Eight a.m. is too early to be anywhere but bed on a Saturday morning, never mind the Astrohall, but civic-minded earnestness knows no clock, so I set mine and arrived on time for the Fourth Annual Neighborhood Connections Conference, sponsored by Houston's Department of Planning and Development, to see "Neighborhood Oriented Government At Work!" More than 800 citizens had registered for the free conference (about 600 showed up), which promised opportunities to "meet," "listen," "network" and "learn." There were arranged, for this purpose, 18 different seminar sessions organized into three different time blocs, tailored to special interests such as "Getting Youth Involved in Your Neighborhood Groups" and "Renters + Owners = A Great Neighborhood" and the tantalizing "New Directions in Neighborhood Revitalization." It sounded wholesome and a little creepy. I expected to find goose-stepping platoons of civic association storm troopers marshaling their forces into whatever end runs they could strategize around the not-universally-popular fact that Houston -- boo! -- is unzoned.
That, and a communal group hug for Mayor Lee P. Brown, who can't seem to utter a sentence fragment without making reference to "neighborhood-oriented" something or other, is pretty much what I found, only most of the storm troopers seemed friendly enough, and though some wore matching T-shirts, their ranks were unexpectedly diverse.
At the front door I was handed a pink Mylar folder containing my name tag, my preregistered seminar schedule and a sheet of ten perforated cards with my name, the reminder "We Met at the Neighborhood Connections Conference" and, unnervingly, my home address, to hand out to the strangers I would presumably bond with over discussions of "Protecting the Character of My Neighborhood."
Thus branded, I was loosed to survey the wares of 72 exhibitor booths, from Mothers for Clean Air (digging for the full story, I searched in vain for mothers against it) to Harris County Mosquito Control to ACCION Texas. I helped myself to a complimentary cardboard model light-rail train from the Metro booth and a rubber water dropper from the folks at City of Houston Water Conservation and sat down on a couch to formulate a plan.
At which point a very nice older lady sat down nearby and asked me if I'd take a gander at her "Neighborhood Bingo" card and check off any of the descriptions that might apply to me. The idea was a sort of scavenger hunt for persons not exactly like oneself, and participants who found matches for all 25 boxes could enter a drawing for a prize. I initialed "Saw the original Star Wars the first time around," "Has more than three pets" and "Knows which town has more theater seats than Houston." She seemed pleased, and I asked which seminars she was planning to sit in on. She was starting with "Affecting the Political Process" at 9 a.m., and she rolled her eyes toward the tiled ceiling. I liked her immediately. Turned out she lived in the Heights and didn't want any more damned town homes crowding her side-by-side bungalows. Then again, she was planning to move out of town anyway. Maybe I wanted to buy one of her houses?
I shuffled off to "Rid Your Neighborhood of Eyesores," where the couple that sat next to me encapsulated my own reason for being there when the husband leaned over and said, "This is a defensive move, to see how they're gonna get rid of us." His wife shushed him with "You're so silly," and the lecture, led by reps from the city, commenced. What it boiled down to was a promo for the Solid Waste Department, which, it turns out, picks up the trash in Houston, but only certain kinds of trash, and only on certain days. Did you know the city picks up 10,000 dead animals a year? There was a slide illustrating this factoid, containing a shovel, that wasn't entirely necessary.
Illegal dumping, I learned, is a big problem, as are residents who let their houses fall down. We were encouraged to not let our houses fall down. We were also encouraged, should we see someone else's house falling down, to call someone at the city. We were further discouraged from the criminal offense of dumping motor oil, and many of us were surprised to learn that some of our fellow Houstonians are in the equally illegal habit of pouring used motor oil on their dogs, to cure mange.
My second seminar of the day, "Protecting the Character of Your Neighborhood," began with Dr. Cary D. Wintz, chair of the Houston Archaeological & Historical Commission, who outlined in compelling monotone some of the proposed changes to the city's toothless-either-way historical preservation ordinance. The syllabus promised a further overview of prevailing setbacks and deed restrictions, but I can't say what might have been discussed after the first half hour, so thoroughly was I distracted by the sight, from across the crowded room, of TV reporter Shern-Min Chow. It later became clear, however, that I had simply nodded off, and my Shern-Min was but a beautiful, beautiful dream.
Back out in the main hall I was approached by a Texas A&M professor with a survey he wished for me to fill out. He was studying what sort of people come to events like this and why, and hypothesized that Houston is "bimodal" in its civic participation. That is to say, both the upper and lower socioeconomic classes tend to be active in the city's participatory democracy, with a void in the center unoccupied by a satisfied middle class with mange-free dogs to walk of a Saturday morning.
Cursory observational generalization suggested this to be true. There were a lot of what looked like rich whites and a lot of what looked like poor blacks in attendance, and I interpreted this data to mean that neighborhood association types fall into two rough categories: those who live in really nice neighborhoods and want to keep them that way, and those who live in not-so-nice neighborhoods and want to change that circumstance.
It was an odd, if temporary, semblance of coalition, imprecisely refracted in the lunchtime sight, over complimentary turkey sandwiches, of a dreadlocked young black woman from HomeVestors wearing a red and black button that read, "I [heart] Ugly Houses" sharing a seat and conversation with a tiny little Shetland of a white matriarch sporting an "I Support Historic Preservation" sticker. The HomeVestors woman was gathering information useful to her franchise as a buyer, rehabilitator and reseller of modest homes. The Shetland seemed to just want someone to talk to.
At 12:30 p.m., after the Heights Bungalow Holdout and I had discussed price over cigarettes outside, Neighbor of the Year ceremonies began in Room 200. Planning Commissioner Bob Litke tried very hard with an easy audience to make funny, stalling for the arrival of Mayor Brown, who finally appeared through a side door looking hep in a collarless black T-shirt under a black sport jacket. Mayor Brown said few things in many words about the goodness of neighborhoods, heart of the city and all that. Then he gave the microphone back to Litke and stood there smiling while Litke cranked out the names of 59 different Neighbors of the Year from nearly as many civic associations. By the time all these good neighbors had mounted the stage, it seemed that those of us still seated were a distinct minority.
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There they stood, cramming into the frame for a group photo in front of a decorative backdrop of prop houses, painted in the same garish colors that had been disparaged in the deed restriction seminar, tilting and looming at cartoonish angles not unlike the "Dangerous Buildings" slides of the Eyesore symposium.
I was still signed up for the 1:30 p.m. session on "Dealing with Incompatible Businesses," but clapping sounds were bleeding through the walls, either from the High Caliber Gun and Knife Show on one side of the hall, or the Lowtimes Custom Car Show on the other. Either way, someone close was having more fun than we were, and I slipped out quietly after 20 minutes and headed for the parking lot. Next to me was parked a truck, almost certainly there for the gun show, with a bumper sticker that read, "Come the Rapture, Can I Have Your Car?"
According to the A&M survey I'd filled out, the 4.5 hours I'd just spent addressing neighborhood issues was precisely 4.5 hours more time than I was accustomed to spending on that issue in an average month. I couldn't bring myself to stick around for the Neighborhood Bingo drawing and the door prizes at 3:30 p.m., though I hope everyone got something nice in return for their stamina. I was tired.
Besides, the TABC literature strewn across the card table by the door to the Incompatible Businesses presentation made it clear that the next hour was going to be spent teaching people how to close down bars. I wanted to get to one before someone learned the lesson.