My Montrose

Forty years (and more) of the exuberant, eclectic neighborhood where I was born, grew as a writer, and found inspiration for the early pages of this magazine.

February 2013By Comments

Each June, the gay pride parade surges down Westheimer Road, packing more than 200,000 celebrants into Montrose, the Houston neighborhood that nurtured and sustained the gay community when it was young and embattled and just emerging from the shadows. One recent year, amid the feathers and the leather and the outrageous floats, a spectator might have caught a glimpse of a neatly dressed, very proper white-haired lady in her mid-eighties riding at the head of the parade in a Ford Fusion.

Like many moments in Montrose, this one was spontaneous. The older lady’s husband, a World War II bomber pilot, had missed the detour to downtown, and once in the parade, there was no way out till the end. True to her well-mannered Southern soul, my sweet mother smiled and waved back politely to the cheering crowds.

When Texas Monthly began, there was no gay pride parade. There was, however, a Montrose, and before it became a refuge for gays, before it became a magnet for artists, writers, musicians, bikers, pagans, seekers, chefs, Greeks, Cubans, misfits, and lost and found souls, before it became the birthplace of Texas’s counterculture, all of which it was by 1973, Montrose was where my mother was born. I was born there too. So when my mother took her unintentional star turn in the gay pride parade, right down the very street where she’d grown up, it was really just one Montrose meeting another. It was weird, yes, but weird is what for the past forty years Montrose has been so gloriously about.

My grandfather built our house in the new development of Montrose before World War I. It was in the 500 block of Hathaway, a quiet street just east of Montrose Boulevard. He planted a magnolia and a fig tree in the backyard. When my mother was a child, Houston was a small city of 140,000 people and Southern to its core. The knife sharpener came to the door; so did the milkman and the iceman and the seamstress. The Tower Theater was down the road, and my mother would walk there on Saturdays, pay a nickel to watch cartoons, and on the way home pick buttercups in the vacant fields for her mother.

Lyndon Johnson taught school nearby, Howard Hughes lived around the corner, and Clark Gable studied acting down the street. Judy Garland could have burst out of the door singing “Meet Me in St. Louis” and she would have fit right in. By the time we started Texas Monthly, however, Montrose belonged to Judy Garland’s fans. Montrose then could be roughly—and debatably—defined as the four square miles bound by Shepherd to the west, West Gray to the north, Bagby to the east, and the Southwest Freeway to the south.

Hathaway had become an extension of Westheimer Road, and our old house was in the heart of the Westheimer Strip, ground zero of Montrose. A few of the other old houses along the Strip were still occupied, mainly by elderly white people who hadn’t followed Houston’s inexorable move out to the suburbs. Prufrock’s bar, one of the seminal counterculture hangouts of Montrose, was on the next block, and Michelangelo’s, one of the first casual European-style restaurants that changed how Houston ate out, was a block past that. A tattoo parlor was across the street.

That was the beauty of Montrose in 1973. It was a laboratory of primitive capitalism, unimpeded by details like zoning or pretty much any other restriction. You had an idea, you scraped together a few dollars, you rented a cheap old house, and your dream of a record store, a coffee shop, a bar, a roller rink, an antiques shop, there it was, right next to someone’s home or a nursery school or a Greek Orthodox church. Each block was Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never knew what you were going to get.

In 1965, when Greg Curtis and I were seniors at Rice University, we moved into an old house on Westheimer, a few doors down from where the Brasil cafe and gallery is today, though nothing so upscale was near us then. There was a Trash and Treasure junk store across the street, a strip joint a few blocks away, and for us, a wonderful sense of freedom. While we were living there, Greg and I helped start a Rice literary magazine called The Thresher Review, which was a huge success among three or four people besides our mothers. Still, we liked working together, so when I was assembling the staff for Texas Monthly, I called Greg first.

I had been living near Montrose when Mike Levy came to see me in early 1972. Mike had an idea for a new magazine about Texas. He would be its publisher, and he was looking for an editor. We met, as I recall, over a chicken-fried steak at Phil’s. Mike reached into a small suitcase and started pulling out issues of Philadelphia and New York magazines at warp speed, all the time pitching his idea. “We can do this here! Texas is ready for this!”

My main qualification to be the editor, it seemed to me, was that I didn’t know enough about journalism to know what a crazy idea it was. Mike was passionate and persuasive, but it took me a few months to wrap up my job at the Houston Independent School District and come on board. At the district, I’d been in charge of public affairs, and the reporter who’d given me the hardest time was an A&M graduate named Al Reinert. I recruited him too.

Al wrote about Apollo astronauts in our second issue and about Montrose in our third. Our original guiding principle at Texas Monthly was that even though most Texans now lived in cities, they still shared a vision of a frontier Texas that united them no matter where they lived. Even if you worked at a downtown law firm, you wore cowboy boots and dreamed of your ranch and the Alamo and Longhorn cattle. Montrose was another, emerging Texas: enthusiastically urban, bohemian, iconoclastic. We were going to write about that as well.

