Houston Public Library, energy policy, Houston Chronicle, blogging

Fondren Southwest gets a mini-library

The Morris Frank branch of the Houston Public Library sits near the intersection of West Bellfort and Fondren, an area that's been ground zero for Katrina evacuees and ensuing problems with violence.

It's a tough environment for a kid — or anyone who likes reading, we guess — to grow up in, but the city has good news: You're getting a new library!!

Umm, just don't expect many books in it.

The library system was planning a renovation of the Frank branch, which has foundation problems. They discovered, unfortunately, that new studies now place the building squarely within the 100-year flood plain.

"We'd either have to lift the building up 18 inches or build a two-foot berm all the way around it, and there wasn't enough money to do that," says Tim Douglass, chief of staff for city council member Anne Clutterbuck.

There wasn't enough money to build a completely new similarly sized branch, so the neighborhood is getting what the Houston Public Library System is calling "an exciting concept" known as "HPL Express."

What's an HPL Express? It's a rented storefront that holds about half the 90,000 items that the Frank branch currently has.

"It'll have all the popular books, it just won't have a plethora of books," Douglass says.

But there'll be plenty of computers, says the HPL's Greg Simpson, and anyone who wants a book that isn't on the shelves can order it and pick it up a couple of days later.

On the one hand, this idea sounds like an innovative way to stretch scarce dollars. On the other hand, it sounds awfully like Metro, which promised light rail to low-income neighborhoods but is now instead offering special buses that kinda, sorta look like trains.

"Could somebody who doesn't know what they're talking about, who doesn't understand the concept, who doesn't see the betterness they're getting, could they complain?" says Douglass. "Maybe, but the alternative is nothing. The alternative is closing the Frank branch completely."

"I think it's just going to be a matter of us educating our customers how to use the facility," Simpson says. "But we're excited about it and think it's going to work great."

Future HPL Expresses — including one in the similarly troubled Gulfton neighborhood — might offer only a "very small collection" of books. Future sites might be entirely book-free. But those sites will be in addition to existing libraries, not replacing full facilities like the Frank branch.

Ah, what the hell — it's not like kids today are reading anyway. Maybe HPL should just set up a Facebook page and be done with it.

Freeze a Yankee

Congressman Gene Green is on a mission. He will not be denied, he will not give up the fight, until that beautiful day when more and more people from Minnesota and Chicago die each year during icy winters.

Well, he probably wouldn't put it that way. What Green wants is for people in the South to get a bigger chunk of the federal cash that goes to protect low-income people from extreme weather.

"Two-thirds of our funding goes to people with cold needs and one-third goes to the South, where more people die from heat-related illnesses than people in the North die from the cold," he says.

The federal program is based on a formula derived during the energy crunch of the 1970s. Unfortunately for Green, it was devised in part by John Dingell, the Detroit congressman who heads the House's energy committee.

Green says things weren't much better when a Texan, Republican Joe Barton, controlled matters. "He was being a statesman — that was his argument," Green grouses. "He was saying, ‘We don't want to open this up, we have too many other battles in this [overall energy] bill.' I told him I wish he'd be more of a politician and less of a statesman."

Green is getting support for his fight from energy companies, who like the fact that the feds would be subsidizing customers' bills, or providing fans or a/c units that would make for more kilowatts being used. Now they just cut off people who can't pay, and there's no money in that.

"In most of the northern cities they have prohibitions against cutting off power during cold weather. In Texas we don't typically have local officials who have that sensitivity during heat times," Green says.

Still, he figures he's not close to winning this battle. Yet.

"I think after the 2012 election, we'll have a majority of the members [of Congress] from the South," he says. "We just need one more redistricting."

Better get ready, Chicago.

AlmostMySpace

The Houston Chronicle has jumped into what the kids call “the World Wide Web” with a vengeance. Reporter blogs, reader blogs, allegedly hilarious videos about life in the Chron cubicles — really, it’s what the Internet was invented for. And now they’ve unleashed the really big gun: features reporter Kristin Finan. Finan’s specialty has been first-person stories about learning how to sky-dive or rock-climb (or, most improbably, how to impersonate a Katrina evacuee at a shelter). Now she’s helming “Kristin 2 Go,” a wacky, unconventional, out-of-control vlog (a “video blog,” get it?) detailing her daily trips around town. Be sure to check out the introductory rap episode, if you dare. Get to know Kristin on her AlmostMySpace page.

 
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