Friday, October 30, 2009

This is La Luz del Mundo, and Don't You Ever Forget It!

If you drive up US 59 from the  North Loop, you will soon pass a bizarre building on your right. After driving by it hundreds of times commuting to work, I finally had to stop. It is Iglesia La Luz del Mundo. This is it seen from the south:

south view

It basically consists of two buildings--a main building, which as a Greek temple-style front and a huge golden dome beside it, and then another, smaller greek temple-like building off to the southwest of the main building. This is the smaller structure.

small temple

You can see that in front of the smaller temple is a circular colonnade.

circular columns

It is perhaps the most beautiful (and certainly the most mysterious) feature of the whole complex.

The main building is not only deep, but very wide as well, due to two curved wings in front.


The building is fronted by very large marble columns (and is indeed made entirely of marble), topped with a pediment decorated with sculptural elements.


So what is this remarkable complex? La Luz del Mundo is a Protestant Christian sect headquartered in Guadalajara, Mexico.


When I was taking pictures, I got a chance to speak with the young watchman. He told me that the church took five years to build. He offered to let me see the interior, but I wasn't allowed to take pictures there. A shame, because as mindblowing as the outside is, the inside is even moreso.

Even though they clearly spent a fortune on this church, they really should have spent a little more on the sculptures.


This pediment is inhabited by various Biblical figures, but unlike a Greek pediment, the figures don't have a visual or spatial relationship with each other or with the architecture of the pediment. One thing that so appeals about the finest Greek temples is the unity of compsition. Everything fits together wonderfully and naturally. Here, it is as if the various elements were sculpted separately and then stuck onto the pediment randomly, with no sense of composition.

The front gates feature similarly clumsy sculptures.

angel entrance

La Luz del Mundo is not without controversies. And this building seems clumsy, grandiose, crass, and overpowering. Usually when one sees hispanic Protestant churches, one is struck by their modesty and humility. "Humility" is not a word that can be associated with La Luz del Mundo.

And yet, I like it. For two reasons I like it. First, it pays homage, in its own clunky way, to our classical heritage. And second, it is the attempt of a church to glorify God in the best way they know how. All church buildings used to be grand like this, and much of the greatest art ever made served the purpose of glory to God. Folks used to go to church every Sunday in their very best clothes. Nowadays you'll see people walking into church in t-shirts. I'm not a religious guy, but the idea of saving the very best for God has an ancient appeal. The Greeks did it with the Parthenon, and La Luz del Mundo have done it here.

entering La Luz

(Crossposted on The Great God Pan Is Dead)

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A Collection of Rice-BCM Links, Pro and Con

These links were compiled by Rebekah Drezek, a bioengineering professor. (At least I think she is responsible--how many bioengineering professors named Rebekah are there?) The links include lots of opinions both pro and con, as well as useful background information. As someone who doesn't have a huge stake in this issue (although I do have an opinion, of course), it is fascinating to see how this is playing out at Rice.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Seen on Beachton Street

Who's Buried at Forest Park Cemetery?

I wish I had know about "Find a Grave" before I checked out Forest Park Cemetery a couple of weeks ago. I would have definitely located the graves of Lighntnin' Hopkins and Jesse H. Jones, who are both buried there. (It is also the final resting place of Lloyd Bentson, Carla Faye Tucker, and numerous professional baseball players.)

If future rides take me past any cemeteries (which they undoubtedly shall), I will certainly find out if anyone interesting and notable is buried there and photograph the grave.


What One Faculty Member Has to Say About the Rice-BCM Merger

In my most recent post about the Rice-Baylor College of Medicine Merger, I got a comment from Dr. Moshe Vardi, a computer science professor at Rice. He had just given a talk (on October 26) about the merger, and the talk is posted online. I urge you to check it out--it's a bit long (over an hour) but worth listening to all the way through (including the questions at the end). His slides and referenced materials for the talk are also posted online.

His basic point is that the two stated reasons for the merger--increase in prestige for Rice and increased synergies between Rice and BCM--are not good enough, because the merger involves so much risk for Rice. In finance terms, the net risk-adjusted return appears to be negative.

