Monday, March 20, 2006

End of An Era

It is nearly spring in the asphalt jungle, and there’s much to tell. I have been transferred to a new shopping mall, and I have been kept busy by sick co-workers and a busy holiday season. Many things have happened since my last observation. I watched as bus loads upon bus loads of weary storm victims rolled into Houston until the city could take no more. Then, almost a month later, I watched on TV as panicked locals packed up everything but the kitchen sink and rolled north to avoid yet another monster storm. What ensued was mass confusion and gridlock that would rival that of La at rush hour.

I have observed bus drivers go from calm and collected to enraged drivers the instant someone gets in the way. I have ridden train cars where people were packed in like cattle just to get a glimpse of the Thanksgiving day parade downtown. There have been days where I’ve watched bus drivers nearly run over other motorists in an attempt to make their scheduled stops on time. Ah yes, another typical day in the asphalt jungle. The only thing more interesting than the bus ride is the wait. Just the other morning, I had a homeless man throw cold coffee in my face because I asked him to stop pestering motorists. Next time I’ll just let him get run over or arrested.

Some days even the walk to and the stop can have its own highlights. Apparently motorists in Houston think I can read minds and guess which way they’re going to turn. They don’t know that I was out sick the day we covered mind reading in my Jedi training class. On these walks, I’ve noticed the constantly changing weather. Before long, the spring rainy season will be here.

The cold snaps have become more infrequent as they give way to longer and longer heat waves. Winds that blew mainly from the north these last few months have increasingly shifted to the south, signaling that spring is surely on its way. My dad informed me that the mesquites in south Texas already have their blooms, so it will only be a matter of time before spring reaches Houston. These winds scatter leaves and kick up dust, but they also bring with them change.

Houston’s era of self-made men and built fron the ground up companies is fast fading. This is most evident at the Astrodomain complex. The Astrodome, once the Eighth Wonder of the World, is now dwarfed by the much larger Reliant Stadium. The old dome was the vision of Harris County Judge Roy Hoffeinz,. Across from his domed stadium, he opened the Astroworld amusement park.

I remember summers when my cousins from England came to visit, that was at top of their to do list. They were the ones who dragged me onto the roller coasters, usually against my will. I remember the anxiety of waiting to get on the roller coaster followed by the sheer exhilaration and terror of the ride. In recent years, the Texas Medical Center has marched south, propelled by development around the installation of the Harris County Metropolitan Authority’s light rail line.

This has become a symbol of the new Houston as it rises up from the ashes of the economic downturn in the 1980s. In 1984, the real estate industry went bust, and interest rates skyrocketed. Many people abandoned their houses in droves, leading to the decline of many thriving neighborhoods. That was followed by the deregulation of the energy industry in 1986, leading to a bust that left many out of work. Employees were laid off in record numbers.

Now, Houston’s economy is thriving again. Giant metal cranes have nested in the Texas Medical Center as they erect new facilities for the Baylor and UT medical schools. All the development drove up the property value of the Astroworld property to the point that the land it sat on was sold to developers. Recently, I rode the light rail to see what was left, and there was nothing. All the rides had been auctioned off, and the land had been cleared except for a few structures. Soon, the cranes will come and erect a new structure in its place.

Elsewhere the change is more prevalent. Almost daily, old buildings are razed to make way for new developments. Last week, the Page Parks building on Kirby near Westheimer was imploded. In its place will developers have planned a 30-story condominium tower. Further up the road on Kirby near San Felipe stands the high rise where self-made millionaire Kenneth Lay resides. He purchased the pipeline company InterNorth in 1985 and merged it with his own to make Enron.

The company enjoyed a boom in its heyday, but was rocked by scandal in October 2001 when the Securities and Exchange Commission began a probe into Enron’s earnings. What followed as an FBI investigation that led to the collapse of the company two months later. Now, Lay and his successor, Jeff Skilling, stand accused of fraud among a litany of other charges. Each day, witnesses have recounted their heady days with the company, and pointed the finger of blame at the pair.

Enron is an example of leadership that was too effective. The men at the top duped everyone into believing the company was doing well when in fact it wasn’t. One witness likened it to being brainwashed. Communication theorists would call it groupthink. Enron is now just another relic of the old Houston.

In the new Houston, Gilley’s nightclub, immortalized in the movie Urban Cowboy, has been purchased by the Pasadena Independent School District. They plan to one day build a middle school on the site. Many former patrons came and watched as the site was cleared. Fire gutted much of the building years before, and it was only a matter of time before it came down.

In the new Houston, oil giants have merged to make themselves more compettive. Chevron, formerly Gulf Oil merged with the Texaco. Exon, which had its start in Houston as Humble Oil, merged with Mobil. Even Southwestern Bell, one of the baby bells, swallowed up AT&T. Compaq, Houston’s home-grown computer company, is now part of Hewlett Packard, or HP as its commonly known.

Even Foley’s, Houston’s last of the hometown retailers, has been bought out by Macy’s, and will soon bear the retail giant’s name. What started as Foley Brothers Dry Goods on Buffalo Bayou in 1905 grew into Foley’s department store, which now sits on Main between Lamar and Dallas across from what was once Sakowitz, another Houston institution that shuttered in the late 1980s. The Battlestein’s building down the block at Main near Walker is now lofts, and Joske’s was bought out by Dillard’s. While it’s sad to see it go, it’s just another sign of the new Houston.

Houston’s image as a wide open boomtown is slowly fading away. After hosting the Major League Baseball All-Star game, The Super Bowl. The baseball playoffs, the World Series, and the NBA All-Star game, Houston is gaining status as a more world class city. While there may never be an Olympics held here, Houston has proven to the world it can be a gracious host.

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