Thursday, October 29, 2009

DEBRIS: Next To What I Believe

You can’t run before you walk and you can’t have a cultured city without street culture. Why was Houston turned down for an Olympic bid in 2010? Because a bunch of people got sick on street food a century ago. In 1901 dozens were sickened by tamales in Market Square downtown. The city quickly passed strict health regulations that sent food culture indoors up to this day. The surge of taco trucks in the last decade- and the subsequent connoisseurship of their fare- demonstrates the confluence of needing more gastronomy in Houston and a desire for quick, good food eaten on your feet. Some of the best barbacoa and lengua around comes on a paper plate with tomatillo salsa in a squeeze bottle. Finding the diamond in the rough is like navigating the back alleys of New Orleans- even if you need “beware of pickpockets and loose women” it’s usually worth it. Despite the proliferation of quality Mexican food on wheels, the myriad of cultures in Houston is not represented in street food like it is in the restaurant world. Where are the falafel trucks, the crepe stands, the hot dog vendors and meats-on-a-stick popular the world over? We need to take a serious look at our jaded approach to street food and our city’s regulations on them. Austin is experiencing an explosion of street food, borne along by a maturation of their quirky identity, plentiful festivals and tourists. Why can’t we?

Since that fateful day in Market Square street food has been a bust in Houston- but what about other vendors, buskers and performers? Even in Los Angeles immigrants sell oranges on street corners and Spiderman tries to goad you into dropping five bucks for taking a picture with him. Not here on Buffalo Bayou. The presence of police surely has an impact, but the ambition- or desperation- doesn’t seem to be there. Festivals are always a good place to tinker with peddling wares, and I would like to encourage any artist reading this to show up and set up at the Westheimer Block Party this November 14th and 15th to see what it’s like to put your work in front of the public. I guarantee it won’t be what you expect. Start a jug band and take over the street corner. Put little paintings in a suitcase and set up in front of the Museum of Fine Arts. Execute a performance piece in the middle of a gallery’s opening-- if you dare. Leave a sculpture in your front yard-- hopefully something that will stop traffic. The more things to see on the street, the more people will get out of their cars to see them. Or buy them. Or eat them. There’s no way to go but up for Houston’s street culture- and there’s nothing holding you back from creating it.


Robert Boyd said...

Yes! (But...)

The City of Houston makes it hard for street culture to exist.

For instance:
Sec. 40-352. Sitting and lying down on sidewalks.
(a) It shall be unlawful for any person to sit or lie down on a sidewalk or on a blanket, stool, or any other object placed upon a sidewalk between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. in a designated area.

Or this:
Sec. 40-262. Required.
It shall be unlawful for any person who is not a permittee to sell merchandise or food on the sidewalks in the theater/entertainment district or conduct sidewalk performances in the theater/entertainment district.

(I am not sure whether it is ever legal to perform on the sidewalk outside the theater district--and certainly it is illegal to sit while you are doing it...)

But you can sell stuff! Just get a license first:

Sec. 22-14. Required.
It shall be unlawful for any itinerant vendor to sell, offer for sale, exhibit for sale, or exhibit for the purpose of taking orders for the sale thereof, any goods or merchandise in the city without first obtaining a license so to do in accordance with this article.

In short, Houston makes it bureaucratically difficult for street-level culture to exist, especially if it involves sitting or selling.

Anonymous said...