We’ve been sitting down with Montrose residents, business owners, and advocates this month to get the dish on their favorite neighborhood. But we couldn’t have been more tickled when our own mayor sat down to talk books, food and the changing face of Montrose with us. She’s a TV star, a sci-fi fan, an arts lover, a recycling enthusiast and a community activist who believes change in our ‘hood has to be led by engaged neighbors.
We’re at Half Price Books. I understand you used to own a bookstore. What’s your favorite section?
I am a recovering bookstore owner. I had Inklings books for 10 years with my business partner, Pokey Anderson. I still and will always love books. I have a kindle at home but there’s just something about holding a book. My favorite section is the science fiction rack. I’m a big science fiction fan.
What’s on your nightstand right now? What are you reading?
I am reading a science fiction book by David Webber – The Shiva Option. I deal with real world problems everyday so it’s an escape. But well done science fiction gives you an idea of the possibilities.
A lot has changed in Montrose in 20 years. What is your favorite change – and what was the catalyst for that change?
I’ve lived in Montrose for more than 20 years. But even before I moved into Montrose I was actively engaged in the community. I can remember when the Montrose claim to fame was night clubs and bars and you could look out on Westheimer and it was a traffic jam every Friday and Saturday night with teenagers from the suburbs coming to see the exotic gay people on the street. Now the best restaurants in Houston are along that strip. People come here to eat, to be entertained, to check out the boutique shops, to antique … there’s so much more variety. There are also new Montrosians – empty nesters, who lived in the suburbs that have moved in; we’re getting new residents from other parts of the country that are used to a vibrant urban environment and want to live in Montrose. It has become one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the city. I love that I can walk from my home to breakfast or dinner. And I see people walking through the neighborhoods all the time.
What do you envision the next 20 years will look like? And what will the residents, the City of Houston and organizations like Montrose Management District have to do catapult it there?
The most critical thing we can have is residents and business owners engaged in community and with each other. This isn’t about the city doing a lot of ’thou shalt not’s because this is an unzoned city. It is a blessing and a curse. We, as a community, have to recognize what attracts us here and preserve that but it also has to remain a neighborhood of people of different incomes, interests and lifestyles. We have to have room for the college students at St Thomas and Rice Universities; places were they can find affordable rent but also homes for families. And we have to make sure the City maintains the infrastructure to support all that wonderful vibrancy.
The Director of the Jobs Council was here about a week ago meeting with innovators and entrepreneurs about what Houston does well to create jobs and attract innovators. With your time as a leader and entrepreneur, what would your advice be to continue to attract new businesses and innovators to Montrose and the surrounding area?
I know that we are the #1 job creating city in the country, we win the U-Haul competition with more people moving into Houston than out of here. And we continue to attract the new people. The best thing Houston has going is right here – between people’s ears – it’s not just the brain power and innovation, it’s how we approach life and the world. Houstonians have a very deep seeded belief that if your work hard and find the right combination of luck, skill and hard work you can make something of yourself in Houston and we attract people with that same attitude. And along with that either tolerance or affection for diversity – for the range of possibilities and people that are attracted to any big urban area – but we are one of the most diverse cities in the US, and it’s not just about how people look, but how they live and think. And in order to thrive in Houston you have to embrace all of that. And Montrose is really the epicenter of some of that. I hope going forward, we continue to have room for the funky and the eclectic; that we keep some of our Montrose businesses that have been institutions – like Half Price Books. I spend many a dollar at Southland Hardware. I think it is THE best hardware store in Houston. It’s what an old school hardware store is like where you can find anything and someone who can explain what you can do with it. The restaurants are chef-driven and unique. We are not a place for the chain restaurants or stores. We’re a place for people – like I did a long time ago – where someone with a dream of starting a business is able to do that. And to thrive here.
We’re bring recognized nationwide for our cuisine. Two restaurants, Uchi and Underbelly were nominated by Bon Appetit as the top 50 new ones in America. We have a history of amazing restaurants here in Montrose – Monica Pope having opened her fist venture right around the corner here, too. What has been the most unique meal you have had recently?
