Where the Buffalo Roams

Houstonians are accustomed to hearing the words "Buffalo Bayou" immediately preceding the sentence fragment "has flooded again after a torrential downpour." But city leaders hope residents will begin to view the area as the epicenter of downtown redevelopment, beginning with "The Bayou Beckons"; Saturday's event celebrates the completion of $20 million Sesquicentennial Park, situated along the bayou's banks.

"We're looking to do something really unique, not like at every other festival. We want to really represent Buffalo Bayou," says Anne Olson, executive director of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the event's organizer. "It really is the city's greatest natural resource, and the reason that Houston exists today. We can develop it in a way that's unique to Houston."

Among the events scheduled to take place in the area surrounding the park's Phase II development, near Bagby and Preston, are the state's largest canoe/kayak race, the Buffalo Bayou Regatta (9 a.m.); the "Anything That Floats" Parade (noon); an ambitious art project named "WaterFire Houston" (7:30 p.m. to midnight); and "Pillars of the Community" -- featuring the lighting of seven 70-foot-tall smooth-surface pillars etched with reproductions of drawings by children born during Texas's Sesquicentennial year of 1986 (9 p.m.). The pillars will provide a permanent addition to the Houston skyline.

Olson says she's looking forward to the "Anything That Floats" Parade most of all. "It's like the art car parade, only on water. People will build anything and everything to see if it can float for 400 to 600 feet. People get extremely creative and do some extravagant things," she says. Olson remembers the year a woman wearing a long wig and body stocking and sitting atop a floating seashell re-created the famous "Venus on the Halfshell" motif. This year, we should expect a lot of Titanic-inspired entries.

The regatta, set on a 15-mile course, is divided into recreational journeys and competitive races. Battalions of corporate weekend warriors and frat buddies fueled by testosterone will chop the bayou's waters for this year's bragging rights. And "WaterFire Houston," a relation to an event that originated in Rhode Island, promises to be an elegant capper to the festivities: 30 floating discs broadcasting a variety of recorded mood music and blazing with orange fire will illuminate spectators watching from nearby banks. "It will appeal to all the senses," says Olson. "You'll hear the crackling fire and smell the pine."

Houston's history has been shaped by events on and around the bayou, including the 1826 founding of Harrisburg by John Harris, for whom Harris County is named. General Sam Houston defeated his Mexican counterpart Santa Anna at the confluence of the bayou and the San Jacinto River in the Texas War of Independence. Houston's founding fathers, the Allen brothers, laid out the city in a grid pattern oriented not to a compass, but to the bayou. And the body of water helped to establish Houston as a port city designated the "National Highway of the Republic" in 1840.

Olson says she hopes the long-awaited completion of Sesquicentennial Park, along with nearby developments such as the Bayou Place entertainment complex, will bring people back to the area on a regular basis. Lush gardens, tumbling waterfalls, new bridges and carefully cultivated greenery will celebrate the legacy of Houston and provide a tranquil space for visitors.

"It will give people a greater appreciation for the city and what it can do," Olson says. "Buffalo Bayou is going to be an important part of Houston's future -- just as it was to its past."

-- Bob Ruggiero

"The Bayou Beckons": 9 a.m. to midnight Saturday, May 9. Sesquicentennial Park, Bagby and Preston. Info: 654-8900, 752-0314. Most festivities are free.

 
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