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The Newcomers

As H-Town’s storied population explosion continues—experts say the city will grow by about 100,000 annually for the foreseeable future—young professionals, entrepreneurs and artists from across the country and around the world are flooding in. Meet 13 daring newcomers who are betting their futures on a boom town, and changing the face of Houston.
 

Brandon Weinbrenner was photographed at Del Frisco’s Grille. Jacket by Taylor, pants by AG, henley by Rye 51, belt by Billykirk, boots by H by Hudson, all at Rye 51.

Shanaz Ali was photographed at Ligne Roset. Dress by Valentino, shoes by Ferragamo, earrings and cocktail ring by Oscar de la Renta, all at Tootsies.

Tolulope Adebanjo was photographed at Ligne Roset. Clothing her own.

Jace Larson was photographed at Trenza. Clothing his own.

Angeli Reddy was photographed at Ligne Roset. Top by Peter Pilotto, pants by Helmut Lang, shoes by Dior, bag by Alexander McQueen, all at Tootsies.

Sammy Del Real was shot at Trenza. Clothing his own.

Peter Schreurs was photographed at Nara. Clothing his own.

Ronalee Balog was photographed at Ligne Roset. Clothing her own.

John Letoto, left, and Justin Sampson were photographed at Flor. Letoto’s tie by Steven Alan, and Sampson’s shoes by John Varvatos, both at Rye 51. Other clothing their own.

Thuy Pham was photographed at Nara. Clothing her own.

Eric Aho was photographed at Pondicheri. Clothing his own.

Kate Good was photographed at Del Frisco’s Grille. Jumpsuit by Elia Saab, shoes by Charlotte Olympia, earrings by Roni Blanshay, cuffs by Kara Ross, all at Tootsies.

The Showman

Aside from New York, Houston is just about the only place that Brandon Weinbrenner, the Alley Theatre’s assistant director for a year and counting, could make his career dream come true. Which came as a surprise to the Dallas native. “I never thought I’d end up four hours south, in H-Town,” laughs the boyish bachelor. “But with the reputation of the Alley and the juiciness of the position, I couldn’t turn it down.” Indeed, the Alley is known nationwide not only as a Tony-winning company, but also as one of the country’s three oldest resident theaters. And at a relatively young age, Weinbrenner, just 29—a University of Minnesota graduate who has worked as an actor, producer and director in L.A., Minneapolis and Berkeley—is in the rare position of helping lead it. “I appreciate every day on the job.” He’s already worked on six shows, including rousing adaptations of A Few Good Men, The Elephant Man and the scandalous Venus in Fur, a dark comedy about sadomasochism with near nudity and don’t-bring-your-mom sexual themes. Weinbrenner, who lives in Montrose and spends downtime playing cards and doing yoga, says he admires the city for the variety of stimuli it offers creative types. “Houston is so international, so varied, so full of oil and arts and sports and education. Houston embraces this quality, and it really opens up the possibilities. You never know what you’ll find, or what you’ll learn to love.”

The Healers

Houston’s Medical Center is the biggest and most prestigious on Earth, so it’s not surprising that it attracts many of the best young doctors from near and far. Anesthesiologist Shanaz Ali, 32, who’s part Indian and part Puerto Rican, grew up a few hours west in San Antonio but left Texas to train at Boston University and Harvard. With the world as her oyster, she chose to come close to home a few months ago, to be in a city “that had more to offer” than most. “Houston had everything I was looking for—low cost of living, culture, arts, great restaurants,” says Ali. “It’s easy to live a comfortable life here, and I love that.” The striking Ali—an avid traveler and scuba diver who lives in West University with fiancée Andrew Meilleur, a marketeer with SearchMetrixs—actually doesn’t have time to get too comfy, with the demanding schedule of a young physician. “The good thing about that,” she says, “is I love my job.” Meanwhile, another beautiful doctor, pediatrician Tolulope Adebanjo, 28, made her way to H-Town in late 2012, from further away. Born in Nigeria and raised partly in Florida, she’s a Texas Medical Center resident who says she feels at home here partly because Houston—“such a diverse city!”—boasts a large West African expat community. The single Adebanjo, who competed in the Miss North Carolina pageant while in medical school in North Carolina, resides in the Med Center area and, like Ali, also cites the city’s culinary scene as a major draw. “I love the food. Restaurant Weeks [in August] is one of my favorite times of the year!”

The Watchdog

Investigative TV reporter Jace Larson—who arrived at KPRC Channel 2 in October after six years in Denver, where he won a Pulitzer-comparable Columbia duPont Award for uncovering a scam involving the unlawful leasing of foreclosed properties—sees a special role for his ilk amid Houston’s rising fortunes. “The city is booming, and there’s massive growth,” says Larson, 33, noting that heady prosperity can sometimes breed corruption. “It’s important to keep an eye on the government and make sure money isn’t being wasted, and that elected officials are doing what they’re supposed to.” He’s gotten right to work, raising eyebrows with a buzzy piece on a state senator who used state planes for personal purposes. “We’re at our best when we hold people in power accountable, and expose wrongdoing.” But Larson, a globe-trotting foodie and martini connoisseur who grew up on a cattle ranch in Washington state, isn’t all business. He and his partner of five years, urban planner Eric Ensey, and their Italian greyhound Rocky have already bought a home in the Heights area, and have found making friends a breeze. “People are so friendly, and they seem to sincerely want to get to know you,” he says. “We are fitting in. We feel like Houston is where we were meant to be.”

