need.
For bar owners, a hefty queue full of sinfully disproportioned girls in leather leggings and dudes who look like off-duty UFC grapplers waiting outside to get in is essential. Then sit back and watch the taxi vans stop within feet of your entrance, disgorging customers ready to pad your wallet with Outer Loop cash.
Cramer, though, is perplexed as to why people would queue up to drink. "If I see a line at a bar, I will not go in," she says. "I have no clue why people would want to wait in line. But it's typically guys in line. Somehow the girls just get let in ahead of the line. Makes sense, wearing those short skirts."
Most places, the wait at the bar feels as long as the line to get in. To compensate, you need to pack in as much of a blast as you can. A simple mixed drink or bottle of beer may become two. Double-fisting amounts to a terrorist attack on your liver, with shots acting as IEDs. The next thing you know, you are staggering down the street with yet another button undone and heavy-lidded eyes scanning for your car.
Taps House of Beers, on the same block as Ei8ht and Brixx, offers endless 100-ounce tubes of beer. Any weekend evening, overgrown test tubes full of amber-colored booze sit on the tables. It's mostly guys who brave these beer towers. Call it a low-rent, aboriginal rite of passage in an age when true accomplishment is beating a level of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 or jailbreaking your iPhone.
Lauren owns The Wave, Houston's only "jitney" service. The two-bus operation sets sail from a parking lot off Memorial, making its way up and down Washington from 6 p.m. until 3 a.m. The buses pick up drinkers from curbs outside the bars and deposit them at other drinkeries on their route. Each is modern and about half the size of a Metro bus, decked out with a plasma screen and music ranging from the newest Jay-Z jam to stray Kings of Leon remixes.
Eight bucks gets you a wristband and a whole night of rides; five gets a one-way trip from Bar A to Bar B. It's an ingenious idea and a boon for bars set farther out from the pack, such as Sawyer Park and Darkhorse Tavern. Some have begun cutting deals to folks sporting a Wave wristband.
"You can make money riding The Wave now," says Lauren, who asked that her last name not be used. "Most of the bars and restaurants are giving out small discounts to encourage people to ride."
The Wave's bumpy ride can play hell with a liquor-lined stomach. But as an alternative to flashing police lights and a night in the drunk tank, we'll take bubble-guts any day. The Wave recently started a "Sunday Funday" route for drinkers who remember the Sabbath and keep it wobbly.
Lauren has lofty plans for The Wave that will take her business into Houston's other heavy-drinking areas; the Washington route already skirts the upper end of nearby Midtown. She says she already owns the domain names for Montrose, Upper Kirby, the Galleria area and even Katy and the suburbs.
"The good thing about not being a big company is that if I see a need, I can fill it."
For some reason, the endless game of tag between the sexes seems more intense on Washington Avenue than in other parts of Houston, and the flirting isn't so subtle. If the kids on Westheimer are living out some sort of boho hipster fantasy written by Diablo Cody and scored by Animal Collective, Washington's mating rituals come straight from the Katherine Heigl/Matthew McConaughey Romantic Comedy Handbook.
A night out will have all the requisite errant smiles, tired lines, broken heels, delightful misunderstandings and phony earnest conversation you will ever need. Count on seeing a wacky, ugly-duckling best friend making witty asides out of thinly veiled jealousy.
The boys and girls don't change, only their wardrobe does. One of Cramer's male friends has his own approach to winning over the opposite sex.
"One of my guy friends will try to start a hula-hoop contest with the hoops they have in the backyard at Pearl Bar," she explains. "His big pickup line will be him picking out a hot girl he wants to talk to and roping her in with him."
It usually works, she swears.
Maybe the imaginary biological clock ticking on the marquee of Max's Wine Dive helps spur the well-scrubbed, educated Washington crowd to restart the circle of life. It does paint, hilariously, the outsider's view of sexual tension on the avenue.
Midtown's bar scene was once as hypersexual as Washington's, but now caters to a more mature crowd. The Westheimer scene is way more intermingled and incestuous than either of the other two; most of those people have all grown up together in the music or art communities. But on Washington, a steady influx of fresh meat heads in from far-flung Outer Loop locales every weekend. It's a sort of "doucheoisie" for the new decade.
