Yesterday, Houston held the second iteration of its “Sunday Streets” pilot project, where large stretches of a major thoroughfare are closed to vehicular traffic for several hours to encourage folks to get out and walk or bike, meet their neighbors, and just plain get to know the city at ground level.
Sunday Streets, for the uninitiated, is Houston’s take on an increasingly popular phenomenon around the globe, especially Europe and South America. It’s one more piece of sprawling H-town’s gradual transformation into a more “walkable” city — or at least that’s the organizers’ hope.
Last month’s inaugural event was held on White Oak, the very street in the increasingly funky neighborhood of The Heights where I lived for a decade. But, as my former newspaper colleague Mike Snyder recapped in his excellent blog post, the weather on that particularly April day in Houston felt more like a November in Seattle.
But yesterday, the weather was spectacular for the installment along lower-to-mid Westheimer in the Montrose area of town. Montrose, of course, was funky and urban chic long before that became cool in Houston, so closing off a short stretch of the area to traffic for a few hours seemed somewhat superfluous.
One thing that made the trek (a much shorter stretch than the White Oak/Quitman route a month earlier) very interesting was the opportunity to check out at close hand some of the more esoteric retail establishments along Westheimer that I’ve driven past perhaps thousands of times. Sadly, not all of them were open.
But many more were, including Southland Hardware (“The store that has ‘almost’ everything”) which from the street seems almost modest. But once inside, you find that the place is gargantuan, almost as big as the government warehouse at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” And it has a few items you might not think were still around.
Many retailers, of course, extended their activities onto the street itself, including the hair salon that made a basketball goal and several model heads available to passers-by for a free haircut contest.
Since I tend to move a lot in Houston’s urbanist circles, it wasn’t hard to see many folks I know during the couple of hours I spent on Westheimer — including Raj Mankad, editor of the Rice Design Alliance’s Cite magazine and one of the primary instigators of Sunday Streets. Raj, dashing about on a unicycle, seemed ubiquitous during the event.
Besides unicycles, people used all manner of motor-less conveyances to get about — including their own feet. This woman didn’t let even a temporary infirmity keep her away.
I stopped briefly to talk to Jen Hofer, a California-based artist, and her Houston-based partner John Pluecker, setting up a bicycle-driven book cart, part of a larger project including their exhibit at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Gallery. [Listen to a Houston Public Radio story about them here.]
Among the more popular participants (or perhaps less, depending upon your tolerance for deep bass levels) was this bicyclist, who made his way repeatedly along the route pulling his industrial-sized boombox.
On the front lawn of the Montrose Proper Art Gallery, a house festooned with a sideways portrait of Marilyn Monroe, several musical acts set up to play for passers-by. The one I stayed longest to hear was Gio Chamba, playing a kind of Latin-based rock/hip-hop genre which was hard for most to resist.
On very rare occasions, police let some vehicles move either down Westheimer or across it — including this one.
Of course, there were several public officials on hand to enjoy the event, especially those who have been actively promoting a more walkable Houston. Among those I ran into were Councilmen Andrew Robinson and Jack Christie. Mayor Annise Parker, of course, had the most star power along the route.
All in all, I’d say the most recent Sunday Streets was an improvement on the first. Not only couldn’t the weather have been any more gorgeous, but the shorter route and the more dense surroundings helped make the event seem more inviting. Next month’s event will be along the Washington Avenue corridor (not far from my apartment), the city’s newest nightlife entertainment zone. Should prove interesting in its own right.
Copyright © 2014 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.