Monday, February 27, 2017

Houston night.jpg, an oft-used skyline photograph of Houston

Calling all photographers: we need an updated skyline night shot here in Houston.

Houston night.jpg

This is likely the most-used skyline photograph of Downtown Houston. And, it need a bit of updating. Now, I'm sure there are thousands of skyline shots of Houston out there on the internet, but none as popular at this one, "Houston night.jpg".

The photo was taken by Flickr user eflon back in February of 2008 from the top of the Harris County parking structure at 1401 Congress Street, which sits atop the Harris County Federal Credit Union, a block to the east of the Harris County Civil Courthouse.

If you subscribe to email updates from Houston area organizations, or see news articles written about Houston, you've likely see this image before. It is included in the Wikimedia Commons, able to be used without requiring permission for non-commercial uses. This morning, Progrss, a group that tracks the trends and best practices in the transformation of cities all over the world, featured the photograph in an article announcing the network's partnership with the Rice Kinder Institute. The partnership is something to be celebrated, as it will help allow the City of Houston to start using "big data" to assist in solving Houston's biggest problems.

Houston's skyline has changed greatly since 2008. Of course, due to the angle of this photograph, much of the change in the southern portion will be eclipsed. But, we're missing a t least two of the now-iconic buildings that shape Houston's skyline.

For starters, we're missing BG Group Place (It'll probably be called Shell-something after Shell's acquisition of BG Group. BG Group Place was completed in 2011, three years after Houston night.jpg was taken.

We're also missing 609 Main at Texas.

Market Square Tower would have almost certainly been out of view, as just the extreme southern portion of the Lyric Center is captured, but this will be another one of Houston's skyline-shaping buildings.

A quick image search using Google Images shows that this image is everywhere. It's on a recycling website. One for emergency dentists too. And a marketing company, a tutoring company, a website for private security guards, and a recent Advance Auto Parts road trip planner set for those who were coming to Houston to experience Super Bowl LI.

It's odd how pictures and things like tweets and videos "go viral", and are used in such a wide variety of websites. When photographers allow their photos to be used by others, I suppose that will be expected. (Especially when it's a great photograph!). For as great of a photo as it is, we could use a little bit of an update, showing off the many changes in Houston's skyline.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Houston's Most Interesting Google Photo Spheres

In 2012 Google introduced photo spheres for its Android devices. At first users could only upload panoramic photos. In 2014 Google started to allow iOS (Apple) users to contribute to the online mapping program by uploading 360-degree views of sites around the world. So, now we have lists of the best photo spheres from around the world, capturing both urban and rural landscapes, allowing you to be a virtual tourist anywhere around the globe (so long as someone has published a photo sphere!)

As for Google Spheres and their usefulness, they can provide us a look at how a place once looked. They'll be valuable in showing the change that takes place in cities (hopefully for the good.)

So, I set out to find out where some of the more interesting photo spheres are located in Houston.

So, here are some of the best (and worst) Google Spheres in Houston:

Downtown Houston's Houston Chronicle Building
This will be a view preserved digitally, as the former Houston Chronicle Building at 801 Texas in Downtown Houston is set for implosion at some point.

Houston Skyline from the Sawyer Heights Lofts
The view from atop the Sawyer Heights Lofts is a great one, especially with the sun setting and Houston glowing. However, it gives a depiction of the sheer number of air conditioners and parking spaces that occupy Houston.

This lot on the south side of the Near Northside, just north of I-10, plays home to a bunch of BMWs. If you've been to St. Arnold in the past year, you've likely seen this.

Fonde Recreation Center
This is a timeless photo of Houston's Fonde Recreation Center.

Eleanor Tinsley Park
Buffalo Bayou after a flood as seen from Eleanor Tinsley Park

Zeke Digital Marketing
If you're looking to film a commercial or need a website created, here's your place. (Not an official endorsement. But, it's ambitious putting this in your home, then throwing a Photo Sphere out there.)

Two-Headed Studying at U of H
If you're studying for a big exam, it's probable that two heads are better than one. Except when you're digitally embedded forever in a Photo Sphere.

