When I read a new group, Houstonians for Responsible Growth, was formed to pressure City Hall to get out of the way, I knew my town was on the right path toward a more livable, tree-hugging society. I felt even better when I learned former Mayor Bob Lanier gave it his backing. “Developers and their lobbying groups always have our best interests at heart,” I said to myself on the way over to the new group’s headquarters.
It was a cinder-block building between a park and an elementary school, with 10 billboards in the front yard — perfect location. “Is this the office of Houstonians for Responsible Growth?” I asked. “You’re leading the way to a better tomorrow?”
The executive director, whom I later found was named Sam (Cracked) Slab, looked up from his copy of Wrecking Ball Weekly. “Yep. The HRG is made up of the best commercial developers for Houston, and some of them even live here. The others need passports to visit their investments.”
“Absentee landlords are the best kind,” I said. “They don’t get in the way. So what are y’all doing?”
“We’re for building a better Houston by making slums more affordable. We have our charitable causes such as inflatable apartment houses for Katrina evacuees who are still here. Our next project is to put a mall in Memorial Park. As they say, nature abhors a vacuum.”
“That sounds wonderful,” I said. “I’m all for building new mini-warehouses, strip shopping centers and cement plants.” “Then you should visit some of our colleagues, like Building for a Better Building, Pro-Active Houstonians for Freedom and Friends of Smog. Then there’s my pet pressure group, the Bayou Beautification Bureau. Its motto is, ‘You don’t have to take care of concrete.’ They are the darlings of the Army Corps of Engineers.”
“How can you argue with groups with such names?” I asked. “But all these organizations sound as though they are in a public relations war with an enemy. Is there a Building for a Worse Houston or Houstonians for Urban Blight? Are Houstonians for Responsible Growth trying to out-lobby Houstonians for Irresponsible Growth? Who’s opposed to a better Houston?”
“The Sierra Club,” he said.
My next stop was a new Inner Loop subdivision, Lookalike Lakes. “This is only a demo house,” said Flood Plains, the salesman, “but then all the other houses will look exactly the same.”
“The name of this place is Lookalike Lakes. I don’t see any lakes,” I said.
“Wait until hurricane season.” There seem to be a lot of wonderful lobbying groups forming to pressure City Hall for less planning. I visited a local group, Houston: Shining City on the Fill. “We specialize in re-inventing neighborhoods,” said the spokesman, Blight White. “Sometimes this means kicking out the old folks, but, hell, they’re paid well. Those preservationists can be a real pain, too. Any building in Houston that gets a second coat of paint qualifies for a historical plaque. Then we put in townhouses and save space with no yards, sidewalks, trees or front porches. We like to get the biggest bang for the buck. Our idea of an undeveloped wilderness is a parking lot without white stripes.”
It was clear that Houston’s future development was in good hands. But one day I was driving down Bissonnet St. and spotted yellow-and-black signs, hundreds of them: “Stop Ashby High Rise.”
“My God!” I screamed. “They’re taking away my Viagra!” Turns out developers are simply trying to build a 24-story condo/office/muffler repair shop in a quiet residential area. “It’ll ruin our neighborhood, pour hundreds of cars through here every day and destroy our home values,” whined one Nervous Nelly homeowner.
Think how easily you could direct visitors. You won’t have any trouble finding our house. It’s next door to a skyscraper. And the value of your property should increase, not decrease, especially if you want to convert your house into a funeral home.
I stopped at the headquarters of another feel-good lobbying group, Save Us From Ourselves. I noticed the “Zoning is for Wussies” bumper sticker on the car outside the office. “The nice thing about Houston,” said Pealer Painter, the director, “is that you can build a multi-million dollar home and have the convenience of a tattoo parlor next door. Here we can build anything anywhere. Let’s say you’re the manager of an oil refinery, but want to live in a nice house in a formerly leafy and quiet neighborhood. You can still walk to work.”
I then called on a different type of lobbying group, Ox Carte Blanche. This group has been charged with foot-dragging in embracing modern thought. Its members approved earth and wind, but fire died for lack of a second. They also oppose light rail, calling it “the devil’s own contraption.” The chairman, Org, asked, “Name me one city where commuter rail lines work?”
“That’s easy,” I replied. “New York, Boston, Chicago, London, Dallas….”
This, of course, led me to the John Culberson Concrete Cascade Committee. “We need more freeways and less government control over our Constitutional guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of pavement,” said Chuck Hole, the public relations agent heading up the group. “If God wanted us to have light rail, He would have invented the wheel.”
It was hard to de-rail that train of thought, so to speak. My next stop was a new lobbying group which opposed any communistic influence on controlling pollution, Air Apparent. “Cutting down on Houston’s air pollution is a leftist, one-world scheme, led by the Tripartite Committee and Henry Kissinger, to deprive us of our right to blow into the skies anything we want,” said Hack Coughman, its spokesman. “It’s public air and we have as much right to it as anyone.”
You can’t argue with that logic. So my investigation of all the various lobbying groups with great-sounding names clearly shows who’s running Houston. Before leaving Coughman’s office, I asked him, “What’s your biggest obstacle to thoroughly screwing up our town?”