Leo Segev isn’t from around here. Back in 2014, when the Israeli immigrant took over a used-car lot on North Shepherd Drive at West 22rd Street and opened his own dealership, Mainland Investment Auto Sales, he had no idea why there were two 14-foot fiberglass statues of men in suits staring down at him from the corner of the property.
“I’d never heard of the Art Guys, but people kept stopping to take pictures and sometimes they would look at cars. In this business, any attention is good attention, so I got them repaired and repainted,” Segev tells Houstonia, sitting behind his desk at the dealership. “There were so many other used-car places right nearby, I knew I needed something to make me stand out.”
Lately, though, the competition has thinned out. The section of North Shepherd that runs from I-10 to 610 has seen a dramatic change in recent years. For decades, going back to the ’60s, the street was dominated by mom-and-pop car dealerships, repair shops, and other small businesses that served the area’s working-class community. But as the Heights has gentrified, the street has started to look different, with upscale retail and restaurants—and, as of January, a new H-E-B on North Shepherd at 23rd Street—supplanting the old-timers.
While many have celebrated the street’s rebirth, particularly the arrival of a quality grocery store, there are those who would have preferred things the old way. Among them is John Coleman, who’s run his shop at North Shepherd and 26th Street, Auto Upholstery By Coleman, since 1973. “Have you seen what they’re doing out there to Shepherd? That H-E-B is ridiculous,” he says. “I won’t set foot in it. I probably won’t be here in five years anyway. I doubt any of this will.”
Some date the start of the street’s metamorphosis to the arrival of those two besuited sculptures back in 1998. At the time, the Art Guys, Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing, had a studio just off North Shepherd and 22nd Street. The duo, well-known since the ’80s for creating guerilla art across town, got permission from the owner of a neighboring car lot to let them install the pair of statues of themselves, often referred to by Houstonians as the Giant Art Guys.
“The idea was to make these statues, put them out into the world, and let them go and live their natural lives, whatever those lives would be,” Galbreth explains. “The culture of our city is, we just churn under our history and forget all about it. For good or bad, that’s how this city is. We knew that, and we wanted to put this art out there and see what happened.”
The city didn’t disappoint. Within a few years of the statues’ installation, area rents were already increasing. Galbreth and Massing relocated their studio to the more affordable Acres Homes, and the owner of the lot retired. After Segev rented the property in 2014, he was perplexed by the attraction he’d inherited, until somebody finally told him about the Art Guys.
It was almost two decades after the sculptures’ installation, in November 2016, that the redevelopment of North Shepherd was sealed. Voters approved the sale of alcohol in the historically dry neighborhood, paving the way for the new H-E-B. The morning after the election, property values skyrocketed. “I was looking at buying my place, but once it was official about H-E-B, that was it. I knew I’d have to move,” Segev says. “So many of the guys who were here when I started out have already closed up.”
Drive down the street today, and razed lots abound. Segev’s landlord, Doug Clark, put off selling the Mainland property for as long as he could, but earlier this year finally informed his tenant that a deal to build a Katz’s Deli was in the works. Standing in Segev’s office, Clark shakes his head as if to brush off any feelings of regret. “It was hard to let this place go, because it was my father’s,” he says. “But change is a part of life, and what else are we supposed to do?”
Some of the old-timers continue to hold on. Coleman, the auto-upholstery shop owner, is hoping his landlord will give him just a few more years, so that he can simply retire when the time comes. In the meantime, in an effort to keep the rent down in the nearly 80-year-old building—which, by the way, originally housed a grocery store—he patches together repairs with railroad trestles and duct tape. “I only need maybe five more years. Then I’ll say goodbye to all of it,” Coleman says. “I won’t even drive down the street once that happens.”
Segev, like Clark, is more philosophical about the inevitability of change. He’s looking to the future, making plans. By the end of the year he’ll be out of the shop, and although he’s not sure where he’s going next, he’s already gotten Galbreth and Massing’s permission to take the Giant Art Guys with him. “I’ll have them wherever we go,” he says. “No matter where it is, people will stop to look at them, and maybe they’ll look around. I’m thinking of getting all the names of dealerships and mechanic places that have closed around here too. Maybe I can make some kind of memorial to remember them too. It will be sad if they’re just forgotten.”
Clark and another native Houstonian exchange a look as Segev says this. It’s a lovely thought, just not something that most people here would ever think to do.