Dean's Bar in Downtown Houston

Downtown Houston's Chase Building
Gone are the days of magnificent bank buildings. At least this one is still around.

Downtown Houston Skyline at Night
You won't even recognize this eastern portion of Downtown Houston, as it now is home to the Greater Houston Partnership Building, as well as the Marriott Marquis hotel.

Avenida De Las Americas
As the construction of Avenida De Las Americas finishes up, and the facade of the George R. Brown Convention Center begins to take shape, we can always be reminded of what it looked like during construction. Also in the background is the Marriott Marquis hotel,

Monument Au Fantome
From inside the Monument Au Fantome at Discovery Green

Art at Winter Street Studios

Houston Heights Medspring
Take a look inside the Medspring building as it was being constructed at the northwest corner of Heights Blvd. and 11th Street in the Houston Heights. I'm not sure why this was of interest to anyone to capture as a Photo Sphere, but with all that concrete we can be assured that this is a sturdy building.

Picnic Tables - University of St. Thomas
If you're feeling stressed, digitally hang out at these picnic tables on the campus of the University of St. Thomas. If you're at your desk for lunch, throw this on your monitor, and you'll feel like you're having a picnic instead.

Midtown's Bagby Park 
the distortion of the buildings in the background is the real winner here. But, Midtown's Bagby Park is always ready for a photo.

Anywhere, Houston Strip Mall
There is no shortage of brightly lit strip malls in Houston.

Art Class
A student captured an art class at Lone Star College's Victory Center on Victory Boulevard in the Acres Homes area.

Chase Tower
Now that Houstonians can no longer visit the SkyLobby of Chase Tower in Downtown Houston, it's important that we have this Photo Sphere. This offers one of the best panoramic views of Houston (or, at least about a 270 degree view of Houston's expanses).

Holiday Inn Newscast
These Photo Spheres capture some sort of news broadcast atop the Holiday Inn in Downtown Houston. It involves a creative rearrangement and utilization of patio furniture.

Downtown Parking Lot (Fresh Yellow Paint)
There's nothing finer than a large parking lot in an urban area with a coat of fresh paint.

More parking


Women's Restroom at the Lonestar College Victory Center
I'm not sure why anyone is enamored with the women's restroom at Lonestar College's Victory Center, but, it must have impressed someone.

Three-armed girl at Axelrad
If there's one rule about being captured in a Photo Sphere, it is don't move! You'll end up with three arms.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Houston's Gas Stations and Garages Turned Restaurants

Even in gas-guzzling Houston, let's face a fact: with self-driving cars we might not need as many gas stations. So, instead of fueling cars, they can be used for fueling us. (I say that a bit tongue in cheek, because I'm not sold that self-driving cars are going to be the cure for traffic and mobility that many are claiming them to be.) To be fair though, most gas stations aren't going away anytime soon. And, there are a number of other gas stations that still serve to fuel both car and driver. (Come on you BBQ foodies out there, you know you like some BBQ from Rudy's!)

The Texas Department of Transportation Environmental Affairs Division published a "A Field Guide to Gas Stations in Texas" in 2003, highlighting some of the early gas stations in Texas. It is an extensive look at the marketing, use and design of early gas stations in Texas. Even though the Texas landscape is varied and had a great deal of influence on the architecture of a particular area, gas stations didn't always follow, making sure to establish or incorporate a predicable corporate image for those early petroleum companies. As cars became less of a luxury and more commonplace, oil companies staked their claims along the country's streets and highways to refuel America's cars.

America's former drive-through urbanism has actually led to some useful adaptive reuse opportunities. It's long been recognized in San Antonio that gas stations and service garages of the early 20th century can provide for some exciting reuse opportunities. The large canopies that used to provide shelter for cars and fuelers can alternatively be used for providing shelter to those fueling up on food. Open floor plans that allowed cars to move about a property now provide ample variety for seating and restaurant layouts, with minimal site work needed in some instances.

(Here is an extensive collection of classic gas stations around the country.)