Even some business owners complain about the "dragon-shirted" hordes gumming up their works. The Washington Avenue Drinkery has an informal ban on the garish Ed Hardy and Affliction shirts that were so prevalent a year ago. Instead, bar owners up and down the way got smart and hired these juiced-and-tanned male specimens as bouncers or bartenders.
"Typically, girls aren't even fans of those Ed Hardy bling-bling shirts," laughs Cramer.
With all the glitter, skin, glorious cleavage and hair to the sky, the lines outside some hot spots look like some sort of eerie mash-up of a Hollywood movie premiere and MTV's The Hills. Dimly lit booths and bars lend an extra-shadowy vibe to even the most inane conversation. A woman could be waxing intellectual about the wicked canker she got after eating at some suspect sushi place the night before, but sitting in a leather-appointed booth surrounded by Moroccan fixtures, she might as well be the Queen of Sheba.
Most guys, meanwhile, lurk in the corners, nursing Bud Lights in near-silence pierced by brief flashes of hangdog lust when a Taylor Swift lookalike passes their party. They aren't quite bloodless yuppies like Wall Street's Gordon Gekko, nor are they psychotic on the levels of Bret Easton Ellis's Patrick Bateman or Timothy Busfield in thirtysomething. These boys are all full of GNC supplements and sport the same shaved arms and upper-body type. They even look like they all go to the same barber.
In a city that prides itself on queer milestones such as a newly elected lesbian mayor and a vibrant scene of gay artists and activists, none of that progressiveness surfaces on Washington. There certainly should be a market for gays and lesbians to party in an upscale setting, but how would the avenue's current throngs react? Would there be mass gawking and mild violence, or would everyone coexist as a happy, boozy family?
Most Houstonians look at Washington as a destination for Outer Loopers hoping to live out a club-life fantasy. For suburbanites, the bottle service, flashing lights, valets, dress codes, long lines and discriminating bouncers are more inviting than off-putting.
For a seasoned Inner Looper, though, one step into Blue Label Lounge or Reign is enough to beat a hasty retreat to Domy Books. The seizure-inducing lighting, random Asian businessmen, pukey-faced girls, fire-breathing bartenders, dancing lingerie models and bachelorette parties chugging bottles of Grey Goose give these clubs a larger-than-life cartoon quality that beats anything on an MTV reality show.
Some Washington bars cater to those people who, mentally, have yet to leave college life. Most of them still sport their class rings like some sort of signal to fellow Aggies, Longhorns or Red Raiders. Most bars have several distractions on hand to goad drinkers into competition: Video games, trivia, beanbag toss, shuffleboard, flip cup and, most definitely, foosball. Smarter places, geared more toward getting their customers laid, remove all the excess tools of macho posturing and replace them with cigarette machines or an Internet jukebox.
Westheimer's Poison Girl is busy most every night, as is Big Star Bar in the Heights, Cecil's off West Gray and Community Bar on Milam. But unlike Montrose or Midtown, Washington is very much an operation built for folks who take their weekends by the throat but spend the rest of the week away from the sauce.
Eric Dean has worked at Walter's on Washington for the past year, booking shows, working security and helping behind the bar. Before that he worked at other local bars including another Westheimer redoubt, Boondocks.
"Montrose drinkers have turned pro. The Washington drinkers are like amateurs compared to them," offers Dean. "Montrose kids know where to drink cheap and spread their money out over seven days, so they can stay hammered any day of the week when they want to be. The Washington drinkers may only have enough money to do it once a week with all the bars' inflated prices."
Besides disposable income, Washington's boozers are strapped to the gills with ego and fragile self-images. Today Walter's is a complete anachronism, catering to indie-rockers, hardcore kids and various strains of metalheads. Because the crowd at the bars around it has changed, but the one at Walter's has not, the bar (and especially its parking lot) has become a breeding ground for brawls.
Across the way at The Lot, for example, the Red Bull and Jäger shots flow freely while a trio doles out sensitive acoustic Pearl Jam covers. More often than not, fights occur when drunken newbies used to not paying a cover charge stumble across the street, play too rough and run afoul of regulars or staff. Dean describes Walter's nightly problems with a marked weariness.
"A group of dude-bros will skip to the front of the line and tell me that they are just drinking and don't have to pay a cover," he sighs. "But these bands get paid on door attendance. Since we don't have a police presence, most guys think they can come in here and act unruly.
