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.
Sure, they love him out in Sugar Land, but to many people across this country, U.S. Representative Tom DeLay is a bombastic, moralistic, self-righteous -- you get the idea. So when his adult daughter, who works for him, hit the newspapers in a story about Las Vegas hot tubs, lobbyists, and champagne being tossed on people's heads, it brought a smile to a lot of faces. Dani Ferro's brief moment in the spotlight began when the Capitol Hill weekly Roll Call broke the story last fall, quoting a witness as saying Ferro was "among the revelers" at a late-night party and "there were a lot of lobbyists in the hot tub, pouring champagne on each other." And no doubt discussing those sybaritic Democrats. DeLay quickly turned to his hometown newspaper to deliver the spin he wanted on the incident: "A totally innocent thing has been blown terribly out of proportion," the Houston Chronicle quoted one "steamed" (and anonymous) DeLay aide as saying. The Official And Complete Explanation of what happened, as delivered by the aide through the Chron: "Ferro and a female colleague donned swimming togs and climbed into the hot tub. A lobbyist came onto the balcony and, after a brief exchange with Ferro and her colleague, dumped a glass of champagne over Ferro's head, then left." Well, that explains everything...

Bradshaw v. Utility Marine Corporation, et al. is no one's idea of a landmark case, but the Galveston lawsuit has achieved the kind of instant immortality that's possible only now in the Internet age. Federal judge Sam Kent has long been known for his hair-trigger temper and utter lack of patience with attorneys whom he deems to be not up to his standards of professionalism. In tossing Bradshaw out of court this past June, he once more made sure his feelings were clear: "[T]his case involves two extremely likable lawyers, who have together delivered some of the most amateurish pleadings ever to cross the hallowed causeway into Galveston, an effort which leads the court to surmise but one plausible explanation. Both attorneys have obviously entered into a secret pact -- complete with hats, handshakes and cryptic words -- to draft their pleadings entirely in crayon on the back sides of gravy-stained paper place mats, in the hope that the court would be so charmed by their childlike efforts that their utter dearth of legal authorities in their briefing would go unnoticed." It gets worse after that. Within days, the opinion had been posted on the Internet and had traveled the globe, even earning mention in a London newspaper. Kent reportedly was mortified at the publicity and apologized to the lawyers involved.

"Trophy" may be too strong a word for this apparently abandoned behemoth: a concrete block, presumably of Portland cement, standing near seven feet high and about five feet wide, featuring a high relief of some sort of Greco-Roman figures, and the inscription: "Awarded Trinity Portland Cement Company Houston Texas Plant for a Perfect Safety Record in 1929." The block was re-awarded, and re-inscribed, for perfect safety records in 1945, 1947, 1959, and then, silence -- Trinity Portland Cement Company appears to have been Dallas-based, and the Houston plant was shuttered in 1975. How long it took the site to degenerate to its present state -- at the intersection of two abandoned roads to nowhere, scattered with illegally dumped trash, no sign at all of a cement plant -- is anyone's guess, but still the monument stands, too heavy to move, in silent remembrance to those few special years when no one got crushed in the machinery.
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.

Chido Nwangwu decries mainstream news coverage of Africa that depicts "a continent of natives who are sentenced and cursed to face bestial cycles of ethnic wars, genocidal slaughters and more wars." The eloquent Nigeria native specializes in debunking stereotypes. From an office off the Southwest Freeway, USAfrica crusades against government corruption in Africa and touts economic development, while dutifully covering the weddings and other celebrations of the roughly 100,000 Nigerians in Harris County. The paper has reporters in Houston, Washington, D.C., Nigeria and beyond. Founded as a magazine in August 1992, USAfrica has since evolved into its present form of a biweekly newspaper, which also appears on-line. The Web site receives thousands of hits each day, which prompted Nwangwu to launch two new on-line publications: Nigeria Central and The Black Business Journal.
We don't know who he (or she) is, but he's earned the moniker "Mad Faxer" around the Houston Press offices. Over the last two years, he has sent the editorial staff hand-drawn cartoons (a fish eating hippopotamus turds), possible tips ("Ask Ron J. Where is the cave?"), poems riddled with four-letter words and dictionary definitions of "heterosexual." The sly one sends us these tidbits from various Kinko's fax machines so we can't track him down. We keep the faxes because they are sometimes good for a laugh and -- who knows? -- they might become evidence someday. Here is an example from the Mad Faxer's oeuvre:

Bro-mo-Bibbit is at it again

(slaw too)

Dear Mrs. Bibbit

Your double-talk is not God

Disconnect hidden power source

and remote control thermostat

I am an island

My rights are absolute

XX3825XX

XX4-04-64XX

For the uninitiated, hookah is not another rap artist term for ho. It is the "fragrant nargile" of Orientalist reveries, the hubble-bubble of General Allenby's Tommies. It is a device for smoking that passes the scented smoke -- a mixture of tobacco and dried fruit such as apples or apricots -- through a water bath, cooling it. A common sight at cafes throughout the Near East, hookah smoking has been slow to catch on in the USA. Middle Eastern cafes and nightclubs are offering a "hookah service" to their customers more and more frequently. Sometimes the pleasure can cost $20 an hour. At the charmingly frowzy R&R Lounge & Grill, the two principals offer a pipe of tobacco for a very reasonable $6. For those who attend the unique "Goth Belly Dance" events held every Tuesday night, a hookah of fruit-scented tobacco is the final prop in a multicultural stew of an evening that is, well, so gosh-darned American.
Forbidden Gardens
Like its namesake, the Forbidden Gardens is a well-kept secret. However, the spectacular 40-acre spread just off I-10 in Katy rewards those who chance the trip. The outdoor museum carefully reconstructs some of the great design feats of Imperial China, and on a breathtaking scale. The entire Forbidden City, the governmental center created by Ming emperors in the 15th century, is re-created in an astonishing 40,000-square-foot display. Enter at Tiananmen Gate, with its red base and sloping orange-tile roof, and saunter on past the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Imperial Garden and other wonders, all rendered to scale. The model buildings are painted in lovely, painstaking detail, and the grounds of the reconstructed city teem with models of courtesans, concubines, soldiers, administrators and monks. Elsewhere at Forbidden Gardens, you'll find 6,000 terra-cotta soldiers in formation -- a faithful rendering of the same model army that China's first emperor, Qin, had placed in his tomb more than 2,000 years ago. The sounds of bubbling fountains and zither music waft through the air, and iridescent fish and large turtles grace the waters at the entrance. Forbidden Gardens displays ancient weapons, sedan chairs and a reconstruction of Suzhou, "the Venice of China." Tours with highly knowledgeable guides are available.

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