Low and Outside

Welcome to the ballpark. And brown fields and barren expanses of a still-not-rejuvenated section of downtown.

So there you are, driving down from Kingwood on the Eastex or heading in from Sugar Land on the Southwest Freeway, going to an Astros game.

Visions of sugarplums dance in your head.

You think back on all the lofty rhetoric that was tossed around during the 1996 campaign to convince voters to finance the new baseball stadium. You really hadn't heard the word "rejuvenate" too often in your life, but in the weeks leading up to the referendum, the city's movers and shakers were talking rejuvenation like there was no tomorrow.

The new stadium was gonna rejuvenate the decrepit neighborhood near U.S. 59 and the convention center. It was going to rejuvenate the entire east side of downtown. Hell, it was going to rejuvenate all of downtown. The new stadium was going to be an irrepressible dynamo of rejuvenation, effortlessly spurring new development even as it favored Astro fans with an unmatched facility to see a baseball game.

Oh, the sports bars that would be built, their walls filled with Jeff Bagwell jerseys and Charles Barkley sneakers. The chic restaurants that would spring up, their white tablecloths contrasting smartly with the bare-bricked walls and the exposed warehouse pipes. The so-trendy-it-hurts lofts that would ring the stadium, pouring forth black-clad urban hipsters sneering at the kid-toting suburbanites.

What a marked difference from the Astrodome, a building surrounded by acres of empty concrete. As you cruise down the freeway you tell yourself that you are on your way to a field-of-dreams ballpark plopped right down in the middle of a swinging, big-city, hustling, bustling, rejuvenated-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life damn downtown mecca.

Then you pull up to the stadium. And three words pop into your head: Welcome to Sarajevo.

Rejuvenation, it appears, is not quite as instant a process as the build-it-and-they-will-come boys would have had you believe back in the election campaign. Far from thriving, the area around Enron Field is a desolate landscape of abandoned warehouses, boarded-up storefronts and fortresslike bail bondsman offices.

Don't worry, though: Rejuvenation is coming. It'll just take a while, and you shouldn't have thought otherwise.

A close look at the neighborhood does offer encouraging signs, mostly in the form of, well, signs, advertising coming glorious projects. Trammell Crow is building Ballpark Place, a giant apartment building right across the street from Enron Field, with stores and restaurants on the ground floor. A little farther away another developer is touting a similar mixed-use project that might rise to 37 stories. And the whitewashed windows of a couple of dilapidated stores boast legal notices of the property owners' intent to open bars. At some point.

"Houstonians kind of like instant gratification, and they'd like to see the whole area turn around in a hurry, but it doesn't work that way," says Diann Lewter, director of business development for Central Houston Inc., a downtown booster group. "We're in that first flush of new purchasers -- everything down there has either been sold or is for sale....By the end of the season, you're going to see a lot of stuff that is actually under construction."

"Big things are coming," says Danny Evans, owner of a bar that he says will open by the end of June. "I know Bennigan's, Hooter's and Chili's are all looking at properties in the area."

Wow. Maybe even The Great American Cookie Company could come in, just to complete the hellish Malling of Downtown effect.

At any rate, by next season -- and certainly within a couple of years -- the area surrounding Enron Field may indeed blossom into a thriving neighborhood.

But for now, at a time when Houstonians new to the idea of downtown baseball are forming their crucial first impressions, things look grim.

Or do they? The situation may not be as hopeless as it seems. The Houston Press has discovered several memos from local public relations firms -- memos that, as far as you know, have a very good chance of being real and not just made up to make a point -- dealing with how to turn the lemon of Enron Field's neighborhood into the lemonade of rejuvenation bustin' out all over.


Sirs:

Our philosophy of treating potential black eyes for public entities derives itself from the French painter Rene Magritte. He painted a picture of a pipe and called it This Is Not a Pipe, right? Fine. We take a look at allegedly so-called "bad" circumstances and say This Is Not a Problem.

A billion-dollar expansion of the Port of Houston? Hey, it'll help the environment. Sadistic traffic on Houston's freeways? Hey, you should see what it's like in Boston.

We propose a similar approach to the Enron Field "problem," if that's what you want to call it.

We sent a guy to walk around the neighborhood. He reports that, as usual, the complaints about a lack of "anything resembling civilization" around the new ballpark are just more of the same old carping from those naysayers who don't realize the phrase Can't Be Done has the word "can" in it, if you look hard enough.

A report from Our Man in Sarajevo:

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