Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sig Byrd's Houston

Sig Byrd was a writer for the old Houston Press. The old Press was a real newspaper, not some free newsweekly as it exists now, replete with singles ads and advertisements for all sorts of craigslist-esque debauchery in the back.

No, in the fifties and sixties it was a real newspaper somewhat like the Houston Chronicle and the now long defunct Houston Post. And Sigman Byrd was a columnist, nay, more a philosopher, who wrote often about the seamy and less-priviledged sides of Houston. Sig Byrd wrote a column at one time in the fifties and his moniker was "The Stroller".

My high school journalism teacher had briefly worked for the Press upon moving to Houston in the fifties, and had a bad case of hero worship for Sig. One of his books about Houston was required reading for her Journalism II students. Only you couldn't buy it at a store, you had to borrow her well-worn copy, and you best return it quickly and and in good condition.

My teacher had been an overseas wire service reporter for one of the news agencies back in the 30's and 40's before marrying some kind of Houston oilman she met in her travels. Not content to sit at home and live the society existence of a Houston oilman's wife in the seventies, she taught journalism.

I was on both the newspaper and yearbook staffs for most of my high school days, more as photographer than reporter. This was, of course, way before the instant gratification of digital cameras, back when you shot your photos on film and developed them yourself with nasty, stinking chemicals in the darkroom.

So my introduction to Sig Byrd began in high school, and continued on through college at University of Houston, where several of my lit professors were big Sig Byrd fans as well.

Sig Byrd comes up because every now and then the Houston Chronicle will reprint one of his columns. Here's the one they ran today, talking about the lack of lightening bugs back in the fifties. I like the part where Sig laments the long-gone easy days of the twenties. and;

If this peaks your interest about Houston of old, when Market Square was a place you avoided after dark and Congress Avenue and Main street were more known, particularly but not always after dark, for it's whores and homeless (we called them winos and drug addicts then, in those non-politically correct days), then I've got some cool links below that talk about Sig and the Houston of days gone by. You'll see that Houston has always been a rough and tumble city.

I laughed when I saw the reference in the above Sig article to what readers of that day wanted to see in the paper, and it's not much different than the Houston news of our day and age, more than fifty years later: Murder, Sex and Animals.

I remember that as late as the early 80's, there existed some sort of XXX bookstore on the Congress Avenue corner of Market Square, this I know because as a young officer I extricated an infant from the back of a van parked in it's parking lot, whose child's father was selling Mexican Black Tar heroin out of the van whilst the child's mother turned tricks in said van next to the infant. CPS, with our assistance, secured the infant and ultimately the child was taken from the drug addled parents and placed with a hopefully better family through the courts. You do this long enough, you begin to wonder at times what happened to that infant and where that person is today, some 27 years later. But you don't think about things like that too much...

I found this cool article on Sig Byrd and some Houston Blues music icons written by Lorenzo Thomas in Liveable Houston magazine in 2000. Thomas writes a brief if not good history of some of the music icons and places of the blues, and offers these observations about Sig Byrd:

"Bonner´s realistic vision of the city was shared by newspaperman Sigman Byrd. Seen through Sig Byrd´s eyes in the early 1950s, downtown Houston was harsh and gritty—grimmer than any bluesman´s vision. Much dimmer then were the streets that now ring with chatter from credit card-carrying citizens strolling blocks seemingly composed of nothing but trendy restaurants. A true flaneur in the tradition of Baudelaire, a strolling philosopher like Walter Benjamin, Byrd reveled in his dyspeptic appreciation of urban life. He was naturally, indeed magnetically, attracted to the “gray asphalt and grimy concrete,” enamored of that “old, crowded, tired avenue once so proud, so bright with gaslight and hearty laughter. Sam Houston walked this avenue. So did Mirabeau Lamar, Gail Borden, Audubon, Dick Dowling, and other great ones.” It was not Main Street that Byrd celebrated, but Congress Avenue, which like other downtown streets near Old Market Square in those days was skid row—populated by hustlers and a few absent-minded shopkeepers, dope addicts, and other losers.

