To discover Houston’s essence, where does one even start? Such a task might be impossible, or more impossible, if not for William Dylan Powell’s handsomely illustrated new book Secret Houston: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure (Reedy Press).
Its 200-plus pages detail all sorts of obscure Houston lore: the derelict WWII-era ammo dump near the Ship Channel; the ancient burial site under a Grand Parkway bridge; and idiosyncratic local shops like Bubba’s Texas Burger Shack and the Wilde Collection. Everything that makes this city unique, in other words, and yet so difficult to explain to the rest of the world. In Houston, reckons Powell, “there’s no clear brand or expectation of what the city is like.”
Not that our fuzzy brand ever stopped anyone from moving here. “One reason I think these books are great is there’s such a transient population,” says Powell, himself a transplant of some 20 years whose dad worked for Schlumberger.
“There are people from all over the world here, all over the country; they’re just trying to figure out what it’s all about,” he adds. “It’s sort of nebulous, because a lot of people love it here, but it takes a while to explain why. You just have to be here for a while. Warts and all, you just have to kind of explore it. But a lot of people love it here—I love it here.”
Secret Houston came together over about six months, as Powell consulted with friends, historians, archaeologists, and other longtime Houstonians; newspaper articles and other archival material were likewise essential. His truck didn’t get towed once while he was location-scouting, Powell says, though there were some narrow escapes. “This book’s kind of like a scavenger hunt,” says Powell, “and I felt like I was the luckiest first person to go on that scavenger hunt.”
To be fair, some places here are fairly well-known local institutions: Marfreless, Last Concert Cafe, Irma’s Original (try the “secret” lemonade). There’s a little overlap from Powell’s previous book, 100 Things to Do in Houston Before You Die, which he describes as more on the order of “go to the zoo and feed a giraffe a leaf of lettuce.”
This book, though, veers more toward information that—never mind newcomers—even lifelong Houstonians might find amusing or useful. Did you know that, seen from a certain angle, the upper reaches of Williams Tower resemble a sitting cat? Or that Jackson Street BBQ near Minute Maid Park issues a $50 food voucher to offset the cost of parking there during Astros games?
Says Powell, who also writes mysteries, “I didn’t just want it to be, like, Depressing Secrets from Houston’s Past, you know?”
Nov 9 at 1. $20.95 (book price). Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet St. 713-524-8597.