Sole of Houston: Richmond Avenue, Houston’s Street of Dreamz

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Eight a.m. to noon, The trip out, and in from Mission Bend to Westchase: David Beebe and I like to think we are great urban adventurers, veterans of what is now over 130 miles of walking the city streets, and many hundreds more miles logged on the city buses. In other words, this shit ain’t exactly new to us. But in our most recent installment of the Sole of Houston, we acted like a couple of noobs.

The plan was to meet at my house near the Palace Lanes on Bellaire and walk down to Stella Link, catch the southbound #68 bus and head out to the West Loop Transit Center near Meyerland, and then transfer to the #33 South Post Oak bus, which would deliver us out to Hiram Clarke Park and Ride. We would walk back in from there all the way to Allen’s Landing and our customary two Martini celebration at Warren’s.

Beebe arrived at the house about eight a.m., clutching a hilarious campaign poster for his bid for Marfa City Council. It was a very nice day, absolutely the best weather we’ve had for one of these walks – mid-60s, low humidity, not a hint of rain.

We decided to walk down to the West Loop Transit Center, so we headed down Academy to Brays Bayou and followed it as it wound its way southwest.

The #33 bus arrived almost immediately after we made it to the George R. Brown-looking transit center. “Perfect timing,” Beebe said. We lined up to get on and Beebe’s face sank. “Man, I can’t believe I did this,” he said. “I’ve got like $90, but the smallest I have is a ten. I’m gonna have to pay ten bucks for the bus.”

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I told him he might be able to use my Q Card, but the driver told us that wouldn’t work.

“Anybody got change for a ten?” Beebe asked the bus in general. Miraculously, an older Mexican man said he didn’t but that he would just pay Beebe’s fare.

“We’re just getting started and I’ve already thrown myself on the kindness of strangers,” Beebe muttered to himself. “I haven’t forgotten to bring a dollar bill since high school.” (Fittingly, he was wearing a shirt that said “Lamar Redskins 1989” that he had owned since then. Maybe he was wearing that very shirt the last time he made that mistake.)

The bus eased into traffic on Braeswood and headed west. At South Rice, it turned north. “This bus is going all over the place,” I said. “It looks like we’re headed to Bellaire Transit Center.” We’ve had good luck there in the past, as weirdoes and freaks (burned out old punks and former Leon’s barmaids and the like) seem to congregate there. But no weirdoes or freaks got on, and as the bus headed out of the station and headed north on South Rice, it dawned on me that we had made a huge mistake.

“Man, we’re headed the wrong way,” I said. “This bus is heading for the Galleria.”

“Gosh, you’re right,” Beebe said. (He is trying to give up cussing.) “I don’t believe it. Some great travelers we turned out to be. Well gol-lee, what’s plan B?”

Plan B is we stop acting like idiots.

“Well, we might as well just head out Richmond, I guess,” I said. “That’s one we’ll have to scratch off the list one of these days.”

So Richmond it was. The 33 dumped us off in front of Stelios’s Greek Deli / Ekko gas station, which was a stroke of luck. Greek or not, they dish out a mean breakfast taco. I think there were three whole scrambled eggs in mine. Half an hour later, we boarded the #25 Mission Bend Richmond bus and were finally on our way.

Towards the end of the line, the bus turned left off Richmond and into a weird suburban residential neighborhood. Ashford Point, the street we were on, was bisected by a greenspace in which there was a sunken trail, which ducked under the streets in little tunnels.

And then there was… this thing, this sprawling empty complex, this five-story square building topped by a 40-foot golden geodesic dome, flanked by two smaller domes. Two exterior staircases flanked these orbs – the overall effect was something like a sawed-off Mayan temple of the sun.

The whole compound was ringed by an iron fence, and then there was another huge fence around the entry to the building. The vast parking lot was empty, and there were no signs nor apparently even a mailbox. It was completely surreal. Neither Beebe nor I had a clue what it was – Beebe thought it might be the private residence of a very weird Arab sheik. I thought at first that it might be a mosque, but it didn’t look much like one closer up.