The Entrepreneur

Longtime Laguna Beach, Calif., denizen Angeli Reddy, 26, founder of fashion e-commerce company Six Twenty (shopsixtwenty.com), moved to Houston a year and a half ago—a bit reluctantly. “I’ve traveled a lot, but I’d never really known what it was like to live in a different city.” She was skeptical when her husband Rishi suggested that the pair relocate to Houston, as his healthcare-tech biz is based here. “Over time, I’ve really come to like it a lot,” she says of H-Town. “If you have friends and family around, you warm up to a place quicker.” Many of those friends are members of Houston’s bustling blogger community, who Reddy says have not only embraced her business, but also her. “They have all said, ‘Let me know what you need from me, let me know what I can do,’” says Reddy, who lives in the Galleria area. She adds that Houston is proving a great market for her online business; Six Twenty provides quality wardrobe basics for women—at low price points, since Reddy and her partner/sister Sarika Tarasadia work directly with fabric suppliers and factories to cut out middlemen. “There’s this humble, caring attitude that makes Houston unique. You don’t find that in any other fashion capital—not New York, not L.A.—and that makes me really happy to be here.”

The Survivor

Sammy Del Real, 26, a Chicagoan of Colombian descent, grew up playing music with his jazz-pianist dad, and later as the drummer for rock band Wax On Radio, a one-time Lollapalooza act. When Wax disbanded, Del Real landed a “big-boy job” as a residential leasing agent for the Finger Company in his hometown and Atlanta. “Never in a million years” did the bachelor imagine he’d be living in Houston, but the decision to move here in 2012 saved his life. He’d been quietly living with a brain tumor since high school, with docs keeping it at bay, but it eventually got so bad that he had to tell his employer he was battling Stage III cancer. When Houston-based honcho Marvy Finger caught wind of the situation, he offered Del Real the opportunity to help launch one of the company’s six new apartment buildings here, while receiving treatment at M.D. Anderson. Within months, Del Real was cancer-free. “The quality of care was different here,” recalls the former patient. “They spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was going to work for me.” That was last spring, and the fedora-favoring Del Real has stayed put since, helping shepherd Finger’s interests through the city’s unprecedented building boom—and playing drums again, with acclaimed soul group Nick Greer and the Gs. “It’s pretty intense how the whole thing happened. It’s an incredible miracle, a testament that God is watching me.”

The Globetrotter

You wouldn’t know it from looking at his globe-spanning résumé, but hotelier Peter Schreurs, 43, grew up in a small town in Belgium where residents tend to be born, live and die within a few square kilometers. But he knew that the world was bigger than his rural community northeast of Brussels. The handsome dad of a young daughter and son spent the first couple decades of his career hopscotching among European and American cites like Bruges, London, Miami and New York. “I could never sit still,” he says. “I like doing new things.” He spent the better part of a decade in the Big Apple, but the seven-year itch inspired him to try out the Lone Star State. He took a job at Le Meridien in Dallas and felt at home. “I really love the pace in Texas,” Schreurs says, noting also the affordability of valuable real estate and the quality of the schools for his kids. When opportunity knocked yet again, he and his Dominican wife Giselda packed up and hit the road to Houston, when Schreurs a year ago took a job at the Royal Sonesta as the director of food and beverage. Could this move be his last? Well, for the first time in his life, the hotelier has bought a home, in Sugar Land. So, could be. “Houston is a great platform to set up a home and family. We will definitely be spending quite some time here.”

The Good Soldier

Ronalee Balog has some advice for those who think Houston is just a “concrete jungle,” she says. “Venture out.” The Pittsburgh native, 27, has done just that. “Every day I’m discovering somewhere new.” But then again, taking risks and defying norms isn’t new for Balog. The petite bachelorette, who came to town in the summer as a junior exec in General Electric’s oil and gas division, graduated West Point and joined the Army, in which she rose to the rank of captain. She was deployed in Afghanistan for 14 months, before taking a post as a budget analyst at the Pentagon. “I’ve had to operate in a man’s world for a long time,” she says. “I’ve found that competency is the key to success. If you’re good at what you do, when you’re able to perform, [gender] is not an issue.” She took to Houston after just a week. “I love the weather; I love the parks; I love the skyline,” she says. “There’s such a dynamic environment with lots of young professionals. I knew that this was where I wanted to be.” She’s so much a fan of H-Town, in fact, that she’s recruiting friends and family from all over the country as potential new residents. “I had 15 people fly in for a holiday party, and they all loved Houston. I now have four or five more people who want to come visit this month,” she laughs. “My experience has just been so positive.”