"They see our crowd and assume that they can rough up some of these guys. But they don't understand the mentality of hardcore kids. This is their life."
Walter's desperately needs to move in order to curb the insanity, and owner Pam Robinson announced plans to relocate near downtown early last fall. Walter's was set to turn into another Little Woodrow's alongside the Midtown, Bellaire and Rice Village locations, but the new tenants' funding fell through and no new plans have emerged.
Still, almost every month, a sign announces another new spot on Washington, with doors opening about a month later.
Soon a shot bar, Salt, will open next to Pearl Bar, and word came recently that the Corkscrew, on the strip's eastern edge, is shutting down to make room for an "organic bar" and an '80s club called Trixie's.
To hear some people talk, you would think there is nothing but misery down on Washington, an endless sea of fights, flirting and lawmen pulling over drunks in front of bars packed with vapid Sims-like people devoid of personality and interesting conversation. That's not exactly true.
Monday to Wednesday nights, when most of Washington's weekend crowd is home in front of the TiVo, the street still has a lazy charm. At the corner of Washington and Thompson, Pearl Bar's old-school signage combines with the dim street lights out front to create a vivid, dirty urban snapshot.
It's actually worth the hassle of parking or valeting your car at the hulking wooden muscle of Sawyer Park to gaze at the downtown skyline from the sports bar's second deck. And across from Pearl Bar sits the Dubliner, which on regular weeknights is a sleepy, red-tinted dive straight out of a Tom Waits song.
The cigarette exhaust from the smokers outside wafts inside every now and then with the whoosh of a passing car, and the music-minded bartenders keep the Internet jukebox refreshed with plenty of Pogues and Rolling Stones.
One weeknight, sitting dazed in the Dubliner's back lounge, we heard the Clash's "Straight to Hell" seep out of the speakers. For those three minutes, we "got" the spirit of Washington Avenue.
By Shea Serrano
Ask more than a few people to give you a synopsis of Washington Avenue's history and you're likely to get some variation of the same answer: You mean that new area where all the d-bags hang out?
This is wrong.
Washington Avenue is actually one of Houston's oldest thoroughfares. Its asphalt covers up former wagon trails and stagecoach routes that led pioneers into and out of a then rapidly growing downtown.
First built in the mid-1800s, the near three-mile stretch of road predates just about everything in Houston besides the Allen brothers' naming the city after General Sam Houston, the yellow-fever epidemic of the early 1840s and maybe the Geto Boys' first album.
Washington has grown as the city has grown. Not so long ago, it was home to esteemed live-music venues such as Rockefeller's, the Fabulous Satellite Lounge and the Abyss. Historically, its recent explosion into prominence is only a bookend to an already meaningful narrative.
With respect to glitz, Washington Avenue began its ascent between late 2007 and early 2008. Up to that point, nightlife in the area could essentially be characterized by one bar: Walter's on Washington. Before Washington boomed, Walter's was a typical Washington bar.
At 12 years old, Walter's is now the avenue's longest-standing nightlife establishment. Its management knows exactly what type of business model they want to follow, a big part of the reason it's stayed open while other venues like Silky's (now the Dubliner) and Mary Jane's (which became Pearl Bar) eventually shut down.
"I always wondered what took so long," says owner Pam Robinson when asked if she ever had any inkling that her venue would ever be surrounded by anything that could be called "swanky." "[Clubs] got pushed out of Midtown or Downtown, so they ended up here."
In early 2008, a few upscale Washington venues were already open or rumored to be "opening any week now." But when the Drake, Citizen Lounge (now District Lounge) and Pandora all opened within a few months of each other, the character of Washington Avenue (if not Houston nightlife in general) really shifted.
"Our talent lies in finding a good place and coming up with a good idea," says Adam Karam, who opened, and is in the process of selling, the Drake through the Van Delden Group. "We saw an opportunity with the location, and it worked out for us."
Since there was little to no competition around, those places operated with impunity. They came in, invested a fair amount of money and started charging $20 for valet parking. They openly flaunted their "We Only Let Pretty People In" swagger, and no one called them on it. Instead, the glitterati showed up in droves.
As Midtown lost its luster, Washington became the unapologetically posh spot for those who wanted to be seen out at night. In other words, it became d-bag central.
