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.
Ask most cops about the favorite HPD speed traps, and they'll chuckle. After all, speeders are everywhere in Houston. Traffic enforcement is like radar-shooting SUVs in a barrel. Perhaps a few miles over the limit can be tolerated in most areas, simply because there's not much reason to slow down and savor scenery that's not even there. However, two miles are delightfully different. The segment of Memorial (and the split into Woodway) through Memorial Park to Loop 610 needs to be protected as a local treasure. This journey through the pines means communing briefly with the hikers and bikers and the rest who respect nature. The sense of special spirit for drivers is brief enough even at 40 mph. It doesn't need to be broken quickly by the zooming pickup trucks and leadfoots trying to duplicate the Daytona 500. So relish the sight of that radar cop waiting at the crest of the rise after the railroad overpass on Memorial. This speed trap will take you on three or so minutes of motoring tranquillity, so rare in this rage-heavy regional transportation mix.
Elegance and efficiency. Durability with at least a dab of uniqueness. Houstonians aren't that different from drivers elsewhere. We want the best of all worlds: tungsten toughness combined with soft leather. Consumers pick the SUVs, the E-cars -- Ford Expeditions and Explorers, Caddy Escalades -- or the Suburbans, or even the Zee-Me-Now BMW sportsters. Others try to find the perfect pickup pick-me-up. The results? Before long, the most luxurious and badass behemoths have been battered by the beasts lurking beneath and above Houston. Roadway debris devastates undercarriages; sinkholes and chuckholes chew up finely tuned steering; high-water and higher ruts bring on the earliest of death rattles. So park those pathetic hybrid imitators. He-men and she-wimmen want the might of Desert Storm, the Hummer, the successor to the military jeep that went civilian in the early '90s. Houston cloudbursts? Hummers don't even fret until floods reach almost window level. Street sinkholes? This baby can barrel up the steepest of 60-degree bayou banks. The 3.4 tons of machine sit on a wheelbase as big as a semi's rig, with a hard steel body and full independent suspension. It can dance the orange-barrel polka around construction sites. As for creature comfort, options include automatic locks and windows, Monsoon CD audio system, armrests and other finery. Hummers aren't fast. But if the truck ahead causes problems, you're equipped with the perfect accessory for the job: a 12,000-pound front winch (that's winch -- not wench). All the extras might make that sticker price pass $80,000. Who cares? These vehicles kicked Iraqi butt. Of course, the package doesn't include machine-gun mounts -- yet. Charlton Heston's still working on that one.

