Arts & Culture

How White Linen Night in the Heights took on a life of its own

There are concerns about safety and security ahead of an annual celebration in Houston’s Heights neighborhood, where thousands gather to shop and socialize.

A band performs on West 19th Street during White Linen Night in the Heights in 2019.

White Linen Night started as a way to celebrate the summer, support local businesses and artists and create a fun, family-friendly event for residents of the Heights.

But over the years it’s taken on a life of its own and people planning to attend this year will notice no street closures as the longtime organizers are backing away and the party moves solely into restaurants, bars and businesses.

The event, taking inspiration from a beloved tradition in New Orleans, first took place in August 2006. More than 10,000 people dressed in light, loose-fitting white clothes and flocked to thoroughfares such as West 19th Street, White Oak Drive and other locales in the historic Houston suburb. They ate food and sipped on cold drinks, chatted with old friends while making new ones, listened to live music and did a little shopping.

The free outdoor event proved popular not only among Heights residents, but with people all over the city. Annual crowds swelled to 100,000-plus within five years, according to longtime event co-organizer Mitch Cohen. By that point he and Sara Jackson were working with the City of Houston to close off two blocks of 19th Street, inviting street vendors to participate while enlisting police officers, portable restrooms and cleanup crews.

Cohen said White Linen Night had long taken on a life of its own by 2019, having become as much of an alcohol-fueled street party as a way to provide a summer sales boost for local artists like himself as well as neighborhood businesses. A fight broke out that year and someone got overheated and lost consciousness, Cohen said, and city officials were asking for an expanded event footprint along with increased safety and security measures.

"From their point of view, it was a little bit out of control," Cohen said. "They wanted us to rein it in."

COVID-19 took care of that in 2020, when White Linen Night was scrapped because of the onset of the pandemic. Event organizers Cohen and Jackson also held off in 2021, although White Linen Night was still promoted and celebrated by others on 19th Street and across the Heights.

This year, even though Houston has largely returned to a pre-pandemic sense of normalcy, Cohen said he and Jackson again chose not to put together an organized event for 19th Street. It's been less than a year since the Astroworld Festival tragedy, in which 10 people were trampled to death during an outdoor concert by event headliner and Houston-area native Travis Scott, and COVID remains a concern.

"It didn't feel right," Cohen said. "It's too soon, in my opinion, after the pandemic to have a big, free event."

But White Linen Night is very much still happening this Saturday in the Heights, and not just on 19th Street – the quirky, eclectic shopping district that features Harold's Restaurant, Bar & Rooftop Terrace, the Heights Theater and Venus Hair, the salon with a colorfully-decorated hearse parked out front.

Businesses up and down the street are holding themed events, with a total of four bands set to perform.

White Linen Night attendees in 2019 take a photo in front of the Heights Theater marquee on West 19th Street.

The cluster of restaurants and bars along White Oak Drive, near Studewood Street, also has long been a hotspot for White Linen Night. Those businesses are offering specials and promoting events as well, and tickets are being sold online for a private party to be held in a rented-out parking lot on the street.

The Shady Acres area, just to the west of the Heights, also has emerged as a hub for nightlife, and White Linen Night events are being promoted there, too.

"This is part of the culture of living in the Heights," said Coryne Rich, a representative of the 19th Street Merchants Association. "You don't have to say anything. You don't have to advertise it. People are coming out."

City keeping tabs on events

With no street closures planned for this year, but word of White Linen Night events still spreading, the Mayor's Office of Special Events convened a conference call last week with neighborhood leaders, Heights business owners and event promoters to get a sense of what was being planned, according to multiple people who participated in the call. A request to interview someone from the office, made through the media relations staff for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, was not granted.

Houston Police Department spokesperson John Cannon, speaking on behalf of HPD's patrol commander for the Heights area, said there will be an increased police presence in the neighborhood on Saturday night. Cannon also said HPD is requesting street closures for next year's White Linen Night events.

With Cohen and Jackson taking a step back, Rich said business owners on 19th have agreed to take the lead next year and plan an event with street closures.

"We don't anticipate any concerns, but do plan to have extra patrol units for the events," Cannon said. "The goal is for businesses to have manageable events on their private properties this year, and with a street closure next year."

Street closures or not, White Linen Night has become vital to participating businesses in the Heights, and that's especially true since the onset of the pandemic and at a time of year when retail sales tend to lag. Owner Kristal Kirksey of Jubilee, a popular boutique on 19th Street where a band will be performing outside Saturday, said White Linen Night typically is one of the most profitable days of the year.

The same is true for Creek Group owner Gary Mosley, a Heights resident and restaurateur whose company operates Onion Creek on White Oak Drive and Cedar Creek Bar & Grill on West 20th Street in Shady Acres. Mosley called White Linen Night a "survival tool" for businesses like his and said it might be the favorite event of the year for the Heights neighborhood.

"It's pretty huge," he said. "That helps keep the doors open, without a doubt."

Appreciating local art has long been part of White Linen Night in the Heights.

While acknowledging that White Linen Night has grown and evolved since its inception in 2006, Mosley said it mostly remains true to its original intent. He also said his businesses have not had safety or security issues in the past and he's not worried about potential problems this year, when White Linen Night will be returning in earnest for the first time since 2019.

Kirksey echoed that sentiment, saying the economy remains slow and she does not expect 19th Street to be overcrowded. Rich said alcohol will be sold or served at some of the participating businesses, but for on-site consumption only, so drinking will not be allowed on the street like it has when there have been street closures.

"What do we do? Do we just stop commerce just because the tragedy happened at Astroworld? That was one of those things that just happened," Mosley said. "You have wrecks on the streets. Do you just stop driving? Or do you rethink how you're supposed to drive so you won't have an accident?"

Freddy Goerges, who is co-organizing the ticketed event in the parking lot on White Oak, said one of the reasons behind having a private, roped-off gathering is to have control over safety and security. White Oak Drive itself has usually not been closed off during White Linen Night, with the exception of 2011.

Not having a street closure on 19th should help to scale back the celebration in that part of the Heights, according to Rich, who said the business owners there want the focus to shift more to their shops, boutiques and restaurants and less toward a social gathering in the middle of the street.

Cohen, who hosts two regular outdoor art markets in the Heights area and is combining them for a large, indoor market planned for Saturday, Aug. 13, said he's not yet sure if he'll participate in White Linen Night this year. He still loves the event, he said, and hopes it will go off successfully and safely and with somewhat of a return to its roots.

"The Heights is now diverse enough that the party crowd has plenty of opportunity to do that elsewhere. We would like an event that's a little more refined," Rich said of 19th Street. "We want to keep everybody safe and also want everybody to have a good time and enjoy this event for many years to come."

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