Richmond's Burning

The Richmond Strip is a very Houstonian take on the concept of an entertainment district. Where most are cozy and pedestrian, ours is spread out and huge, like our fair humid city. Not only are the bars and clubs colossal -- some upwards of 50,000 square feet -- but so is the area itself, which runs from Sage or Chimney Rock to Hillcroft, or Fondren, or Gessner, or wherever it finally peters out into a ramshackle succession of car repair shops and tire barns out by Beltway 8.

Unique in the world, our principal boozing/dancing/pickup zone is not designed to be explored on foot. Hundreds or thousands of feet or even a mile or two separate one ginormous club from another. The strip is designed so that you park and get out at one bar, or get the valet to do it for you, and do so again and again as the night wears on.

And lately it seems the much-beloved Houston mix of alcohol, guns and cars is proving to be a lethal mix. Big trouble has come to the Richmond Strip. Let's review this calendar year, shall we? (In doing so, we'll just leave out that September 2002 incident in which two men, angered over the diss of one of their girlfriends, sprayed a crowd near T-Town in the 6400 block of Richmond with more than 60 rifle and pistol rounds, killing two and injuring four.)

On January 30, Adrian Heyne was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in the wee hours during a trip to the strip. This was not an accidental hit-and-run, mind you -- the driver of the car that killed Heyne ran him down intentionally in a bar parking lot to settle an earlier dispute, police say.

On May 11, two young men were gunned down drive-by-style outside the Paradise Hall nightclub in the 9300 block of Richmond. Both survived, but there have been no arrests. Five days later Eduardo Rivas wasn't so lucky. Rivas was a passenger in a car that was hit by at least one bullet at the corner of Richmond and Sage. Until the driver arrived at Rivas's home, she didn't know that Rivas was mortally wounded and not merely sleeping off a tear. Like the earlier incident, this was also a drive-by, and also like that case, no suspects have been apprehended or identified.

T-Town was in the news again on June 22 when cousins Rene Gonzalez and Samuel Antu were gunned down after leaving the huge club complex. The shooter grabbed a gun out of the trunk of his car and started firing, either at unseen assailants across the street or just for the hell of it. Gonzalez and Antu were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but both were lucky enough to survive. No arrests have been made.

On June 30, two more cousins -- Rodolfo Martinez, 17, and José Martinez, 18, both of Needville in Fort Bend County -- were driving near Fondren on Richmond around 2 a.m. in a yellow Cadillac. A suspect, described in the Houston Chronicle as "someone," pulled up alongside them and shot Rodolfo in the head and riddled José's body with lead. Both were dead before the day was out. "Someone" has yet to be apprehended.

In the wee hours of July 6, three more young partyers left the strip on stretchers. Near the corner of Richmond and Unity (oh, the irony) the young folks got into an argument with another carload of pissed-off night owls. Both cars skidded to a halt in a Denny's parking lot, where harsh words quickly escalated to gunfire. Two men and a woman were hit; all survived. Police attributed the shooting to road rage. Once again, no arrests have been made. (And this isn't meant to pick on HPD. It's hard to catch people who are already in their cars or right beside them. See the D.C. snipers for proof.)

The very next night, off-duty deputies at Sam's Boat heard a commotion in the parking lot. There they found a man beating his female companion and trying to drag her into his car. When they attempted to intervene, the woman escaped and the man jumped in his car, gunned the engine and attempted to run the deputies down. They opened fire on the man, who escaped unscathed, only to be arrested a short time later by an HPD officer.

Beginning this January and through May (the last month for which crime stats were available), there were 107 robberies, 73 aggravated assaults and five rapes on the strip, in addition to the ten shootings and the successful and attempted vehicular homicides listed above. That's more than one violent crime a day, not to mention scores and scores of burglaries of cars and businesses.

Cars were a factor in all of these crimes, though guns were not. In other words, guns don't kill people, but people who keep guns in their cars kill people. Racket put the cars + guns = havoc theory to Rice sociology chair William Martin. "And I imagine some of those people might have been drinking, too," he says. "That's clearly our most dangerous drug, and guns and cars are two of our most favorite artifacts, both of which can be deadly. When you combine all three, you've got a potentially violent combination. Not potentially, that's real. You mix alcohol, guns and cars -- all three of those have been killing people for a long time."

Martin says the killings could just be a statistical anomaly. "Sometimes the law of averages stacks up -- it doesn't always even out," he says. Racket then told Martin that all the shootings have taken place since May, when our summer arrived in force about a month early. It's not anomaly but fact, he says, that murder rates skyrocket in the summer months and in summerlike regions.

"One of the reasons that the Southern and Southwestern states have higher murder rates is that we don't get the benefit of low winter rates," he says.

Two Hispanic men were arrested in the September 2002 shooting, and police are seeking Hispanic suspects in the Rivas and Gonzalez-Antu shootings. Ethnicities for most of the suspects were not known or given to the press, but all of the victims in the summer shooting wave have Spanish surnames. Motives, where they can be gleaned, are either of the road rage or some other perceived act of disrespect categories. Could the stereotype of Hispanic machismo play a role?

"The stereotypes often have a basis in fact," Martin says. "Anytime you have a people -- white, black or Hispanic -- whose culture calls upon them not to take slights against their manhood, well, you're not gonna get away with that. If you have guns, cars, alcohol and people who don't respond well to perceived slights, that's a very volatile combination."

All of this mayhem is making violence-blighted Spy look as peaceful as the butterfly house at the Museum of Natural Science. And yet city planners are touting the Richmond Strip as a place to funnel tourists during the Super Bowl. Under the headline "Super Bowl XXXVIII / Downtown shaking off the dirt / Club owners say Super Bowl can mend city's image," the Chronicle reported that, and I quote, the "Houston Super Bowl XXXVIII Host Committee will steer the expected influx of 130,000 tourists to downtown and the Richmond strip/Uptown areas during game week."

Then there's the Greater Houston Convention Center and Visitors Bureau Web site, which touts the Richmond Strip's "exciting nightlife," where the clubs "will keep you moving and shaking into the wee hours." Exciting indeed. And maybe they mean "dodging bullets and convulsing on a stretcher."

Yeah, well, no one likes those pesky tourists anyway. Always hollering, "Houston, we've got a problem," and thinking we haven't heard it a thousand times before, always wanting to know where Bud and Sissy live and where Gilley's is, teasing us about having smoggy air and being the fattest city in America…Expecting to see steers chewing their cud on Westheimer…Who needs 'em? Just tell 'em to rent a car and drive it to the Richmond Strip and indulge in the charming local custom of cheerily waving a raised middle finger at all the other cars. We locals can hide behind bulletproof glass, drink beer and make bets on who eats it first. It'll be like a combination of a hockey game and Roman-style gladiatorial combat.

But seriously, folks, let's see what a couple of Bonnie and Clyde-style bullet- riddled cars full of dead tourists does for our image. So until we get a real entertainment district (we can dream, can't we) we'd better watch where we steer all those tourists.