Why We Love Downtown H-town
Why we heart the heart of Houston.
by Allison Bagby | 06.01.10

With its ever-changing landscape, a quirky personality, and a big history that blurs with Texas-sized tall tales, here are 25 reasons to love Houston’s downtown.

1. Because we elected the ultimate public servant

When newly-elected Annise Parker said, “I would rather be mayor of Houston than any other city in America,” in her first state of the city address earlier this year, we believed her. From her offices in downtown’s City Hall, Parker seeks to establish herself as an advocate for the citizens she has served alongside for years. With her no nonsense approach and the ability to make tough decisions, the native Houstonian is a standout politico.

Proving herself for 11 years as a civic servant in the sometimes-thankless roles of city council member and city controller, Parker brings serious political activism and community organizing chops to the table, not to mention corporate oil and gas experience. The mother and historic preservationist was recognized with numerous awards before her campaign, such as Council Member of the Year by the Houston Police Officers Union.

2. Because of our wildcatter, entrepreneurial spirit

The Wild West? Yep, it all started, and continues, here. Houston was born downtown, literally, in a grab for land as spirited as the bustling commerce that has followed since. The epicenter of the nation’s fourth-largest city continues to prosper because of the kind of innovative thinking that led to developments like Hogg Palace, the Inn at the Ballpark, One Park Place and the Houston Pavilions, city-changing endeavors like METRORail, points of civic pride like Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral and stalwart landmarks that reach the heavens while serving as hubs of economy, like Chase Tower and Wells Fargo Plaza.

3. Because our tallest Houstonian is from China

Rockets fans taking in the action courtside see ads for products they can’t get even their hands on, thanks to 7-foot, 6-inch Yao Ming’s rock star status in his native China. Those ads for milk and candy that flip courtside are aimed at the massive viewing audience in his home country (who also come to visit the city in record numbers). Our beloved hoops hero recently helped to open a second location of Yao Restaurant & Bar (owned by his parents) in the Houston Pavilions, where general manager Jack Tsai says the superstar visits once or twice a week for his current favorite dishes, the skydiver sushi roll and General Yao’s Chicken.

Tsai says business at the authentic restaurant is “very good – people from China want to feel more at home.” The eatery draws an international clientele who often ask for the NBA All Star. “I tell them, ‘If you get lucky, you will see him.’ ” he says.

4. Because we have six steakhouses within 10 blocks of each other

You’re sure to hit a sizzling New York strip on our strip, where an impressive six steakhouses share a span of just 10 blocks, and all still bustle nightly. Visiting dignitaries rub elbows with energy tycoons and regular Joes in mahogany-paneled bars and sleek dining rooms. Everything’s bigger in Texas, including our love for beef, and it’s evident by the very close proximity of Vic & Anthony’s, Strip House, Spencer’s, Shula’s, Morton’s and the newest kid on the block, III Forks.

Christopher Fannin, vice president of operations at Strip House, says everyone gets a prime cut of the marketplace. Downtown diners – many on expense accounts, still more from out of town and looking for an authentic bite of cowboy chic – keep all the steakhouses filled. “It’s kind of that Texas cuisine,” that’s draws crowds in, Fannin says. “We don’t battle for customers – the steakhouses all have a really good relationship.” A visiting businessman eats at one, then spots another around the corner and makes a mental note to try it next time he’s in town, he says, adding that when one eatery fills up during a convention, he’s quick to check availability at a neighboring steak slinger down the road.

5. Because we have the best skyline in the South

6. Because we have one of the world’s largest “cradles”

When the Lee & Joe Jamail Skatepark opened on the edge of downtown in June 2008 it catapulted Houston into an entirely different league for the relatively new sport of skateboarding. The 30,000 square-foot, in-ground facility draws skaters of all levels from around the city to the park, where they can work on their kick flips and their ollies or just learn the basics. It’s all free, but don’t forget to bring your helmet – it's required gear.

And be sure to check out the urban art located along Skater Alley, the winding walkway between Sabine Street and the park’s entrance. The five large panels showcase outstanding urban works created by local artists.

7. Because one man’s swamp is another man’s paradise

New Yorkers John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen founded Houston in 1836 on an unlikely spot – the then-unsightly convergence of White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou. Few real estate tycoons could have envisioned what this pair did, choosing to name their development for the father of Texas and hero in its war for independence, General Sam Houston. Allen’s Landing eventually became Houston’s first port and the spot where many a settler stepped off to see their new home, perhaps disappointed in the swamplands that existed where the marketing-savvy Allen brothers are said to have promised glorious waterfalls.

