Once More, The Vision Thing

Is "Imagine Houston" fit for the future, or just for a bumper sticker?

Some others who hadn't already responded by mail ended up writing their suggestions on a long sheet of butcher paper provided for last-minute visions. One man drew such an elaborate diagram of how power should flow in Houston that he had to get on his knees to finish.

But it was the sheer diversity of the crowd that most impressed. This was as integrated an event as Houston has seen in a while. Most surprising, the races didn't segregate themselves during the social hour. Blacks were talking to whites who were talking to Asians. (Hispanics seemed underrepresented.) They were even talking about making Houston a better city instead of about the Rockets or the weather.

Saturday morning we reassembled at 8:30. Even at that cruel hour, a good 400 Houstonians were divided at random into groups of ten and told to brainstorm about our city, dividing our comments into "glad," "sad (or even mad)" and to suggest actions the city or somebody, by God, should take.

My table was an interesting group. We had the former owner of the lamented Paradise Bar and Grill, one of the authors of Houston's Forgotten Heritage, bayou enthusiasts and heads of various civic organizations. We were all white, but a little neck-stretching indicated that other work groups were almost, if not quite, as racially mixed as the crowd the night before. My group didn't come up with any startling insights into the city. We liked its diversity, its openness, its combination of big-city amenities with an unpretentious, laid-back style. We didn't care much for crime, urban sprawl, weak education, unenforced deed restrictions and environmental degradation. We suggested founding a separate court for deed restrictions, holding school year-round, developing downtown and shrinking Houston's land mass by 10 percent. It all seemed interesting, if a bit dreamy. Actually, one day later I couldn't remember many of the actions we recommended.

That's the weakness of such gatherings, of course. We did a lot of gabbing, but to what end? Our mads, glads and recommendations will now go to some kind of action committee, but the Rube Goldberg-looking path our suggestions will have to follow (and which was proudly shown us in our information packets) isn't very encouraging. Surely most of what we said will take the wrong arrow and float off into the ether. On the other hand, 400 quite earnest Houstonians had gathered in hopes of making the city, or more specifically, its neighborhoods, more cohesive and livable. As another song title goes, "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?"

Toward the end of the morning, the mayor, casually dressed with an open collar and no jacket, wandered into the Bush Ballroom to answer impromptu questions. When asked about the effectiveness of the "Imagine Houston" document that will be presented to City Council in one year, he said, "If enough people are behind the document, the politicians will follow. I wouldn't be spending time on this if I didn't think it would work. Houston is ready to take a step forward."

So is "Imagine Houston" a flimflam job designed to attract a series of city-development grants, or is it a genuine chance for Houstonians to plan for the future? For now, the answer seems to be "yes" and "yes.

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