Veteran land broker and appraiser Tom Bazan first got involved in the municipal arena when he launched a lead paint detection business and fought city contractors who were all too eager to ram through deals without completing proper inspections. From there he ventured onto Houston's transit battlefield -- first producing a Web site that urged the recall of city appointees to the Metro Transit Authority Board, and then e-mailing a sometimes daily antirail bulletin to a list of government officials (mostly Republicans) and media members. He was among the first to call attention to Metro's growing financial problems resulting from slumping sales tax receipts. While some folks have complained about receiving his unauthorized e-mails, Bazan claims innocence, noting that some of his willing recipients often forward the messages on to others. It just goes to show how one man's spam is another's exercise in free speech.

Judging by the interiors of most restaurants, restaurateurs usually don't care deeply about art. Monica Pope is the exception. Her Boulevard Bistrot has art on the plates, on the walls and even in the bathrooms. In fact, the atmosphere of the lavatory was so important to the owner that she commissioned artist Sharon Engelstein to pretty it up with rich floral paintings. Engelstein is no ordinary stall painter. The former Museum of Fine Arts Core fellow has exhibited her work in the Contemporary Arts Museum and in the prestigious Texas Gallery. Now you can catch dinner and an art show all in one building.

With its gleaming silver spindles, strips of barbed wire surrounding the front door and a big red "look over here" star affixed to its roof, the Art Car Museum is hardly the staid sort of building that pops into one's mind at the mention of the word museum. But its collected set of beautiful art cars is uniquely Houston, and a perfect place to take guests who associate this city with only Enron. Not that it's just an art car collection. The museum, founded in 1998, makes a concerted effort to bring unusual avant-garde art from all over the globe to our hometown -- although a fair share of local artists have exhibited here as well. And here's a bit of trivia: The Art Car is probably one of the few museums in America to receive a visit from the FBI after September 11 (see "Quirky Yes, Al Qaeda No," by Jennifer Mathieu, November 15, 2001). Seems someone thought their avant-garde "Secret Wars" exhibit was some sort of terrorist threat. In the end, the feds deemed the exhibit just really weird, so you know it's gotta be good.
"Do you remember when I was an elephant? The elephant is always here!" It's a familiar set of phrases for any woman who has used the facilities on Rudyard's first floor. (For the uninitiated, the elephant is the coat hook on the back of the bathroom door, with ears and a body penciled in to make him look like a pachyderm.) The homey pub on Waugh is not just a spot for a Shiner and a burger. It's also a great place to read. Just check out the bathroom walls. From poetry ("Don't bother to hover above the seat, the crabs in here can jump ten feet!") to political debates to a long line of cartoon people sketched on the wall of the second-floor women's restroom, every winner of bar graffiti is covered. You might end up spending most of the night on the can instead of on a bar stool. The best part is that Rudyard's is always repainting its bathroom walls, regularly leaving a fresh canvas for the masses to express themselves.

When the Colombia-born Clara Suarez Harris ran her luxury car over husband David at the Nassau Bay Hilton last summer, she stepped from an innocuous life as one-half of a prosperous dentist couple with young twin boys into national tabloid legend as "The Mercedes-Benz Murderess." Although videotapes were never too clear on exactly how many times Clara rolled the Mercedes over David, the jury never bought her claims that it was all a big accident and she was really trying to smash her car into the vehicle of David's mistress, Gail Bridges. The panel did find she acted in "sudden passion," which translated to a maximum 20-year sentence with at least ten years to be served without possibility of parole. If fellow best baddie Andy Fastow has given his Southampton neighborhood unlikely infamy, Clara has joined bathwater baby killer Andrea Yates in the burgeoning category of "Madwomen of Clear Lake."
Settle into the wrought-iron chairs. They are spread on the grounds at the base of the seven-story, girder-crossed mural painted by Suzanne Sellers on the adjacent Houston Club Building. And savor this new oasis of what used to be nothing more than an unsightly few asphalt parking spaces wedged between forgettable urban barriers. There's elegance to be had in the basics here: a line of leafy cedar buffers from the sidewalk, four raised planters sprouting with shade trees and deep purple flowerbeds. Add to that the sound: water softly cascading down a polished stone fountain. Thankfully, one thing won't be heard here -- all the swaggering civic titans touting the next grand megabuck schemes to capture "world-class" acclaim for Houston. While the local politicians and entrepreneurs indulge in their collective fantasies (and let the city's infrastructure go to hell in the process), JP Morgan Chase Bank took a delightful down-to-earth approach. Since its opening last June, this small patch of central city has been transformed into a classy cosmopolitan respite. While boosters endlessly dash after elusive dreams of international envy, foreign travelers would welcome this simple, peaceful place of beauty in the most scenic sections of Paris or Rome. Chase Bank Park proves that "world class" doesn't have to mean big or bold or even billion-dollar budget.

Texas has the nation's busiest executioner's chamber, and Harris County sends more convicted murderers to Huntsville's gurney than any other. Fighting this state-sanctioned killing machine are a handful of idealistic lawyers and the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of legal representation afforded to poor Texans charged with a capital crime or sentenced to death. The Defender Service became the main safety net for indigent inmates seven years ago after the federal government pulled the plug on funding for a system of legal resource centers that served the same purpose. In addition to representing defendants, the group, headed by University of Houston Law Center graduate Jim Marcus, churns out studies documenting how innocent people are being pulled into capital punishment's widening maw. "We are running full tilt at the edge of a cliff, the execution of the innocent," concludes a recent survey titled "Lethal Indifference." The study also notes that although two out of three capital cases nationwide are overturned for error, since 1995 the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals has reversed only eight of 270 decisions, the lowest reversal rate in the nation. That's about as underdog as it gets.

Ted Callaway is the kind of landlord who leaves flowers in the apartment on move-in day and drops off a bottle of wine for your housewarming party. But that's not why we're naming him Best Landlord. He gets the honor for the buildings he has bought and preserved: ramshackle old Victorians and beautiful brick retail centers from the 1920s. He'd probably make more money off his properties if he tore down the existing structures to make way for parking lots and town homes, but Callaway wouldn't dream of it. As developers try to turn Midtown into a faux French Quarter in the form of Calais at Cortlandt Square, Callaway is preserving the real history of the neighborhood.
When it comes to drinking, we prefer to imbibe free of industrial dance beats and blinding strobes. Of course, we don't mind the beautiful people who tend to gather at those high-tech nightclubs. That's the great thing about Grasshopper/Red Lights: Downstairs, you can sit at the Grasshopper's long, curved, glass-top bar, gulp down one of its funky cocktails and watch the parade of finely accessorized flesh march upstairs to the faux Victorian parlor known as Red Lights, an opulent discotheque where they spin the usual rhythmic pleasures underneath a lighting system designed by NASA or something like that. The bartenders on the first floor are courteous and accommodating; the folks upstairs do them one better: They're also discreet, as they serve customers in one of the handful of private rooms that you can rent for $75 and up. Downtown's latest playpen is housed in a former jewelry store, which may explain why you have the overwhelming desire to propose to half the people who walk through the door.

Nobody was surprised when former assistant district attorney Caprice Cosper ran for, and narrowly won, her court bench in 1992. But the dynamo from Louisiana has surprised most of the courthouse crowd since then. Cosper has a charming way of never taking herself too seriously -- while taking her job very seriously. Her knowledge of the law was honed by experience in the D.A.'s appellate division, and her dedication is obvious in the way she's championed the novel drug courts that target rehabilitation rather than revolving-door incarceration for addicts.

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