Dorothy Parker would drink here. The old Isis Theater has been restored to its swinging, speakeasy style. There's a 25-foot-long cherry-wood bar with a rolling library ladder to get to the good stuff. You can buy a $4 bottle of Bud Light and order caviar at the bar. Down the slippery slate stairs, there's a cigar bar and a wall lined with mirrors -- maybe to make the room look bigger, or maybe because the people who come here really like looking at themselves. The room is filled with black leather jackets, pony-skin shoes and vixens carrying zebra-print purses. Playboy ranked it one of the 25 best bars in America; the napkins say it's "upscale, downtown." (The Mercury Lounge in New York City [more of a dive than a divine blues bar] is located on Houston Street. Coincidence?) Dozens of diamond-patterned chairs are paired with small circular tables lit with silver-beaded lamps. (Diamond patterns are on the wall too; don't ask us why.) Two spinning disco balls hang from the ceiling. On the small corner stage, a black woman in a red-sequined cap leads the jazz band. The dance floor in front of her has a few couples swaying slowly; then the band takes a break and Top 40 tunes come on. Suddenly the tiny dance floor is jammed with people who have to dance.
City Parks Director Oliver Spellman is without question Mayor Lee Brown's most popular appointee as a city department head. Spellman, formerly the Cleveland, Ohio, parks chief, faced a daunting task when he arrived in Houston in the spring of 1998. The department had been left in shambles by Lanier administration predecessor Bill Smith, and was the object of City Council criticism and a highly negative performance audit by City Controller Sylvia Garcia. Spellman initiated his own review and began reining in the bureaucratic anarchy that had characterized Smith's tenure. The new director showed his diplomatic skills in defusing the long-running fight between environmentalists and mountain bikers at Memorial Park. He sat down with both sides and hammered out a deal that protected park ecology while allowing use of some trails by the cyclists. He also rebuilt bridges to the dozens of nonprofit organizations who work in the parks system by consulting with board members and making them feel a part of the team. Says one: "I don't care if Lee Brown doesn't run for mayor again. Just don't take away my Oliver."
Harrisburg Country Club
Trick answer: As you may have guessed by the street name, the Harrisburg Country Club is not a country club at all, but an exceptionally cheeky icehouse, and a fine example of the genre at that. "Just good folks" and "Just good food," promise the signs flanking the door, and while we can't honestly recommend the food as anything but beer absorption, the folks -- from the Enron Field construction workers who used to take their breaks in its shady confines to the Friday- and Saturday-night regulars from the surrounding neighborhoods -- have yet to fail us in their egalitarian friendliness. But at the bottom line, such establishments live or die on the presence of cheap beer and attitude. The $1.50 domestics make the grade on the front end, and an interior sign reading "May wives and girlfriends never meet" more than covers the rear. Toss in a couple of crappy but operable pool tables, a few dart boards, a jukebox straddling the line between sublime and ridiculous, and the looming shadow of the flashy Maxwell House plant immediately east, and you've got just one more good reason to cut out early some Tuesday afternoon. Cheers.

Lloyd Kelley never worked for the U.S. Postal Service, but the former cop, city councilmember and controller has been living up to the standard set in the 1990s by the both-barrels-blazing mail clerks. Once a rising star in Republican political circles, the photogenic Kelley was on a fast track to the mayor's office after he won the controller's job in 1995. But then he got reckless. First, he was caught on camera by KTRK reporter Wayne Dolcefino, dallying with his kids and a female staffer at SplashTown and otherwise enjoying afternoon activities out of the office -- during work hours. The report contributed to his defeat by Sylvia Garcia in his 1997 re-election bid, which led him to file a libel suit against KTRK and Dolcefino. Most of that suit has been tossed out, though he is pursuing a wiretapping charge that has about as much chance of success as his recent run for Harris County district attorney, in which he finished dead last in a five-way primary. Not that he had a shot, but his bid was undoubtedly hampered by pending assault and reckless-driving charges in a road rage incident a year ago, when Kelley allegedly forced another driver to the curb and confronted him. True to form, Kelley has denied wrongdoing, claiming his "police instincts kicked in" after the guy cut him off. Stay tuned for the next episode.

