Crop from illustration by John Earles
The new issue of Cite (89) is available at Brazos Bookstore, CAMH, MFAH, Issues, Domy, River Oaks Bookstore, and other stores. You can subscribe here. The issue has already generated a good deal of talk, including a piece by David Theis calling for an investment in Westheimer. Let us know if his vision matches your own in the comment section?
A few years ago, my wife, Susanne, and I made our first excursion to Anvil, the Westheimer curve’s cocktail bar with high standards, to see what the young people were up to. The bar was already celebrated, even in the national media, for its pre-Prohibition era concoctions. We were also intrigued by owners Bobby Heugel, Kevin Floyd, and Steve Flippo’s conversion of an old commercial building into a contemporary space. They were continuing the welcome trend set at Café Brazil, Hugo’s, and Empire Café of renovating old buildings rather than demolishing them.
We went and we enjoyed. Watching the bartenders (they happily eschew the trendy term “mixologists”) strain mightily as they shook their cocktails was surprisingly entertaining, and we compared notes on our drinks with the thrill-seekers beside us at the bar. It’s quite possible that between us we had The Brave (tequila and sotol, for starters), the Kentucky Cane (rum, rye, and more), the Americano (campari, vermouth, and soda), and a Waxing Poetic (cinnamon-infused bourbon, absinthe, and more). I may have also thrown down a craft beer. All this as we admired the handcrafted-ness of the space itself: the reclaimed meat locker doors that led to the bathrooms and the tongue-and-groove flooring used as tabletops.
To make a long story short, Anvil left us feeling rather expansive and wanting to continue our urban experience. Perhaps because of the alcohol, we forgot we were still in Houston, where walking from one place to another is not really encouraged, so we decided to stroll up Westheimer, then cross over to Poscol. We’d only taken a few steps when sobering reality hit: Westheimer is no place for pedestrians. The sidewalks were broken and uninviting. The street was badly lit. Nobody else was walking. Cars, trucks, and buses were roaring by; we had to run across Westheimer to the restaurant. Poscol was softly lit, and the Italian small plates were delicious, but my pleasure was dimmed by the memory of that unpleasant walk. Not so much by its specific details as by the thought that something wasn’t right here. Walking a bar- and restaurant-rich street like Westheimer shouldn’t be so nerve-wracking, so ankle-threatening, not even in Houston. Not long afterward, when the American Planning Association placed Montrose in its Top 10 “Great Places in America,” based in part on its “walkability,” we had to scoff. They must not have walked along Westheimer.
Since that time, the street seems to have grown even worse, largely because its culture has become better. Restaurants and bars worthy of national attention continue to open, but each business owner has to fend for himself when it comes to providing parking and repairing ruined stretches of sidewalk. While some old buildings have happily been converted into temples of gastronomy, others have been leveled to create surface lots to meet mandated parking requirements. In short, the stretch of Westheimer between Bagby and, say, Woodhead has become probably the best restaurant row in Texas—and the bars, boutiques, and antique stores are not far behind.
In short, Westheimer should be a great urban promenade. But it isn’t even an acceptable one, in large part because the City classifies the street as a “major thoroughfare,” that is, as a street or road designated for the highest possible volume of traffic.
Only in Houston would we attempt to build a sophisticated urban scene along a traffic sewer. As urban planner and Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC) board member Zakcq Lockrem told me as we surveyed the street, “The culture is great. The public realm leaves a lot to be desired.” (It’s worth noting that other potentially urban and inviting inner-loop streets, such as Washington Avenue and Navigation Boulevard, face similar limitations due to the City’s major thoroughfare designation.)
Frankly, I’ve let the wretched state of Westheimer’s public realm gnaw at me, and I’ve threatened to walk the Bagby-Woodhead stretch in a sort of death-defying (or at least comfort-defying) stunt, just to document how bad it really is. I kept putting it off—my masochistic impulses are not generally overpowering—but recently gave in. It was probably the back-to-back-to-back openings of Uchi, Underbelly, and the Hay Merchant that prompted me to action. That and the rather heroic efforts of area barkeeps and restaurateurs to fight off the city’s proposed parking requirement increases.
Led by Anvil’s Bobby Heugel, these small business owners have formed the nonprofit group OKRA (Organized Kooperative on Restaurant Affairs) to resist these increases and promote the city’s independent bar and restaurant culture. I could say more, but OKRA is a story for another time. Let’s just say that these 20-somethings show a level of civic-mindedness, and pride in Houston, that frankly would’ve seemed perverse 20 years ago, when the goal of a bar or restaurant owner was to make customers feel as if they weren’t in Houston.
Chef and owner Chris Shepherd at Underbelly wants to tell the “story of Houston food,” while Heugel and Kevin Floyd of Hay Merchant named their incredibly successful new beer bar after Louis Westheimer himself, an early Houston “hay merchant.” Someone at Uchi got a Texas State Historical marker put up honoring Felix Tijerina, who built the iconic Felix’s, a space (if not exactly spirit) that Uchi now inhabits. These folks deserve more from the city than blighted sidewalks.
