After the death of 51-year Democratic incumbent Carl Smith, former corporate salesman and GOP Harris County treasurer Paul Bettencourt ran a political gauntlet to win the post. After Commissioner Steve Radack pushed the appointment of former Oilers defensive back Willie Alexander through the court, supporters on the county GOP Executive Committee put Bettencourt on the ballot instead. He trounced his Democratic opposition easily, and Willie had to hit the road. Following that controversial start, Bettencourt has established his credentials as an innovator by upgrading the tax assessor-collector's computer system, hitting the neighborhood-association and community-organization speaking circuit, and reaching out to minority politicians and civic leaders. Bettencourt also has aggressively pursued so-called tax factors, lawyers and accountants who offer to recover tax overpayments for property owners in exchange for a percentage of the money. In most cases, the homeowners themselves could have easily collected the refund, had they only known how. Other pols see more than just good government as his motivation. With County Judge Robert Eckels rumored to be looking for a statewide post to run for in the coming election cycle, Bettencourt is in an excellent position to move up the Harris County food chain as well. If the dominoes fall into place, his public relations efforts could lay the groundwork for a major political promotion.

The long arm of the law has permanently broken up that old gang of Kingwood High School convenience-store banditas whose rampage for cash and cigarettes earned them face time on such national news shows as 20-20 and 48 Hours. The trio most involved in the series of five robberies -- Krystal Maddox, Lisa Warzeka and Katie Dunn -- took their chances with jury trials and each drew seven-year tickets to prison. Michelle Morneau, the girl with the smallest role in the crime spree and the one who cooperated with police, pled out for a ten-year probation, a stint in boot camp and 2,000 hours of community service. Morneau will spend part of that community time at the Kingwood Public Library, where she will no doubt serve as a poster girl warning the bored, overaffluent teens of that bedroom community that some walks on the wild side are not worth the price.
Brian Copeland is definitely the nicest landlord in town. He owns five area properties, but he has scaled down and sold a few apartment houses so that he and his partner, Tyler, can spend more time with their adorable son. Most landlords are just people who collect your rent check. When you call Brian, he actually cares about what's going on in your life and not just what's wrong with your apartment. When the heat didn't work, he was out the next day, worried we might be too cold. When we accidentally permanently locked our front door (don't ask) Tyler came right by, took the door off the hinges and fixed it. When the washing machine was broken for two weeks, Brian told us to drop our laundry by his house, and he'd do it for us. Brian and Tyler are the kind of people who smile when they see you coming. They're the kind of landlords who make you want to share your beer.
By now, any TV buff knows this show. Diverse characters come together under demanding conditions and fend for themselves on a remote island. Darwinism depletes their numbers as the weak-willed get culled -- voted off the island -- while others thrive on the primal challenges for their tribes. Survivor scored big in the summer season on Channel 11. But by the time it aired, the station was already painfully aware of its own Survivor scenario. Veteran anchors vanished, voluntarily or otherwise. Sage Steve Smith shipped out, Sylvan Rodriguez succumbed to cancer, and Marlene McClinton made her exit in a surprise on-the-air resignation. Also gone were Charles Hadlock and Clare Casademont. Rival stations were certain that viewer ratings would be the vote that cast this beleaguered station off its island. However, they didn't think a relative unknown would step forward to rally the KHOU troops. Lisa Foronda arrived in '97 after weekend-anchor stints in minor markets. Foronda was destined, it seemed, to be little more than an attractive accessory to what KHOU saw as its savior: Greg Hurst, a reputed network news heavyweight brought in from New York. Over the course of the next year, Hurst wowed nobody. But Foronda carried him, and lifted the rest of the news operation even more. How? For one, she's smart, in a rare common sense sort of way. She's serious about the news, and that's something that viewers don't see much of these days. But she also doesn't take herself too seriously, a fresh and welcome trait in the pompous world of TV news. Working your way up from places like West Texas can instill humility. And being matched with a hollow hair-head like Hurst shows that distinction so clearly. Some of the rival newsrooms, in trying to explain how Channel 11's ratings remained respectable, speak in awe about the "Foronda factor" at work. This leader of the survivors is every insider's choice for leader on an anchor desk -- or a remote island, for that matter.
This annual members-only party takes place in early summer, but blessedly, it's during the cool of evening, when it's pleasant to stroll the grounds. Stuff your offspring full of free hot dogs, sodas and ice cream. Sway to the reggae band. Watch the clown wobble on stilts and juggle flaming sticks. Or -- oh, yeah -- look at the animals.