Best Road to Drive When You Happen to Have Your Martini Shaker Handy and Are Thirsty

Westheimer

So The Incredible Hulk gets ahold of our roads, and all the City of Houston can do is set up orange cones and sawhorses around the damage. Oy vey. Driving down Westheimer, specifically through the Montrose area, has become as jarring as navigating the lunar surface on a Huffy. The road has divots deep and wide enough to make Tiger Woods blush. And when you're cruising a grocery-getter with shocks so nonexistent you can tell whether that coin you just drove over was heads or tails, you might as well do the Houston thing: Give up waiting on road repairs or taking alternate routes and buy a big, big, big truck.
Dean's Downtown
David Rozycki
Sure, we were sad to see the well-preserved grit and grime of the old Dean's go. But let's face it: The couches smelled like pee, and the dark, cluttered room was a minefield of opportunities to fall on your ass. Besides, the new yuppified version of Dean's makes a few nods in the direction of its less illustrious past. Vintage clothes still fill the nooks and crannies along the bar's walls, and its bathrooms are papered with pages from the store's old accounting ledgers. But best of all, Dean's face-lift managed to preserve a little bit of the intangible that's so hard to come by in nightlife: a good vibe.
Freshly elected in 1998, Mayor Lee Brown had a chance to add substance to his well-padded résumé by doing what predecessor Bob Lanier had only pretended to do: shore up the city's sagging infrastructure with an aggressive public works program. Lanier's program had been aggressive, at least in terms of spending billions, but rampant corruption and no accountability in the Public Works Department meant that the benefits of his programs accrued more to contractors and consultants than to the public. All Brown needed to do was hire a top gun from outside who had the skill to run the department and the guts to clean out the stacks of deadwood still occupying management offices. Instead, he picked nice-guy Jerry King, an honest but naive bureaucrat who believed he could change the cronyist culture without eliminating the bad apples. Now, King is gone, stabbed in the back by those who would return to the Boss Hog days, and Lee P. has nothing to show for it but a vacancy.
While most people are loath to acknowledge it, Houston's housing boom has a downside, too: higher rents and less affordable single-family housing. Avenue CDC was formed in 1991 by a handful of residents of the Sixth Ward, back when demands for inner-city housing forced out lower-income renters and homeowners who had settled there when times were not so flush. Since then, despite the city of Houston's inherent distrust of anyone not motivated by the bottom line, Avenue CDC has become one of the area's most productive nonprofits. Through a program called Move Home, Avenue CDC has relocated 15 houses slated for demolition to vacant lots, where the structures were rehabilitated and sold to low-income families. The group also helped save the historic Deihl House in the Sixth Ward and is trying to cut a deal with Harris County to renovate the First Ward's dilapidated Jefferson Davis Hospital into loft-style apartments for low-income artists. Perhaps Avenue CDC's most impressive accomplishment is Washington Courtyards, a brand-new 74-unit apartment complex on Washington Avenue. Financed largely through the state's housing tax-credit program, the Courtyards started taking applicants earlier this summer. More than half the units are reserved for families earning less than $25,000. Avenue CDC also conducts a bilingual education and counseling program for first-time home buyers of limited means. Last year 80 "graduates" from the group's program went on to qualify for mortgage assistance from the city, which helped them to purchase their first homes.
The grand doorway opens at this obscure Midtown corner on Fannin. A heavy sense of foreboding can be felt with the first step into the enormous premises. The clock freezes at the just-off-peak dining hour. Over in the hazy corner, by that faded mural of the canals of Venice, a jazz vocalist lazily ends her set. She sings throaty refrains about love in retreat. On the table, a candle flickers. Coupled with the others, it casts huge and faintly moving shadows on the three-story walls. Footsteps can be heard ascending the maze of wrought-iron-railing stairs that form near-illusions in the distance. This slightly forlorn setting was once a classy gallery. It remains a tribute to the fine art of romance -- both making and, unfortunately, breaking it. When the moment comes to part ways, couples can call it quits at commercial establishments or chain restaurants or any manner of in-your-face and up-your-ass venues of the crass. Or, simply come to Valentino's for instant nostalgia. Order up a merlot-warmed high. And remember why this special romance just had to die. Then softly cry. There's farewell food of good quality and variety. Regardless of the selection, the main course is a splendid feast of melancholy. Medium rare. Memories, if not love, are in the leftovers.
For almost 20 years Allen Parkway Village, the sprawling 963-unit public-housing project just east of downtown, was at the heart of a class war that pitted a small band of tenants and affordable-housing advocates against the Housing Authority of the City of Houston, or HACH, which wanted to bulldoze the complex and sell the land to private developers. Negotiations eventually reached the office of Henry Cisneros, then-secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who in 1996 signed an agreement that permitted the demolition of 677 units, with the stipulation that the site continue to be used for low-income housing. HACH was awarded $30 million in federal funds to rehabilitate 280 existing units at APV and construct 220 new apartments. Last November the first batch of new tenants, 156 low-income senior citizens, began moving into the renamed Historic Oaks of Allen Parkway. According to HACH, the complex should be filled by the end of the year, bringing an official end to the longest-running and, at times, nastiest public-policy debate in the city's history.

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