Best Of :: People & Places
Why on earth would the struggling U.S. Postal Service want to go and "improve" some of its best attractions -- those old wood-paneled nostalgic post offices of its past -- into cookie-cutter, strip-mall sameness? Thank goodness the old Sam Houston is still around to show younger generations how things used to be. This branch was once the main post office for the city, and it maintains that quiet splendor, with the deep wood paneling and a detailed interior. As for safety, this may be the only branch that had its own metal detector long before 9/11 (that was because of the other federal offices in the building). If that doesn't make going postal a pleasant experience, the staff here reflects an earlier era as well, when personal service was paramount. This is a place that would get anyone's, uh, stamp of approval.
Houston's signature waterway has been a murky mystery since before the Allen brothers followed it upstream and planted the future Space City on its banks. But at least back then its green-brown waters were clear of the flotsam and jetsam of modern civilization. Starting this summer, a vessel called The Mighty Tidy is aiming to rectify the situation. It cruises the bayou five days a week from Shepherd to the East Loop, scooping up tons of floating garbage. It's also equipped with attachments to pick trash off the bayou banks and out of overhanging trees. Credit its unusual colors to those zany Art Guys, Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing, who turned the quarter-million-dollar boat into a flamingo-pink nautical vacuum cleaner.
Talk about perfect timing. On June 26, just two days before the 25th anniversary of Houston's Pride Parade, the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down Texas's homosexual sodomy law by a 6-3 vote. The law, which outlawed sodomy only when practiced by gays, was challenged by two Houston men named John Lawrence and Tyron Garner, who were arrested in 1998 when police discovered them having sex in Lawrence's apartment. Speaking for the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy declared, "The state cannot demean [homosexuals'] existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime." While conservative Justice Antonin Scalia said the court had "taken sides in the culture war" and had "largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda," activists across the country pooh-poohed him and gathered to celebrate. At a City Hall rally in Houston, Ray Hill, a longtime local warrior for gay rights, happily declared, "We can't -- by this decision -- ever go back."
Alicia Lee's son is a resident at Willow River Farms, a division of the nonprofit Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation. Every fall the residents of this Brookshire, Texas, facility made fruitcakes. That is, until Barbara Bush, for whom Lee had once volunteered at the White House, suggested they expand their repertoire to include gingersnaps. Six years ago, Lee sent a tin of Willow River Farms gingersnaps to Bush at Kennebunkport. The former first lady liked them so much, she sent out tins to all of her friends at Christmastime. Since then Lee has also added mouthwatering cheese snaps to the Farms' list of offerings. The cookies sell for between $15 and $25 a tin. And last year, Lee sold $215,000 worth of treats. The proceeds have paid for electronic doors for wheelchair residents, extra hospital beds and clinic refurbishing. Get your holiday orders in now.
If it's September, it must be Stanton Welch -- as artistic director of Houston Ballet, that is. But it was a long good-bye for now-emeritus artistic director Ben Stevenson. He first resigned back in February 2002, but a change of heart kept him here through June 2003. Well, in spirit at least. Stevenson wasn't around much after he resigned a second time and the board selected Welch as his replacement in January of this year. Other assignments, most notably with the Dallas-Fort Worth ballet, kept him on the road. It will be interesting to see what sort of continued presence Stevenson has at HB and how that will affect Welch's direction of the company. It's a tough job to take over from a living legend.
We like our quotes short, to the point and all-encompassing, and Dave Hickey's definition of Tex-Mex fills the bill on all three counts. In the Houston Press issue of December 26, 2002, in an attempt to clarify an earlier pithy quote ("Rock and roll is like Mexican food. As it improves in quality it stops being what it is"), the Texas-born critic said he meant to say Tex-Mex, not Mexican food. What's more, he likes Tex-Mex more than the stuff from across the Rio Grande. "My commitment is to Tex-Mex," he told the Press. "Which I define as the absence of fucking vegetables."