Vardi in particular looked at the books for Rice and BCM. BCM took on a lot of debt to build its own hospital--which it abandoned halfway through the building process, which means it will get no cash flows from it to help repay the debt. (In fact, and this is shocking, BCM is in technical default right now.) But that's OK, right, because Rice is rich. As an alumnus, that's what I've always thought. But recall that we have a president who has been on a building spree--which may pay off in the future, but right now it has not only cost Rice a lot of money, but it forced us to start carrying debt. This debt was incurred in order to build the "Collaborative Research Center"--which has been renamed the "Bioscience Research Collaborative" for some reason. Ironically, the idea behind it was to give Rice the benefit of working with the hospitals and schools in the Medical Center without the cost and hassle of owning and operating a hospital. And double ironically, they built it and only one partner from TMC has chosen to cooperate. This facility was supposed to be rented out, in a sense, to researchers from TMC. So far, this goal has not been met.

So Vardi's point is that Rice, already burdened by debt, buys Baylor, and either our endowment shrinks a lot or we end up with more debt--either way, increasing our leverage and assuming the risks that go along with that leverage. He concedes that Rice won't shoulder the burden alone--that Rice and BCM will be asking deep-pocketed philanthropists to help pay. But the quantities of cash required to right the listing BCM ship are so massive that Rice will surely pay a lot of it.

Furthermore, he talks about the supposed synergies of the merger and makes the following points. First, there is nothing stopping Rice and BCM from collaborating on stuff right now, without a merger. We do it all the time (as well as collaborate with other institutions in TMC). And second, any increased synergy would cost money--for new facilities, new staff, etc. Which puts us right back at the state in the previous paragraph. More money, increased risk. (Obviously the current economy makes these kinds of decisions even riskier.)

Vardi speculates that their are other motives--that certain people at Rice (and BCM) are afraid that U.H. will come in and take it over as part of their quest to become a tier 1 university. Vardi suggested that if this is true, it's an administration concern (and perhaps a board of trustees concern), but not something that should matter to the faculty. The faculty should be happy to have more tier 1 universities in Houston. (Does Harvard regret sharing Boston with MIT, Tufts and B.U.?)

In the question and answer period, someone who is a faculty member and a member of the administration lashed out at Vardi for making unwarranted assumptions about the actions and motivations of the administration in this matter. He apologized, but said everything in his talk was based on publicly available information (which is posted on his website). Just as the Interim Report of the Rice University Faculty Merger Review Committee implied, one of the great frustrations is the secrecy involved. So this woman who spoke (and I am sorry I didn't get her name) is privy to information that Vardi doesn't have. If Vardi is putting an unoptimistic gloss on things, he is reflecting the facts as he knows them and the unease he must feel from the lack of transparency.

The conclusion is that BCM should be saved and may well go under or be permanently diminished if it isn't saved. But that Rice should not merge with BCM in order to save it.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Rice Merging With Baylor? Rice Faculty Say No!

That's the subtext to the "Interim Report of the Rice University Faculty Merger Review Committee." This report was completed in late August but only made public recently. The faculty on the committee come from a wide variety of academic departments. I only know one of them, Duane Windsor, who teaches the ethics and csr class for the Jones School.

Right from the very start, they express frustration with the lack of specifics about the merger.
The Faculty Merger Review Committee (FMRC) intended to make a full-scale report to the faculty at the start of the semester, but that has not been possible. Merger discussions have been going slowly, and many key decisions have not yet been made: the disposition of the incomplete hospital and its debt; the resolution of a clinical plan for Baylor College of Medicine (BCM); arrangements with participating hospitals, especially adult care hospitals; securing adequate philanthropic commitments; a reliable estimate of the expenses necessary to implement the merger; the amount of investment available for program enhancement and its allocation between Rice and Baylor; and plans for additional fundraising to make possible maximum academic benefits to Rice from a merger without starving existing or future non-medical related programs at Rice. Absent the resolution of these issues, it is impossible for the FMRC to fully assess the risks and benefits of a merger.
Am I reading to much into this if I say that there is a hint that the faculty are feeling they are being kept in the dark about certain things?  That would be my big worry--secret negotians and a plan presented as a fait accompli.Another frustration they state is that there is some information that has been devulged to the committee that the committee is not allowed to include in its reports.
For example: if a Rice/Baylor merger goes forward, Rice will make a substantial one-time investment to support the merger. The committee has been told the planned size of this investment. Because it is still subject to negotiations, the FMRC cannot disclose the amount. Therefore our ability to report to the faculty on the financial costs, including opportunity costs, of a merger is severely constrained. Part of Rice’s one-time investment will be in academic enhancement at BCM and Rice. An important issue for Rice faculty is the academic benefits that would flow from the portion of enhancement funds spent at Rice.
Then, constrained as they are, they make a list of risks and benefits. They're all worth reading, but I want to highlight the risks.
1. The merger would create one of the most unbalanced academic institutions in the US, with a very small university attached to a large medical school. This imbalance could impact Rice’s academic mission, culture, and its finances.
2. The financial risks to Rice of merging with BCM are significant and are amplified by the large size differential between the two institutions. The annual operating budget at BCM, for example, is almost three times the size of Rice's budget. Consequently, small fractional changes in total revenue of the combined institution could have a large impact on funds available for Rice’s traditional mission.
3. By joining with BCM, Rice will be acquiring a large exposure to a volatile industry with changing economics. Over time, e.g., NIH budgets may decline and the nation’s system of payments for medical services is likely to change.
4. The recent situation at BCM has led some of its staff to leave and others to contemplate leaving. It is possible that the BCM with which Rice would merge would be significantly weaker than the BCM of a few years ago.
5. Inadequate execution could limit anticipated benefits. (See Condition 6 below.)
6. Because BCM is in a turnaround situation, its financial future and the future of its institutional relationships are less predictable.
In short, Rice could end up stuck with a money-sucking white elephant that would everwhelm the university.