Byrd also loved the streets of Houston´s black neighborhoods, particularly the Fifth Ward area around Lyons Avenue and Jensen Drive known as “Pearl Harbor, the Times Square of the Bloody Fifth.” Today there´s nothing there but vacant lots and a few boarded-up buildings, but for decades the area bustled with restaurants, bars, and small stores, a fabled locus of lowdown glamour and hair-trigger confrontation. It was also, Byrd once wrote, the proving ground for rhythm and blues singer James Wayne “and all the other Fifth Ward boys who had functioned right and gone high in the world of boogie, jive, and bop: Illinois Jacquet, Gatemouth Brown, Arnett Cobb, Goree Carter, and Ivory Joe Hunter.”

You can read more about Sig in this excellent article by David Theis in the modern Houston Press, from back in 1994. Here's an excerpt from the beginning of that excellent article that sums up some of what I've said about Byrd:

"Back in the late '40s and early '50, Vinegar Hill was one of Sig Byrd's best-loved beats. Once celebrated, yet now all but forgotten, Byrd wrote the Stroller column for the original, daily Houston Press. Byrd ranged for copy far and wide in the Houston of his day. He listened to the alcohol-treated stories of the merchant sailors in the bars on 75th Street, near the Ship Channel. He ate chicharrones and drank Jax beer with Don Antonio and the Laredo Bar regulars (who knew him as Don Segismundo) just off Navigation. He hung with the Fifth Ward's assorted cats. But it was downtown and its environs that Byrd had a particularly strong feeling for. It was possible to make a human connection with downtown then. The way Sig Byrd wrote it, at least, it was impossible not to, not if you had any feeling for raw, unadulterated humanity.

Vinegar Hill was particularly fertile ground for stories. Byrd said it was "a kind of arrogant slum ... scowling down on a good portion of the proud new city itself." Little did Byrd know that even this "new city," already considered thick with skyscrapers, would itself be leveled in a matter of years. In his eyes, and in his voice, Vinegar Hill appeared eternal.

Preston Avenue dies a natural death each sundown, and then, when the traffic dust has settled and the fetid smell of the bayou creeps up the dead-end streets, the avenue comes alive again. But in a curious way. The old pensioners from the walk-up hotels, the laborers from the Market, a few railroad men, the winos who live under the bridges and in the flophouses, the scufflers and hustlers, the dingoes, bums, punks and slobs, all the characters and squares of skid row, gather in the electric twilight before the bars and in the doorways of closed stores and watch the drab mystery of the downtown night unfold.

This is the kind of writing one used to find in a Houston daily. And this is the kind of writing that -- under the Sig Byrd byline, at any rate -- used to seem appropriate for a city that some claim has no heart, has no center. Byrd found that heart. But then again, maybe Byrd himself was that center."

I hope someone finds this rambling interesting. Now I'm off to work and to play on the internet and find at least one of Sig's books, hopefully on Amazon or at another online used book dealer.

One last downtown Houston memory. It is almost exactly 24 years ago today that one of my good friends was gunned down in Market Square. Late at night, Maria had absolutely no business being in a place like Market Square was then. She was there with her boyfriend Mike and another couple, having just heralded last call at one of the few bars then present in 1985 that didn't cater to winos, hustlers and thieves. But once out in Market Square, they decided to take a rest before making their way to what was then a dorm for University of Houston Downtown students located in the old Harley Hotel at 1o1 Main Street.

A man came up and grabbed Maria's purse from behind, and when she held onto the strap and resisted, he pulled a gun and shot her to death. He was never caught.

Rest in Peace, Maria.


  1. I remember when Papa wrote that column about the lightning bugs. He would often read his column to my Mom before it appeared in the Scripps-Howard Press or the Chronicle. I listened to this one as lightning bugs are of great interest to children everywhere.
    Ah! On to true copy paper he pounded out so many of his columns and Saturday Evening Post stories on his Smith-Carona typewriter.

  2. I well remember carbon paper as well when I was learning to type, and I'm probably close to your age.

    It's a pleasure hearing from you, and I hope you keep stopping by. I really wish I could have known your dad during the 50's and 60's in Houston.

  3. I am searching for a Houston Press Stroller article by Sigman Byrd dated March 1952 (date unknown) about Angelina Delgado, artist. Mr. Byrd saw her painting in a downtown bar and wanted to know who painted it and wrote an article about the painting and his search for the artist. My mother, Angelina Delgado responded. In his article he wrote about her and myself, then 1 year old. I would very much love to get a copy in print or digital format to frame and treasure. I would like to add that she painted many walls and floors in downtown bars and restaurants when financially able.

