Houston's South Main

Hanging out on South Main late Saturday night, I found history repeating itself. A few blogs ago, while saluting my old friend Leon Eagleson, I commented about the cool block on Sixth Street between Brazos and Congress where Antone's, OK Records, Moma's Money, the porno book store, Benny's Tavern, and Catman's Shine Parlor were once clustered in the late 1970s before the wrecking ball came and a parking garage replaced one of Austin's oldest buildings.

I saw it all over again on South Main in Houston. For most of my life, the stretch of Main between downtown and the Medical Center was a strip of sleaze dominated by the flower markets, blood banks, and small Vietnamese businesses. But the arrival of light-rail, the introduction of street landscaping, and more importantly, the establishment of new businesses catering to the young and hip have really transformed Main.

My guides were Steve McVicker, the Houston Chronicle reporter who has been busting the Houston Crime Lab for sloppy work over the past three years (note to readers: what he's uncovered is the polar opposite of what you see on the CSI series on television; it's the kind of bungling stuff that makes one wonder how DA Rosenthal can have such a "blessed" day. What part of "Thou Shalt Not Kill" does he not understand in the Ten Commandments); and John Nova Lomax, the music writer for the Houston Press who is the first local journalist since Bob Claypool who really "gets" the rich scene that he covers.

We skipped Jonathan Richman who was rocking out the Continental Club in favor of a patio seat in front of Little Pete's Big Top bar where we drank away the humidity while watching the street action.

At one point I was introduced to Thomas Escalante, who walked me over to his collector's record store and vintage clothes shop, Sig's Lagoon, between the Continental and the Big Top. It's a swell joint with some very low-priced gems for sale--tempted as I was, I didn't pull out my wallet for the Lightnin' Hopkins CD box for under $20; I'm hoping a copy will still be there on my next visit.

The name of the store is loaded with local significance, honoring the great Houston journalist Sig Byrd whose writings for the Houston Press tabloid in the 1950s documented life in the city's rarely-covered underbelly, especially along Navigation Boulevard. Byrd codified all the characters who epitomized cool by placing them in a "lagoon", which is about as dead-on accurate a description of Houston's charms before air-conditioning became a way of life. A collection of his writings, Sig Byrd's Houston, was published by Viking Press in 1955 and is now out of print. It's worth finding, and certainly worthy of republishing, in case UT Press is reading this blog.

What was impressive was how the 3700 block of Main is building up like Antone's block did in Austin in 1975. No master-planning, no tax breaks, no big design was necessary. It's just happened. A taqueria is coming soon. A shine parlor or a newsstand (do these things still exist?) would be fine additions too.

It's nice to know that with all those good memories of crawling around the back room of OK Records with Leon Eagleson turning me on to old music I'd never heard of at every turn, the same thing's happening in H-Town on Main. May a hundred clubs, bars, shops, and joints bloom.

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