In fact, it looked more like Hank Scorpio’s World Domination Command Bunker or something…

I did some Googling the next day and found it was known variously as the Tien Tao temple and Chong Hua Sheng Mu Holy Palace. Apparently, it was the unfinished headquarters of an Asian religious sect whose leader was summarily deported back to China eight years ago, and without its leader, the sect’s headquarters has been abandoned. (Oddly enough, the INS case worker’s name was David Beebe.) The building now pretty much defines white elephant, but I guess you could say it is one of the most unknown of Houston’s odd places.

Mission Bend Park and Ride, end of the line for the 25, is the same starting point from which Beebe and I sallied forth down Bellaire about a year ago. This time, we headed north onto Eldridge Parkway, which is a ground zero for the massive Brays Project flood control endeavor. There will soon be streams, trails and scads of lake-sized retention ponds out here, but right now it’s boring.

And so are the outer reaches of Richmond Ave. All the way down to Dairy Ashford, it’s one long monotonously pleasant stretch of brick walls and pin oak-lined medians, more akin to Sugar Land than southwest Houston.

At the corner of Dairy Ashford, Richmond serves up a classic vista of suburban H-Town generica, a celebration of our entire city’s overplayed catalog – there’s a Valero, a CVS, a gas station and a bank. We cracked our first beer of the day in front of the CVS. Hey, it was almost noon, which is a late start for us.

Noon to six p.m., Gessner to the Loop: And then there’s another boring residential stretch – this one with few trees -- that carries you on down to the southern edge of Westchase.

Somebody must have really loved Greenway Plaza, because it is perfectly replicated out here with this canyon of tedious glass-sided mid-rise office buildings and landscaping fantasias. The whole area seems to house little else than companies that do nothing but send you electric bills. Well, that, and weird schools with names like American Intercontinental University and the geographically challenged, deviously named River Oaks Academy.

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And Richmond continues like this until east of the Beltway, east of Gessner, where the feel is very much in the Sharpstown vein. To pass the time, we tuned into Wash Allen’s Confessions on KCOH.

Caller: “Wash, me and my lady been going out for about six months.”

Wash: “You say you’ve been dealing with this lady for about six months?”

Caller: “That’s right. A while back, we got talking about our sexual fantasies, and she asked me what mine was. I told her I wanted to have a ménage a trois, a threesome. It wasn’t a big deal, and I didn’t think anything would come of it. I just said that was maybe something I might like to try.”

Wash: “There are many men who find the idea of two women engaging in activities of that nature interesting as a philosophy.”

Caller: “But then my birthday came around, she got on the Internet and she set it up. So we did that and it was pretty good, no big deal, and then-”

Me: “I don’t believe it, he just totally yada-yada’ed the threesome.”

Caller: “-and now that’s all she wants to do. Today, Wash, she wants to have threesomes all the time, and sometimes she wants to have sex with women with me not even there.”

Beebe: “Hah! Be careful what you ask for!”

A few minutes later, Wash threw open the phone lines open to the Soothsayers, which is what he terms the show’s call-in audience.

Sooothsayer #1: “That woman played that man! She was wanting to get it on with women the whole time. She put that threesome idea in his head and then made him think it was his idea all along.”

Me: “Uh huh. Speak on!”

Soothsayer #2: “All women want to be with other women. How could they not, if they see women through the same eyes I do?”

Beebe: “Yep, that’s the way I see it. If I was a woman, I would be a lesbian.”

Soothsayer #3: “This man better not make this woman his wife. She’s a freak. She’s alright on the side. But you keep a woman like that in the trunk of your car like a spare tire. You just get her out when you need her.”

And so on. It certainly relieved the monotony of outer Richmond. It’s only at Gessner that Richmond finally starts having some street life.