I have dined out at two of our local neighborhood, chef-driven restaurants – It’s Restaurants Weeks – where the restaurants are contributing to the Houston Food Bank – I try not to eat out because I’m out so often so when I have an off night, I like to go home. But I actually have had dinner out at a range of restaurants:
Monday night was tacos to go at Berryhill.
Tuesday night was great Indian cuisine at Indika.
And Wednesday we enjoyed great continental cuisine at DaMarco’s.
And that speaks to the kind of restaurants – the variety of cuisine – we really can fit to any budget.
You’ve been a big supporter of the arts. You sat on the board of the CAM for a number of years. Do you have a specific piece of art here that speaks to you?
I’m a big supporter and fan of the arts. My favorite piece in Montrose is on a building that I own with my life partner, Kathi Hubbard. It’s a beautiful mural. And it may not be the highest concept art but it is accessible and it’s the kind of thing that becomes a landmark. And everybody knows it -they stop their car and get out to take pictures.
When we had the Inversion House at Art League – it was a public safety issue because people would literally stop their cars on the street to admire it. You need to have art that is accessible and available to everyone, from a small child to an adult, and you also have to have art that you really have to wrap your head around. I’m particularly a fan of any art that makes people stop and say, ‘Oh Wow’ or ‘How neat!’
The bike share program is expanding beyond downtown and, hopefully, into Montrose. What is your favorite bike ride in Montrose?
I’m more of a walker than a bike rider. I do own a bicycle. And Montrose is home to a number of bike shops; some of the best for information … not just there to sell you a bike; they’re there to turn you into a bike rider. I usually just walk out our front door, choose a direction and power walk for exercise. I’m usually walking around Rice University, Herman Park golf course loop or going down to Buffalo Bayou on all the new trails and the work that is going to expand the trails is coming very close to Montrose. From a practical stand point, the street sweeping program that the District has just started will be very helpful. From the City perspective we are doing our best to separate the cars from the bicycles and, it’s not the most efficient way to do things but it is safer for the bicyclists, get you away from the fumes. We are blessed with a number of trails and if our bond election this fall passes we’re going to have more and more off road hiking and biking trails. If you are going to have cars and bikes together on one road, you have to keep those bike lanes free of debris. We do street sweeping downtown through the Downtown Management District and the state does debris cleanup on the freeways but outside of the central business district, we don’t normally do that. Having the Montrose Management District aggressively clean the major thoroughfares through Montrose will make those roads much more bike-friendly.
Montrose is also where we rolled out the recycling program for small businesses. I wish I could have a first class recycling program all across Houston and we’re about to roll out a new phase across the city for homes. Recycling actually costs more money than just picking up trash and taking it to a landfill. We have done a lot of expansion over the years and every bit of savings we turn it right back to the recycling program but it was time to offer it to small businesses. In neighborhoods where we already have residential programs, like Montrose, was the perfect place to do it and Montrose small businesses have embraced recycling. But we could do more, so more businesses need to call up Solid Waste and sign up. There is a small fee for businesses but it is nominal.
Any unsung business owners or heroes of Montrose you want to send a shout out to?
In addition to not being able to pass up a book store, I am also barely able to pass up a resale shop. Not only do we have the best antique stores, we have the best non-profit thrift stores in Houston. There’s a circuit through Montrose — you can actually get a map that tells you where they all are — they not only provide great bargains but they donate their profits to charitable causes. Shout out to The Guild Shop on Dunlavy and Blue Bird Circle. I think they have my credit card on file over there and they’re about to have a major anniversary – their 75th anniversary.
Finally, what does Montrose mean to you?
I’m a Houstonian. My parents were born here in Houston. I have lived in many parts of the city but Montrose is my home. I think that the best things about Montrose are the best things about Houston: the diversity, how green we are, how energetic we are, how we’re such an interesting mix of different people and businesses and activities. And, like the rest of the city of Houston, people here are open to possibilities. I think that Montrose is a great place to call home.
We’re sitting down with Montrose residents and personalities to talk favorite meals, shopping, streets and what Montrose means to them. Have a place to share? Leave us a message in the comments! Want to pick someone’s brain? Tell us who in the comments.