  4. I believe that Sigman has a daughter but I don't know where she lives. That was her, posting above. Maybe she will read this.
    I don't know if she has a full collection of his works or if she knows where any archives might be.

    Since the Houston Press of old was defunct for many years before the newer Houston Press appeared in the late 80's/early 90's, maybe someone got possession of the old archives of the Press.

    I believe the owner of the old Houston Press, a fiery woman named Maggie, has long since passed on.

    Have you contacted the archives departments at the Houston Chronicle to see if they by chance may have purchased the archives of the old Houston Press.

    Have you tried the Houston Public Library to see if they have copies of the old Houston Press, or if they know who might. I don't know if they would have microfilmed or filmed the actual paper copies, or if they retained them at all. Try to talk to the head reference librarian.

    But first of all, the blogger J.R. Gonzalez over at the Houston Chronicle with his Bayou City Blog should be emailed immediately. He might be able to steer you in the right direction, or help discover what happened to the archives.

    J.R. seems to find a lot of interesting Houston history and historical facts. I'm not sure if he's the next Ray Miller or Ron Stone in the historical department or not but he's impressed me mightily.

    Hope this helps. Email JR first. Here's the URL to his page:

    Your story sounds very interesting and would probably make a good story for him, and might get the word out there. You never know if some hoarder in Houston has the old Press copies stacked in their garage, "just in case".

  5. P.S. You might also email Leon Hale as he is an old newspaper man from Houston and he might know the whereabouts of the old Houston Press Archives.

    Be sure to let us know what happens in your quest. Good luck!

  6. I have to come back from being anonymous and commenting on the lightning bugs. I am Steve Byrd, son of Sig Byrd. My Dad was cut from a mold among the downtrodden. His family moved a lot and never had much money. He grew up associating himself for various reasons with those people others looked down upon. He loved Texas, Houston and writing.

    After marriage and three boys he was forced into a more "civilized" world. It was a world where he was pushed to be with those of the "in crwowd", or who pretended to be. The streets of Houston...skid row...the barrio...the bloody 5th...took closer him to what was becoming a lost home.

    When I think back, my Dad was indeed a Shakespearean character. Many of us walk this road dont't we?

    1. Hi Steve. Is there an email address where you can be reached? I'd love to interview you for a project I'm working on. Thanks, Brent N.

  7. Thanks for stopping by, sir. Your father was indeed an interesting character and his writing always touches me.

  8. I am too a fan Sig Byrd. Actually i have 3 of his novels. 2 of these are inscribed by the author. One , S.B's Houston, to Henry Muth. The other, "The Valiant, signed to Father Anton J. Frank, a priest in Houston from the annunciation church. I am still looking for a copy of "Tall Grew the Pines" but im sure i will in time. Hell, I even use his name in a song I wrote called "Neptune's in the Bayou" along with a reference from his book in a song i wrote called "Hurricane Song"

    J.R. Gonzalez of the Houston Chronicle has a blog with a Sig Byrd Section. there you can find a whole bunch of the Original "Byrd's Eye View " or "Stroller" Columns. search "Bayou City history"

    also, there is a new fan page for Sig Byrd's Houston on Facebook and i believe there is a link for a flickr account where Sig's writing has been found and copied from perhaps the houston library.

    I was turned onto the book buy a college and friend i respect very much. I love my Houston Town, and this was a true gift for any lover of the City or just good (great) writing. I , since then have turned at least 20 people on to the book including my Father who lived in Clayton homes as a kid, and my mother who lived in Segundo barrio as a girl, just blocks from where Don Antonio talks Mr.Byrd into compiling his writing of the people of Houston.

    thanks yall, Thats it from me.

    I enjoyed this post.

  9. Hi,

    I'm in the process of digitizing old columns of Sig's, using the Houston Main Library's microfilm collection. I am reading the March 19, 1952 article about Angelina Delgado right now. It was a google search of her name that led to this discussion.

    There are currently 435 columns of his online on Flickr...

    Another 70 were just scanned today. I won't have the Angelina Delgado column up for some time, but copies are available (free, no strings) upon asking.

    Rob Kimberly -

    Facebook - Sig Byrd's Houston

  10. Enclosed is a link to the scanned column mentioning Angelina Delgado.

  11. did Sig ever write anything about The Alamo garage on 2411 Ann St. ? he was in the second ward area a bit and i've often wondered if he knew or knew of my grandfather. His Mechanic garage and body shop was off of Jensen and Ann St.