John Nova Lomax chronicles another pedestrian adventure with drummer pal David Beebe in Houstoned—this time through desolate pockets of Houston’s East Side. Their potion-and-perspiration-soaked journey begins at the southern end of the Fifth Ward.
There, on the corner of Lyons Avenue and McKee, a dry-heaving stray dog in its death throes welcomed us to central Houston’s Chernobyl, a cursed warren of rusty train tracks, crumbling warehouses, and whole blocks that have reverted to wild coastal prairie.
Ruins of an entire neighborhood molder back here – unpainted shotgun shacks collapsing in on themselves scattered around a blocky brick building that looked like it was once a bar or liquor store. It had been stripped of all metal fixtures by street urchins and cut off from the electrical grid, but a sign in the window indicated it was for sale. “Call Bob,” it said. And evidently it was not so long ago a place of some importance, as a street teamer for a rapper named Marcelo had plastered a few promo posters on its door.
Next stop: Clinton Dr., where the “rank stench” of the 69th Street Wastewater Treatment Plant guides their path.
Lord have mercy on Clinton Drive. Save for a couple of islands of activity like the huge fenced-in KBR headquarters (which is rumored to be for sale), Clinton is now little more than a decrepit strip of ruined factories, warehouses fast crumbling into rubble, and decaying 1950s office buildings with broken windows and mold-stained walls.
It reminded me of 19th Century British gadfly William Cobbett’s description of the village of Deal, Sussex: “Deal is a most villainous place. It is full of filthy looking people. Great desolation of abomination has been going on here; tremendous barracks, partly pulled down and partly tumbling down and partly occupied by soldiers. Everything seems upon the perish. I was glad to hurry along through it…”
It wasn’t always such. From the Ship Channel’s opening until the advent of containerized shipping in the early ‘80s, Clinton and surrounding streets were bustling by day and by night, dotted with rice beer-soaked bars with names like the Cesspool, the Worker’s Bar, the Seafarer’s Retreat, the Mermaid Café, Tater’s Last Chance and Dottie’s Snug Harbor.
In those days, it could take a week to unload a cargo ship, and for much of that time, sailors were free to roam the port, dine in the restaurants, carouse in the bars, and find companionship where they may. The same went for the thousands of shore-based workers – the mechanics, channel pilots, stevedores, and tug boat crews.
Neighborhood on the waterfront: Coulda been a contender.
Photo: David Beebe and John Nova Lomax