For anyone with a sense of self-awareness, Washington was almost unbearable from about March 2008 to about July 2009. A night out meant you would be bombarded with guys dressed like they really, really liked electro-rap novelty duo LMFAO and girls dressed like they really, really wanted to sleep with guys who really, really liked LMFAO.
But Washington is beginning to trend downward now. That seems like it should mean the corridor is getting less hip by the day, but that's not true yet.
Washington Avenue is at a point where the growing number of bars has combined with the strip's relative newness to create a supercenter of nighttime entertainment. The bars and clubs bring in just enough commuters to dilute the strip's a-hole concentration without siphoning away any of its stylishness.
If you compare Washington to a Mafia movie, it would be about two-thirds in when all the pieces line up perfectly and it looks like the main character will reign forever. About 20 minutes later, everything starts turning to shit.
That means that right now, there isn't a more representative glimpse of Houston's young, white professional at play than this corridor, which contains almost every tier of nightlife venue without marginalizing any of them. There are:
The Posh Spots: Pandora Lounge has been the only one of the Original Three to maintain most of its hipness. Citizen Lounge has reopened as District Lounge, which should give it a moderate shot in the arm; the Drake still draws a crowd, but has lost most of its initial appeal. But a few new noteworthy clubs have sprung up in their stead: Ei8ht, the Roosevelt and one or two more that probably opened while that last sentence was being written.
The Pseudo-Posh Spots: The Reign Lounge-type places, gaudy and dire. Although these clubs are in the minority, they're what most people picture when they think of Washington. When the Drake starts openly letting 18-year-olds in, it will join them.
The Somewhat Posh Places, Intentionally or Not: Your Block 21s, your Darkhorse Taverns and, occasionally, your Sawyer Parks. These types of places usually emerge at least a year after the initial boom, when someone decides that they should open up a place where people can experience that "I'm hanging out in the trendy part of town" vibe without purporting to actually care about it.
Amalgams of All Three: Brixx, which has done well since opening three months ago, is the first place to completely pull this off. (To be thorough, occasionally Pearl Bar falls here too.) Its upscale icehouse ambience means Brixx can accommodate just about anybody wandering around the strip. "When we started designing [the bar] we knew that we had to have everything," says Brixx owner Chase Lovullo. "I had a feeling that that whole glitzy, $12-drink thing wasn't that good of a deal to anyone anymore."
The "How the Hell Are You All Still Open?" Bar: Walter's is really the only current Washington venue you'd just hate to see go. Pam Robinson, the only owner it's ever had, also owned the aforementioned Silky's and Mary Jane's before selling them off. That block of Washington was then affectionately referred to as "PamLand."
The Ironic Yet Surprisingly Enjoyable Spots: Rebels Honky Tonk and the newish Taps House of Beer, which smells like sawdust and peanuts, spearhead this category.
The Wine Bars: Wine bars are actually on the way out, but Max's and Cova fill in this niche well enough for now. Corkscrew was probably the most enjoyable, but closed February 9 due to "oversaturation in the market." Holistic/organic bar Bee Love, owned by the same group, will soon take its place and likely foster a similar trend.
The Almost Neighborhoody Spots: The Dubliner belongs here, but Washington Avenue Drinkery is the best example. When the Corkscrew/Bee Love owners opened it in June 2009, they gambled that Washington's swankier clubs were losing their draw, and hoped to become the strip's John Everyman bar: no pomp, no posturing, no pretense. The Drinkery's opening was the signal that the Washington everyone knew was changing.
"We opened with the intention of being a place that battled that stigma," says co-owner Andrew Adams. "Our main thing was we wanted to be a place where everyone would go to have a good time, not be seen having a good time."
In Season 3 of HBO's The Wire, one of the main police chiefs legalizes drugs in one area of Baltimore, a district known as "Hamsterdam," in an effort to curtail crime in the other parts. All of the drug dealers, fiends, hookers and so on end up migrating there because everything they need is there, open and available. Health-services workers and academics follow, to study and help a largely elusive population all at once.
Right now, Washington Avenue is Houston's Hamsterdam. Almost all aspects of the culture — white, young, professional nightlife culture, that is — are there. But it won't be like that for too much longer.
