I’ve celebrated life on Westheimer Road. For my birthday in March, the Persian New Year on the spring equinox, or any of the unceremonious days of the year, my mom, dad, brother, and grandma would drive four miles west of our home near the Galleria for the best Iranian food in Houston at Kasra. The place is nestled in a corner of a strip mall, past a Benihana and for years next to Yao Ming’s old restaurant. We’d enter past the kind host, whose name I never knew but whose warm presence I always felt in the Farsi courtesies he spoke. We’d take our seats in a room decorated by the iconographic ruins of Persepolis, which rile ancient blood in any Persian, enough to make you think 2,500 years wasn’t all that long ago. Going to the bathroom, without fail, I’d walk past the owner, Morty Parsa, who sits with his eynak on the bridge of his nose, checking receipts, in front of a wall-of-fame with plaques and reviews. This was the only place in Houston that felt like a community center of my own. At Kasra, I was surrounded in full by my own culture, on each wall and on the plates in front of me and in the bodies next to me. As I got older, I started driving up and down Westheimer and taking my friends, who to my surprise and perpetual self-conscious disbelief, absolutely loved Kasra.
I’ve also mourned death on Westheimer. In a ballroom filled with family and friends of my grandfather, we sat in honor of his life and accomplishments in Iran and this country as a translator, a professor, a man of letters and few but true words, and an honorable husband and father. He was a director of the National Library and Archive in Tehran and a cultural attaché for the Iranian embassy in Pakistan. Sitting in that ballroom as a couple thousand spoken words and a hundred pictures tried to do justice to a life, I thought quietly about how I’d continue to live my own with his humility and his pursuit of knowledge and truth.
I grew up a mile off the middle of Westheimer, near a part of the thoroughfare John Nova Lomax called “the Houston only a native could love, the Houston of so-terrible-they’re-sublime local TV ads.” Like the whole of Houston, it’s not particularly charming, and certainly not the kind of place that a tourist can visit and fall in love with. Pick the wrong month, and you’ll enjoy the hot asphalt of Houston’s Inferno. But luckily for the Dantes that pass through here, we Houstonians, blind in our love, are the Virgil to guide you to the roses that grow from concrete, and nowhere do more roses bud than from the 127-year-old Westheimer Road, a nineteen-mile artery that takes you from the western edges of Houston proper—before the suburbs of Katy and Missouri City—into its heart, piercing through the outer and inner loops. Next to countless strip malls, we pass in cars, buses, and on bikes but rarely if ever on foot.
Westheimer has a little (or a lot) of everything. Passing by the ever-changing strip-club signs off Winrock next to the bayou felt like watching the trailer of an R-rated movie. According to lore, James Harden’s jersey supposedly hangs in the rafters of one such establishment to commemorate an expensive night. I remember the abandoned parking lot of the former Toys-R-Us, missing its big, playful letters, and I remember the Sun and Ski Sports that used to have one of the only ski hills in Texas. I remember working on Westheimer at a Smoothie King where a man once walked in and stole an $80 jug of protein powder right before my 16-year-old eyes. There were the Westheimer institutions, like Chacho’s, and its 24-hour burritos that could only fit diagonally in a to-go box; plus the places that harken back to the days when a name or family was the brand like Molina’s and Bering’s, from the 40s, and Christie’s (since 1917, making it Houston’s oldest restaurant). House of Pies always seemed like it should be featured in Scorsese’s After Hours. A Barnes and Noble was replaced by a gun shop, because that’s Texas for you. All around it are the best little strip malls in Texas, with food from every continent. There are smoke shops, pawn shops, sex shops, nail salons, hair salons, Lebanese bakeries, Cuban bakeries, Afghan bakeries, schools, lawyers, hospitals, a theater, a mall, a power station… you want it, Westheimer’s got it all, a green light away.
Its roots begin with the German-born Mitchell Louis Westheimer, who arrived in Houston in the late 1850s and bought a 640-acre tract east of what is now downtown. He built a flour mill and later turned the land into a cotton plantation and then a schoolhouse. In 1895, Westheimer deeded his five-mile private road to the city, and in 1912 it was named in his honor after his death. I heard stories of Westheimer closer to its beginnings, when my uncle, who’d arrived from Iran with my mother in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution as a young boy, and the woman he’d marry cruised up and down the street as college kids. Aimless, they would drive with friends until my Texan aunt got a page (remember those?) from her father, which gave them precisely five minutes to find the nearest payphone along the road—or else.