An admirer calls her the Mother Teresa of the Houston environmental movement, and her credentials make that an understatement. Born Terese Tarlton in Fort Worth 80 years ago, the former model and art dealer eventually met and married barge company millionaire Jake Hershey and settled into their four-acre Longbow Lane estate on Buffalo Bayou. Terry fell in love with the waterway's undeveloped beauty and turned the property into a private nature preserve. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a project to channelize and concrete the bayou banks in 1967, Hershey marshaled the opposition, won the support of then-congressman George H.W. Bush, and testified alongside him before a U.S. House appropriations committee. They succeeded in sparing Buffalo Bayou the fate that has turned so many of Houston's other urban waterways into lifeless eyesores. Hershey applied the same love of nature to other areas of the city, helping launch organizations including the Park People, the Bayou Preservation Association, the Citizens' Environmental Coalition and the Armand Bayou Nature Center. The octogenarian may not last forever, but future generations of Houstonians will be enriched by the things she saved.
Call it big-time seller's remorse. Former Coastal Corporation CEO Oscar Wyatt Jr. voted as a board member to sell the company for $22 million to El Paso Corporation in 2001, then decided he'd made a big mistake. He became the lead plaintiff in a shareholders' suit alleging the management of El Paso violated federal securities laws. Wyatt took out full-page newspaper ads skewering El Paso management and then led an attempt to oust the executives at an El Paso shareholders meeting in Houston. Wyatt and shareholder Selim Zilkha spent $6 million on the effort but ultimately lost the fight when the shareholders stuck with the old order.
This Houston developer shelved his mayoral ambitions earlier this year and dived into the less glamorous assignment of spearheading Metro's campaign to pass its upcoming transit referendum. Wulfe, an informal member of Mayor Lee Brown's kitchen cabinet for the last six years, is the commercial force behind the revitalization of the venerable old Gulfgate Shopping Center and surrounding area in southeast Houston. He also chairs the Main Street Coalition, which is planning the development of the corridor along the rail line from downtown to Reliant Stadium. As if that weren't enough, Wulfe also helped tune out a city sour note this spring by directing negotiations between Houston Symphony officials and performers that resulted in the settlement of a 24-day strike. With a track record like that, maybe he should give a second thought to running for mayor.
Party on the Plaza has been the most popular way for Houston's music lovers to let off a little steam in the summertime for years. Working-class stiffs and yuppie execs have packed this little grandstand in the middle of downtown every summer since the 1980s. And it's no wonder: Houston proper doesn't have a lot of natural resources to help us keep cool. So where does one turn? To beer, of course. A happy hour tradition, the original Party on the Plaza still goes strong, though it's now controlled by Clear Channel and most of the acts fall into the Texas C&W realm. A few other groups have made good use of the plaza as well in recent years. So on almost any given Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evening from Memorial Day to Labor Day, you can hear live music, drink cheap beer and dance your wahoos off under the stars, just steps from your office door.
Maybe you're a pilot looking for an interesting jaunt. Perhaps you're a WWII buff nostalgic for a blast from the past. Or maybe you're just a Houstonian hankering for an unusual weekend getaway. If so, Fredericksburg's new Hangar Hotel fills the bill. Bypass Fredericksburg's German beer halls and quaint B&Bs, and fly straight to the Hangar Hotel at the Gillespie County Airport. This WWII-themed property sports meeting rooms decorated as "flight briefing" Quonset huts, an officers' club bar and a 1940s-style diner and soda fountain. The alabaster light fixtures and green army-style blankets on the mahogany and rattan beds add even more retro-ambience. The hotel also has palm trees, a searchlight and a water tower -- guaranteed to transport you to Pearl Harbor itself. And if you just can't get enough of a WWII fix at the hotel, check out the Admiral Nimitz Museum and National Museum of the Pacific War nearby.
The Fourth of July is supposed to be about freedom, and where better to celebrate liberty than the anarchistic Bolivar Peninsula? Want to drink openly on the beach? That's not a problem here. Neither is the possession and liberal use of extremely powerful fireworks. For two solid hours after the hot sun settles in Galveston Bay, the good folk of Bolivar launch steady streams of Roman candles and artillery shells into the air. The skies whine with whistling jakes, the dunes crackle with the reports of black cats, and sparklers sizzle on every beach house deck. Every hundred or so yards, there's another display, each of which must have cost hundreds of dollars and none of which is publicly funded. Thomas Jefferson would be proud.