Of course, this being southwest Houston, the street life takes the form of strip malls. Out here, they house much of the Colombian and Venezuelan night life in Houston, and we also saw Cuban, Peruvian, Jamaican and Chilean restaurants and/or clubs. We popped in the Blue Nile Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar for a beer. I clearly ordered a Bud for Beebe and myself but was given one Bud and one Beck’s. Other than us, the clientele was all-Ethiopian, the staff all Latin.

We sauntered over to a liquor store for a half-pint of Sauza silver tequila, which would serve us well down the road. The staff here was weird – two Indian guys, one of whom looked like a Speed Racer villain with his smoked sunglasses and reddish spade beard, who passed their days serving up booze and watching Pat Robertson’s 700 Club on TV.

Next we came upon one of the only Huddle Houses in Houston. “Open 24 hours” said one sign on the outside. “Eat what you want, when you want,” declared another. A third, on the door, said it was only open for breakfast and lunch on weekends, and then a fourth hand-scrawled one, said it was closed altogether because, and I quote, “of energy problems.”

By now we were approaching Fondren and that world-famous, drive-thru beer barn. Just next door, there was a ramshackle white house surrounded by log piles, all scented by the fragrance of smoked brisket. Under an old oak tree there sat an ancient black man wearing Dickies overalls and a feed store hat. Back here, there was a whole neighborhood of such houses. Richmond had thrown us a doozy of a curveball.

Back in 1982, Jan Morris, the Welsh travel writer for whom the word “indefatigable” seems to have been invented, spent five days in Houston and wrote for Texas Monthly one of the most remarkable essays about Houston I have ever come across.

Generally speaking, she found the city overly smug about stuff like the Alley Theatre and other such commonplace metropolitan institutions. She longed to be surprised by the city a little more. As she wrote:

“Look at the place as I did, through the traveler’s eye. There lies the grid of old downtown, as it lies everywhere else in America, towered over now of course by the conventional clump of skyscrapers, some plain and ugly by Hankmore, Scribbles, Fujiyama and Olsenjohn Associates, some slant-wise and beautiful by Phillip Johnson, all sheathed in those mirrors and tinted windows, which make them look, as modern skyscrapers must, utterly unfrequented by sentient beings. There are the usual frenzied ring roads, upon which citizens here, like citizens everywhere else, earnestly advise you not to venture – Houston’s rather bumpier than most, I think, and less intelligently planned than some, but all in all much as you will find them in L.A., Chattanooga, or for that matter Paris, France. There to the west extend the standard interminable suburbs, the rich here, the poor there, the academics in the middle, interrupted occasionally by incipient lesser downtowns and institutions medical, sportive or touristical. Houston is perhaps more splurgy than its peers because it has done without zoning laws, and it is certainly greener because of that irrepressible foliage; but in its domestic and commercial shape, style and pace it is nothing very special. Astonish me!”

As exceptions to the banal here she cited Jamail’s grocery, the Astrodome at night, the replica of Albert Thomas’s office in his namesake convention center, the downtown tunnels, the “concentrated opulence of River Oaks,” and the sight of a bunch of prosperous middle-aged housewives dutifully learning to ice-dance to “Deep in the Heart of Texas” at the Galleria ice rink.

Obviously, the Houston of 2008 and the Houston of 1982 are almost completely different cities. (And it’s a pity nobody took Morris to the Orange Show and the Beer Can House back in ‘82.)

Take Morris’s six surprises: Jamail’s is gone, and one wonders what Morris would make of one of the larger Fiesta Marts or Central Market. The Dome is moribund, seldom if ever illuminated by night, and now dwarfed by Reliant. Albert Thomas’s office has been moved, I think, to the Chase Bank building downtown, and the convention center that bore his name is only a memory. The concentrated opulence of River Oaks has only intensified. I don’t know for sure but I somehow doubt that you often hear “Deep in the Heart of Texas” in the Galleria anymore – it’s too hicky for that tres chic outpost of wanna-be L.A.-ism. Only the tunnels remain their labyrinthine, sterile, subterranean airport-terminal selves.

