Every kid has a special place where secrets are whispered and whisked away by the wind. It might be in a forest, a cemetery or along a river's edge. Adults, too, need a sanctuary from the fast track, and there is none better than Sam Houston Park. Set directly behind City Hall, the park opens onto expansive, neatly manicured lawns. Low-slung wooden benches overlook lush gardens, a gazebo and fountains that mimic the sound of a babbling brook. The park houses an outdoor museum featuring some of the city's oldest homes, which date back to the mid-19th century. Pathways slope down to a pond inhabited by red-billed ducks and a family of turtles. Every afternoon, working stiffs escape the sirens, the shadows and the exhaust and find refuge in the tranquillity of the park.
Slowly but surely, downtown Houston is coming back. Its revitalization lags behind that of other major cities, which long ago converted their warehouses from ugly eyesores into coveted loft spaces. Houston presses forward with the opening of many new restaurants, clubs and plans for a huge urban park. But surely the best benefit to living downtown is the light rail. Yes, it's true, the light rail is far from perfect. Set along city streets, it has racked up a preposterously high crash rate. And the controversies continue as expansion plans lead residents and business owners to cry "Land grab!" But for downtowners, light rail is a cheap, comfortable and convenient way to get around in a city known for endless sprawl and traffic hell.
Scrappy and hard-hitting with a generous dollop of sugarcoated sentimentality: These are the ingredients for a great community newspaper. The front page will devote as much space to chili cookoffs and church socials as burglary trends and city hall scandals. After all, the paper exists not to bash the community but to celebrate it. The Fort Bend/Southwest Sun provides this delicate blend of news both hard and soft, momentous and frivolous, along with good layout, sound school, sports and political coverage and strong advertising support from local businesses. For Houston Community Newspapers -- which earlier this year bought the well-regarded Examiner Newspaper Group and now oversees three dozen community newspapers in the Houston area -- the Sun is a jewel in the company's crown.
Annual games of chicken with hurricanes, questionable politicians, Enron and suffocating humidity aren't selling anyone on Houston. So scrap the "Houston. It's Worth It" campaign and hire on Paul Wall, who's made sure the world is familiar not only with Houston but with Houston landmarks such as Timmy Chan's Chicken and what screwed-and-chopped music sounds like. His song "They Don't Know," featuring Mike Jones and Bun B from Wall's The People's Champ, pays homage to Southern accents, DJ Screw and all other things kept real in Houston. The video shows even more H-town pride, featuring iced-out longhorn belt buckles, the downtown skyline and flashy rimmed pickup trucks. Standing in front of a painting of a giant Lone Star Card, Wall raps with pride about sippin' syrup the way other rappers rap about drinking Cristal. God bless you, Paul Wall, for keeping Houston crunk.
Really cheap drinks draw the Montrose bohemian set like free samiches draw the homeless. Rockabillies, punks, indie nerds, artists, bookish introverts, extroverted exhibitionists and the occasional clump of local comedians filtering out from open-mike Mondays at the nearby Laff Stop flock to the capacious patio of this watering hole to socialize and get fucked up on a shoestring budget. Too much booze? Absorb some alcohol with a modestly priced taco al carbon or a jalapeo sausage dog from the guy with the barbecue grill. Somehow, a picnic table almost always opens up for your gang without much wait. Inside the madly overcrowded bar, fight claustrophobia with a game of pool or darts. Or play some tunes by local bands on the jukebox. Typically if you see someone you don't know (but want to), there's somebody else there who does know them and who's more than happy to do an intro. And at $3 for a Long Island, plenty of social lubricant is always readily accessible to ease that meet-up into a hookup.
While most of Houston's arts groups take a breather in the humidity of summer, the Tony Award-winning Alley Theatre turns up the heat. The Alley's ExxonMobil Summer Chills series always brings edge-of-your-seat thrillers to life. What better way to spend a hot summer evening than in the air-conditioned theater watching a mystery unfold? Artistic director Gregory Boyd has a deft touch at picking summer-fun plays. This year's roller-coaster ride was a lights-out funfest of Wait Until Dark and Black Comedy. Great fare, stellar acting and air conditioning. All we need now is popcorn.
No one has yet to remove the fabulous tiara from Miss Kofi's head. That's because when she takes the stage, any trace of self-described country boy Terry Nabors immediately disappears, leaving in his place this BBD (big beautiful diva). For a while now, Kofi has entertained discriminating drag-queen audiences with her dazzling karaoke show. Her fab couture and interesting (if not exactly on-the-money) lip-synching skills can get a crowd moving faster than you can say "Mama mia!" Her clothes, her moves, her presence -- no one has threatened to dethrone her. Houston has some talented drag queens out there, but you owe it to yourself to check out Miss Kofi. And, as always, tips are appreciated.
After all the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanied the introduction of Mayor Bill White's SAFEclear program, and a few tweaks after it was started, it appears that he was right and those of us who opposed it were wrong. Who knew it was such a good idea to get wrecked, stalled and otherwise immobilized cars and their occupants off the roadways as quickly as possible? Who knew that hordes of wrecker drivers descending on every freeway fender-bender caused as many problems as they solved? Who knew that gawking rubberneckers were such a menace? Mayor Bill, that's who, and in June he released a report that showed that accidents on our major freeways were down a full 20 percent compared to the last two years.
Photo by Houston Press Staff
This consistently unassailable downtown watering hole-cum-burger joint has a secret weapon, ambience-wise: If it's getting too crowded inside, a quick hustle through the unassuming back door lands you in the equivalent of a medieval fairyland. Surrounded by mesmerizingly high walls covered with creeping vines and intricate molding, entering this courtyard is like stepping into a three-dimensional coffee-table book, where conversation flows like the beer that somehow magically tastes even better.
If you can't find what you're looking for on Westheimer, it probably doesn't exist. This central artery is home to world-class restaurants and cozy lunch spots, shopping that'll suit any budget (the Galleria, antique malls, curio shops, international bazaars), a major university, street festivals, public parks and parades. The thoroughfare ambles across some of the richest and poorest neighborhoods and ebbs from four lanes to one and a half, past roadside fruit stands and ominous warehouses, over train tracks and under freeways, through the heart of downtown and into the shadow of suburbia. Like the city it bisects, Westheimer has it all; you have only to travel it to see for yourself.

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