222 Portland Street
For a year, I lived in a small studio space in Houston’s Museum District. Each of the wonderful idiosyncrasies that bought that apartment a place in my heart were helps and hindrances. But it was home.
Weeks before I even submitted the application, I read the realtor’s report. Like a Carfax for your living space. It was built in 1937.
I toured the studio apartment and fell in love with the original hardwood floors, the ornate heater built into the wall in the bathroom, and even the lived-in discoloring of the white walls. I figured anything troubling enough to be of concern to me as a tenant would be easily fixable with a little handiwork and elbow grease, or a call to maintenance.
(I was wrong, but I digress).
Upon further research, I came to discover that the building had originally been graduate housing for Rice University. For me, it was three rooms. An enclosure from the mess of the wild urban jungle. A kitchen in the front, a bathroom to the back, and one 500 square foot living space.
It was not my first apartment, but it was the first where I lived alone – no family, no roommates. Just myself and my dog, Wolfgang. The location was a geographical oddity: A Montrose ZIP code, within the Museum District appraisal district, and street signs that bore the Midtown logos. Of course, the year I lived there was an adventure in and of itself. I carousel’d through four jobs while I was there and weathered Hurricane Harvey (perhaps more on that another day).
When you entered the front door of the building, you were immediately met with what we called a “Hitchcock staircase” at the door, to the right. On that staircase, I ate takeout Chinese food, enjoyed many a platter of Halal Guys, and read Rubyfruit Jungle and Tales of the City for the first time. That staircase was a liminal space. Sitting on this staircase felt like walking on an empty highway. Time moved differently. The birds were always quiet.
There is something to be said about the way a city can lull you to sleep unlike any other place. The Museum District is near the Texas Medical Center, so by default many nights were met with sirens – an ambulance here, a fire engine there. The Metro rattled by in the distance. Outside my window on any given night were my neighbors, fellow 20-somethings, smoking weed or boozing on their rickety balconies that could have pulled away from the building at any moment.
I slept like a fucking baby.
I know, I know – I’ve heard ad nauseam, “How can you sleep with that much noise?” It’s not as horrifying as it sounds, as I’m sure other contented city dwellers could attest. The best sleep of my life came in 2016 when I hit New York City for the first time. My hotel room was in Hell’s Kitchen. All night was shouting in the street, sirens, honking horns, and the rumble of the subway beneath the hotel.
I think, for other people who embrace the urban swell, the humane ebb and flow, that there’s a comfort in knowing… that you’re not alone? That there are people here. That there are things happening here. As if leaving the city would instill a never-ending case of perpetual FOMO.
Every time the Metro train passed up and down the red line between Hermann Park and Midtown, I was comforted – if not intrigued – by the thought that aboard that train were people living their own lives. Heading home. Heading to the bar. Heading to that wonderful grimy coffee shop on Main between the Continental Club and that one store with the anti-Nazi designer coat in the window.
The writing on the wall, as it were, was there before I even moved in. A large sign at the entrance to Portland Street (which dead-ends into the back of a high-rise apartment building) advertised that very street lined with shiny new townhomes, nary an architectural beauty to be seen.
The building I lived in and its sisters that lined the north side of the street were living on borrowed time throughout the term of my lease. The company that owned them cared not a bit for their upkeep. During Harvey when the city took on an unheard of 51” of rain, my apartment thankfully did not flood due to the old building’s high stoop. But the apartment across the hall from mine flooded from top to bottom when the roof caved in. Wolfgang and I were spared the horrors, but my neighbors were re-homed.
I returned to the structure during a trip to the MFAH one day, about a year after I had moved out. Taped delicately to the door was a notice that all tenants had to vacate by March 31. It was already mid-May.
As is the case with much of Houston, out with the history and in with the much despised, architecturally dull townhomes, indeed.