Three years ago, the square block of land surrounded by Shepherd, Durham, Blossom and Floyd was a debris-filled mess that did little more than depress the few drivers who bothered to notice it. Richard Roederer, owner of the Blossom Street Gallery, cleaned the place up and used it to display work from regional artists such as Herbert Long, Michelle O'Michael and Daryl Colburn (the piece most beloved by kids, an impressionistic statue of two larger-than-life basketball players, is by Gery Wyche). The block, between Washington Avenue and Memorial Drive, is now an attractive and fun place to stop or drive by. Roederer's cleanup job has increased the value of the land, so there's always a chance someone will come in and cover it all with town homes, but for now the place is safe.

Yes, there are other cruising routes -- out on Airline or Irvington, say -- but this western stretch of Richmond club land is the oldest and biggest and most reliable. If the weather's good and the cops aren't swarming, car-watchers will be rewarded with a combination parade and dance competition. All along the strip, you'll see gorgeous paint jobs and custom interiors, but for action, watch carefully at stoplights: If one low-rider pulls up next to another and begins to buck and bounce, it's a challenge. May the best hydraulic system win.
A bus stop is pretty much a bus stop here in Houston. But there is one location that offers a little variety, not to mention style. Outside the Sears in the Garden Oaks neighborhood, north of the Heights, is a 1950s gem, with a space-age roof featuring the curves of an artist's palette and long benches that put to shame the torture devices used in more modern installations as a way to discourage loitering. The vaguely art deco neon sign of the Sears store, framed by shade trees, fits nicely in the tableau. The No. 50 bus, which will take you from Garden Oaks though the Heights to downtown (or vice versa), stops here.
Even in the justice system, silence can be golden. While the 14th Court of Appeals has been in seemingly continual controversy in recent years -- justices even sued their chief justice at one point in a long-running dispute over administrative authority -- the First Court of Appeals has been a relative sea of calm jurisprudence. The reason is obvious: First Court leader Chief Justice Michael Schneider. He walked into potential pitfalls in early 1996, as a state district civil judge inheriting the appellate administrative duties after Alice Oliver-Parrott unexpectedly resigned midway through her term. But Schneider is a rare breed on the bench. His background -- that all-important life experience so essential to a quality judgeship -- is perhaps the most varied of anybody wearing a black robe in Harris County. He's a former high school teacher, a veteran prosecutor and the first consumer fraud chief ever for the D.A.'s office, a globe-traveling corporate specialist, a suburban muny court judge, and the jurist who oversaw the hectic high-stakes era of breast implant litigation. And don't forget his 12 years as a Habitat for Humanity volunteer. Schneider's operation of the appellate court reflects the kind of consensus-building efficiency and common sense that's a no-nonsense model for other officeholders, both inside and outside the justice system.
Last time we checked in with La Porte jack-of-all-junk Butch Forest (see "J-U-N-K in the Y2K," December 30, 1999), the conversation revolved around a complicated four-way horse trade involving a gutted 18-foot Airstream trailer in Manvel, a 14-foot fiberglass bass boat in Houston, a Hi-Lo camper in Dickinson and a canoe described in full by Forest as "green." That proposed transaction is still pending, but before Forest hung up the phone, he wanted to know if we had survived the Y2K scare unscathed. We had. The several hundred dented cans of food he'd given us as a preventative Christmas present still constitute the bulk of our kitchen decor -- but that, of course, was not the point of the question. For if the rest of the world watched the calendar change without a hitch, Butch Forest -- ever the contrarian -- had taken a hit, and because he is even more storyteller than contrarian, he wanted to tell us about it. Seems Y2K came and went without incident in La Porte as elsewhere, leaving Forest with a mobile home full of stockpiled canned goods and, more to the point, boxes upon boxes of crackers and cereal and pasta and other grain-based foodstuffs. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, neighborhood mice discovered Forest's stash, and so Forest purchased himself a pile of rodent poison to staunch that budding plague. Only it turned out that the corn-based poison he purchased to kill the mice was itself riddled with weevils, which quickly outclassed the rodents as the infestation du jour. Yes, Forest said, the Y2K bug sure bit him. Who knew it would be a weevil?