Driving all 19 miles of Westheimer now is a trip. At the Galleria, green street signs are swapped for ornate metallic rings big enough to fit an intersection. At Westheimer and Post Oak Boulevard, next to a Starbucks, is the city’s unofficial town square, where Houstonians call for action: end the war in Ukraine, resolve the conflict in Israel-Palestine, or support human rights in Iran.
Not far away, crossing the threshold demarcated by a railroad, is Rodeo Drive, the stretch of Westheimer in Highland Village that passes pastel buildings, the glass of the Apple Store, the dark gray of the Restoration Hardware, expensive athleisure, cupcake ATMs, cosmetics, and pricey furniture stores that always make me wonder what does that feel like. One mile more and I’m in the city’s most expensive neighborhood, River Oaks. Under the luxurious shade of the eponymous trees, is Wes Anderson’s private school, St. John’s, where he shot his first successful film Rushmore, and Mirabeau B. Lamar High School, with its quirky Tiffany-color window trim, which also features in the film.
Then there’s Montrose, the historic center of Houston’s queer community, which still retains its life and charm in a district that’s become more overtly hipster than queer. Fun bars, tattoo shops, clubs, and no strip malls anymore. The road isn’t quite as straight as it has been for previous miles, and here, the last mile of Westheimer Road begins and soon unceremoniously connects to Elgin Street. There in the east, Westheimer Road ends.
As a kid, I took Westheimer for granted. I had no idea this is where the soul of our city lived. When I was in college, in New Jersey, and classmates asked where I was from, they often stared blankly when I said Houston. Some knew of its reputation as one of the most unwalkable cities in the nation. Others thought of the cowboy and wildcatter imagery of our state. It was fitting in a way for the Wild, Wild Westheimer, a lawless land, a madhouse laid out flatly and neatly along a dirty asphalt river. If you listen to the traffic with eyes closed and windows down, it almost sounds like waves crashing instead of cars whooshing by. The hypnosis is broken by the noise of a cutoff muffler or a car with a stolen catalytic converter.
You don’t come to Houston expecting tropical paradise or geographic wonder. Driving up and down Westheimer, I realized our ace up the sleeve: nothing. The power of no expectations. Being unassuming is our power. Like Westheimer itself, ours is a city that keeps on going and going, no matter how ugly its additions might seem at first. What few get is the beauty in loving something no one else seems to appreciate—until you show them the way.
It makes perfect sense that in order to appreciate Westheimer, and Houston for that matter, in full, you need a Virgil. Because this city is built on well-meaning friendliness. Yes, that Southern hospitality might have its roots in an aristocratic, antebellum way of life, a vestige of a bygone society, but Houston begs you to believe that there is more to it. Its years of steady growth and immigration have added value in the form of diversity of race, religion, color, and creed, and as a result, diversity in thought, experience, and belief. This sense of expansiveness is exemplified nowhere better than on Westheimer Road.
In the west, the road morphs into Westheimer Parkway. Just past Westheimer Road’s terminus, next to the parkway, is Delta Lake, home to alligators and the invasive apple snail inside George Bush Park. “Lake” is generous given its small size, but tonally there is a tranquility and a magnitude that just classifies it as nature. On the day I visit, ten cars are parked in the small lot. In the background, there’s a steady drum of gunshots from the nearby shooting range. A kid flies a kite in the shape of a butterfly or a dragonfly, soaring too far above our heads to be able to tell as it flutters in the sun, while his family enjoys the Sunday afternoon. One of about five men fishing casts a line, and when he kneels, his ass crack peers out from his camo-print cargo shorts. In a strip of land next to the waterfront, two people sit. I can’t make out what combination of genders the two are, whether they are friends, relatives, lovers, married for thirty years—but I think again, and it doesn’t matter much. This road takes all. Another family of three arrives; the father puts an R.C. boat in the lake and his son watches with amusement. The hypnotic whoosh of traffic is replaced by the gentle sound of water rippling in the lake and a soft wind stirring the grass. Maybe it’s the 75 degrees, sun, and breeze—in fact it certainly is—but it still feels like paradise.