Not much longer at all, maybe. All the additional traffic Washington Avenue has been drawing lately has also drawn more scrutiny from the City of Houston's building inspectors. Several Washington-area bars, including the Drake, District Lounge, Washington Avenue Drinkery and Corkscrew Lounge, were recently issued red-tag citations, which could be for anything from an inadequate number of sprinklers to too much distance between a venue and its designated parking area. A red tag can be serious enough to force an establishment to shut down while it corrects the problem, a decision that rests with the inspector issuing the citation.
More troubling to Adams is that the citations issued to his bars came after they had already passed inspection — sometimes long after — and, he believes, Washington-area bars are being held to a different standard than venues in other parts of the city such as Montrose or the Museum District. Adams also believes one inspector has a personal vendetta against his landlords, a complaint he outlined in an e-mail to City Councilman Edward Gonzalez obtained by the Houston Press; at press time, Gonzalez's office had not replied.
Counterintuitive as it seems, clubs that discriminate most openly are what drives much of Houston's nightlife. People feel like they've accomplished something when they've gotten into a club notorious for, say, only letting in attractive people.
When the number of venues on Washington gets too high, though, the elitist clubs will no longer be able to afford to be so selective, and in turn they'll grow less appealing. Then all the events that led up to Washington becoming so popular will happen again, except in reverse.
Everyone will migrate somewhere else that's just beginning to bubble up, probably East Downtown. It's rife with available spaces, close enough to Main Street and there's a lot of housing for younger folks. But that's still awhile off.
That's how this story always ends. That's how Midtown's story ended, and Downtown's and Richmond's before that. That's how Washington's will end too.
Mind, Washington Avenue will never completely vanish. It will simply settle into the "Ain't What It Used to Be" category. But for the time being, that stretch of 77007 is the epitome of Houston nightlife.
Unless you're not white. Then, you know, have fun at Grooves or the Roxy or whatever.
Towing and Blowing
By Mike Giglio
On Saturday night, December 12, Washington Avenue seemed like an area of conflict.
Police lights flashed up and down the street. Drunk people dressed in dark designer clothes crept along the sidewalks or right in the middle of the road — women shouting into iPhones or at boyfriends; top-heavy men with hair gel and tight graphic T-shirts who looked ready to throw down at the slightest perceived insult. Bass pounded from the nightclubs and bars that pack the strip.
On the side streets, wreckers prowled and souped-up mid-level sports cars sped through stop signs, weaving precariously around residents on bicycles. It was Third World mayhem crossed with prepackaged middle-class Americana; all the reasons I avoid the area were mixing together right there in the street.
I had been guilted into coming by a friend who was having her birthday party at the District. I found the last open spot on residential Center Street one block north of Washington, inching up so the back of my truck sat on the legal side of a "No Parking" arrow. I asked a valet in the District parking lot if my truck would be safe; he shrugged and stared past me into the night.
District's VIP section is elevated slightly and has couches. My friend's friends had forked out for bottle service. I fought my way over and greeted everyone via barely audible screams. An evil party photographer forced us to pose, then take his card so we could purchase the photos online. My friend was tottering around in birthday bliss and quickly reaching the tipping point. Seeing an easy escape, after an hour I volunteered to drive her home.
She put a leather jacket over her tiny dress and took my arm through the commotion and back to Center Street, where my truck was nowhere to be found. I began darting frantically around, unsure what to do, while she shivered in the street.
Eventually I called the police to report the truck stolen, and learned that an officer had authorized it to be towed. I photographed the spot with my cell phone as another group arrived to find their car missing too. All the while, several residents watched ominously from the shadows behind a fence across the street.
The taxi to the lot on a desolate stretch of the North Freeway feeder road cost $30, and I left my phone in the back, losing it forever. The bored man behind the glass partition then refused to return the truck without proof of insurance. My friend whimpered in the waiting room for over an hour while I waded through GEICO's automated menus. At the end of the maze, a woman informed me that the computer systems were down for maintenance.
In the morning, title and insurance in hand and paperwork finally complete, I was told that the credit-card machine was broken. I left to search for an ATM and $191.20 in exact change.
In The Great Gatsby, the big, bespectacled eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg cast their gaze across Long Island's Valley of Ashes. Here in Houston, Tyler Flood watches over Washington Avenue from a billboard that says "Do Not Blow." I profiled Flood last fall. Speaking with him and other local DWI attorneys left me with a simple message: Do not go to Washington Avenue.
