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Stopping Downtown from dying: Restaurant vets see hope for future rebirth in the past

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Treebeards opened its Market Square location in 1980, serving up Southern-style cuisine ever since. Photo via DowntownHouston.org
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Market Square Park Photo by Katya Horner/Slight Clutter Photography
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The historic heart of Houston — the northern reaches of Downtown — have seen its fair share of rebirth and neglect in the last half century. As area restaurants seem to be dropping like dominoes in recent months, Treebeards co-founder Dan Tidwell and former Solero owner Arturo Boada offered CultureMap a look at the neighborhood’s storied past for a little perspective on the ever-evolving Market Square area.

Tidwell founded Treebeards with partner Jamie Mize in 1978 in a small space on Preston Street nestled between a strip club and rowdy bar. Quickly outgrowing the 30-seat location, the owners moved the business to its current site along Market Square in Houston's second oldest building.

"I've lived and worked in this part of town for three decades," Tidwell said. "I love it here and I'm committed to it."

 "When I first came to Houston in the early 1970s, Market Square was happening," Tidwell recalled. "By the late 1970s, though, the area was totally desolate again."

 The area has gone through constant phases of renewal and decline, he noted, before ending up with the beautifully-manicured Market Square Park that anchors the neighborhood today.

"When I first came to Houston in the early 1970s, Market Square was happening," Tidwell recalled. Restaurants and clubs brought hordes of Houstonians to the area looking for evening entertainment. Liza Minnelli, Johnny Carson, and even author James Baldwin were reported walking the neighborhood streets. At the time, the square itself was used as a parking lot to handle the number of cars.

"By the late 1970s, though, the area was totally desolate again," Tidwell said. "It was just awful, really." 

When Treebeards moved to the park in 1980, the neighborhood was noticeably in decline. Nevertheless, with a devoted customer base already established, the business thrived.

The late 1990s saw another massive boom in nightlife, with clubs like the Mercury Room and chef-driven restaurants like Solero garnering national attention. The northern downtown stretch of Main was swiftly becoming the city's own Bourbon Street. 

"This area was like a ghost town when we opened Solero in 1997," Arturo Boada said. "In the next few years, though, Downtown was a madhouse. It was phenomenal."

But starting in 2001, METRORail construction blocked downtown streets for three straight years. "Our business dropped by about 80 percent in a year's time," Boada said. "It was over like that and we closed in 2002."

Boada currently operates Arturo Boada Cuisine on Houston's west side.

 "This area was like a ghost town when we opened Solero in 1997," Arturo Boada said. "In the next few years, though, Downtown was a madhouse. It was phenomenal."

 Ever since, Tidwell said, the blocks along Main have struggled to regain their 1990s glory. He pointed to the manner in which the light rail greatly limits delivery space for restaurants and bars, not to mention short term parking for take-out food.

In the remaining portions of north downtown, however, he claims the area is looking the best it has in decades and feels that recent restaurant closures likely have more to do with mediocre food and service. 

"Downtown customers are always available," Tidwell said. "You may have to fight at night, but there are always tons of people during the day." More than 30 years later, Treebeards on Market Square almost always has a line during its hours from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

"The area needs more residents to make it really work," Tidwell said in reference to the many attempts to create a 24-hour neighborhood. "High land prices downtown don't always make it feasible, especially since Houston has so much other land to offer.

"It'd be a good idea to put up high rises in the neighborhood. There are a lot more amenities in walking distance than there are in the area around the Ashby high rise. This is a much more conducive environment for people."

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