Immodest Proposals

The solution to Houston's image problems? Spin them away.

TO: The Honorable Mayor Lee P. Brown
FROM: Lisa Gray
RE: World-Class Cojones

Lee, you already know the problem: Last fall, the rest of the world started bad-mouthing Houston. Al Gore dissed our air, and the Democrats kvetched about the city's lousy rate of immunizing kids. Then people started noticing our other No. 1's: fattest city in the nation, county with the most inmates on death row, highest per-capita commuting cost. Now everyone acts like we have cooties.

Boeing said it wanted to move its headquarters to a pro-business, culturally diverse city in a central time zone -- and we didn't even make the short list. Madonna dresses like an urban cowgirl, but she lives in… London. Even Anna Nicole Smith couldn't wait to clear out.

What do the summer Olympics need? They need summer - and nobody has summer like we do.
Mark Poutenis
What do the summer Olympics need? They need summer - and nobody has summer like we do.

God knows you're trying, Lee. In March, you stumped in New York and Washington, trying to convince CBS and The Washington Post that really, we're not that bad. But what can you say when you're attacked on your home turf? Early this month, eco-lawyer Jim Blackburn, writing an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, charged that we need to stop pretending that our problem is a misperception. We actually need to clean the air, he wrote. Protect our environment. Get rid of billboards. And do other things that smack of (oh, dear) hampering business.

Elyse Lanier, bless her heart, rallied to our fair city's defense. In the Chronicle's Sunday op-ed section, she wrote exactly what you'd expect from the chairwoman of the Houston Image Group. The problems are all a matter of public relations, she said. Stop whining about the nasty facts. Instead, let's follow the example of the hallowed Stanley Marcus, founder of Neiman Marcus: Believe in your product. We should be "proactively marketing" Houston with the fervor that a Neiman's sales associate devotes to a new moisturizer. We're "America's best city," Elyse said. So next time you're talking to an out-of-town acquaintance, don't whine about Houston's shortcomings. Brag about our "great weather," our "8,500 restaurants" and (my favorite) the "dazzling port."

Elyse is onto something -- that's why the city supports her Houston Image Group to the tune of $1 million a year -- but she doesn't take her idea far enough. To turn around those doleful perceptions, we have to think bigger.

Here, Lee, are three action points.

Forget Air Quality. Think Quality Air. Go to Wyoming or Oregon or Vermont -- any of those tree-hugging states -- and take a deep breath. What do you taste? What do you feel?

Nothing, that's what. You're breathing plain old air: nitrogen, oxygen, some carbon dioxide. Insipid stuff.

Now try the same thing in Houston -- preferably in a spot near Pasadena. The bouquet is as complex as an old Bordeaux's. First you smell a hint of sulfur or some elusive organic compound. On a hot day, there's the unmistakable tang of ozone. Then comes the big finish as the particulates hit your lungs.

Now that's air with character. Value-added air. Business-friendly air. Our air.

Go for the Gold.Yes, we want the 2012 Summer Olympics. But we've been arguing the wrong points. Dull, meaty points -- money and infrastructure -- that put us in league with third-rate excuses for municipalities, sorry burgs like Pittsburgh and Dallas. We gotta aim higher. We've got the steak, Lee, but we need to sell the sizzle.

Ask yourself: How can we play in the same league as the big boys, those sexy tourist magnets -- San Francisco, Orlando, New York, Washington, D.C.? And once we're playing in that league, how can we beat them? What have we got that they don't?

Elyse is right: We have great weather. Just think about it. What do the summer Olympics need? They need summer -- and nobody but nobody has summer like we do. Hot, humid, never-ending: We own the season.

We sizzle, Lee. Sell that sizzle.

Hit the Roads.Pity the poor European or East Coaster, mired in mass transit but yearning to drive free. With no traffic to mind, they bury their boredom in novels and newspapers. Those car-deprived souls are hungry to hear our story.

Imagine the ads we could post in subways and buses: One commuter, one car! Land of the drive-thru Starbucks! Residential streets lined with nothing but garage doors!

Never mind that as a town-housed Houston grows denser, public transportation looks ever more practical. Evoke the glorious future that Harris County dares to plan for itself: an I-10 that stretches 24 lanes wide, uninterrupted by niggling rail lines!

Make those commuters fantasize about living in our burbs, driving 45 minutes or an hour each way to work, five times a week. Let them dream of a super-sized SUV, the radio all to themselves, the freeway's dotted white lines flashing under their wheels. Show pictures of happy drivers appreciating a sunset -- an especially brilliant sunset, one of those you get only when the evening light hits the exhaust just right.

You get the idea, Lee. Image is everything. The right spin can make real problems disappear.

 
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