We had an account with the Plaza Hotel, which was built in 1926 as the cornerstone of Montrose. Many of the early leaders of Houston lived there. By the seventies, however, it was, like the neighborhood itself, occupied by widows and older residents. Shortly after Al moved in to work on other Texas Monthly stories, Bob Marley and the Wailers took over a floor to cut an album. They filled the hotel with the odors of the Rasta gumbo they cooked in their rooms during the day and the ganja they smoked at night. “It was a transformative moment for the hotel,” Al says. “The little old ladies moved out, and it became hip.”

Whenever I phoned Al, I had to go through the hotel operator, who was none other than my cousin Lisa Williams. Lisa had moved to Montrose and had become one of the Sisters of Mercy backup singers in the band Doctor Rockit. That, however, is another story. The point is, in Montrose, pretty much everything is connected. In the nineties, Al and I worked out of a house in Montrose when we built on his original article about astronauts to write the screenplay for Apollo 13 together.

Speaking of Doctor Rockit, Montrose has been home to blues and folk-rooted Texas music forever. There were the clubs Sand Mountain, La Maison, and Theodore’s, Anderson Fair, Numbers, Cody’s, and on and on. We listened to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb and the 13th Floor Elevators and the jazz of Jerry Sandifer. Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and Billy Gibbons and Don Sanders paved the way for Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams and Beyoncé, who went to the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Montrose. Her mother had a hair salon on—where else?—Montrose Boulevard.

In the early seventies, if you were from the suburbs or a small town, or, really, just about anywhere, Montrose was a mindblower. Chances are you first heard the words “espresso,” “pasta,” and “sushi” somewhere along Westheimer. You could sit at a sidewalk cafe with some French onion soup and a glass of wine, you could sip cappuccinos on paisley cushions, you could listen to folk and jazz and blues and rock and roll, you could rub shoulders with hippies, artists, prophets, pagans, and even black people.

The fifties lay over Houston well into the early seventies. It was still a Southern city. Much was forbidden, unspoken, taboo. But in Montrose, anything was possible, anything was permitted. It was a spore, an incubator, a beachhead. Montrose was Texas’s Dada: it was the shock of the new. The campy, explicit mural outside the gay bar Mary’s said it all.

Austin played something of the same role in birthing the new. But Austin was a relaxed, accepting university town. It was safe. Montrose was an island surrounded by the hostile Houston sea. It was the Gaza Strip of the counterculture. Its radio station KPFT was bombed off the air. You never knew whether the next carful of rednecks would be friendly or jump out with two-by-fours, as Paul Broussard, a young gay A&M graduate, would find out some years later when he was beaten so severely in a Montrose alley that he died.

Montrose has always had a dark side: the runaways, the junkies, the hustlers, the exploited, and the hopeless. In the eighties, the AIDS plague years, Mary’s back patio hosted three or four memorial services a week. For the most part, however, Montrose was a tolerant place, a cease-fire zone where the bent and the straight could all sit down and have late coffee at Art Wren’s when their respective bars closed.

Doug Miller, Houston’s iconic newscaster, moved to the city because “my brother told me that I had to come, that Montrose was Paris.” John Wilburn, who came from New York and went on to be the founding editor of the Houston Press, was told that “Montrose is Greenwich Village.” He laughed at first, having just come from the real thing, but as he settled in, he realized that while no, it wasn’t Greenwich Village, it was Montrose, and that was just fine.

I’m still waiting for someone to compare Montrose to Berlin during the Weimar Republic, since Liza Minnelli in Cabaret validates my Judy Garland reference, or to the Rome of the decadent period, but that moment may have passed. Vance Muse, the communications director at the Menil Collection, was born just south of Montrose. He worked in New York for years, then came back a decade ago and finds it, together with his partner, “one of the most comfortable neighborhoods anywhere.”

The Menil Collection is part of the high culture Montrose also nurtured. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Contemporary Arts Museum are on its southern border. John and Dominique de Menil engaged the modernist architect Philip Johnson to conceive and expand the central campus of the University of St. Thomas on Montrose Boulevard and to design a nearby chapel that would feature huge, moody paintings by Mark Rothko. When they realized that their collection of contemporary art needed its own museum, they built one right behind the mansion of Montrose’s original developer. One vision leads into another. The museum, by Renzo Piano, is consistently named one of the most influential works of modern architecture. It also has a very inviting tree swing.

As almost everything in Montrose is connected in one way or another, the Menils were early backers of Mickey Leland, an activist from Texas Southern University who in 1973 was one of the first African Americans to serve in the Texas House. He went on to be elected to the U.S. Congress and years later tragically died in a plane crash while working to end hunger in Africa. Mickey wore dashikis and platform shoes, called himself a revolutionary, orated on injustice with sparks and passion, and in private had a sly, sweet smile and an easy laugh. Mickey loved Montrose. I met him there through my old friend and now-world-famous naturalist Victor Emanuel, who was then working on Mickey’s first campaign.