A bartender at the popular Drinkery says she has seen four different cars pulled over along Washington on a single night's drive home, and one DWI lawyer guessed that 40 percent of his business comes from the strip. Flood calls it an HPD parking lot; the busy central patrol sits at the far east end of the street.
While working on the DWI story, I went for a ride down Washington with Officer Don Egdorf of HPD's DWI Task Force. We started at central patrol's intox unit, which Egdorf guessed might soon expand into the gym. The ride-along lasted just a few blocks before we passed a parking lot with a stop already in progress and joined in.
As the aggravating, clearly drunk man whined and botched Egdorf's field-sobriety tests, Egdorf's captain remembered the days of the Richmond Strip. In the 1990s it featured bars on top of more bars, like Washington but seemingly much wilder.
"You'd see people driving 120 miles per hour," he said. "I used to get in a lot of chases."
DWI attorney and former cop Jim Medley says that in old-school police jargon, Washington would be known as a "honey hole," or a place for easy stops and arrests. Police might use "bandido stops" for things like no front license plate, a cracked windshield or mild speeding — things people aren't usually stopped for — as probable cause to check for DWI. And like other defense attorneys, Medley says the resulting sobriety tests are destined to land even sober drivers in jail.
"With the build-up of all the little clubs and wine bars along Washington, it's just kind of fish in a barrel for the cops," he says.
Paul Kubosh, a traffic ticket attorney, used to take Washington home from his downtown office and remembers just five years ago when there wasn't a bar in sight. Now he takes his family for drives down the strip to show them what it has become. He has seen police officers watch with binoculars as drunk people stumble right from the bars to their cars.
Even before the bar scene sprouted, Washington was a hotbed for traffic tickets. It's a straight shot without obstructed views that should probably have a higher speed limit than 30 mph, according to ticket attorney Scott Markowitz, and then there's central patrol sitting right there.
"It's close. It's convenient. They don't have to run far," he says.
A month after my truck was towed, I returned to Center Street to stake out the scene. The night was slow, and after a while I began meandering around in the dark.
I learned two things. First, I had been parked in front of what probably was a nondescript dirt driveway that blends with the dirt in the lawn. And the house looked abandoned. As I scribbled the number from the for-sale sign in the yard, I noticed faces stuck between curtains inside the house across the street. Soon four people stalked out of the house and demanded to know what I was doing.
I said "nothing," which didn't fly. So I pulled out my notepad and began to interview Helen Espinoza, her daughter Julie, Julie's boyfriend Israel Moreno and their neighbor Marie Martinez. Helen Espinoza has lived on the street her entire life and owns most of the houses on it, including the one in question. She is likely the person who had me towed.
"I don't even know where to start," she said of what has happened to the neighborhood since bars started popping up.
Drunk people walk through the yard, pee on the house, sit on the porch swing and bark at the dogs. They scream and yell and fight until all hours every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, and now during the day on Sunday. The music from District can be clearly heard from the driveway.
"Right now you could go sit in my bedroom and feel how the house just thuds. The windows rattle," Espinoza said.
There are constant accidents at the nearby intersection. With police focused on Washington, late-night drag racers take to Center Street. Espinoza says she has a hard time getting cops to come at all.
Martinez, meanwhile, spends much of her time fighting new liquor licenses in court. She can't hold them off forever, though, and while she's fighting one bar, others pop up. Five liquor licenses are pending in the area right now.
As more nightspots open, more people flood into the neighborhood to park. They block driveways or sometimes just use them, tear up the grass and get stuck in the drainage ditches. Marlene Gafrick, the director of city planning, says her department began working on the parking problems in March and has tried to bring each of the 35 to 40 bars and restaurants up to code. She too must hustle to keep pace with the development. Soon after one bar finally agreed to rent a nearby lot, for instance, the lot went under construction.
"It's a balancing act," Gafrick says.
After a long fight, Espinoza finally won "No Parking" signs on her side of the street. The factory across the way put up its own, with chicken wire, along its long and tall chain-link fence. People just cut them down.
The Drinkery was dead on a recent beautiful Thursday happy hour, as general manager Jason Rodriguez ate his dinner at the bar.
