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Houston Community College

Despite the antics of perhaps the most micromanaging governmental board in the Houston area, the third-largest community college system in the state continues to provide cost-effective education to 53,000 students enrolled at 17 sites around the city and its suburbs. HCCS offers vocational, adult literacy and accredited college-level courses at a fraction of the tuition of state and private universities. Voters will have the opportunity this November to vote on a $151 million bond referendum to finance campus improvement projects. At a cost of $15.70 a year to the owner of a $100,000 home, it's an education bargain too good to pass up.
Houston's hardy downtown residents have earned charter memberships in the first real community among the skyscrapers since the early 1900s. "Almost everybody who lives down here now knows each other, and it's a good bunch of professionals," notes Solero restaurant owner Bill Sadler, who lives just a block away at the Rice Hotel. Being at the center of things also means you can go days without using your car, a virtual necessity almost everywhere else in Houston, says District I Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, who also rents at the Rice. Of course, with the state of the street construction downtown, human internal combustion machines can get around faster on foot than their automotive counterparts anyway.

These days of low interest rates make us a little homesick -- for a new house, that is. Whether you see yourself ensconced in a little Heights bungalow, perched in a high-rise condo downtown or building your own place on some land outside the city, the Houston Association of Realtors' Web site lets you live the dream. Just type in your most important criteria (two bedrooms or three, centrally located or suburban, a lot of money or a whole lot of money) and the site spits back hundreds of homes that match -- many with photo galleries or virtual tours of the property. You can even calculate a hypothetical mortgage and check out area schools for your hypothetical children. It's the next best thing to driving around town with a realtor. Actually, it's much better than driving around town with a realtor -- especially when you're just fantasizing.

Three years ago, if you were traveling from downtown Houston to the Great Southwest along Highway 59 anytime between 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on a weekday, you'd hit the wall around Bissonnet. The wall of traffic, that is. For the next eight miles, all the way to State Highway 6, you'd sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic -- changing lanes, exiting and re-entering the freeway in a useless attempt to shave seconds off your commute. It wasn't uncommon for it to take an hour to drive this tedious stretch. Then, overnight (well, almost) on Memorial Day weekend, the wall was removed. Now, the traffic doesn't begin to back up until Highway 6, where the road narrows to two lanes again. The only downside to all this is that gratefully speeding drivers might not notice the attempt to improve the aesthetics of this section of U.S. 59 with the addition of painted columns imprinted with the Lone Star as well as a crown, the symbol for Imperial Sugar Corporation, which is based in Sugar Land.

When the good old days turned bad, American Red Cross volunteers were familiar sights at the scenes of tragedies -- the tornadoes or hurricanes or floods that rocked the Bayou City. Now add to that the new global era, when disasters are both natural and man-made. The Red Cross is still on call. When families here have emergencies and need to communicate with their U.S. soldier relatives in Iraq or Korea or Africa, the Red Cross can help. And the impressive list goes on: Travelers Aid, service projects for youngsters, care for VA patients, even tracking missing relatives and aiding refugees. Whether the misfortunes are local or global, give this agency credit for being there and ready to help in an instant.

Landry's Downtown Aquarium
A Ferris wheel, a train ride, a carousel, dancing fountains and tanks loaded with hundreds of fish -- what more could a kid ask for? This virtual theme park in the Theater District offers a whole afternoon of child-friendly thrills. Think of it as a good, centrally located alternative to Six Flags. The sound and smell effects inside the Aquarium's Amazon River and Mayan Temple attractions intrigue kids in a Disneyesque manner. And little ones can dine at boatlike tables and watch continuous movie clips in the informal downstairs restaurant. Thanks to the Landry's ownership, the food's not bad either.

The main attraction at the Boston Market on West Gray is the dancers practicing at the Houston Ballet Academy across the street. Order your chicken lunch and sit down to look through the large window at the performers leaping and limbering up in their rehearsal leotards. But watch out: There are some Boston Market regulars who already know this trick, and they'll give you dirty looks if you take the table with the best view.

Armed with full scholarships to Andover, Exeter, Miss Porter's and other elite schools, graduates of KIPP Academy (a middle school, soon to be K-12) know firsthand that "Knowledge Is Power." Even Kinkaid and St. John's fight over KIPP graduates. KIPP takes kids from Houston's most under-resourced, drug- and gang-ridden neighborhoods and, through high expectations and challenging academic requirements, produces stellar students. New KIPPsters have to sign contracts promising to go to school ten hours a day during the week, on Saturdays and through much of the summer. Why not volunteer to teach an extracurricular class some Saturday to bright, motivated kids? In turn, they'll teach you that knowledge is power indeed.

The name alone will bring merriment to grade schoolers and socially stunted adults worldwide. But this miniature mutated antelope's god-awful territorial habits ensure its place in the Kick-Ass Mammal Hall of Fame. Not much larger than a hare, the male of this African species has a scat fetish so bizarre, it'd make G.G. Allin spin in his grave. Like other critters, this antelope aberration marks its territory with heaping piles of dung, but with a twist: The male dik-dik will paw through the female's feces, then add his own on top, urinating at the same time -- just so outsiders get the point. By the way, they actually say "dik-dik" when they're startled. Yes!
Anyone who lives in the Woodland Heights has probably already seen them, the enormous purple and green dinosaurs tromping across the back wall of Travis Elementary. Thanks to artist and parent extraordinaire Dale Barton, the wild mural, a cartoon dreamscape of prehistoric proportions, is the sort of colorful image that kids and grown-ups can ogle for days. In one corner is a Guitarasaurus Tex, an orange, 15-foot-tall, ax-playing dinosaur. Across a blue sky flies a pterosaur, and in between are frogs, butterflies and all sorts of other critters, some real and some conjured by Barton's kooky imagination. Ediface Rex is available for viewing most anytime but when school is in session.

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