But Beebe and I have been astonished many times on these walks. Hong Kong City Mall on Bellaire, tucked away behind a nondescript parking lot; the hippy colony in Fifth Ward; a hip art gallery on Harrisburg and a sculptor’s studio a couple of blocks from Hobby Airport; the industrial ruins of Clinton Drive; the graveyard in a tire shop parking lot and the 150-year-old German church on Long Point; the folk art cobbled together by mechanic-artisans in front of many a muffler, tire and transmission shop all over town; the Vietnamese village apartment complex on Broadway; and hell, the vacant temple out near where Richmond Avenue begins on this very trip. It’s only when you take this 70 mile an hour city at our snail’s pace, only when you venture out of your village within the city, that you discover this stuff. And we were about to be astonished again.

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Beebe and I nodded to the old man under the oak tree. I remembered back from my high school days that this part of Richmond, and Westpark to the south, seemed older than the rest of its surroundings. And blacker. We decided to do a shot of tequila and talk to the old man under the tree.

But first we met his family. Gordon and Linda Fay, a younger man and woman, but still probably in their fifties, sat under an awning, tending the barbecue pit and drinking Miller Genuine Draft, while a plump young boy sat nearby. We told them we were walking around town collecting stories and asked about their neighborhood.

“This place was its own town once,” said the man. “Used to be called Piney Point, but then they built that other one up off Memorial. Ask Nathan over there, he’ll tell you more.”

Nathan was the old man. He was 85 years old, and he’d been living here, near the corner of Jeanerette and Richmond, since 1944. He’d come here from Brookshire. He was friendly, but didn’t seem too eager to tell his life story, and when we asked to take his picture, he demurred.

“I might be on a wanted list,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

So here we were in yet another little village that had long ago been swallowed by Houston, so much so that it even almost lost its very name. Across Richmond, the plaque on Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist church announced that the church had been on that spot since 1865, though this building had been here since only 1965.

We tried to explore the town a little more, but within seconds, found ourselves in yet another Houston. (Though oddly, the smell of barbecue would linger all the way inside the loop.) The houses were still old and ramshackle, but these were now occupied by Mexicans. A few minutes later we found ourselves on a raggedy block of Fondren and headed back up to Richmond, which was by then, rapidly becoming the Richmond Strip of 1990s boom days.

In a beautifully written Press article from 1993, Brad Tyer attempted to encapsulate What The Richmond Strip Meant. Tyer erroneously predicted a long and healthy future for the Strip, and at that time, that seemed a safe bet. Who would then have predicted that downtown, Midtown and Washington Avenue would pretty much K.O. Richmond?

As Tyer wrote: “It's also the place to get fed, tanned, and if the sparkle in the eyes of most patrons has any basis in fact, the place to get laid. The Richmond Strip has developed over the course of the past decade into a true entertainment district, a place to be and be seen, Houston's urban-sprawl equivalent of Sixth Street in Austin or Beale Street in Memphis or New Orleans' French Quarter -- part local destination and part tourist trap, offering sensory overload in exchange for dollars.”

Today, Richmond is Houston’s Street of Dreamz. With a “z.” In the Richmond Dream, every night is industry night. It’s a life of, as Wash Allen from KCOH would put it, “dealing with” strippers, or dealing with the kind of guys who are attracted to dealing with that sort of thing. As a philosophy. It’s full of apartment poolside parties, bad cocaine, the occasional dose of clap, tanning bedz, jello shotz, big ass beerz, and cold Jager machinez. (Beebe and I invented a drinking game – every time we saw a “z” used where an “s” should be, we had to do a shot of tequila. After we passed “Smoke Dreamz”, “Mary’z Lebanese Food” and a shop peddling “grillz”, the little bottle was dry.)