When the place opened last June, Rodriguez says, days like this were packed with people getting a few drinks on their way home from work. But since what he calls "the blowup," the boom of new bars that began later in the summer, the commotion seems to have scared those people away. Most business now comes at night.
"The reckless ones are definitely going to come no matter what. They don't give a fuck," he says. "It's sad. Really sad."
Many Drinkery regulars live, like Rodriguez, in the surrounding neighborhood. They might come home to a broken window and a beer bottle on the living-room floor. Drunks walk down the street smashing windows on rows of cars. Regular crooks are a problem as well; bartenders who park on side streets have been mugged on their way to work. Police reports for the Washington Avenue/Memorial Park area (which includes more than just the strip and its immediate surroundings) for a recent 30-day stretch were at nine robberies, four aggravated assaults, 26 burglaries, 103 thefts and 16 auto thefts.
On a weekend night, the sign outside the Drinkery's door might say something like "No Ed Hardy, please," in reference to the trendy graphic T-shirts that can sell for over $100 and have become a staple for the "be seen" crowd that fills most area nightspots.
"We are the only bar on the street that makes fun of them," Rodriguez says.
When Reign Lounge opened right next door, in fact, Rodriguez was forced to replace his bouncers with more expensive off-duty (and uniformed) cops, because cops are more effective at stopping fights. People regularly threw down in the street as both venues emptied at closing time.
When a beer representative who handles her company's accounts on Washington (and wished to remain anonymous) goes out on the town, she avoids the strip because of its "$30,000 millionaires," whom she blames for speeding around with their windows down, blaring music, driving drunk and, instead of using the valet, parking their expensive cars in yards and on the street. She calls them the "Look at Me" crowd.
An industry maxim, she says, holds that, "If you drink liquor it says, 'Look at me.' If you drink beer it says, 'Talk to me.'"
Beer sales have been disproportionately low during Washington's recent boom. Too many people are drinking liquor.
Trevor Fields does not give off a "look at me" vibe, and instead comes across as a pretty nice guy. A 24-year-old petroleum engineer, he says he likes "those kinds of bars" on Washington and goes often to enjoy the music. On Tuesday night, January 19, he parked his Infiniti across the street from the sports bar Sawyer Park, right on Washington Avenue, beneath a sign that said, "No Parking: 7 a.m. to 9 a.m."
He returned a few hours later to find it missing and eventually tracked it down in a lot near I-10. He paid the $190 to retrieve it, then spent Friday at municipal court. After paying $3 for parking and waiting in line for about 30 minutes, he had the ticket dismissed but needed to set a tow hearing to try to get his $190 back. This costs $20, payable only by money order. Fields went to the post office to get one, paid another $3 to park and got back in line.
At night he returned to Washington, parking once again on the side of the road. He drank too much to drive, so his brother brought him home.
That same Friday night, I returned to Center Street to watch the chaos with Israel and Julie. Israel and I leaned on the bed of my truck and drank beer. Drunks stumbled past in the middle of the street. Sports cars, wreckers and cops sped by.
"See, they just drive around. They don't do shit," Moreno said as a cruiser blew past. "Or, if anything, they come at the wrong time."
A BMW was parked in front of my truck. In front of the BMW was an open grate with a big orange cone, which residents put there because people were constantly driving into the grate and getting stuck. A little after closing time three men returned to the car, arguing loudly about who should drive. As one fumbled over the passenger door, another caught sight of the cone. He sauntered over, grabbed it, crouched and heaved it backward over the fence. On his way back he caught sight of Julie and Israel.
"Sorry," he said.
The car jerked violently from the curb, and right at a woman teetering in her high heels as she crossed the street. The woman pointed at the driver and screamed:
"Your lights are off."
The next morning Fields returned to Washington to find the Infiniti missing again. This time it was not listed as towed, so he reported it stolen. He spent almost a week driving a rental while he waited for his insurance company to cut him a check. Then he received word from his bank that the car was at an impound lot.
Impounds have 48 hours to send word to the relevant bank and owner when they receive a car. Police officers, meanwhile, must immediately report each tow they authorize — and in this case the cop, the same one who ordered the first tow, did not. Fields owed $300, thanks to daily storage fees at the lot. And once again the ticket had been issued for a time when it was legal to park on the street.
"I am pretty fucking sick of Washington," Fields says. He laughs when I ask if he plans on going back. "I don't know. We'll see."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.