HOUSTON VOICE www.houston voice.com
JUNE 27, 2003 3
Gays claim Montrose as their own
The 1960s saw the evolution
of this traditionally diverse,
Editor's note: In honor of Pride Week
and 25 years of pride and gay history in
Houston, this story is the second in a three-
part series taking a look at the changes in
the Montrose neighborhood, traditionally
known as the heart of gay Houston.
By JOHNNY HOOKS
In 1948, Houston was awarded the label
"Fastest Growing City in the Nation,"
according to an article in the Houston
Business Journal. The Saturday Evening
Post described the city as in "a dazzling
phase, like Chicago in the 1850s."
The reason for such tremendous
growth? Petroleum. The fossil fuel would
propel Houston from a frontier town to
the 14th largest city in the US by 1950.
Betty Chapman in the Houston Business
Journal wrote: "Fourteen refineries in
the Houston area produced more than
half the nation's oil. More wealth left the
ground within a 200-mile radius of
Houston than in any other location in
Life magazine wrote then what many
residents feel now: "I think I'll like
Houston if they ever get it finished."
The 1950s and '60s saw the city through
its first "boom years." To learn more about
the queer emergence in Montrose, as well
as in Houston itself, I went to gay activist
"There was always a strong gay influence in [Houston] development, mortgage
banking... even, I suspect as far back as
turning an old dairy farm into the first
Houston subdivision," Hill said. "Gay folk
were laying out streets and financing
"Jesse Jones had no children of his
own, his fair-haired boy Bob Smith had
no children, left no heirs... of course Ms.
Ima (Hogg) never married and I don't
know what they paid her secretary after
she died, but she's living comfortably for
not writing a book," Hill said. "There
have always been rumors about those
Why is it no surprise that this city had
such colorful (ahem) characters from its
But when and, curiously, WHY did the
queers arrive in the neighborhood?
Again Hill remembers. "I can tell you
exactly, almost to the date. I certainly
know who was at the table when the gay
community discovered Montrose as aeri-
able soil... and that goes back to the
Almeda Street era.
"We had downtown [gay] bars, and the
first bars to venture out of the downtown
area were down Almeda road from Holman
to Southmore, and it was cruising strip,"
Hill said. "You know, Houston's always
been a cruising town."
Houston gay activist Ray Hill recalls when gays
made Montrose the heart of their community in the
Bayou City. (Photo by Kimberly Thompson).
At the time, all bars in Houston closed
at midnight, but the men and women still
had some tap in their shoes. The only
place open was a coffeehouse on Main
Street called Cokens. Apparently the
owner, Bernard Coken, was rumored to
be a "family member." though very closeted if so. Depending on his mood, Coken
would either reluctantly welcome the
late-night "perverts" or force them to hit
In the early 1960s, the "grand dames'
of that time decided they'd had enough.
"Paul Stewart, Bobby Gant, Joey Bosch,
Rita Wajjstrum and that was basically
the GLBT group... the li-sblanbars were
sotnewrrera? else Inn they -0U %Sme all
the way across town to join us for
Coken's," Hill said. "We got together
there, after recently being let back in.
and said, 'This is bullshit.' You can't
plan your evening, you never know if
Bernard is going to be on a terror, or if
Helen the waitress is gonna cough on
your food; it's an awful place and we're
"So there was a place, Ari Wren's,
where Katz's Deli is now... that was only
open for lunch," Hill continued. Hill and
his friends convinced Wren to open his
restaurant 24 hours a day and from the
first night, a traffic jam formed due to all
the cars leaving Almeda, heading down
Montrose to Art Wren's.
At the time. Montrose dead-ended at
Westheimer and by the late '60s some
quick-thinking queens decided to open a
few bars "out Westheimer" past Montrose
Boulevard. The Encore was the first
Montrose "gay bar" — it was actually a
private club where men could dance with
men and enjoy cocktails. The second was
Mary's; May Britz was the third; and
finally a bar called Numbers, located on
The Bayou Landing was reported to
be the largest gay dance hall between
the East and West coasts! The sexual
revolution of the times was embraced by
the writers, musicians, gays and exiles
that flocked to Montrose at the time,
thanks to Ray Hill and his fellow queer
pioneers. The early 1970s saw the lower
Westheimer/Montrose area referred to
as "Houston's Left Bank," with cafes,
boutiques, antique stores and chic
European-influenced restaurants such
as Ari Grenouille's. Bacchanal,
Michaelangelo's and Boccacio 2000.
Boccacio 2000 was described by Texas
Monthly as "a disco-restaurant furnished in Modern Kubrick that's
become a jet-set pit stop for movie stars
lost in Houston."
The late 1970s were a testament to
urban decline, and Houston's "Left Bank"
was now being compared to Boston's
"Combat Zone." "First one sex shop
opened, then another... once you go
cheap, you start attracting a bad element... landlords get greedy and only the
sex shop owners are willing to pay; the
restaurants couldn't survive," recalls
Michaelanelo owner Willie Rometsch in a
Houston Post article.
The early 1980s saw Montrose dissolve
into its most lawless era. Cars packed
with drunken (mainly straight) youth
cruised bumper to bumper from South
Shepherd to Elgin and back again on
weekend nights. Prostitutes of every
variety lined either side of lower
Westheimer; side streets saw sex in alleyways, rampant drug deals and more than
the occasional assault.
Numbers 2. Godfathers Pizza (soon
to be La Strada), the infamous Chicken
Coop, the Midnight Sun, Twins (sole
lesbian bar on the strip), Tila's
Restaurant (in the old Ari Wren's
locale) with its neon clock, Ruggles, the
Tower Theater and the Booby Rock
strip club were all fixtures rjn the
famously seedy strip.
How did the former jewel inTHouston's
crown overcome its eyesore status and lawless reputation to become, yet again, the
zip code to inhabit?
Next week: Montrose faces the devastating effects of AIDS and gentrifying redevelopment, plus a determined community looks
in ihe future
OUT ON THE BAYOU
MY STARS .„._
LANDMARK DECISION: The U.S. Supreme Court,
with the majority decision written by Justice
Anthony M. Kennedy, on Thursday struck down
the anti-sodomy Texas statute, Section 21.06 of
the Texas Penal Code. Page 6.
THRILLED': Gay Houston attorney Mitchell Katine
said he and others involved in the Lawrence v.
Texas case against the state's so-called homosexual conduct' law are thrilled' at the Supreme
Court ruling against the statute. Page 8.
RALLIES: Houstonian John Uwrence, who, along
with Tyrone Garner is at the center of the case
that led to the Supreme Court ruling on the Texas
sodomy statute, participated in a Thursday night
rally at Houston City Hall Page 8.
An arts preview article in the Sept 20, 2002,
issue of the Houston Voice included several
passages that should have been attributed to
freelance writer D. L. Groover of Outsmart
Magazine. The Houston Voice regrets the error.
POSTMASTER: Send address changes to
Houston Voice, 500 Lovett Blvd.,
Suite 200, Houston, TX 77006.
Houston Voice is published weekly, on friday,
by Window Media LLC Subscriptions
are $92/year for 52 issues (only $1.77 per issue)