Friday, June 6, 2008

Westheimer: The Backbone of Houston

Running from the Eastwood neighborhood at the east, through the city center and past three major loops of freeways, Westheimer Road is the most likely street you will end up on in Houston, hands down.

Dizzee Rascal and UGK in the 3rd Ward

The city’s five major universities are located adjacent to Westheimer, beginning in the 3rd Ward neighborhood where it is named Elgin Street. University of Houston and Texas Southern University are clustered in the historically black neighborhood south of downtown. Further west is the HCC campus in Midtown, where the street name changes from Elgin to Westheimer Road. Six blocks south of Westheimer at Montrose is Saint Thomas University, and further south in the Museum District is the beautiful Rice University campus.

Shopping along Westheimer ranks among the best in the city. Traveling west of downtown, small boutiques and antique shops mix with coffee houses and art galleries in the Montrose neighborhood. The Bookstop store on Shepherd Street is the oldest theatre in the county. The posh Upper Kirby District provides natural food grocery stores and upscale shopping centers as well as delicious Tex-Mex and fusion restaurants. The Greenway Plaza area is replete with strip malls and innovative fast food, but the best reason to go is the Edwards Theatre, the best place to catch a movie in town.

To the west of Loop 610 is the Galleria, name of both a cluster of four shopping malls and one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in Houston. The Galleria Mall houses 375 stores in 1.2 million square feet of air conditioned space. It is located at one of the busiest surface street intersections in the country, Post Oak Boulevard at Westheimer Road. The Galleria neighborhood between Loop 610 and Beltway 8 is a mishmash of residential, commercial and industrial neighborhoods, a product of Houston’s lack of zoning laws. The entire length of Westheimer along this portion of the city is packed with big box stores, strip malls and restaurants. There is something for any taste, and the delectable food of cultures from the world over. Just south of Westheimer is the Richmond Strip, packed with clubs and bars. It is a major spot for car culture and flashy behavior.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Houston: A Primer (The Big Stuff is in the Little Stuff)

It is possible to begin a description of this Southern burg with the statistics, like Houston’s metropolitan area of 5.5 million residents or the 90 languages spoken here, but that won’t really let you know anything about the Bayou City.

You could go in the other direction and mention famous Houston residents, including George H.W. Bush (not his son), George Foreman, Roger Clemens, Beyonce, Joel Olsteen, and Chamillionaire, but the greatest thing about the city is its people.

A place where everyone you meet is a fine blend of Southern manners, Texas pride and American vigor. Here food and friends dominate daily life so much that there are more restaurants per capita than any other city in the United States. Houston is one of the greenest cities in America, with gracefully knotted Live Oak trees dominating the streets in older neighborhoods and large parks that are only one step away from a bayou jungle.

In March you can expect the temperature to peak at 75 or 80. The climate is temperate and spring is the driest time of year. Sunny days are frequent, and Houstonians enjoy taking advantage of recreation in city parks, museums, golf courses, lakes and the beach in Galveston. During the summer the temperature can reach 106 degrees with 100% humidity and frequent rain coming off the coast.

The climate of Houston is what separates the city’s culture from the rest of Texas. More akin to Louisiana and the coastal regions of Mississippi and Alabama, Houston has inherited the Southern predilection for relaxation in the face of overwhelming Mother Nature. A major influence on the music and art of Houston, the city’s particular cultural crosshairs have brought about the invention of Zydeco music by Clifton Chenier, the international success of ZZ Top and Screw, a particular genre of rap created by DJ Screw which typically involves the radical slowing down and “chopping” of other artists’ songs.

Early Texas settlers were Mexican and Spanish, followed by German and Czech families. Though they had lay claim to all of the area between the Red River and the Rio Grande, the first to settle in the swamp just north of the indigenous Karankawa were the brothers John and Augustus Allen from New York City. They engineered the founding of the city and made a shrew political move by naming it after the sitting President of Texas. Over the last two centuries the city has grown with wave after wave of immigrants. Today the city is a tapestry of cultural heritage woven around massive freeways that define the geography of the flat landscape.