The Rise and Fall of Le Chat Noir
“What is up with the man holding the umbrella over a cat?”
“It’s Banksy. And the large cat on the door is the 19th century logo of Le Chat Noir, a famous night spot in Paris.”
The room was full of Pearland residents who had come to oppose my zoning change. Their glazed-over eyes indicated that they’d never heard of this Banksy fellow and most of them were thinking Paris was a town in Texas.
The warehouse we were discussing had once been the headquarters of Incredible Events. At our peak, we had a staff of seven people who booked entertainment, dispatched costumed characters and set up events. We were a Houston favorite and a pioneer in mascot shows, but a copyright lawsuit from an attorney who represented Disney, Warner Brothers, Hanna Barbera and DC Comics changed all that. So I abandoned the building, let my staff go and started renting to a hydraulics company while I regrouped and tried to reinvent myself.
Two years later one of the owners of the hydraulics company died and the building was cleared out again. The company just vanished into thin air without even leaving me a key. I had signed over the building to my mom during the beginning of the Disney lawsuit because she had also invested in it with me and I wanted to make sure she didn’t lose her money if the attorney tried to take it. When the hydraulics company moved out, they left it looking like a dirty machine shop, not the beautiful office building I had rented to them. Most of the interior walls had been removed so that it was just a big room with an obnoxious counter in the middle. It sat vacant for a while and then COVID hit.
It was unlikely that I could do anything with the building in its current state of disrepair, so we bought some paint, power washed it and got it ready to rent. As soon as I listed it, a friend of mine with a magic illusion show contacted me. He needed a comfortable place to practice his show, keep his props and it was a perfect spot for him.
No one was booking entertainment though. His show kept getting delayed and my entertainment business that I moved to my home was officially on an extended vacation. The last two remaining members of my staff were without work and no calls were coming in. No one could or would have a party.
However, I was getting calls from hip hop artists to shoot videos at my home. My house is a unique place with themed rooms based on my travels and with so many places shut down, it seemed to be a magnet for artists looking for a cool setting to shoot their content. I was able to do short video appointments and maintain a trickle of airbnb guests. It was enough income to keep the power on and make a few improvements. I soon realized that these videos could be taken to a higher level by making my rooms even better. I turned my garage into a jail set and a junk room into a palace room. That’s when the city of Pearland contacted me.
Although there had not been excessive noise, parking was sometimes an issue and a few of my old cranky prejudiced neighbors decided they were going to put a stop to the “riff raff” I was drawing into the neighborhood. Of course we’re talking about well-known recording artists, not some hoodlums off the street. I had reduced the “impact” by setting things up to where guests parked offsite and used Uber or came together in a van, but there was still a next door neighbor filming everyone who parked at my home. Everyone has nosy neighbors. Combine that with people who have no hobbies other than cutting the grass and distrusting other cultures and you’ve got my neighborhood.
Gossip spreads and mutates like a virus. Once a guest brought a goat over for a photo shoot, but a neighbor spying on the house never saw the goat leave, so rumors began. “The house with animal sacrifices” could only mean one thing: I was a Satan worshipper. It soon became obvious we needed to bring our productions to a different place.
Once the magician decided to move, we began the creative process to turn the warehouse into something cool. There was definitely a need for unique spaces and venues in the area and I had a few ideas. We bought some paint and started imagining the walls as several buildings connected together. Something with a French theme maybe. I found an Eiffel Tower backdrop online that fit the back wall perfectly. Facebook marketplace had an old French door for sale and a few sets of shutters. Amazon was the perfect place to nab some awnings. I enlisted the help of local artist Natalia Victoria and we began our project in earnest.
The back storeroom became a replica of Van Gogh’s bedroom at Arles. The bathroom was reinvented as Salvador Dali’s “persistence of memory” painting in 360 degrees. The kitchen went from ugly brown to retro-60s sci-fi Meow Wolf-inspired motifs. The warehouse walls were transformed to a French creperie, a candy shop, a church, a restaurant and hotel. We added street lamps, paintings, signs and created magic.
We extended the front deck a few feet and put up a high fence to block out the ugly demolished house inhabited by feral cats next door and create a nice outdoor space. We decided that we’d name our creation after the famous Parisian Belle Époque nightclub from the 1890’s, Le Chat Noir. We created a hanging platform covered with flowers where guests could sit, pose or swing a few inches from the ground.
We added cocktail tables, chairs and maroon spandex covered rounds. We named one of the building facades “Nick’s” after the famous saint associated with Christmas. A life size nutcracker guarded the door and Christmas lights adorned the exterior. Once everything was in place, it was time for a grand opening.