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This entire dream is scored by a hit parade of ‘90s music. Everywhere we turned on Richmond, all day long, we were bombarded by the sounds of the Beastie Boys, Helmet, Pearl Jam, Radiohead’s “Creep,” Nirvana, Live, Lit, Tonic…This was the music of the Strip’s heyday, and it almost seems like today’s Richmond Strip denizens believe that if they play enough ‘90s rawk, if they recite this litany of sacred incantations, the glory days can be conjured into being again. Unh! You’re unbelievable!

Somehow, a lot of the people you would see in Richmond bars looked like (and apparently dug the same music) as the virtual rock fans on Guitar Hero and Rock Band. The Richmond Strip is day-glo. Faded day-glo.

“This is the cheesiest street in Houston, in my opinion,” said Beebe, taking in the scene somewhere east of Hillcroft and west of Chimney Rock. “Can you think of a cheesier street?”

No, I can’t. Hell, the epicenter of H-Town cheese is the corner of Fountainview and Richmond. A four-story, day-glo, red, white, turquoise, and tan building looms over the southeastern corner there, and it houses a Sprint shop, a little downstairs bar with the godawful name Identity, a scalper’s office, a massage therapist, and a huge Darque Tan outlet.

Sure, Westheimer’s got some cheese, and is a little tattered around the edges in spots, but there’s a veneer of gentility as expressed by old-line businesses like Christie’s Seafood. Richmond, by contrast, used to have that sub-Landry’s fried seafood emporium King Fish Market, which despite the incessant awful commercials that polluted local airwaves circa 1999, is now out of business and practically in ruins. The whole lot of it is a great vat of rancid Velveeta.

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As is much of the Richmond Strip. That giant sax outside of Billy Blues is looking more and more like the torch sticking out of the sand at the end of Planet of the Apes.

It’s hard to even find where the likes of Yucatan Liquor Stand and Club Blue Planet once stood, but that huge 6400 building still stands in yet another incarnation. Hell, it’s practically historic today. (It even has its own Wikipedia entry.) After lives as the new wave/dance pop/ecstasy den Club 6400 and the ruinous Rockefeller’s West, the building has since housed Peter’s Wildlife, 6400 Sports Café and as predominantly Mexican hip-hop club T-Town 2000, it is now home to Planeta Bar-Rio, where trance DJs now spin their tired late ‘90s mixes.

As Tyer noted, turnover is nothing new on Richmond. “Buildings that house the present establishments often metamorphose at least every few years into new uses. Gold's Gym used to be a Best Products outlet. Rockefeller's West, soon to be Bayou City Theater, lived past lives as Texas Live and 6400, among others. When what the people want changes, as it invariably does, those who hope to cash in are forced to follow suit, and that gives the Richmond Strip an unsettled quality that is quintessential Houston, a young boom-and-sometimes-bust town that's still fighting a day-to-day battle with its own growing pains.”

And it seems that Houston no longer really wants the Richmond Strip. Sure, a few holdovers from the glory days remain, such as the Sam’s Boat empire, Centerfolds, La Bare (where “Cannon” from New Orleans is scheduled to appear), Dave and Buster’s and so on, but you think that all of these place would leap at any favorable lease they could get inside the loop. Maybe as downtown becomes more respectable, it could be reborn as something like Houston’s Red Light District. Steer all the jiggle joints and jerk shacks over there and charge admission to the whole “zone.”

“If Richmond seems to you soulless, it's because Richmond is not where you've made your memories,” Tyer continued. “But there are thousands of people making their memories on Richmond Avenue every night. This is where the action -- such as it is -- is, and Houston is too young, too fast and too big for nostalgia.”

Today, it seems the main body of people – Anglo people, anyway -- making their memories on Richmond are the same ones who were there in Tyer’s day, only now they go to Sam’s to meet their second wife. And to listen to Pearl Jam tribute bands, or maybe they got to Planeta to hear Paul Oakenfold mixes and remember their lost youth at the legendary raves that vanished here forever circa 2001.