READERS' CHOICE: Humvee

If anyone wants to dent a squeaky-clean political image in the course of one evening, look no further than the unfortunate 39-year-old Bert Keller for pointers. First the councilman, who was already estranged from wife Susan, took off after an Astros game for the inner sanctum of Centerfolds topless bar on Richmond. There, he got an up-close and personal inspection of a city-regulated sexually oriented business, one whose employees were responsible enough to cut him off at the bar after it became apparent Keller was more than three sheets to the wind. Keller then headed out in a leased Ford Expedition and smacked into a parked truck near his bachelor pad off San Felipe. Compounding the mess, the barely coherent councilman then stumbled off into the night without waiting for the police and slept off the mother of all hangovers in seclusion. After coming to his senses, Keller played penitent, letting celebrity DWI attorney Rusty Hardin plead him out for a fine and community service.
The poor Dome. The former Eighth Wonder of the World has to sit there helplessly and watch as, right across the parking lot, construction crews build the new NFL stadium that has a contract out to kill it. The humiliation is compounded by the endless speculation and discussions about what to do with the white elephant. In July the Houston Chronicle wrote a piece (headline: "Dome Business Picking Up") trumpeting that the old warhorse will host 18 high school football games this season(!). The tone of the article was optimistic, almost enthusiastic: Look, there's still life in the old fart. It was like we're supposed to be proud that a school district tossed a couple of crumbs its way. For a stadium that once hosted Nolan Ryan, Earl Campbell, the Rolling Stones and Elvis, it's an embarrassment beyond words for the Dome to cater to a bunch of drippy teenagers, half of whom couldn't spell Evel Knievel, let alone know that he once broke the world indoor motorcycle-jump record in 1971 at the venue. We have far grander plans for the place that put Houston on the map: mock naval battles. Seal the Dome up tight, invite competing corporations to build small fleets, and let the bloodsport begin! Think it's too unsophisticated for us? Consider this: The Romans did the very same thing with the Coliseum. And look how well that venue has stood the test of time.
Some folks think they're creepy, but we like the various foods that have taken on the personae of animals in the company's billboard campaign around the city. They have a banana that looks like an octopus, cherries made to resemble an ant, a watermelon as a turtle, and several other charming characters. If only the groceries and produce they delivered looked as charming.
Most of the animals at the zoo don't seem to care too much about visitors. They eat or pee or groom themselves or loll about, oblivious to the prying eyes and children's cries. But the orangutan knows what's going on. When a crowd gathers on the other side of her glass wall, she'll wander over to say hello, using her hand to shield her eyes from the glare so she can get a better look at you. She'll work her audience from left to right, and then, when she tires of you (which inevitably happens before you tire of her), she'll twirl her chewing gum -- yes, chewing gum -- like a bored teenager and head back over to the grassy knoll to finish her nap. You'll walk away, too, feeling a bit more like an animal yourself after gaping at a confined creature with 97 percent of the same DNA as a human.
Producer Huey Meaux was a perfect fit for Houston. Something of a wildcatter of Texas music, Meaux never showed any interest in history. His focus was always on the new thing: the next single, the latest thrill, the youngest girl. The past was only a tool to acquire something in the present, or the future. It wasn't surprising, then, that in 1996 when Meaux was sentenced to 15 years for, among other things, sexual assault of a child, he had allowed his massive catalog to gather a thick layer of dust at Sugar Hill Recording Studios. Decades' worth of recordings, historical works covering important Texan artists ranging from Freddy Fender to Johnny Copeland, were this close to being lost to history. Enter David Thompson, a former general manager at Sugar Hill. He made a pitch to Meaux's ex-wife, who owned the recordings, and proceeded to catalog and preserve those delicate tapes. It was a painstaking process; some tapes had suffered from poor storage, absorbing tiny but nearly fatal amounts of humidity. Thompson had to cook them in an oven to dry them out enough so he could get one good DAT recording. Once finished, Thompson began marketing the catalog to labels, eventually finding suitable homes at Edsel and Westside, imprints of the UK-based Demon Records. Back in the States, you can find them on the shelves at Cactus Music & Records.

It's not hidden if you live there, of course, but for plenty of us who've arrived at thinking-about-home-buying age in the last few years, it's all about -- in words lifted from the housewarming invitation of one recent arrival -- "East side, baby!" East side means different things to different people, and the rising Heights-like affluence of close-in neighborhoods like Eastwood is way too well established to qualify as hidden, but as usual, drive a little farther out (though still inside the Loop, natch), and you can pretty much have your pick of hideaways still largely absent -- though not likely for long -- from the real estate pages. Our current favorite is Forest Hill, a nugget roughly bound by Brays Bayou, 75th Street, the bucolic Forest Park cemetery and Lawndale. What you've got is homes primarily from the 1930s through '50s, some fixer-uppers and some showpieces, set on quiet streets, shaded with canopied hardwoods and planted on anachronistically deep lots. What you get is easy access to I-45, the Gus Wortham golf course (hey, as a landscape neighbor, it beats the hell out of a mall), big parks, that pretty cemetery and a stable population that, according to local realtors, doesn't move much. What you can get it for, if you're willing to wait for the opportunity, is often in the exceedingly un-Heights-like range of 70 to 80K. What's not to like?

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