We planned a French menu with escargot, French onion soup, crepes, and lots of other regional French specialties. We created specialty drinks, each one named after a famous artist and set up an epic deck bar. Our live oak tree was the center of the action with gold frames hanging from its branches. Besides the obvious nods to France and various artists, there was a recurring cat theme. Our bar featured giant paintings of Cat Van Gogh and Cat with a Pearl Earring. We finally had everything in place for our soirée.
That’s when the Fire Marshall showed up. The neighbors at the end of the block, an older lesbian couple who had seen the giant cat painted on the door (and didn’t speak a word of French) assumed we were opening a swinger’s club and had called the city. The department came over, had a look and decided that there was no deviant activities going on, but pointed out we were not zoned to have an event. In fact, we were the only building on the street zoned as light industrial. Even the small houses on the and the animal groomer next door were zoned for General Business. At some point, a Pearland official had decided to re-classify the building. Why? No one in Pearland could tell us, but that’s how it was.
When the city found out that we had rented the building as an Airbnb for a couple days, they shut off our power and water. The only way to get it back on was to perform a series of Herculean tasks that involved adding a water retention area, putting in $50k of parking and adding landscaping. Our oak trees couldn’t have any decking touching them either.
After filling out endless forms and paying the necessary fees to have the property rezoned, we were scheduled for a council meeting to discuss the changes and give the Pearland residents a chance to throw in their two cents. We had thought that the city was non-supportive, but after months of visiting the development offices and getting to know the fire marshals, we discovered that most of the reasons the city had opposed our progress was due to pressure from Pearland residents. One resident in particular decided to run for city council using our situation as his main political platform. One of my favorite quotes from him was “ I may not be right, but I’ll stand by what I say”. Yeah. That’s a real quote. Believe it or not, he won the election. It was time to sell.
I had my last shot at the zoning meeting, but my speaking skills and entertainment background couldn’t save me from a room full of people who might as well had pitchforks and torches. I’ve never been in a place where I felt so despised. Most of the attendees had never met me, ever been to my house, but they’d heard about the Satan worshipper who hosted hip hop videos and had a shooting at his house. Of course there had never been a shooting at my house, but another AIRBNB 10 minutes away had gunfire one night, and well, why bother with actual details?
A few people spoke. The soon-to-be city councilman got up and predicted that if I was allowed to open, Telephone road would have dozens of drunk inner city people crossing it at all hours as they left my venue. Then there was the man who stood up and declared he had lived his entire life on the short little street my warehouse was on, and even though he finally moved at age 40, he had heard rumors about the future and didn’t want his former neighborhood turning into a ghetto. Keep in mind, there are only 5 old tiny houses on the street next to a railroad track.
It was a night of ignorance and confusion. How could I explain to people who had never traveled outside of Texas that my place was created for small art themed events , eclectic parties and YouTube productions? There was so much fear of how my rezoning would transform the neighborhood into cultural chaos and anarchy, there was no point. I tried to show photos of the amazing things we’d done inside and explain how I wanted to create an amazing art inspired venue.
Art? Isn’t that the stuff they sell at Hobby Lobby? Van Gogh? The weird guy who cut off his ear? No! There would be no body mutilation allowed in this neighborhood!
It was a battle that couldn’t be won. After my zoning request got denied I couldn’t restore my electrical power or water without an occupancy permit. It was catch 22. I couldn’t get my permit without the city approving what I was going to do with the building. In spite of the fact that I had owned the building for 15 years, I wasn’t allowed to do anything with it. Since it’s a commercial property, the fire marshal was allowed to come by at any time, see who might be there and keep my power off indefinitely.
One positive thing came from all this. The wreck of a house next to my property was finally noticed and the owner had to clear it away. The eyesore had sat quietly, a Pearland version of the Amityville Horror for over 20 years, ignored by the residents who lived on the street. A dozen feral cats living under a building attracted far less attention than the one painting of the famous cat from Paris. The truth is, the neighbors were more comfortable with an ugly warehouse building than something beautiful. A little piece of Paris on a redneck street was like the TV show Green Acres.
So, after 6 months of fighting the system, I gave up. I immediately found a buyer, Banksy paintings and all. I didn’t even ask how they were planning to use the building. I only hope the new owners can realize all their hopes and dreams without being under constant surveillance and harassment.
Now that it’s sold, I’m keeping an eye out for a new neighborhood I can invite some rappers over and get those “goat sacrifices” started again. Party’s on!