Traversing the no-man's-land that surrounds the George R. Brown Convention Center by night, it was hard to know whether to snicker or sigh at the "Imagine Houston" sign on the electronic marquee. Other Beatles titles seem more appropriate than the John Lennon song to our image-deprived, plan-less city. "Why Don't We Do It in the Road," "Helter Skelter" and "Happiness is a Warm Gun" all come to mind.
After all, didn't the Allen brothers "imagine" Houston 158 years ago as they brushed away mosquitoes on the banks of Buffalo Bayou? And hadn't the latest attempt to plan -- i.e. zone -- Houston been sucked back down into the swamp just last November? Who was our "visionary" mayor trying to kid, and how many among us were so ripe for plucking that they would give up most of a spring weekend in an attempt to levitate the convention center, or some such?
"Imagine Houston" threatened to be the worst of several worlds, combining the booster's rhetoric of "Houston Proud" and "Houston is Hot" with a highly developed case of bureaucratic obfuscation. In recent weeks, Houstonians had been invited by the mayor to send in their suggestions for the city's betterment on space provided in free ads by the daily papers. Then the populace at large had been invited to meet at the convention center the weekend of March 25-27 to mull over the received notions, but without any guarantee that these ideas would carry much weight. Indeed, we were only assembling to create "a plan to plan," according to the work plan committee report, and the flowcharts our recommendations would have to follow were downright zany.
Sheer numbers provided the evening's first surprise. Nearly 400 citizens of all races and both genders nearly filled a convention center meeting room. Black Muslims had taken the seats nearest the entrance, and Houston's rainbow of races arced away from them. The panel up on the speaker's platform was equally mixed, with only the mayor representing the white male. Much was made of Houston's diversity in the video presentation that opened the proceedings. Instead of John Lennon, the background music was Bob Marley's "One Love," dominated by the "Let's get together and feel all right" refrain. Yes, let's.
The video then passed a parade of Houstonians' faces as they "envisioned Houston." "I hope it gets a little cleaner," said one befuddled-looking fellow on the screen. As the tape rolled on, the music died down so that we could fully concentrate on the recorded words of the mayor, as he mused aloud on Houston's future. He foresaw an international, safe, well-educated city or, rather, "city-state" -- which, as he said moments later in his live address, is the "new significant economic unit." His vision included such unlikely notions as "equal-izing the quality of life in our neighborhoods." The day that the Fourth Ward looks like it belongs on the same planet, much less in the same city, as nearby River Oaks,
you will know that American General (or some other developer) has finally succeeded in forcing out that neighborhood's residents and razing the dilapidated buildings they've left behind.
The mayor's talk was punctuated in one part of the meeting room by the whispered commentary of a television cameraman, who carried on a conversation with someone at the other end of his communication line. He was like a cynical Greek chorus, murmuring the equivalent of "yeah, right" as the mayor and then a panel of "Imagine Houston" founders spoke from the platform.
Some of the speakers were more tough-minded than I had expected in such a session. Linda Knight, in particular, was blunt. "Our children are undereducated, under-vaccinated, underfed, under-everything," she said. Her words were promising, as they suggested that "Imagine Houston" might be something other than a "let's get together and feel all right" session.
Judge Al Green roiled the waters a bit when he pronounced that the mayor's successor would be "a minority" -- leaving little doubt which minority he referred to -- and then called for a round of applause. When Green announced he would close his remarks by reading from a poem, the cameraman muttered, "Our poet laureate."
Buoyed by the sincerity of the panelists, and the note of reality from Green, we repaired to the George Bush Grand Ballroom, where we snacked and discussed, sweet irony, the "vision thing."
This was also time to read the 200 or so "visions" that people had sent in response to the dailies' ads. Many called for enlivening downtown, others for reducing crime, and so on. But the "Imagine Houston" staff hadn't censored more eccentric offerings. One rather upbeat letter was signed by "a Citizen/Taxpayer/Potential Revolutionary" who declined to give his address so that "no Nazi police with exploding bullets" could come kick in his door. Someone else sent in a drawing of a "parolee" sitting on a toilet, dumping on what was apparently more polite society.
Many of the suggestions centered on education, as had the lion's share of comments during the panel discussion, but HISD was conspicuous by its absence. Oh, there were letters from various groups of school kids, calling alternately for an end to police abuse and gang violence. One elementary school child imagined Houston as a "no-spanking" zone. Other than one youngster's call for a "casino for kids," there was no mention of gambling at any point in the weekend.
Some others who hadn't already responded by mail ended up writing their suggestions on a long sheet of butcher paper provided for last-minute visions. One man drew such an elaborate diagram of how power should flow in Houston that he had to get on his knees to finish.
But it was the sheer diversity of the crowd that most impressed. This was as integrated an event as Houston has seen in a while. Most surprising, the races didn't segregate themselves during the social hour. Blacks were talking to whites who were talking to Asians. (Hispanics seemed underrepresented.) They were even talking about making Houston a better city instead of about the Rockets or the weather.
Saturday morning we reassembled at 8:30. Even at that cruel hour, a good 400 Houstonians were divided at random into groups of ten and told to brainstorm about our city, dividing our comments into "glad," "sad (or even mad)" and to suggest actions the city or somebody, by God, should take.
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My table was an interesting group. We had the former owner of the lamented Paradise Bar and Grill, one of the authors of Houston's Forgotten Heritage, bayou enthusiasts and heads of various civic organizations. We were all white, but a little neck-stretching indicated that other work groups were almost, if not quite, as racially mixed as the crowd the night before. My group didn't come up with any startling insights into the city. We liked its diversity, its openness, its combination of big-city amenities with an unpretentious, laid-back style. We didn't care much for crime, urban sprawl, weak education, unenforced deed restrictions and environmental degradation. We suggested founding a separate court for deed restrictions, holding school year-round, developing downtown and shrinking Houston's land mass by 10 percent. It all seemed interesting, if a bit dreamy. Actually, one day later I couldn't remember many of the actions we recommended.
That's the weakness of such gatherings, of course. We did a lot of gabbing, but to what end? Our mads, glads and recommendations will now go to some kind of action committee, but the Rube Goldberg-looking path our suggestions will have to follow (and which was proudly shown us in our information packets) isn't very encouraging. Surely most of what we said will take the wrong arrow and float off into the ether. On the other hand, 400 quite earnest Houstonians had gathered in hopes of making the city, or more specifically, its neighborhoods, more cohesive and livable. As another song title goes, "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?"
Toward the end of the morning, the mayor, casually dressed with an open collar and no jacket, wandered into the Bush Ballroom to answer impromptu questions. When asked about the effectiveness of the "Imagine Houston" document that will be presented to City Council in one year, he said, "If enough people are behind the document, the politicians will follow. I wouldn't be spending time on this if I didn't think it would work. Houston is ready to take a step forward."
So is "Imagine Houston" a flimflam job designed to attract a series of city-development grants, or is it a genuine chance for Houstonians to plan for the future? For now, the answer seems to be "yes" and "yes.