Vinsetta Garage in Berkley, Michigan
Houston's Eight Row Flint in a former Citgo station. Now, fuel up on whisky and tacos.
Across Houston there are great examples of gas stations or garages that have been converted to restaurants. Eight Row Flint opened at Yale and 11th Street in the Houston Heights neighborhood last year, fueling Heights residents and visitors with whiskey, beer and tacos. This wasn't a redevelopment of a classic gas station or garage like Berkley, Michigan's Vinsetta Garage, (see what it used to look like) but instead a remodel of a run of the mill, abandoned, Citgo station.

Petrol Station. If you're visiting, get a burger.

Petrol Station in the Garden Oaks / Oak Forest neighborhood is a a popular spot for burgers and beer, replacing a garage with taps and a grill.

Retrospect Coffee Bar at the southern end of Houston's Midtown neighborhood is another former gas station that's gearing up to serve up gallons of fuel, only now in the form of coffee. The former Gulf service station is currently being outfitted to serve Texas coffee, beer, wine and other local foods. They are still receiving their permits (After anticipating a Fall 2015 opening), and have been working to utilize a shipping container as part of their building.

Liberty Station on Houston's Washington Avenue was once a service station, now serving beer and food truck grub.

The Houston Heights lost out on a great restaurant prospect when the old service station at the NW corner of White Oak Drive and Cortlandt was torn down for a large single family home.

The Houston Heights has another old service station that is slated to be utilized as a restaurant located at 11th and Beverly streets. The building has sat vacant for at least the past decade, and was never utilized by the now-closed Zelko Bistro. Thankfully, former Liberty Kitchen chef Travis Lenig has plans to utilize both sites for his future Field and Tides restaurant.

Finally in the Heights, Ritual, the new Texas-inspired restaurant at the corner of Studewood and White Oak Drive, has made a home in what was a former Conoco station. Before Ritual, owners of The El Cantina transformed the Conoco station into an expansive restaurant.

Across the street from Ritual, it looks as if the buildings that house BB's and Little Woodrow's might have been service stations or garages at an earlier time. (Can anyone in Houston with the institutional knowledge about these sites confirm this?)

So, what about other gas station sites that might make the transition from pumping gas to pumping out Houston cuisine?

There are remnants of another old gas station at the corner of Airline and Kern Street between the Woodland Heights and Brooke Smith subdivisions. Now, the property is up for sale, and is even advertised as "ideal for Retail/Bar/Auto shop."

In Houston's First Ward, a building that is currently hosting sporadic weekend garage sales and stores moving trucks, would make an excellent location for a restaurant should the owners ever entertain selling. Unfortunately the building is in a bit of disrepair, including the canopy.

In the Near Northside an old gas station on North Main has a "For Lease" banner posted. You can see that whoever owns the building had a railing installed on top of the building's canopy. This site would probably offer great sunset views of Downtown Houston should a staircase be added.

Fixers Automotive (a great place to get your car worked on, based on Yelp reviews) looks to be an old service station, as well as International Bonding just north of Downtown Houston.

Finally, Empire Cafe (the site of my wife and I's first date, so it has a special place in my heart) in Montrose looks as if it were an old gas station, however, it is actually the former Hollyfield Laundry and Cleaners. Not a gas station, but a remnant of past drive-through urbanism that has benefited fans of (now) walkable urbanism and good food. If there are others around town, please leave a comment and location, and I'll include them!

As an addendum:
(From what I've read, Ekkos Greek American Deli on Richmond is the best (still-functioning) gas station food in Houston.)

Friday, September 16, 2016

Friday's Weekly Rap Up - September 16, 2016 - Lecrae, "I'm a Saint"

I'm a Saint - Lecrae (Lyrics)

For four weeks our church and neighborhood parishes are reading and reviewing the Sojourn Houston neighborhood parish primer. This is a time to be reminded of our identity as Christians, and as members of the Church. The parish primer is a tool that assists parishes, or more simply, smaller expressions of the local church, in developing a unified vision for how life and ministry within the parish will look.