In the fifties Victor’s grandmother Sallie Williams bought the house next door to ours on Westheimer and converted it into an antiques store, one of the first commercial ventures on our street. After my grandmother died, Sallie sold her shop, and the new owners bought our house and expanded the business. In the late summer you could stroll into the backyard and pick ripe figs off the trees and smell the sweet thickness of the magnolia flowers, just as I had when I was a boy. But then a developer bought both houses, tore them down, and put up a strip mall. The trees had to go. They, and my memories, disappeared under the concrete. Like the old houses, they were in the way.

The small-scale capitalism that reclaimed the neighborhood for mom-and-pop and pop-and-pop businesses gave way to the pitiless capitalism of the real estate developer and the creed of highest and best use. Down came the great old houses. Up went the strip centers, town house blocks, chain stores. A few years ago Dan Havel and Dean Ruck created a public art sensation when they took two twenties cottages on Montrose Boulevard and inverted them, turning them outside in. You could crawl through a tunnel made from exterior siding into the guts of the houses and then out their backs. Of course, the whole thing was then torn down, but there’s a nice coffee shop called Inversion there now. A photomural of the project is on the wall. You can read the Montrose gay newspaper and watch the NFL.

Off the major streets, many of the old cottages remain, but much of Montrose looks more and more like every other gentrified downtown neighborhood, only with worse roads. Houston has breached the borders and swarmed over the last redoubts. People with money want to live where the cool people live, so they move in and drive up prices and the cool people can’t afford the cool area anymore. They move out to the Heights or even to Acres Homes or distant, now diverse and accepting suburbs like Pearland.

Montrose was always a place where you could come to have a casual dinner or a walk on the wild side. But now the wild places are harder to find. Like Greenwich Village, Montrose has become something of a Disneyland for the suburban crowd. Most of the old hangouts are long gone. Felix’s, the simple Mexican restaurant where I ate as a child, is now Uchi, one of the hottest venues in town. As with many Montrose restaurants, you need a reservation. Few artists or writers or seekers could even afford a glass of wine there, much less linger over it for hours like in the old days.

For years, there was one place you could go in Montrose and count on bumping into everybody. “I hung out at Prufrock’s, Churchill’s, Theodore’s, Anderson Fair, you name it,” says longtime Houston restaurateur Bill Sadler. “Then I decided I was spending so much money in other people’s places I might as well start my own.” Bill’s first place was the River Cafe, on Montrose Boulevard, and in the eighties it became the one place to be. Bill promoted artists and writers and musicians, and since nothing impresses writers more than flattery, we loved him.

In 1989 Bill, Doug Miller, and other journalists started the Roundtable at the River Cafe, where writers and self-selected troublemakers like senators and governors met every Wednesday night. Bill’s next place was Cafe Noche, on the other side of Westheimer; it was even more casual and, in the early nineties, even more of a magnet. But Cafe Noche is no more, the Roundtable meets in Midtown, and Bill’s latest restaurant, Arturo’s, is outside the loop. There’s no one place to hang out anymore. The artists, writers, and musicians have dispersed all over town. Most of Houston’s gays don’t live in Montrose anymore.

When I returned on a recent visit, I realized Montrose is like someone you loved when you were young. You want to remember them as they were, but they’ve changed and so have you. Still, for every generation, Montrose is born again. When they were in high school, my young nephews Ben and Jake Breier would sneak out of their house to hang out in Montrose. They still go to Rudyard’s, Poison Girl, Boondocks, and Helios (now AvantGarden), a performance art, totally-out-there rock and roll bar where you can also see belly dancers, Thai musicians, and the occasional string quartet. It’s right next to where my mother grew up, so in a Montrose kind of way, they’re going home. And Montrose is still a place where you can build a dream, as a former busboy named Hugo did. He now owns one of the best restaurants in town, across the street from where Greg Curtis and I lived almost fifty years ago.

Montrose may be losing the battle, but it’s definitely won the war. At the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the International Terminal is named for Mickey Leland. The juxtaposition of those two names says it all. When it began, the gay pride parade was rough-edged, insecure, and in your face. Houston didn’t like it one bit. Now it’s the biggest event in town besides the Livestock Show and Rodeo, and many Houstonians happily attend both. Among the sponsors are the Houston Chronicle, Walgreens, and Bud Light. The mayor rides on a float.

Of course, the mayor, for two terms now, is Annise Parker, the first openly gay mayor of a major American city. And she lives, yes, in Montrose, where she and her partner are raising three children. A nice, stable family, just up the road from where my mother grew up. Forty years ago, stable families were not what Montrose was known for, and Mayor Parker’s family is not the kind that Houston was once known for either. But today it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

When we started Texas Monthly, Houston had 1.2 million people and was majority white and still a conservative oil town. Now it has more than 2 million people and is 26 percent white, and it’s one of the most diverse, vibrant, and interesting cities in America. And my mother still loves it, which is what counts. Could you have expected any of that back in 1973? No, not unless you lived in Montrose.

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