They, as faculty at Rice, are understandably afraid of becoming second bananas in an unequal partnership. And they are right to worry about that. It is critically important that Rice remain a strong, independent university, with its primary mission being to educate undergraduate and graduate students. If this merger causes this to become a secondary mission to, say, running a hospital, then it should not be permitted to go forward.

(See also this and this.)

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Willie Morris and Donald Barthelme

I just finished reading Willie Morris's North Towards Home and the biography of Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man, by Tracy Daugherty. The two writers, so distinct in what they wrote, also had interesting similarities. Willie Morris was a journalist and editor whose reputation largely lies in his editing of Harper's Magazine from 1967 to 1971, during which time he was one of the editors responsible for what later became known as "new journalism," a personal, literary approach to journalism. Donald Barthelme is generally considered one of the giants of postmodern fiction in the U.S., and wrote frequently for The New Yorker. His genre was the short story (he wrote four novels, but my impression is that they aren't held in the same esteem as his short stories). They were both literary men in New York City during the 60s, but as far as I can tell, had little if any contact with one another.

The two men were born in the early 1930s, and both grew up in the South (Yazoo City, Mississippi, for Morris, Houston for Barthelme). They both distinguished themselves editing innovative publications at their respective universities. Morris was editor of The Daily Texan, where he raised holy hell with his liberal crusading, especially in favor of intellectual freedom on campus. He was brutally clamped down on by the U.T. regents, and his means for fighting back was classic--blank editorials and editorials on transparently trivial subjects like "Let's Water the Pansies" that signaled to the reader that something had been censored. Barthelme edited a short-lived (1956 to 1960) interdisciplinary journal called Forum at the University of Houston. There, too, he fought with the faculty editors who didn't get where he was coming from. Nonetheless, he published amazing things--he was the first person to publish Marshall McLuhan's "The Medium Is the Message" and he published a chapter of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer before the novel was published, among many other pieces by great writers and thinkers of the day. Not surprisingly, the University of Houston had no idea what it had.

Both Morris and Barthelme took their next steps of their careers in the same towns where they'd done their college editing. Morris, after getting a Rhodes scholarship, ended up back in Austin editing The Texas Observer, and Barthelme ended up as the second director of the Contemporary Arts Association (it's amazing to think there was a time when college dropouts like Barthelme and Walter Hopps were allowed to run museums). But eventually both writers, hemmed in or burnt out by the limited opportunities in Austin and Houston respectively, moved to New York, where each really made his reputation.

Barthelme was close to the cutting edge writers of his day. Thomas Pynchon lived downstairs from him, for example. His tenure at The New Yorker was therefore strange (The New Yorker isn't exactly an avant garde literary magazine), but for whatever reason, Roger Angell fell in love with Barthelme's writing, and The New Yorker paid his bills for the next 20 years or so (even if they did reject his most experimental short stories). 

Morris had a strong relationship with a group of Texas journalists who had literary aspirations and the need to get the hell out of Texas--at least for a while. These included Larry L. King (think "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas") and Edwin "Bud" Shrake. For all of these guys, the model--and counter-model--was Billy Lee Brammer, who published a more-or-less forgotten classic novel, The Gay Place, in 1961. He pulled up stakes and lived all over, but never published another book. And he returned home to Austin and lived a marginal existence until he died in 1978 of a drug overdose. All of these guys returned home--Morris eventually back to Mississippi (long after North Toward Home was published in 1967) and Barthelme back to Houston.

