Photo Credit: Matt Gorrek
Is that why we live here? So you can walk one block to get a bagel?
I knew my boyfriend in New York City was right. It was common sense, good financial future planning. The rent for our 600-square foot studio at 56th Street and Lexington Avenue was increasing to $2200 and therefore overpricing my amenities – my nearby bagel shop, my beloved Bumble and Bumble salon just across the street and my five-block walk to work. Each morning the doorman wished me a good day as I merged into the commuters walking west on 56th Street. I crossed Lexington, Park and Madison, but slowed my hurried walk before Fifth Avenue. Parked at the curb was a silver Rolls Royce, a handsome white-gloved driver waiting daily for his very important person. I just knew one morning I’d solve the passenger mystery and catch a woman gliding from Trump Tower’s side entrance, looking like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and beginning her very important day of her very important life. On the other side of 56th was the three-story glass House of Armani, able to make mannequins look sexy in crisp suits and cashmere camel overcoats and classic black. Between 6th and 7th Avenues I climbed the steps to my workplace, balancing briefcase, coffee and the best part of that walk – the little white paper bag holding a toasted plain bagel with extra butter.
The real attraction of downtown living is convenience, which leads to a walkable and therefore livable city. Cross the street for a crazy-amazing cut and color. Only one block for a bagel. Then turn north on Lexington, and a bounty of boutiques. Two blocks to the dry cleaner and the deli and the bodega. Five blocks gave me the supermarket and a hardware store.
I did not move to Houston to find a duplication of Manhattan (I could have stayed in New York for that). –Phillip Lopate
Unpacking a box from my friend’s storage unit last week I found a gem – Liquid City, Houston Writers on Houston, published in 1987, that included essays by Donald Barthelme, Beverly Lowry and Phillip Lopate’s “The Mysterious City of Houston” written in 1982. What could Lopate possibly know about Houston? I had no idea that he lived in the Montrose area during the ‘80s, leaving Manhattan for a teaching position at the University of Houston’s new Creative Writing Program.
Compare it [Houston] to many older cities’ downtowns, where the people congregate to shop or see movies or simply saunter around watching pedestrians, the real show being each other, and you realize in what sense Houston doesn’t have a functioning center. All that was decided when the builders in their wisdom gave over so much of the street-level space to underground garage entrances and barren parking lots. No one is invited to dally or window-shop. Park, do your business, and get out. –Phillip Lopate
While thirty-five years later Downtown Houston is more alive than ever at 5:30, much of what he wrote is still true. Downtown is not the center. There is no window-shopping. And dallying invites being asked if I can spare my change.
Several years ago, I attended a Downtown District forum for residents and city planners to exchange ideas and future plans. There were plenty of questions – where’s the retail? where’s the residents? what’s being done about the ever-increasing homeless population? where’s the parking? My most urgent demand – where’s my bodega?
By definition, it’s the Spanish word for a small neighborhood store. For New Yorkers it’s a one-stop shop, a combination of deli, grocery with a smattering of fresh vegetables and fruit and possibly a resident cat, maybe offering real cold cuts, fresh coffee and sometimes floor-to-ceiling shelves with pick sticks to nab paper towels and toilet paper five feet overhead. According to the Bodega Association of the United States, there are 14,000 bodegas in New York City. I’m just asking for one.
It’s time, Downtown Houston. If we’re going to continue this relationship let’s get down to grocery basics. I appreciate Phoenicia, but its two stories of gourmet food, artisan bread, foodie experiences and calendar of events feels more “destination” and less “oh crap, I just ran out of butter.” Is it too much to ask for an avocado, for an onion, a quart of milk and a turkey provolone on a roll? You teased me with Georgia’s Market on Main Street a few years back, but a three-story cafe/organic grocery store/bar in the cellar was truly an identity crisis. I knew it was doomed when I saw milk in gallon containers. They’re heavy.
August’s heat must be melting my patience. Though I’m encouraged by the Downtown District’s recent “Plan Downtown,” a new 20-year plan for development of Houston’s core, its vision statement is pretty bold – “Downtown is the standard for urban livability.”
I wonder if that plan includes a bodega.
Restless people live in cities. –Beverly Lowry