Essaying New Yorker Phillip Lopate (track down a copy of his out-of-print "Against Joie de Vivre") spent eight years, from 1980 to 1988, living and working and teaching in Houston, so he must have seemed a defensible choice when the editors of the New York Times Magazine assigned him to revisit his old stomping grounds for its February 27, 2000, issue of "The Sophisticated Traveller." Lopate's travel essay -- situated alongside pieces by Robert Stone (British Columbia) and Francine Prose (New Castle, Delaware) -- made a relatively flattering case for Houston as an architectural mecca (Rice professor Stephen Fox, natch, is quoted), and even tosses our town a barely deserved bone regarding our perpetual second-string complex: In the 1980s, Lopate writes, Houston had seemed "almost pathetically anxious to become a 'world-class city,' " but today, "now that it no longer cares about being accepted as a world-class city, Houston has a much better chance of being perceived as one." Well, maybe. But the accuracy of Lopate's perception here is just a niggle. You have to read deeper into the story to get to the real head-scratcher. Lopate, like everyone else, is all atitter over our new downtown, with its lofts and coffee shops, where citizens may finally grab a bite or drink after imbibing some of the Theater District's blue-chip culture. "Or," Lopate writes, "they can stroll along the Buffalo Bayou, one of the many streams that run through the city. Ah yes, Houston's famous streams. Sims, White Oak, Green's, Brays -- the names just trickle off the tongue like spring water flowing through what we Houstonians have so long mistaken for mere drainage ditches. Reminds us of Lopate's out-of-print book of poetry: The Eyes Don't Always Want to Stay Open.
Oh, what were you expecting, the Westheimer Street Festival? The Houston International Festival, with its overpriced gyros and male Carmen Miranda impersonators? They may be the largest and most popular street fests in the city, but this modest weekend get-together should be rightfully recognized. For a couple of days last October, a few blocks on Holman Street were filled with the usual suspects: street vendors, food stands, a corporate booth or two. But they also had some fine live music performed by the likes of D.R.U.M., Step Rideau & the Zydeco Outlaws and the Sebastian Whittaker Trio. And Project Row Houses, which organizes the event, featured some intriguing art displays inside each of its shacks. (One house had a pile of coconuts on the floor and a big yellow sign on the wall that said, "Guess how many coconuts are on the floor and win a T-shirt.")
JPMorgan Chase Tower
The sky lobby on the 60th floor of the I.M. Pei-designed Chase Tower offers the kind of view that gets kids oohing and asking really deep questions. "What would happen if there was no glass here?" queried one little girl as she and her brother pressed against the floor-to-ceiling window, peering over pulsating downtown to the smoky horizon. Dad cut in, hoping perhaps to turn the girl's thoughts from her mortality, and asked chipperly, "Do you know what that is?" "The Astrodome!" his kids chimed in unison. From up here in the clouds you can see the Bayou City's industrious heart melt into the peaceful spaces of the distant countryside to the south and west. Traffic-clogged arteries like I-45 and U.S. 59 snake past the city, while a grid of inner-city streets bisects the clusters of buildings and patches of green. The Galleria and the Texas Medical Center look like toy cities from these dizzying heights. Gracing the lobby are sculptures by Miró and a useful map to help identify the many gleaming buildings below.READERS' CHOICE: Scott Gertner's Skybar

With 547 manicurist shops listed in the Yellow Pages, Houston must serve as home to more nail salons per capita than any other American city. While we haven't statistically tested our hypothesis, we can't miss the glaring fact that a different nail shop sits on every other block. Why is the demand so high? Are Houston women more concerned about healthy cuticles? Taking advantage of a cheap luxury? More vain about their hands? Or does it signify that they are more ostentatious about their entire appearance from surgically enhanced body parts to big hair to painted nails? We aren't sure. But one thing is apparent: The competition is high, and Nail a La Mode has managed to distinguish itself from its 546 rivals with a name like that. What does it mean exactly? Nails with a scoop of ice cream? Unfortunately the truth isn't that exciting. "It just means design stuff, a modern, different style," said an amused employee over the phone.

Ah, progress. Northbound motorists on the Southwest Freeway have that elevated TxDOT marvel to get them to the I-45 interchange. The only problem, as any regular driver on that route knows by now, is the stop-and-slow traffic on what has turned out to be a consistent bottleneck. Age adds wisdom in such matters, however. Two decades ago those who had to link up to I-45 North from the Southwest Freeway merely veered left after the Shepherd exit and let the overpass feed them onto Brazos at the foot of Westheimer. About ten quick traffic-signal-timed blocks later, they were turning left onto the 45 entrance ramp under the Pierce Elevated. When you see the backups beginning on the "improved" route to 45, take a tip from the old-timers. Just enjoy it while you can. The apartment/town-house boom south of downtown may soon short-circuit this old standby shortcut.

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