The Liquid Assets

As Houston emerges as a culinary capital, aficionados are increasingly interested in its artisan cocktail and coffee scenes. Enter Justin Sampson and John Letoto. In October, bartender Sampson, 33, moved from St. Louis, where he ran three hot bars. He came here hoping to land a job with cocktail king Bobby Heugel’s Clumsy Butcher outfit, which owns famous Anvil bar. “Everything else was a backup,” says the ex-Marine and divorced dad of two, who indeed scored his dream job. “Physically, it’s extremely demanding,” he says. “And mentally, it requires a lot of time—reading, studying, understanding the history of the spirits. I’ve never been pushed to do that before.” He “fell in love” with the city, and, bearing witness, has added the outline of Texas with a dot denoting Houston to his tattoo sleeve. Meanwhile, barista Letoto, a former Department of Defense IT guru who came to H-Town from Honolulu by way of Louisville a year ago, overcame his concerns that Houston wasn’t advanced enough in its appreciation of coffee, “the most complex beverage on the planet.” He helped open Clumsy Butcher’s Blacksmith coffee shop, and has been thrilled with the city’s open-minded response to the place. “Houston is the right setting for all the wonderful things we have brewing,” deadpans Letoto. “Sorry, couldn’t resist!”

The Shopgirl

When Vietnam-born fashionista Thuy Pham, 27, moved here two years ago, after having grown up in San Diego and Baton Rouge, friends warned her to be careful on H-Town roads “because the drivers are crazy.” But the delicate beauty, undeterred, has been pleasantly surprised by everything Houston—even its motorists. “I find myself in unfamiliar territory from time to time and making weird turns,” she laughs, “but people have been really nice about it.” And WildBloom Boutique, the 9-month-old Rice Village women’s shop she co-owns with her sister Tuyet, has been equally well received. Regulars are already lining up to shop the carefully honed inventory of flirty frocks, designer denim, cool clutches, jewelry and more from noteworthy independent brands like Inge Christopher, Henry & Belle, Keepsake, Naven, RVN, McGinn, Line & Dot, Pink Stitch, Charlie Jade and Greylin. The petite single lady, an LSU grad and former visual manager for Abercrombie & Fitch, says the store is a “passion project” that’s become a childhood dream realized. “I want to watch it blossom and become a household name in Houston,” says Pham, clearly driven in more ways than one. “This city has become a significant part of me, so I am here for the long haul.”

The Easy Rider

Some people never get their dream job. But couture-loving, horse-riding Eric Aho, 29, has already lived out one career fantasy and is jumping—literally—into a whole new kind of professional bliss. “I needed to be open to possibilities and go for it,” says the newly minted full-time equestrian, who grew up in Kalamazoo County, Mich., and spent the first years of his working life in New York’s fashion industry, doing communications and PR for outfits like Condé Nast and Max Studio. “New York had run its course.” Aho, who’s been competitively riding—and winning—as an amateur “show jumper” since he was a child, has joined the team at Hunter’s Run Farm in nearby Simonton; he trains horses and other riders, and is steeling to compete in the elite sport as a pro, in events such as next month’s Pin Oak Charity Horse Show here and shows in Lexington, Ky., this summer. Before the fall, he’d never even visited Texas. But he’s come to see Houston as “nothing short of fantastic,” an easy place to make friends, continue his passion for live theater, engage socially and follow his equestrian dream. “It’s a sport in which you never reach a pinnacle. You keep learning, keep improving, keep educating yourself. And that’s a beautiful thing.”

The Motivator

For Ohio-raised Kate Good, 44, a jet-setting beauty who racked up more than 100,000 frequent-flier miles last year alone, staying put isn’t easy. Born in Dallas, she’s also hung her hat in south Florida, Chicago, Atlanta and, most recently, Scottsdale, where the warm weather, close proximity to fabulous Southern California and the area’s resort-style living kept her happy with the status quo for quite a while. But the bright and bubbly blonde—who, incidentally, just returned from a little New York getaway—headed out to Houston last year to build her career in marketing for apartment buildings. “This is the best city in the U.S. right now for apartment development,” says the tall and tan Good, who pitches luxury homes for the Memorial area’s new Vargos on the Lake property, referencing H-Town’s famous boom in multiunit residential construction. The wide-smiling Good, who winks and describes her relationship status as “single and looking,” is so gregarious and engaging that she’s often tapped for industry speaking engagements, helping train and motivate her peers. Lately, the spunky speaker is trying to motivate herself, to find time in her busy work schedule to join the city’s social scene. “I hear it’s out there,” she laughs.

 

Photography assistance by Claudia Casbarian & Harry Dearing III
Hair and makeup by Edward Sanchez, Cori Aston & Gabriela Camacho for Edward Sanchez Vanity Lounge
Styling support by Chris Goins and Ashley Jackson for Tootsies
Shot on location at West Ave