Though ostensibly a site devoted to local architecture, it's on the message boards that "the Haif" comes alive. A full range of topics generally (but not exclusively) related to Houston and its building trade are brought to the fore — on a recent day, the hot topics included developments at Memorial City Mall and what to do when you get hit by a drunk driver. What's more, a huge smorgasbord of events, remembrances and causes is discussed, occasionally at length and argumentatively. (But never vitriolically, as the Haif is one of the more rigorously policed boards we've hung around on.) Other sites cover much of the same ground with more style and economy (Swamplot, we tip our hat in your direction), but the Haif's heft carries the day with sheer size and variety.

Despite assurances from booster types that Houston was insulated from the worst effects of the global economic meltdown, the past year was notably slow on the development front, which is why, despite its faults and thus-far unfulfilled promise, Houston Pavilions takes this award in a walk. While we would have preferred that the shops, restaurants and taverns in this downtown arcade-like setting faced the street instead of plunging inward, it sure is nice to have a full-service bookstore downtown. (Even if it's a Books-A-Million and not Borders or Barnes & Noble.) We also like the way the eastern edge of HP ends with the local House of Blues and a gateway to previous Best New Development winner Discovery Green. It's hard to believe, but even two or three years ago, there were times of day (especially on weekends) when there was virtually nowhere to go downtown, and now you can pick up a copy of The Corrections and a new dress, then top it all off with an enchilada dinner in one fell swoop. And coming soon are a fancy-pants bowling alley, two ice cream parlors, several pubs, a Yao's Chinese restaurant, a tapas bar and a steakhouse.

Distinctly Houstonian in nature, the Art Car Parade is an annual event that the whole family can enjoy. Besides being a paean to outrageous quirkiness, this 22-year-old institution is just plain fun. Plus, having grand marshals like George Clinton and Kinky Friedman is pretty cool, too. Take heed, though: Since it's held in May, parade day is usually hot as hell, so experienced parade-goers know to get there early, stake out a spot in the shade and bring plenty of water along with a blanket. Bringing beer is a good idea, too, unless you want to pay baseball prices for Budweiser.

Memorial Park is notorious for its bathrooms where men troll for random sex, but if you're looking for a quiet spot in the city for a risqué encounter with a significant other — someplace where you're less likely to get arrested — you can't beat the Arboretum and Nature Center, a secluded enclave of towering foliage just minutes from the Galleria. We heard that the best spot was an observation deck that's about a ten-minute walk from the main parking lot, but just before temptation got the best of us, an elderly couple walked up and interrupted our time. Or maybe we interrupted them. The Arboretum is open until 7 p.m. daily, but the hours don't seem to be enforced, so we suggest an after-hours trip at dusk. And don't forget: Donations are welcome.

Unless you're a psycho bike messenger ninja assassin type, cycling downtown is generally a nightmare. The sidewalks are too clogged with people, not to mention the fact that biking on the sidewalk is against the law in a business district. As for the streets, forget about it. If the SUVs don't get you, the buses will. Even in our most urbane neighborhoods, Houstonians still drive with the rugged individualism lovingly depicted in the documentary film Death Race 2000. All of that is decidedly not so on a Sunday. Especially around dawn and dusk, the streets and sidewalks are blessedly empty, and the city's skyscrapers sparkle in the rising and setting sun like giant pillars of gold. And with the redevelopment down there, you are no longer venturing into a desert — oases are scattered hither and yon to provide liquid refreshment of every type.

"But I hate sports!" is what you are saying right about now. You may scoff at going to Minute Park looking for single men because you don't exactly dig on baseball. But there really is nothing to being an Astros fan. Games can be as good as movies, with moments of tears, laughter, utter infatuation, crazy wardrobe changes and hilarious misunderstandings — like when Cecil Cooper doesn't pull a pitcher out of an inning even though he's given up seven runs. There are men galore walking around the Juice Box, and if there's anything that cheers dudes up after Albert Pujols uses the Crawford Boxes as a target, it's female company. Well, that and an open tab at Larry's Big Bamboo. And maybe one of those little baseball helmets filled with ice cream.

We're not saying you won't meet a nice girl at a Midtown bar, but why not better your odds and fish from holier waters? At Kingdom Builders Center, you might meet a lawyer, local business owner or otherwise impressive-on-the-inside woman whose head is almost certainly in the right place. The center's popular singles ministry goes well past the standard awkward meet and greet — it organizes everything from ski trips and pool parties to fantasy football leagues to try and ignite some sparks. (And if a romantic fire does start, there are workshops and events for couples.) The massive compound is of biblical proportions and, if the high-caliber women aren't enough of a draw, worth a visit in itself. Check out "Adult Ministries" on the Web site for a list of upcoming events.

Though thankfully Jim Crow ended generations ago, Houston is still often a segregated city, by social class if not by race. One of the few places you can see the 21st-century international mega-city in all its cosmopolitan glory is Hermann Park. There a typical day will find black families grilling out, Persian-American women riding pedal-boats, classrooms-full of field-tripping Hispanic kids aboard the somewhat new and improved choo-choo, and Rice students of every hue making eyes at one another over picnic baskets. The park sits at the crossroads of extreme wealth (the exclusive old-school gated enclave Shadyside and Broadacres) and more down-to-earth areas l ike close-by Third Ward. Arts in the form of the Museum District line the northern end of Hermann's sylvan setting; science in the form of the Texas Medical Center lines the south; and general knowledge in the form of Rice borders on the west. Everyone from all these walks of life meets in the middle, which is why Hermann is such a nonstop parade of varied humanity.

Sure, the city has newer and fancier branches with more bells and whistles — the McGovern-Stella Link and Looscan River Oaks libraries come instantly to mind. And while other branches might have more stuff on the shelves, there is something so urban and civilized about the Montrose branch, housed as it is in a converted church with limited parking but easy access to both a bakery and a pub. It's also a great place for parents and kids, as the branch hosts a multitude of child-friendly events each week.

2008 was a big Democratic year across Harris County — Dems swept out all but a handful of the Republicans who had held all the countywide seats, some of them for years and years. One Republican who survived the wave was County Judge Ed Emmett...and with good reason. Emmett was appointed to the seat in 2007 and quickly demonstrated that he was open to working with anyone interested in solving problems rather than grandstanding about them. He offered no support to the re-election effort of Sheriff Tommy Thomas, and — like Adrian Garcia, the man who beat Thompson — he was quick to respond to complaints from a Sikh family alleging harassment. (Emmett actually has close ties to India.) And, of course, he did as much as any elected official to get the Houston area on the road to recovery from Hurricane Ike.

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