Part of the reason was that as these guys got older, they needed some more stability in their lives than being a freelance writer provided. It may be too much to say that they moved home for insurance, but both ended up at universities where such benefits were standard. Morris taught at Old Miss (a place he ridiculed in North Towards Home--and a place his father told him to avoid, advising the teenaged Morris to go to UT instead). Barthelme returned to U.H.

They are both also somewhat forgotten men today. Sure, people know who they are, but their books haven't all remained in print, and as time passes, their memory grows dimmer. Barthelme's story is particularly interesting to me because of his Houston roots--it's weird to think one of the great American writers came from Houston. But would you know Barthelme had been from Houston if you were to take a tour of the city? Is there a plaque on his childhood home, a street named after him, a school named after him, or a giant David Addickes bust of him in some city park? Nope. Barthelme deserves better.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bike Lanes an Issue in NYC Mayor's Race

Not that I care about the NYC mayoral race, but a one of my NYC Facebook friends posted this and it caught my eye.

Mayoral Hopeful Thompson Talks Tough on Bike Lane Menace

That controversial Grand Street bike lane, beloved by cyclists and loathed by some business owners because it makes receiving deliveries onerous, now has a new enemy: Democratic mayoral candidate Bill Thompson. The comptroller was in Chinatown doing some pandering campaigning yesterday when he announced that, if elected, he would tear up that dedicated bike lane, which is buffered from traffic by a row of motor vehicle parking. Thompson told voters, "I'm in favor of bike lanes but you can't put bike lanes in without speaking to the community. You can't put bike lanes that are doing damage to local businesses."
Of course, Streetsblog was like, Did he really just say that? The local community board approved the Grand Street bike lane project 33 to 1! We all know truth is the first casualty of campaigning, but it's interesting to see the city comptroller paint bike lanes as bogeymans stymieing economic prosperity.(John del Signore, The Gothamist, 9-18-09)
Just to make Houston cyclists jealous, here is a photo of the Grand Street bike lane.

Grand Street NYC
(photo by  ratherbebiking)

Just to compare, here's a Houston bike lane on Cavalcade.

bike lane on Cavalcade


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Friday, October 23, 2009

Houston Streets 17--Lindale Park

Today was my day off from work, the weather was unbeatable, so I got on my bike and explored. I hit Lindale Park today.

Lindale Park trip map

This neighborhood is just inside the Loop and just east of I-45. The main drag is Irvington. The neighborhood is about 50 years old, full of moderate-sized bungalows. I'd describe it as a well-kept working to middle-class neighborhood, strongly but not exclusively hispanic. The bungalows come in different styles. A really common style is like this one.

typical bungalow 1

Here is another version--almost the exact same house, in fact.

typical bungalow 2

One feature I like about these brick bungalows is the entryway. A lot of them have the brick arch over the door, then projecting out a second brick arch, and then a third. It makes it look like the doorway is radiating towards you. You see similar doorways on the bungalows on Alabama near TSU.

Here's an especially beautiful one on the corner of Irvington and Fairbanks.

Beautiful bungalow Irvington @ Fairbanks

I like how the light reflected off the front stoop makes the inside of the "radiating arch" glow. I'd love to own a house like this--too bad it's right on Irvington (which too busy for me).

I saw a variation on the "radiating arch" where instead of an arch above the door, it was a straight rectangular design.

square door bungalow

Not all the bungalows are brick houses. Quite a few are mostly wood, and then there are some with "fake rock" exteriors. At least I think the rock is fake. Here is a wood bungalow that is Shaker-like in its simple, unadorned beauty.


Here's one on Gale that someone decided needed a little color.

Purple house on Gale

In addition to this style of bungalow, there are also small ranch houses in Lindale Park. I didn't take any pictures of them, though; they're just too boring.

This is a neighborhood that is gentrifying. In some cases, this means that people are doubling up on lots--either buying two adjacent lots and building a big house, or buying lots on either side of the block, so they have addresses on two streets. That appears to be what Mr.Campos did here.

La Hacienda Campos on Graceland

As far as I can tell, La Hacienda cuts through from Gale to Joyce.

An extreme example of this is this house on Fulton that goes all the way from Gale to Joyce.

