Going to traffic court can be just a little more bearable if you take a slight detour off the beaten path: Venture into the Old Sixth Ward, which is tucked behind a mishmash of busy thoroughfares on the western edge of downtown. There you'll discover 1,000 acres of Greek Revival, late Victorian and Craftsman bungalow homes. The Sixth Ward, the oldest continuously existing neighborhood in Houston, is geographically bound by Houston Avenue, Washington Avenue, Sawyer Street and Maud Street/I-10, but its nostalgic value is boundless. An active neighborhood association plans monthly happy hours, community meetings and family-oriented events, and it maintains a Web site with local information and photos. Thanks to that group and its dedicated following, the neighborhood could still be thriving in another 150 years, just as it has done since 1877.
Just two short years ago, those who happened upon the Jefferson Davis Hospital on the periphery of Old Sixth Ward didn't hold out much hope for the long-abandoned building. With a barbed wire fence protecting its graffiti-riddled exterior and glass shards hanging tenaciously in every window, the red brick Classical Revival-style structure, completed in 1924, was more an eyesore than a historic treasure. But people with the nonprofit development company Artspace saw it as an opportunity to revitalize the community and provide a much-needed service: affordable housing for local artists and their families. Now home to 34 studios, apartments and an art gallery, this thoughtful renovation boasts every modern amenity while maintaining the building's original architectural highlights.
No one wanted to see AstroWorld go after 40 years, but you have to admit that once the decision was made, it was fun watching it get torn down. First went modern, sleek rides such as the Viper and Serial Thriller, and then some of the buildings and the waterpark. Looming above it all was the Texas Cyclone, the huge wooden roller coaster that seemed like it would be a labor-intensive nightmare of methodically unbolting thousands of pieces of timber. Instead, it took only a couple of days to take down the last large vestige of the park. Within the space of two months or so, the crowded carnival of memories on the South Loop had reverted to its original status as empty space. We're sure that the construction of the generic condo-retail outlet that no doubt will fill the space just won't have the same voyeuristic thrill.
Until something bigger and badder comes along, Houston weathercasters will be measured by how they did during Hurricane Rita. Rita was tailor-made to induce widespread panic (and, of course, sky-high ratings) -- as it followed in the wake of Katrina. And for the longest time, it looked like it was headed straight for Galveston and Houston. Such an opportunity makes it awful tough for a station, or a meteorologist, to finally make the call that says the city has dodged a bullet and thus send relieved viewers away. Frank Billingsley was the Rita realist; while others were still flogging doomsday scenarios, he wasn't afraid to say that the storm was headed to East Texas and not the Ship Channel. He's always been a solid weatherman -- especially since Channel 2 ditched that awful weather dog -- and his Rita performance made that clearer than ever.
KHOU is like the New York Yankees of old: sleek, classy and unbeatable. When other stations in town grabbed ratings with crime-heavy shtick and eye-scalding graphics, the team at Channel 11 just kept on putting out solid, information-filled newscasts that didn't ignore City Hall for the sake of a fire in an abandoned warehouse. Viewers soon flocked their way. The station racks up national honors with ease, this year earning two national Edward R. Murrow Awards for reports on cancer rates among firefighters and schools that hadn't had a fire code inspection in decades. The field reporters are solid and leave the melodramatic breathlessness to their competitors. Any viewer wanting to get a sense of the city, and of anything important going on in it, should tune in to 11.
For many, many, many years, the anchor desk at KTRK/Channel 13 was a Mount Rushmore of never-changing faces. And we're not referring to the Botox-caused immobility of the stars' faces. Gina Gaston finally broke into the Ancient Anchors Club five years ago, and she's since grown into a steady and commanding presence on the desk. The California native initially came to Houston in 1992 but left seven years later to go big-time. (Or semi-big-time, at least -- it was MSNBC.) And then she came back to shake up the Channel 13 dinosaur set. Unfortunately, she might not be around for long: She's married to former Rocket Mario Elie, who's regularly rumored to be getting an NBA head-coaching job. Who knows -- if Jeff Van Gundy leads the Rockets to another crappy season before Elie signs on elsewhere, maybe things will work out for everybody. (Except for Van Gundy, of course.)
In a city where much of the TV news talent tends to cycle through quickly, it's a relief to have someone who can tell Bellaire from Baytown. Channel 13's Cynthia Cisneros has the city in her bones -- she grew up in South Houston, worked summers at AstroWorld and graduated from the University of Houston. She's been at KTRK for 17 years, covering hurricanes, murders, the Enron trial and a little of bit of everything else, all in a no-nonsense style that doesn't back away from competing hard. Who can forget when she made her way into the jailhouse to snatch the first interview with Clara Harris -- the Parking Lot Killer -- even though Harris had promised an exclusive to another channel? Cisneros has the usual awards that journalists tend to get, especially in TV, but it's not the hardware that makes her shine. What does it is knowing she's excelling in the city she calls home.
With the advent of TiVo and various other DVRs that give us the ability to fast-forward through the most annoying aspect of TV -- commercials -- there's still one ad we actually take the time to view. Hilton Furniture's commercials are so insanely funny, bizarre and somehow endearing that you can't help but watch. You find yourself saying, "Ooh! I wonder if this is a new one!" before realizing you're actually talking about a furniture store commercial. But whether Matthew Hilton's having his kids chain-saw the prices off of beds or using enough flying camera zooms to qualify as a kung fu movie, we love his pitches. And that's a fact, Jack!
For a dozen years now, Houston readers -- gay and straight -- have been entertained and informed by the glossy monthly magazine OutSmart. Beyond the great Q&As with celebrities who are coming to town and meaty listings for folks unfamiliar with Montrose (or those who still think the city's gay world begins and ends in Montrose), there's plenty of other good stuff. Political columnists from the left and right anchor coverage of local pols and issues that are consistently thorough and fair. City Controller Annise Parker has a column dealing with everything from municipal issues to the trials she and her partner went through to adopt a child. Some of the mag's best features have explored the city's gay past. OutSmart is a crisp, well-designed must-read for the Inner Loop and beyond.
T.H. Rogers Elementary School
It's not often you go to a middle-school graduation and see a student who's finally moving on after 18 years and see that student get applauded as if it were a real accomplishment. But that's the beauty of HISD's T.H. Rogers school. Former district superintendent Billy Reagan, an Asia buff, says he experienced "satori" -- what he calls a type of "mental orgasm" -- when the idea for Rogers hit him in the '70s. (When you're talking with Billy Reagan, you don't really want the image of any kind of orgasm coming to mind, but that's another matter.) Ordered to mainstream mentally and physically handicapped kids, he decided to put them in a magnet school with talented and gifted students. The two populations don't just get along great, they're learning things they might otherwise never experience. The impaired kids can attend the school until they're 21; the Vanguard students go from kindergarten through eighth grade. The curriculum for those K-8 students is tough, but some of the best lessons are learned in the hallways and cafeteria.

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