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Bayou Dreams

From the glowing, prominent treatment given the event by the Houston Chronicle, we'd say a crusade has begun.

Somehow, the paper got its hands on a report -- just a day before the formal press conference! -- outlining an ambitious $800 million plan to improve Buffalo Bayou through downtown. "On Monday," the front-page Sunday story read September 22, "local government and civic leaders will unveil a 20-year master plan for the bayou that has the enthusiastic backing of the business and political leadership."

Enthusiastic, you bet: "This plan is a fabulous, visionary catalog of opportunities" was the quote from the head of the county flood control district.

The plan is a product of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a nonprofit group that's been working on grand designs for the bayou since the Kathy Whitmire administration. On the board of the partnership, according to the group's Web site, is Lainie Gordon, community relations director of the Chronicle. Before her, according to the group's tax returns, the Chronicle's then-publisher Richard J.V. Johnson was a board member. (No connection was mentioned in the Chron.)

For anyone who read the Sunday piece and began muttering the phrase "pipe dream," the Chronicle story after the press conference had some stern words of advice. Its front-of-the-Metro-section lead: "For skeptics who cite Houston's history of developing grand plans that are rarely realized, leaders of a new effort to transform 10 miles of Buffalo Bayou had a simple message Monday: This plan is different. In the breadth of support it enjoys from business and political leaders, the boldness of its vision and the inclusive way it was developed, the 'Buffalo Bayou and Beyond' master plan is distinct from earlier, more limited plans for the bayou, supporters said."

And some of those supporters are at 801 Texas, it's clear.

As we said, we'd claim a crusade is beginning, but actually it's just continuing. The Chron has been hyping Buffalo Bayou development for years. On its editorial page we've had to read sentences like this one, from a year ago: "The Isar at Munich, the Elba at Dresden, the Tiber at Rome, the Adige at Verona, the Vistula at Warsaw differ from Houston's principal waterway not so much in their hydrography as in the degree to which citizens embrace and focus upon them." (We'll give you a moment to daydream about the beguiling hydrography of the Adige at Verona.)

A year before that, the editorial page told us that "Buffalo Bayou is a natural stream that is at least as majestic as the Seine as it flows through Paris."

Such cold-eyed practical assessments are, in the Chronicle, the province of the editorial pages. In its news stories, the paper tends to break out the poetry.

The lead on the Sunday piece introducing the new plan was this: "Disturbed by the sound of the approaching boat, a heron stirs from its perch and takes flight, its broad wings flapping just inches above the water's glassy surface. Mullet jump in the bird's path. A warm September breeze sighs through the trees lining the banks of Buffalo Bayou."

Fourteen years ago, the Chron offered this: "Traveling downstream on the Island Queen, there are places where you can almost imagine Buffalo Bayou as the Allen Brothers saw it -- primitive, exciting and beautiful. A lush growth of trees and bushes crowds every inch of bank. Wading birds -- snowy egrets and little blue herons -- dart ahead of the boat."

Let's hope this unfunded $800 million plan gets funded.

It's not just that we want to see Houstonians battle the summer humidity and mosquitoes to attend symphony concerts on a man-made island in the swampy bayou (obviously, the Houston Symphony is having trouble drawing crowds because it's offering shows indoors, with air-conditioning). It's not just that we long to watch "the transformation of a long-abandoned sewage treatment plant, now a despised East End eyesore, into botanical gardens." It's not even that we long to make the citizens of Paris and Rome turn green with envy.

We just want the Chronicle to get off the boats and leave those herons alone.

Category 4 Circle Jerk

Two Gulf hurricanes in as many weeks have drilled home one point: Television coverage of an approaching major storm is a ritual as unchanging as a Japanese tea ceremony.

It's especially noticeable when the storm is still a day or so out, and the uncertainty of where it will come ashore means that reporters are scattered throughout the Texas and Louisiana coasts. With Hurricane Lili, for example, we saw video of people putting plywood up on windows in New Orleans, from which the reporter would toss it to a colleague in New Iberia -- where people were putting plywood on windows -- and from there to Beaumont and Galveston, where once again we looked desperately to see if there were any regional subtleties to the job of putting up plywood (there weren't).

If we lived on the coast and were putting up plywood and somehow weren't interrupted by a TV crew seeking our opinion, we would seriously question either our body odor or our ability to otherwise seem a part of civilized society. (Hurricane checklist: Gather batteries, bottled water, nonperishable food and any anecdotes about past storms you've ridden out. When appearing on TV, chuckle ruefully about your predicament.)

Eventually, of course, comes the moment when KHOU's hurricane cult leader, Dr. Neil Frank, has to ever so reluctantly and begrudgingly admit, with a pasted-on smile, "Good news: It appears Houston has dodged a bullet here." This usually comes a day or two after landfall. ("Although once the storm comes back over water outside of Newfoundland, there's no telling where it will go, so stay tuned right here for updates!")

It all got to be too much for at least one viewer on the night of October 2. Frank had led the 10 p.m. news with the admission that Houston would be hot and dry for the next week. That didn't stop Channel 11 from going ahead, after the news, with an extended segment where callers could ask Frank about hurricanes.

The call-in show went on and on, much to the chagrin of those waiting to see The Late Show with David Letterman.

Near the close, bubbly anchor Greg Hurst announced the next caller, Rachel, who offered this: "I don't know what y'all think you're doing, but this is not good television. You're just masturbating. Why don't you get this off the air?"

A slightly less bubbly Hurst quickly moved on. And for what it's worth, both his hands were safely above the desk.

Line of the Week

The Chronicle was all over former Enron big shot Andrew Fastow's October 2 day in federal court. Fastow, of course, was charged with defrauding investors and is looking at the possibility of a significant prison term.

The Chron profiled Fastow in a lengthy sidebar, opening it with snide remarks about how a magazine called CFO once had "gushed" about the former executive. (Geez, good thing the Chron never fell for any of that Enron hype.)

Buried in the story, as an antidote to the piling-on quotes from people now proclaiming that they had always been suspicions about Fastow, was this unadorned sentence: "Fastow's friends describe him as a devoted family man."

We guess so, seeing as how untold piles of Enron cash allegedly went to various members of the Fastow clan.


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