8. Because quilters are our biggest annual convention

Each fall, crafters from across the globe descend upon the George R. Brown Convention Center for the International Quilt Festival. The weekend, managed by a Houston company and this year taking place November 4-7, is a patchwork of social events, lectures, consumer shows, trade-only events, a quilt-making academy and needling showdowns, all focused on the art and business of quilting. The nostalgic pastime has enjoyed a resurgence of late, thanks to the trendiness of the DIY movement. Fresh, modern designs and the introduction of technology are evident in cotton canvases that often look more like abstract artwork, portraits and  landscapes than your grandmother’s tattered throw.

9. Because we have a skyscraper the color of money and shaped like a dollar sign

Money talks, especially when it’s 71 stories high. The Wells Fargo Plaza shines like the beacon of capitalism it is. The largest multi-tenant building in the southwestern United States is the color of a crisp greenback and has a footprint of two semicircles to form an abstract dollar sign. Its all-glass design encapsulates black granite water walls, soaring lobbies and peaceful outdoor terraces.

10. Because a woman built one of Houston’s most beautiful buildings in honor of her sweetheart

Here’s a tribute that’s not moving. Mellie Esperson built and dedicated a skyscraper at the corner of Travis and Rusk to her beloved husband Niels, an oil man, after his death. The 32-story Italian renaissance building was inspired by her travels to Europe and was the tallest building in Texas when it opened in 1927. Her love’s name is etched on the side of the building and the stunning masterpiece remains a showstopper today – its stately columns and a Roman tempietto (tiered monument) soar above the action below; the unique architecture has become one of the most recognizable downtown.

In 1941 an annex went up next door – the first skyscraper to be built in Houston with central air conditioning – and the pair are referred to as the Mellie and Niels Esperson buildings.

11. Because artists can thrive

John Runnels of Mother Dog Studios considers himself a settler of downtown, founding his artists’ collaborative space in a 22,000-square foot warehouse in the 1980s, when few dared to put up stakes. Tolerating the area’s grit, or perhaps drawn to it, some artists and artist groups flocked to cheap rents downtown in those years, and some of the early pioneers, like MotherDog, still help shape a vibrant part of downtown’s landscape.

In addition to creative performance groups and unconventional spaces including Super Happy Fun Land, DiverseWorks and Francisco Studios and freshly-thought gallery spaces like the one inside retail sneaker emporium The Tipping Point, downtown is home to the annual ArtCrawl event, now in its 18th year. Working artists work and show here, in addition to other creative types including filmmakers, graphic designers and interior designers.

12. Because we have an amazing public art collection

Downtown’s revitalization was made possible through the kind of careful forethought that included plans for the al fresco art gallery that now peppers the area. In addition to rotating works at Discovery Green and other downtown landmarks, there are permanent pieces that have earned their own sightseeing rights over time, like David Adicke’s lyrically-inspired Virtuoso in the Theater District, John Runnels’ Dream.boats and Matthew Geller’s Open Channel Flow at the Sabine Water Pump Station, a 60-foot tall, bright blue steel set of pipes that spew water. The structure integrates the Pump Station with two downtown gems, the Lee & Joe Jamail Skatepark and Buffalo Bayou Park, in what Geller has described as “a kind of urban earthwork that is playful, absurd and as entertaining as it is functional.”

From mosaic tile fountains to the abstract sculptures like those conceived by Joan Miro marking the entrances of the Chase Tower, downtown residents and visitors get their very own daily museum pass. Two of Discovery Green’s more notable outdoor installations include Margo Sawyer’s slick, color-blocked Synchronicity of Color, where professional and amateur photographers alike wrangle families and brides for portrait sessions, and Jean Dubuffet’s Monument Au Fantome.

13. Because we have people in shocking bright yellow and teal uniforms that clean up after us every day

Working tirelessly to keep downtown streets free of trash and litter, the Downtown District street team is one of many working parts transforming the area into a place where urbanites can play after hours and on weekends. City initiatives like this have supported the growth of downtown over the past 15 years making it a more livable and walkable place.

14. Because our convention center looks like the Love Boat

There are more than 600 members of the Facebook group that call themselves, “When I was a kid I thought the George R. Brown Convention Center was a boat.” With a futuristic façade and design elements that mimic brightly-colored steam pipes and port holes, it’s no wonder the younger generation (it didn’t exist until 1987) of this port city were confused when their parents drove then past the landmark.
 