At the end of a weekend of heavy rain, I set off on my walk. I decided to make the grim promenade in two loops. Starting from Montrose, I first headed west, passing Hay Merchant, where the earnest young beer drinkers standing on the patio looked uncannily like younger versions of Hank Hill and his friends drinking Alamos in their alleyway. Hay Merchant and Underbelly share the old Chances lesbian bar building, which comes almost all the way out to the sidewalk (which the bar owners had to rebuild at their own expense). I walked past a strip center with its parking lot in front, then came to the Cherryhurst Center, home to Catbird’s bar and Silverlust jewelry. Curiously, this short stretch has diagonal parking on the street. If only the rest of the street had the same.
I next came to the Middle Eastern restaurant La Fendee and was reminded of its Houston Press review, which spelled out the hazards of Westheimer traffic. “At one point,” former Press critic Robb Walsh wrote, “a piece of metal debris lying in the road got pinched by a passing car tire, which propelled it into La Fendee’s parking lot with such force that it made a loud metallic ring when it hit the fender of a pickup truck.” This is presumably not a concern for a Parisian sidewalk-sitter.
I saw my first fellow pedestrians as I approached Anvil at the west end of the curve. They were three youngish black men, talking and laughing in high-pitched voices. They suddenly looked toward me, their eyes widening as they gasped and jumped away from the street. Did I look that threatening? I got my answer when water splashed all over my left side. I gasped and jumped as the culprit, a speeding tow truck, continued to splash water as it rushed toward some unseen but towable car. Wondering now why I was doing this, I reached Da Marco, among the first of the fine dining restaurants to open on Westheimer. It presents itself to the street as an outpost, even a fortress, with its very big, in-front parking lot and high metal fence.
Some buildings present a more pleasing face to the street, like Hugo’s, with its row of flowers and general air of Mexican grace, but standing in front of the lovingly restored old commercial building, designed by Joseph Finger, I was reminded that the owners had to demolish a house to create their in-back parking lot. By this point, I was almost to Kuester Street. Here the south side of Westheimer actually does become somewhat urban-walker friendly. The center, which houses vintage clothing stores and the Poison Girl bar, comes out to the sidewalk, which had a few pedestrians. Somebody even crossed the street.
If I kept walking all the way to Kirby, I would reach the West Ave development with its simulacrum of a street. Not even the prospect of a meal at Pondicheri made that prospect appealing, so I crossed Westheimer and started making my way back.
When I reached Café Brazil and Domy Books, at the corner of Hazard, I was on one of the most urban-pedestrian corners in Houston. A few people were walking, and a young bicyclist smiled at me as she went by. I couldn’t help but note the “ghost bicycle” on the other side of the street. That is the white-painted bicycle that marks the spot where Leigh Boone, a bicyclist, was killed by a speeding fire truck in April 2009.
Even though it’s home to some wonderful bars and restaurants, many of them in beautiful old houses, Westheimer loses any semblance of pedestrian life as you cross Montrose heading east; a series of strip centers sees to this. For a street in an old section of Houston, Westheimer here is strangely denuded of trees, and in the summer it offers no protection from the sun whatsoever. Parking lots, driveways, and the sidewalk blend together into a field of concrete, as if the goal had been to make the street as ugly and uncomfortable as possible.
I paused for a moment across from Indika and Dolce Vita, summoning up the old house that once stood between them and that had been torn down to make room for parking. There are now two lots between the two restaurants, and a tall metal fence fronts the street. The valet parkers have set traffic cones in the entrance to each lot, so that you can’t just drive in. Instead of looking like good neighbors, and making the street welcoming environment, these two excellent restaurants look like the two Koreas with a bristling DMZ in between.
By the time I reached Jeannine’s Bistro, the friendly little Belgian café in a strip center at Bagby, I had been splashed a second time and just wanted to get off the street. So I walked a block north and returned to my car along Avondale, which in contrast seemed like the most beautiful street in the world. It was quiet and lined with mature oaks and old homes. No concrete lots lay between the houses and the street; brick townhouses were built all the way out to the sidewalk. Birds chirped. It felt as if I’d gone from a barbaric space to civilization.
How could Westheimer’s public realm be made worthy of its culture? The first answer is easy and cheap. If the city changed the street’s designation, along this stretch at least, and reduced it to three lanes (east, west, and turning), the improvement would be dramatic. (Someone at the city’s Transportation Planning Office told me that, contrary to speculation, the city has “no current plans for reconstructing [i.e., widening] this section on Westheimer.”) If the City, the Management District, or any entity other than the put-upon business owners then paid to expand the sidewalks into that reclaimed lane, the results would be more dramatic still. If they built a parking garage and allowed some of the surface lots to be transformed into plazas and pocket parks, you’d have a showcase.
Finally, if the gruesome-looking, half-empty strip center at the southwest corner of Montrose and Westheimer were demolished, allowing a mixed-use five- or six-story structure to be built all the way out to the sidewalk, the area would truly be transformed.
Actually, this last proposal might actually happen. While I was still recovering from my walk, I read that the strip center was up for sale. Apparently there’s a Joseph Finger-designed Art Deco building hidden beneath the hideous cladding, which some would like to see restored. I’m sorry, though, but the building has to be demolished and rebuilt out to the street with a wide sidewalk right up to the door. It just has to.