Curator Ryan Dennis shows CityLab around.
Travel Like You Live Here is a series in which wonky locals show CityLab around their home turf.
Ryan Dennis knows Houston. She is the public art director of Project Row Houses, an arts nonprofit that has acted as a hub for urban art and architecture projects in the city. It's based in the Third Ward, a historically African-American neighborhood that was relatively unscathed by Hurricane Harvey earlier this summer.
Although she's originally from Houston, Dennis, a curator, spent a few years in New York City earning her graduate degree and working at the Museum of African Art. She's also got some community organizing experience under her belt, and now at Project Row Houses her job is to keep her finger on the pulse of Houston's cultural scene. So who better to offer up a guided tour of the country’s fourth-largest city—especially as it continues to rebuild?
For Dennis, one of the best—and cheapest—ways to spend your time in Houston is to go museum-bouncing in the city’s Museum District and beyond, being sure to hit the Contemporary Arts Museum, DiverseWorks, Nameless Sound, Art League Houston, and even the Children's Museum.
She especially loves the Menil Collection (1533 Sul Ross Street), specifically the “Witnesses” room, a space that collects ritual and everyday objects from indigenous peoples from around the world.
The Lawndale Art Center (4912 Main Street) is a great spot for engaging with art, too. “Lawndale is an art space that commissions artists to paint murals on their side wall facing the heavily-trafficked Main Street,” Dennis says. “Tens of thousands of people pass that wall every day,” Dennis adds, “and you'll see people jump out of their cars to take a selfie there with the mural all the time.”
If you're looking to tap into local knowledge, Dennis insists a stop by the dominoes table at Project Row Houses (2521 Holman Street) is an experience that can’t be missed. “Our founders alone have insight to the city that will just make your mouth drop,” she says. “The history and stories that are shared between artists like Jesse Lott, Bert Samples, Rick Lowe, Rhonda Rhodes, and the number of other folks that just show up because they know this is a time to sit and build is amazing. You are in for learning.” Dominoes line up every Wednesday and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m.
For Sunday brunch, Dennis suggests Bar 5015 (5105 Alameda Road) to listen to DJ Big Reeks and eat the good food of Shakti Baum, who owns Etta’s Kitchen and prepares the bar’s a.m. menu. (Etta’s hosts cooking classes, too.) “Afterwards, I'd probably take a walk around Emancipation Park (3018 Emancipation Avenue) in the Third Ward to work off my brunch,” Dennis says.
For other weekend meals, she heads to southwest Houston to eat a bowl of spicy noodle soup at Kuen Noodle House (9140 A Bellaire Boulevard) for less than $10.
Otherwise, Dennis says she might head to the north side of town to peruse colorful markets, such as Canino Produce (2520 Airline Drive).
During the work week, Dennis says she'll run down to Green Seed Vegan (4320 Almeda Road), a black-owned restaurant along a corridor of small businesses. “When people mention vegan food, they tend to associate it with lacking flavor, but this place affirms that vegan food can be finger-licking good,” she says.
When she's in a rush and doesn't want to spend more than $7 for lunch, she heads to Les Givral’s Kahve (2704 Milam Street) in Midtown for the chicken banh mi sandwich.
“The Silver Slipper (3717 Crane Street) is the epitome of what Z.Z. Hill's song ‘Down Home Blues’ is all about,” says Dennis, referring to the old-school Texas bluesman. “It is tucked away on a lonely street in the 5th Ward on the north side, owned by Curley and Dorothy Cormier. Curley plays the guitar and his wife, Dorothy, slings drinks and checks in with everybody to make sure they are good,” she says. “As soon as you walk in, you know that you are doing yourself a favor.” Plus, it’s BYOB.
Dennis also recommends cranking up the mixtapes of DJ Screw, a local legend who created “chopped and screwed” music, a syrupy, slowed-up style of rap that boomed in the city in the ‘90s and still partially defines the city’s sound. “If you think of other hip hop, it tends to be pretty lively and fast to get people dancing,” she says, “but the genius behind DJ Screw is his ability to get this weird cadence out of the environment of the city and then slow it down and still make you dance.” Dennis recommends popping in to Screwed Up Record & Tapes (3538 W Fuqua Street), where you can still pick up mixtapes.