Best Of :: People & Places
Four mammoth branches dangle to the ground like elephant trunks. They snake along the grass like knee-bound penitents scraping to a pilgrimage's end, only to rise again to the height of small trees to drink in the sun. The live oak at Elizabeth Baldwin Park is one twisted granddaddy of a tree. Despite relatively weak ordinances to protect local flora, Houston has a splendid mix of sycamores, maples, magnolias and countless others. But it is the stately live oak that defines the region. Some, like the venerable giant at Glenwood Cemetery and the strapping specimen that is Baytown's emblem, are woven into the fabric of local lore. Entire lanes around Rice University and elsewhere are graced with gnarled canopies. For its grand dimensions and gravity-defying posture, the live oak at Elizabeth Baldwin Park is truly unique. It stands amid a cluster of hoary, green old-timers whose delicious shade invites squirrels, blue jays and people looking for reprieve. The park dates back to 1909. Chances are the tree was there long before that. It remains an august presence amid new construction on Chenevert, Crawford and other surrounding streets.
This professor-on-the-move replaced sleepy Felix Fraga just a year and a half ago and is already developing into the power player of Houston Hispanic politics. Raised in Corpus Christi and Austin, Vasquez came to town as a communications prof at the University of Houston, and quickly began laying the groundwork for a political career. He used his first term as a Houston Independent School District trustee to build a network of support among Anglos in the Heights, and then steamrollered over a barricade of established Hispanic politicos to win a council seat. Since then he has carefully charted a course as an independent between council conservatives and the bloc supporting Mayor Lee Brown. Vasquez recently demonstrated his growing muscle by joining outgoing councilman John Castillo in an attack on Brown aide Carol Alvarado, who's running to replace Castillo in District I. Gabe has made no secret of the fact he aspires to be Houston's first Hispanic mayor, and at the speed he's been moving, that could put him in the race for the top spot in 2004.
Just look up. On bridges, buildings, trains, the backs of freeway signs, the tag is everywhere. It's an inspirational call to the "next" generation, a macho throw-up that conveys the adrenaline, irreverence and illegality of its creation. Most of all, it's cool. But the Houston Police Department's antigang task force doesn't think so. Last March, officers raided a legal graffiti show in a warehouse on the east side. Wearing all black with guns strapped to their legs, the officers said they were looking for "intel." But aerosol artists say the cops were really looking for Next, the most prolific graffitist in town. The task force was out of luck, though. Next was nowhere to be found.
Most courts wouldn't take much time with an 11-year-old troublemaker. But J.P. George Risner did what the Houston school district had refused to do: have the imbalanced youngster checked out by mental health professionals. Now the youth is on medication -- and back on track in school. Risner, in his 14 years on the bench, has proved time and again that he's determined to take his responsibilities far beyond just clearing dockets. He's held court at night and on weekends to be more accessible to the public and to parents. The former Houston building inspector has a rock-solid record in innovative programs to fight youthful problems such as truancy and juvenile delinquency. While Risner has received extensive training, he doesn't have a law degree. What he does have is more than enough: common sense, innate fairness and a keen interest in helping others.
Of course, the travesties continue: tearing down the old Gulf Publishing building on Allen Parkway, bulldozing bits and pieces of the precious past, flushing out Houston's final habitat hideaways for the sake of nothing more than the sameness of another new Rolling-Creek-Timber-Valley-Plantation-Estates subdivision. But the Bayou City shows more indications than ever that it just might be starting to appreciate its heritage. The rebirth of downtown awoke the greediest of developers to the potential for profits in preserving historic structures, even through costly conversions. Blocks of buildings restored as lofts are beginning to line the central city. Commercial uses are coming back as well. It seems that restorations are being considered for many more buildings (at least the ones not owned by Hakeem Olajuwon). Coupled with that are more aggressive wetlands preservation programs and nature centers. However, the most honorable of efforts can't begin to compare to the Restoration of 2001. This one involves several hundred square miles of the region. The rehab bill ran $5 billion and up for a collective project to rehouse about 100,000 residents and restore about half that many vehicles. The very heart of Houston -- the Texas Medical Center, colleges, the criminal courts system and the fine arts institutions -- had to be rebuilt in many ways from the devastation of Tropical Storm Allison.
The best smell? Coffee, of course. And there's no bigger coffee smell in town than the odor steaming out of Kraft's Maxwell House factory, a few blocks (and miles of attitude) east of Enron Field. Most days the prevailing winds blow that smell, ooh that smell, in a northwesterly direction, toward the north end of downtown and away from most eastside residents, many of whom can more or less stand on their porches and read the smoky plume from the one-million-square-foot facility for changes in the weather. And a fine day it is when the winds change, blowing that slightly processed coffee smell back over the near east side, where it mingles with, and partially masks, the cabbagy stink of wastewater treatment facilities and some of the ranker stretches of Buffalo Bayou. Fusion City, indeed.