And by night, it’s become a gangsta-riffic version of Westheimer in the ‘80s, wherein people cruise aimlessly in their cars up and down in search of fucking or fighting or both. In a 2003 article I wrote in the Press I took note of the then alarming rise in crime on the Strip and talked to Rice sociology professor William Martin about it. I believed that the combination of guns and cars made for a bad mix. Martin said there was more to it than that. He seemed to think the whole idea behind the Richmond Strip was doomed to failure from its inception.

"And I imagine some of those people might have been drinking, too," Dr. Martin said. "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."

Add those three ingredients to our stewpot of a climate, and things get even worse. "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," Dr. Martin noted.

And then there was Latin machismo. I spotlighted a bunch of then-recent shootings in the article, all of which had as victims people with Hispanic surnames. (Where apprehended, so did the perpetrators.) "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,” said Dr. Martin. “If you have guns, cars, alcohol and people who don't respond well to perceived slights, that's a very volatile combination."

So, the Richmond Strip was doomed by its very Houston-ness, in other words.

Beebe and I had beers in a few of the places down there. The Hideaway on Dunvale, housed in what looks like it might have been an old country church or feed store once upon a time, is a perfectly pleasant place to quaff a pitcher, and even Dave and Buster’s has some charm. (Even if you feel like you are drinking in a mall.) Beebe was very impressed, covetous, even, of their reproduction shuffleboard sets.

Six p.m. to midnight, Inner Loop Richmond: Cheez Richmond peters out around Sage, and after a block or two of Galleria Extended vibes we were inside the loop again in Afton Oaks. This hotbed of anti-rail activity has always seemed to me a place for adults who never quite gave up on college life, specifically, Greek life at state universities. There’s a kind of frat house feel to restaurants like Luling City Market (for UT grads) and the Ragin’ Cajun (for the LSU folks) that permeates the entire area. For a well-heeled residential area, it feels boozy, not just because of the aforementioned restaurants but also the bars and the big liquor store there.

The Richmond Chill bar, where we stopped in for a pitcher, was full of frat-y looking dudes. I got talking to a woman – a graphic designer from Pearland -- outside in the smoker’s area and she asked why I was so sunburned. I told her that Beebe and I had walked there from Eldridge and that we were walking downtown from here. She seemed more impressed by the downtown part. I told her I was a writer and Beebe was a musician. “Let me go get my beer,” she said. “You guys are a lot more interesting than the people in there.” Well, we know that.

After Afton Oaks came the long trudge through the tedium of Greenway Plaza and then the nether zone around Kirby. Here at last, Richmond started to get funky. There’s the infamous Didy’s Sports Bar. (If you don’t know, you better ask somebody.) By now, all its windows were boarded up, though it was still open. Outside the Davenport, psycho vato-billy, Scarface confidant and 2007 Houston Press Music Award winner Jaime Hellcat was holding court at a table full of smokers.

Beebe and Hellcat reminisced about Ram Ayala, the goat-stubborn, curmudgeonly owner of San Antonio club Tacoland who was killed in a robbery along with two other employees three years ago. If you won Ayala’s esteem, he would offer up a bottle of liquor and say, “Don’t be a pussy, kiss the baby.” So in Ayala’s honor, Hellcat took us inside, walked behind the bar and poured us all shots of Jagermeister. “To Ram,” we said, and poured ‘em down the hatch. (For more stories about Ram, check out this blog.)

And after that it all gets a bit blurry. There was a long interlude in LZ’s Pub, which is a cool bar I never seem to go to for whatever reason. Then there was a shorter one in Ruthie’s. I can never figure out how that joint stays in business – I lived in that neighborhood for many years, most of which I spent erroneously believing Ruthie’s to be a lesbian sports bar. Just outside we bought some tacos at taco truck Oaxaca and thus fortified, continued on down the now red-brick sidewalks to Wheeler Station and journey’s end. – John Nova Lomax

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