Where the Sidewalk Ends

West Webster Street is a rutted excuse of a street that skirts the southern edge of the Fourth Ward, veering west off of Webster Street for about seven blocks before dead-ending into Taft. It's a very old street by Houston standards -- old enough to be named for a 19th-century historical figure -- and it's bracketed by weathered shotgun shacks and other wood-frame houses, some of them abandoned and boarded up, some still inhabited and in varying states of repair.

The mayor's Neighborhoods to Standards program obviously hasn't been extended to West Webster yet. The sidewalks -- that is, on the blocks where there are sidewalks -- are crumbling and uprooted, and if you were of a conspiratorial turn of mind, you might think that the city of Houston had intentionally let West Webster Street and the surrounding neighborhood go to seed in the service of some grand redevelopment scheme.

One day in the not-too-distant future, after Allen Parkway Village is made over and the nearby Midtown district is overrun with loft apartments, white people may be a common sight in the vicinity of West Webster Street. But today it's rare to see a white face there, unless it belongs to a vagrant pushing a cart full of cans or a worker in a service truck -- or, according to the Houston Police Department, a crackhead looking to score.

Tobias Keogh is none of the above. He is white, however -- from the sound of him over the phone, he's very white, but then he's from Canada. How he ended up in the 1300 block of West Webster, handcuffed in the back seat of an HPD patrol car, is a tale that Elyse Lanier's Houston Image Group might want to consider before it spends $1 million hiring an out-of-town ad agency to spin the city a new image.

Keogh lives in Ottawa, Ontario, and works for a company that manufactures business software. He travels quite a bit in his job, and last month he was in Houston for a trade show at the JW Marriott across from the Galleria.

What Keogh knew of Houston -- the image, if you will, that he had formed before his visit -- seems very close to what Bob Lanier would like the rest of the world to think when it thinks "Houston." Keogh's father-in-law had previously visited our city and enjoyed it immensely, returning home with lots of pictures that he shared with his son-in-law. Keogh believed Houston to be a "terrific, vibrant, cultural city," with plenty of diversity -- Tex-Mex is big up in Ottawa -- and some fascinating architecture in its downtown.

Keogh had even heard that catchy "Don't Mess with Texas" slogan, but of course he wouldn't know that it was the centerpiece of that wildly successful anti-litter campaign that the Highway Commission had approved when Bob Lanier was its chairman.

So Keogh was excited that his work brought him to Houston, and, as he does when he visits other large cities, he wanted to have a look around. He's a bit of an architecture freak, and more than a bit of a walker. On the morning of October 9, he caught the 82 bus downtown from the Galleria, bringing along an extra pair of shoes in a Marriott bag with the intent of getting in as much walking as possible.

Keogh spent several hours roaming around downtown. He remembers One Houston Center, circling through the Theater District and being "intrigued by the shapes of the buildings" almost everywhere he turned. It was a nice day, and since he was enjoying himself so much, Keogh was primed to return to his hotel by foot, retracing the route of the 82 bus outbound on Westheimer. He launched off from the west side of downtown, not completely sure where he was going but hoping to use the very tall building he remembered seeing in the distance -- that would be the Transco Tower -- as his "north star" to the JW Marriott. Somewhere along the way, though, with all the one-way streets and the freeway overpasses and the way downtown is off-grid to the streets to its west, Tobias Keogh got a little off track and wound up a dozen blocks north of Westheimer on West Webster Street, where he learned the other meaning of "Don't Mess with Texas."

Keogh hadn't gotten very far when he came across two young African-American men -- one guy on a bike, the other bare-chested and holding a basketball out in the street. Naturally, they gave a hard, appraising stare to this well-groomed, athletic white man shuffling down their street. Naturally, Keogh was scared.

"It was a decrepit area," he recalls, "but I thought I'd be in danger if I showed fear." The guy on the bike circled around Tobias once. Tobias nodded at the guy with the basketball; the guy with the basketball nodded back. That was the extent of their exchange, Keogh says. He kept on walking. About 20 paces down the street, he stopped to light a cigarette, feeling slightly relieved. Suddenly, from behind him he heard the sound of spinning tires. It wasn't the sound of the Fourth Ward giving chase, but the calling card of officer Donald Ray Miller of the Houston Police Department.

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Jim Simmon