One of the cool things about Houston is how many things there are in the city that can surprise even longtime residents. Some of them are just oddities that pop out along the city's freeways, and others are quirky activities and places unique to Houston, but they all make life a little more interesting to those of us who live here and take notice. Here are a few of them.
7. Street Art
Houston has a deservedly famous art scene, and one of the more interesting recent developments is the paintings that have popped up in odd public places, often stenciled onto walls, the concrete of overpasses, or on various other surfaces around town. Guerrilla artists like Coolidge have been making otherwise boring infrastructure less so with depictions of pigs, Frankenstein's monster or my personal favorite, a stencil of Black Sabbath's iconic guitar player Tony Iommi, that I saw adorning a city electrical box in Montrose recently.
6. The Magic Island Club
When it opened more than 30 years ago, Magic Island seemed mysterious in a slightly cheesy "Las Vegas" kind of way, with its somewhat gaudy giant King Tut head sitting on top of the club, which is located right off of Highway 59 near Greenbriar. For years it operated as a fancy dinner-theater club, catering to upscale visitors who wanted to watch skilled magicians perform. Even though it closed down a few years back, the building is still there, looking as gaudy as ever, but now it's also slightly run-down. Magic Island definitely packs a visual punch, looking like something from an Iron Maiden album cover, and I often wonder what people from out of town must think the first time they lay eyes on it.
5. The Refineries at Night
Driving along Highway 225 at night, the endless vista of refineries and chemical plants can look oddly beautiful. Sure, breathing whatever the stinky fumes are that belch forth from countless smokestacks in the area can't be healthy, and some of them disturbingly seem to vent enormous flames, but it is kind of pretty in a dystopian industrial wasteland kind of way — like the cityscape at the beginning of Blade Runner.
4. James Coney Island
Houston is home to many beloved local eateries, but there's something very special about the local hot dog chain that has signs boasting it's been in business since 1923. Think about that — in seven more years, Houston's iconic hot dog restaurant will be 100 years old. I don't know what the alchemical magic is that seems to result from an almost perfect blending of liquid cheese and chili, but my stomach usually growls in Pavlovian fashion whenever I see the chain's creepy-looking hot dog man mascot leering out from one of its signs.
3. The Big Bubble
Located downtown at the Preston Street Bridge over Buffalo Bayou is a mysterious red button just waiting for someone to push it. Once that happens, a large expulsion of air under the bayou creates a large burping bubble that rises from the water's depths. Congratulations, you've just discovered "The Big Bubble," an art installation, or, as Dean Ruck, the man behind the button, prefers to call it, an "occurrence" or "happening." Ruck was inspired to create the installation after reviewing the Buffalo Bayou Master Plan's call for increasing aeration in the bayou system almost two decades ago.
Whatever the motivation behind The Big Bubble, it offers the kind of unexpected weirdness and fun that is scattered abundantly across Houston, and is the perfect setup for all sorts of mischief. Spend a few minutes explaining to out-of-towners that the city has a local water monster known to haunt the bayous, then spook them by unleashing enough bubbles to prove that "something" lurks beneath the water...
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2. Speaking of Bayous...
Even if your tales of a sea serpent swimming through the dark water of our bayous don't thoroughly impress anyone, the proximity to those water systems allows residents of this city to encounter a dizzying array of wildlife that many wouldn't expect to find. There are plenty of fish, turtles and snakes in the bayous, as well as a huge population of Mexican free-tailed bats at the Waugh/Allen Parkway bridge. Birds of many types make the bayous their home, and folks have even spotted the occasional alligator or coyote making its way through Houston the best way it can. There's something unique about the way nature manages to thrive in the heart of Houston, and the bayous are largely the reason why.
1. "Be Someone."
First appearing on a train bridge over the freeway near downtown in 2012, the words "Be Someone" almost immediately seemed to capture the hearts of many Houstonians, who liked the positive outlook on life that the graffiti seems to suggest. After being altered by another skilled vandal recently to read "Be One," the original message was quickly restored to its original form shortly afterwards. I'm not sure if "Be Someone" is a suggestion, a command or merely an affirmation of some kind, but there's something deeply "Houston" about it, and I hope it remains in place for years to come.