Enron Field? Hardly. The Astros' stadium may be a strong anchor to east downtown's revitalization, but the real stars of central city redevelopment were already playing hardball long before Drayton's dream ever hit the drawing board. The real pioneers are people like New York implant Sharon Roseke Haynes. She led the group that rehabbed the sad Brashear building into the precedent-setting Solero. It showed the scores of imitators who followed that a classy new place could indeed bring the masses back downtown. But in terms of sheer stamina and shoot-from-the-hip successes, Randall Davis prevails. The Beaumont native had a comfortable business as a southwest Houston developer when he took a trip to Portland, Oregon, and got the itch for rehabbing old buildings. He returned and set his sights on the old Bute Paint building in north downtown in 1992. Nobody then was seriously betting on central Houston to awake from the dead. Davis's debut was a Bute, the 54-unit Dakota Lofts. Two years later, he came closer to downtown's heart with the 79 Hogg Palace Lofts. As everyone knows by now, his grandest quest was the forlorn Rice Hotel in 1997. Houston heavyweights with ten times his credit line had come away saying a rehab couldn't be done. Davis scrabbled up piecemeal funding -- public and private, logical and questionable. The resulting Rice Lofts building is a magnificent monument, to both the old Houston and the new. Houston loves to brag about its heritage of adventuresome, ballsy wildcatters who put their minds and money on the line to build the Bayou City in earlier eras. Many today like to pretend they're made of that stuff. That could still be the case if not for the man who has the brains to go along with the bricks and mortar. Without the audacity of Randall Davis, the rest of Houston might still be waiting for the Rice to reopen -- and for downtown to come back to life.
We dithered on this one: Lynchburg or Bolivar? Bolivar or Lynchburg? Lynchburg is a shorter ride, a smaller, perhaps cozier ferry, and it operates in the appropriately industrial seascape of the Ship Channel near the San Jacinto Monument, which is always a plus. The Bolivar ferries make for a longer trip, they're bigger, sturdier-seeming boats, and the mood is more often recreational than businesslike, with weekenders taking the joyride from Galveston Island to the peninsula. Both are free rides. Having frequented both, we frankly couldn't find cause for a preference until Thursday, July 20, when local news outlets reported the story of a woman who had driven her new Ford pickup onto the Lynchburg Ferry and then, hitting the gas instead of the brake, through the barrier chain and right off again into the 50-foot-deep water. Ferry employee Severo Hernandez ditched his hat and gloves and dived into the drink to try to save her, as did a ferry passenger. The woman made it out okay; her truck was eventually dredged up, wetter for the wear, and the heroism broke our Bolivar/Lynchburg tie. With service like that, how could the Lynchburg lose?
Right in the center of Houston's gay bars, JR.'s has one of the longest and most entertaining happy hours around. Though its patrons are predominantly gay men, people of all persuasions are welcome (age 21 and older, that is). Happy hour begins at noon (yes, noon) but really starts firing up around 5:30 p.m. The drink specials vary nightly, but you can always count on $2.25 well drinks, the same for longneck bottles of domestic beer, and $1 off all top-shelf liquor. What makes JR.'s happy hour so worthwhile is Ms. Mama Carol. The light-haired diva behind the bar will break out in dance at the drop of a hat, and is more likely to bend your ear about her boyfriend and show you the flowers he sent her than to listen to you cry in your drink over yours. But if you need to cry, go on Wednesday, Ms. Carol's day off. That way you get it out of your system before the weekend.
Houston's strength is in diversity and ever-evolving transitions. Nothing shows this off better than the last leg of Memorial Drive into the city. Relish the tribute to nature on the green-space trails along Buffalo Bayou, the ones accented with public art, the ones that could have been erased with a concrete-lined culvert ages ago. The trees along that area instantly give way to the human wonder of a rising skyline with architecture as unique as any in America. If it were only bringing travelers in among tall, impersonal buildings, like Allen Parkway does, the marvels would end there. But Memorial flows into the beginning of Texas Avenue, a pathway pulsating with human attractions. There's Bayou Place, born again from the dead Albert Thomas Convention Center. And this is the Eden of the fine arts, from the Wortham Theater to the Alley to the longneck and get-down concerts on the plaza across the street. And on to the venerable Lancaster Hotel, a touch of old Houston elegance and efficiency. And finally there's the grande dame of them all, the revitalized Rice, anchoring a downtown that has stormed back to life after too much slumber. Before long, this route will be the two or three best miles of Houston, as the heart of the city gets enlarged all the way to Enron Field and beyond. For now, a lot of Houston's diverse strength -- nature and the naturalists, business and the corporate set, the clubgoers and culture seekers -- is coming together on this common turf. Feel good, Houston; this is the genuine stuff of which great cities are made.

Best Place to Park Your Car and Walk Two Feet for an Ice-Cold Shiner

West Alabama Ice House

You're stuck in traffic, the temperature is over 100 degrees, and you're thirsty. Highway beer billboards are making you even thirstier. This is what hell must be like, you think to yourself. Pull off the highway and head to the West Alabama Ice House. Park your car and stumble to one of the picnic benches under the awning. There, a lady with a kind voice and Texas-size smile will serve you a Shiner. If you get there around happy hour on Friday, there's almost always an old guy grilling hot dogs. If you try to pay him, he'll ask if you want to get him fired. Why would you want to get St. Peter at the Pearly Gates of Beer and Beef fired? Around back there are more picnic tables, horseshoes and hoops to shoot. Some days they even barbecue.

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