So who is our cruise ship’s captain? Namesake George R. Brown was an engineer whose successful oil company donated a large parcel of the 11 total city blocks where the patriotically-hued behemoth now sits. In addition to pumping Houston’s economy with his successful efforts in shipbuilding, drilling and petrochemical industries, the entrepreneur is credited for suggesting improvements to the artificial heart, spurring the Rice-Baylor landmark life-saving invention. 
 
The American Society of Travel Agents made the first reservation for a national convention in the building the year it was complete, 1987. Now boasting 1.8 million square feet, including seven exhibit halls, an amphitheater, a ballroom and 66 loading docks, the GRBCC has played host to thousands of trade shows, meetings and conventions.

15. Because one of our beloved Cajun restaurants is located in the cloisters of an Episcopal church

Downtowners rejoice when fried chicken is on the daily menu of The Cloister, one of the four locations of Treebeards, a downtown dining institution. Serving up a menu of jambalaya and seafood gumbo in Christ Church Cathedral’s social hall and courtyard, devoted members of the flock also sample Louisiana-influenced specialties in the chain’s Market Square and two tunnel locations.

16. Because you can travel from one end of downtown to another without ever seeing the day of light

Additional Houston locations of Tasti-D-Lite, a trendy Manhattan-based frozen yogurt shop, and gourmet salad bar Salata are two of the newest restaurants in downtown’s tunnel system. The six-mile network of air-conditioned underground passageways and skywalks spans 95 city blocks, defying Houston’s extreme natural elements while connecting hotels, businesses and entertainment options. Because the tunnel is only open during weekday business hours, many Houstonians have never traveled the other world.

17. Because you can unpave a parking lot and put up paradise

Discovery Green, a world-class green space that was once a surface lot, proves it. The 12-acre urban oasis has had one of the most significant impacts on downtown in recent years, spurring development, revitalizing surrounding areas and attracting visitors from the greater Houston area Dining options range from a farmers market to a see-and-be-seen celebrity chef’s restaurant, and the park’s offerings are just as varied. Seasonal ice skating, Wi-Fi, free public programming, lovely picnic space, water features, a performance arena and children’s attractions are just some of Discovery Green’s perks.

18. Because a man with only a 9th grade education transformed Houston into an international hub of commerce

Armed with nothing but Southern grit and determination and the keys to his late uncle’s offices, scion-in-the-making Jesse Jones moved to Houston in 1898 as a young man to manage his family’s lumberyard. Successful in this and a series of savvy business deals, Jones acquired an impressive amount of real estate and the Houston Chronicle, eventually becoming one of the city’s lead developers.

The cowboy of commerce settled into a successful career in banking, during which time he invested in oil, raised money for the Houston ship channel and made other significant impacts on the economy. Recognized for his Lone-Star-sized prowess, the entrepreneur was eventually tapped to work with presidential administrations, most notably FDR, a position he used to bring new industries to Texas, like steel.
 
Among other substantial philanthropic gifts to support local philanthropy, Jones and his wife Mary Gibbs Jones established the Houston Endowment, which today supports many arts organizations including the Houston Symphony, whose musicians perform in the downtown hall that bears the magnate’s name.

19. Because our favorite (and only!) craft brewery in town just moved to the neighborhood

Through August, Texas’ oldest craft brewery, Saint Arnold, will shill bottles of their seasonal Summer Pils. This year, the tie-dyed label marks more than award-winning taste (the flavor recently brought home a gold medal from the Great American Beer Festival). It’s the first beer brewed in the new Lyons Street brewery on downtown’s edge.

“To be part of the heart of Houston, you need to be located near the heart of Houston, which is downtown,” says founder Brock Wagner of his team’s move. “It was always a pipe dream – I didn’t know we would succeed at it.”

Outgrowing their original location, the team brings to downtown a brew house (beer-making equipment) from a German monastery that they refurbished along with modern, energy-saving systems. Best of all, larger tours are on tap in the three-story new digs, a historic brick building constructed in 1914. Cheers!

20. Because we have the city’s oldest commercial building still in use with (possibly) the oldest bar in Houston as its occupant

No, you’re not tipsy. The building that houses La Carafe, said to be the oldest haunt in Houston, indeed leans due to its age. Dare to step inside, where you’ll need cash for the jukebox (think Miles Davis mixed with old country standards) and reading glasses to study the wine list in the narrow, cozily dim room where local history dots the walls in the form of black-and-white photos.