The first week's topic discusses a Christian's position as a saint. Typically we hear "saint", and either think of someone that is perceived as having a pristine image and character. We think of a really good person. Or, we think of "saint" sarcastically, as in "Oh, they're a saint."

The New Testament of the bible regularly calls those in Christ, saints. It's not a reference for only the holiest of holy. The term "saint" describes a position for those who are Christians, not a result of striving to be holy, or attaining the name from an institution.

When we understand this truth, we're free to grow in holiness as a parish, as a church. This truth also allows us to serve and do good works in the name of Christ, without having to worry about doing those works to earn our position as saints.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Friday's Weekly Rap Up - September 9, 2016 - "The Omnis" - Shai Linne ft. Andy Mineo, Giano & Omri

"The Omnis" - Shai Linne ft. Andy MineoGiano & Omri 

Our church, Sojourn Heights, just recently finished an express series through the book of Job. The book of Job is written about a man who by all accounts was blameless and upright. Job is a difficult book. It provokes readers to continue to wonder, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Job loses his possessions, his family and his health, all things that we hold dear, and likely find much more hope and worth in than we should.

The book of Job continues with accounts from some of Job's friends, who really don't do much to comfort him. They really do a lousy job. They essentially tell Job that his suffering was caused by something that Job did. Job loses sight of who God is, and what he has promised. Job doubts that God is just in a world of injustice. Job continues to plead, asking God to clear his name. There's no answer to Job's suffering, so all go silent, until Elihu, the youngster, comes forward. This is the fourth person to address Job, calling him to listen to God, admit his self-righteousness, stop justifying himself, and to fear God alone. Still, none of these things address the "why?!" of Job's suffering.

What we're left with at this point in the book is a tension: either Job is right, and God is unjust, or Job is wrong, and God is just. All this tension is relieved through Christ.

The book reaches a crescendo in chapters 38 through 42 with the Lord speaking to Job. He almost mockingly asks Job, in Job's doubt, whether Job was present while he created this world. "Did you assign the coasts Job? No?... Okay then..." Essentially, the Lord is asking Job whether he has the knowledge and and perspective needed to run the world. Job is questioned as to whether he is bold enough to position himself above the Lord. Job ends up going quiet. The Lord asks him again whether he has anything to say, and Job continues to promise his silence (Job 40:3-5).

It's in these few chapters from Job that really call to mind our limited understanding of this world. Shai Linne's song, The Omnis, hits on these points. Take a listen, especially in the second verse, and see how it parallels what the Lord declares about himself to Job.

Who is like Him? There is none
Triune, Holy three-in-one
When all is said and done
God is amazing, amazing
His power cannot be compared
Exhaustive knowledge none can share
At all times everywhere
God is amazing, amazing yeah

For a fantastic overview of Job, as well as many other books of the bible, check out The Bible Project.

Previewing Cafeza in Houston's First Ward

Cafeza, in Houston's First Ward, is finally opening (tomorrow) Saturday, September 10, at 6:00 AM. Now, I'm not sure if there will be any sort of prize for anyone camping out before dawn (a-la-Chick-fil-A), but you'll have the distinction of being one of Cafeza's first customers. Neighbors have (or at least this neighbor has) long been anticipating the opening of the neighborhood coffee shop, which will join the adjacent Cafe Brussels and Stanton's City Bites as the only dining options along Houston Avenue in Houston's First Ward. This is a welcomed addition, especially given the increase in the number of people living in the neighborhood over the past few years.

The owners of Cafeza, Ryan and Keisha Hazen, who live in the First Ward, spent a few years wishing that someone would open a coffee shop in the neighborhood. Since no one else had, they did it themselves, drawing influence from time spent in Barcelona, particularly at La Granja Viader. They hope to bring to Houston the same quality and simplicity of food that they experienced in Barcelona. They hope Cafeza will be a place for locals to gather, listen to local musicians, and support the First Ward's artistic community. Kyle Buthod will act as Cafeza's operations manager.

