Houston may be best known to pop-culture lovers as Beyonce’s hometown. But true art fans should consider venturing to the birthplace of Queen Bey for art of a less commercial sort: The city is an incubator for a burgeoning independent culture scene, as best experienced in its rapidly revitalizing EaDo district.
At first glance, EaDo (which stands for East of Downtown) doesn’t look much like a cultural hub for a city of just over 2 million people. For years, it was a derelict corner of town, a former industrial centre that until recently was littered with empty lots and abandoned warehouses.
Now, artists’ studios, galleries, clubs and event spaces are moving in, and are being followed by that timeworn sign of a gentrifying neighbourhood in cities across North America: low-rise condominiums and townhomes that are being bought up by young professionals who value living within walking distance from work, and their city’s main attractions. In Houston’s case, that includes Minute Maid Park, home to the World Series champion Astros, the Toyota Center (where the Rockets play), and Discovery Green Park, a 12-acre urban greenspace that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
But in EaDo, which still very much shows signs of a neighbourhood in transition in the form of boarded-up storefronts and parking lots for long-closed businesses, it’s possible on a sunny Saturday afternoon to find a local rap artist filming a music video between two warehouses decorated with murals, some dozens of feet high.
That artwork is what remains after three editions of the Houston Urban Experience Mural Festival, which was started by graffiti artist Gonzo 247 in partnership with First Houston. Gonzo’s wife and manager, Carolyn Figueroa, says that over the past two years, both local and international artists have painted some 200 murals, covering about 30,000 square feet of wall space, mostly in EaDo but also beyond its borders.
After each festival, the murals become permanent fixtures in the neighbourhood, with locals and tourists alike stopping to take photos. Anyone who can’t be in town for the 2018 edition (dates are still to be confirmed) can sign up via the festival’s website for a guided 90-minute art tour at a cost of about US$30 per person. The tours start up again in early March.
While the neighbourhood has a growing number of cafes and restaurants to fill empty stomachs at the end of an art tour, craft beer buffs shouldn’t miss the 8th Wonder Brewery, so named for the Astros old home field, the Astrodome, which was nicknamed the Eighth Wonder of the World as the first air-conditioned domed stadium.
The brewery took over one of EaDo’s abandoned warehouses and opened in 2013, and the young beer-loving crowd from the new residential developments nearby have followed. Brisk business on a sunny Saturday afternoon last fall saw communal tables overflowing with young couples and groups of friends. In lieu of a restaurant, 8th Wonder brings in the Eatsie Boys food truck, known for its waffle fries covered in pulled pork and mozzarella, and grilled goods like sandwiches and burgers.
While EaDo may still be a neighbourhood on the rise, it’s worth a saunter over from the bigger downtown Houston attractions, if only so you can name-drop street artists you first saw on the side of an abandoned Texas warehouse when your friends are talking about their gallery shows years from now.