21. Because world class performance art starts here, then travels across the globe

With the most theater seats in a concentrated area outside of Broadway and resident companies in the performance arts that rival those in New York, innovation brews onstage here. Take recent world premiere performances like Houston Ballet’s Marie or the Alley Theatre’s Wonderland – both shows will travel from their birthplace in Houston and continue to dazzle and delight audiences across the country.

The groundbreaking Houston Grand Opera has produced 40 world premiere operas and six American premiere operas that have toured the world - some continue to do so - including Tony and Grammy award-winning Porgy and Bess, which premiered in Houston in the 1970s.  More recent is the Houston Ballet’s Marie which will travel from its birthplace in Houston to dazzle and delight audiences across the country.

22. Because we have the oldest, largest and best Art Car Parade

Like so many Houston institutions, the Art Car Parade was born downtown. In 1987, it had “40 entries, 2,000 people – mostly friends and families of the artists – and a few homeless people who woke up Saturday morning and thought they had gotten some bad hooch the night before,” jokes Barbara Hinton, a 25-year board member of The Orange Show, the non-profit organization behind the ever-growing annual parade. The event now features more than 250 wacky works of moving art, a spectacle that draws at least 250,000 people downtown annually.

We must be doing something right – the fleet of quirky cars gets a blessing from Dan Aykroyd himself this year.  The comedian and founding father of the House of Blues will have a second tie to downtown as he serves as grand marshal of the 23rd parade. “The characters he has created are cultural icons, and we think art cars are an icon of our society,” Hinton says of the celeb endorsement. “People can take a factory-manufactured vehicle and transform it into something that expresses their own personal creative vision.”

23. Because we have the winningest law school for moot court and moot trial competitions (Take that Harvard!)

Legal eagles at South Texas College of Law continue to beat out the Ivies and other eponymous institutions of higher education in moot court and moot trial show-downs. In 2008, the school nabbed a record 100th national advocacy competition title. Coached by faculty and alumni, students sharpen their skills at the downtown campus for national showdowns that mimic real-life courtroom scenarios. (In 2007, two South Texas teams battled for first and second place in a national competition.) It’s no surprise that U.S. News and World Report consistently ranks South Texas in the top 10 in the specialty of teaching trial advocacy skills and that its students also bring home accolades in brief writing competitions. We rest our case.

24. Because Waste Management’s Larry O’Donnell knows the meaning of “getting down and dirty”

The premiere episode of the reality show Undercover Boss, which aired on CBS after the Super Bowl, featured Larry O’Donnell, the president and chief operating officer of Houston-based Waste Management – the leading provider of comprehensive waste management services in North America.
In this unscripted look at life on the front lines of the waste business, we saw the true Larry – a regular guy with family values and a Texas-sized worth ethic. Posing as a new, entry-level employee, he worked on jobs that included cleaning portable toilets and pulling diapers out of recycled materials on a sorting line. “I wanted to experience firsthand what it was like to do the jobs that are so vital to keeping our company running every day,” he said.  After days of physically exhausting tasks, he got "A" marks from both viewers and employees. When he said, “I came away with a whole new appreciation for what our people do every day,” and pledged to address "some of the things that get in the way of people truly enjoying their jobs," we were inclined to believe him.  

 

25. Because Southwestern cuisine became more than soft shell tacos thanks to a biochemist-turned-chef named Robert Del Grande

 “It was one of those legacy-type projects,” says Robert Del Grande, one of Houston’s chef superstars, of his decision to expand his eating empire to a park in the middle of downtown. “When we first saw what was going to happen downtown with Discovery Green … well, I always like helping a good vision to reality.”

The San Fran-raised Del Grande, who’s the force behind the two uber-successful restaurants in Discovery Green – The Grove and The Lake House – says it was “a bit puzzling,” years ago that downtown didn’t serve as the hub of the city as the central core does in most thriving metropolises. “It seemed like downtown was so ripe for that. It just took a little vision and the support of the city.”

In set out to create a concept for his venture. “The restaurant had to be an extension from the park – the restaurant should flow into the park and the park should flow into the restaurant,” he says. This is achieved with floor-to-ceiling windows at the fast-casual The Lake House and with a stunning second-story terrace and nature-inspired décor in the more upscale The Grove.

 From there, he built menus around local farming and other “signatures” of Houston. “You’ve got to have a great burger, seafood, some of the other Texas traditions,” he says of the Southwestern influences that spill over from his lauded RDG + Bar Annie uptown. “Some restaurants, when you walk through the front door, you could be (in any city). Here, you’re in Houston.” Not only do Houstonians appreciate the dining experience, but visitors get a feel for how great this city is. 

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