Ryan and Keisha Hazen

Earlier this week, Cafeza hosted the First Ward community, including neighborhood and civic club leaders, real estate personnel, and many of the artists in the neighborhood. Yesterday my wife and I got a sneak peek of Cafeza during a menu preview party. We joined a number of other neighbors and guests who were excited to finally see the space at 1720 Houston Avenue, and to give their food and drink menus a try. The staff has had a few dry-runs this week, so their service was already very good, something that is usually an issue with new restaurants or shops. Aside from a small cash register issue early in the night, things ran smoothly, as orders came out from the kitchen quickly. Cafeza has drawn from the experience of other local coffee shops, including Boomtown and A 2nd Cup, so coffee service should be great. In general, Cafeza bills itself as a "European-style coffee bar"... featuring "a simple menu influenced by Spanish and Latin American cooking."

Cafeza's menu includes coffee, tacos, churros, cocktails, bocadillos and a number of other options. We had the opportunity to try a few items from the menu, as well as the whole line of breakfast pastries. The chocolate croissant was my favorite among the breakfast pastries, along with the chorizo quiche.

My wife and I sampled the Bernil bocadillo and a chai (we're 3 weeks away from having our first child, so drink options are limited right now!). The food was fresh and flavorful. I was most looking forward to trying the churros. They didn't disappoint. The looped churros were served with both chocolate and guava dipping sauces.

Churros, with chocolate and guava dipping sauces

The interior of the space pays tribute to the First Ward's artist community. A Wiley Robertson piece adorns the wall to your right as you enter. (Here's a condensed video of the painting process) There are a number of other works from local artists throughout the interior of the shop. A majority of the interior work was done by those connected to Cafeza, including the seating and bar counter. Now, Cafeza's space is quite cozy, so posting up there all day may not be as comfortable as somewhere like Boomtown (whose coffee is served at Cafeza), A 2nd Cup, or Paper Co. But, this week a few additional outdoor seating spaces were added to provide a bit more capacity, and there's an open air porch at the rear of the shop that provides a bit more seating. I'm particularly fond of their marquee sign at the corner of Houston Avenue and Crockett Street.

We're really looking forward to Cafeza's addition to the First Ward. It will be a place that offers a presence throughout the day, as hours will be from 6AM-11PM on weeknights, and closing at midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. I hope that residents of the Near Northside will also find Cafeza's location convenient, as it's a short ride or walk along Hogan / Crockett Street.

This is one business that will certainly add to the vibrancy of the Houston Avenue corridor. As an urbanist, I can't help but want the Houston Avenue corridor to develop into a Main Street of sorts, as there are a number of opportunities to incrementally add to the streetscape and character of a community. The Houston Avenue corridor leads into Downtown Houston's western edge, but is relatively void of businesses and attractions, especially those that can be easily and repeatedly accessed by neighbors. It will be nice to have a "third place" in the neighborhood.

The service, food and atmosphere were all wonderful last night. I hope you'll give Cafeza a try. I know we'll certainly be back.

Follow Cafeza on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Some thoughts on San Antonio; The Impact Guild: Co-working in Beacon Hill

This post has been a long time coming. A number of weeks ago we went to visit some friends in San Antonio. Not being a native Texan, I don't have a great deal of familiarity with San Antonio, outside of hearing about it from others. I've visited a few times, but certainly not enough to gather all of what is happening in the city. Certainly Houston takes the cake when it comes to flash, glitz and pace of life, but San Antonio by all impressions seems to be a bit more laid back (I mean, even the Spurs seems laid back compared to other NBA teams). It strikes me as a city of neighborhoods and families.

But, I'll admit, there's something alluring about San Antonio and what is happening in the city right now. We spent some time in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, which is located about 2 to 3 miles to the northwest of Downtown San Antonio. Beacon Hill was one of the many neighborhoods that came about due to the expansion of electric trolley lines, in this case the San Antonio Street Railway Trolley. As one of the first platted subdivisions in San Antonio, Beacon Hill reminds me a great deal of Houston's Houston Heights neighborhood.