On Fulton between Joyce & Gale

It looks like this guy bought four lots to build his dream home. The question is, why did he build such an inappropriate house here? (I won't ask why he built such an ugly monstrosity, since ugly monstrosities are the average rich Houstonian's default choice for a dwelling.) It is so out of scale with anything in this neighborhood, and he put it right on Fulton, a major street with lots of businesses. On the other side of Joyce from it is a cheap apartment building. Just up the road are a tire repair shop and a tortilla factory. Was he a dude from the neighborhood who struck it rich and decided to build his dream home in Lindale Park, where the old gang could see it?

That was not the weirdest house I saw. On Moody, just west of Hardy, I saw this strange house.

Moody near Hardy facade 1

OK, not typical for the neighborhood (although this was, I think, technically outside Lindale Park), but not inherently weird. But look at this view and pay attention to the second floor.

Moody near Hardy facade 2

The windows (and maybe even the door) on the second floor are fake. The front of this house is literally a facade. I wonder what could be the motivation for this deception. Obviously it isn't going to fool anyone.

I only saw one old-school mod house in the neighborhood, on the corner of Elser and Cavalcade. I think this house looks great--it would be perfectly appropriate for Memorial.

Modern Cavalcade @ Elser

There was one other contemporary house in Lindale Park, and it is still under construction. It's the Greer House on Woodard, and it was designed by the hugely talented Brett Zamore.

Greer House on Woodard

Zamore is a Rice architect who has gotten a lot of attention for his low-cost modern designs. His most famous house is the "Shot-Trot" in Eastwood, and the Greer house seems to basically be a supersized version of the earlier, iconic structure. Zamore is an architect I admire a lot, and this is a beautiful house.

Just down the street is another new house (at least it looks new).

mansion on Woodard

This house is out-of-proportion for the neighborhood, but it avoids being a McMansion, I think. It's charming and has a real relationship with the street (the wrap-around porch is really nice).

Lindale Park has been around for 50 years according to the sign in front of the Lindale Park Civic Club.

Lindale Park Civic Club on Joyce

This building is a meeting hall that can be rented out for parties, banquets, etc. It's nice that the civic club has a permanent space for neighborhood events.

Generally the lawns of Lindale Park were typical Houston--well-cut St. Augustine grass. I liked this artfully wild lawn at the corner of Gale and Helmer.

garden at Helmer @ Gale

Lindale Park's businesses are mostly on Irvington, Cavalcade, and Fulton. Locals can wet their whistles at Rick's Den on Cavalcade, which has these two nice graffiti pieces on its back wall.

Rick's Den on Cavalcade @ Cochran rear

And speaking of murals, I love this one on the Matamoros Meat Market #3 on Irvington.

Matamoros Meat Market Irvington @ Canadian

The focal point is the guy in the straw cowboy hat holding a nice cold beer. I love how the two hotties in bathing suits are starring at him with apparent desire. The girl in the bikini could be thinking, "Sure, he's 20 years older than me, but he is muy guapo. Si, guapo y rico!"

Finally, after my ride through the neighborhood, I was famished. I ate here:

Teotihuacan Mexican Cafe

This restaurant is on Irvington at Cavalcade, and food was delicious. I give it my highest recommendation.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Seen in Rice Military

1 less car 1

Hmmm... How should this be interpreted? I guess you could take it to mean that if someone is biking instead of driving, then at that moment there is "one less car" on the road. That's a benign, positive message.


Unfortunately, the artist and the person who applied the sticker almost guarantee that the message will be received differently. The image of a car smashed by a giant fist (which looks like an old 1960s "Black Power" fist) is not very benign. The style of the graphic recalls radical posters from Paris May 1968 or those by Seth Tobocman. And the fact that it is stuck on a piece of public property also contributes to a basic "outlaw" vibe.

The thing is, I think it looks pretty cool, and I generally support the benign interpretation (even though I drive a zillion miles a day in my commute, alas). But I guess I'm an old guy now, and I see cyclists as citizens who, like any other citizens, want to carve a space out for ourselves within a society in which we are a minority who have to share public space with the majority. And the way to do that is through legal means and through increasing our numbers. That's what "power to the people" looks like when you get to be middle aged.

So I wonder what the intended effect of this sticker was? Who is it for? What action is it trying to provoke? Is it aimed at drivers? Is it trying to convince drivers to get out of their cars and onto their bicycles? Because I don't think a lot of drivers will come away from it with that message in their hearts. I think that what at least some drivers will get from it is confirmation of their opinion that cyclists are a bunch of scofflaws. Which doesn't help cyclists at all.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Giant Heads by the Freeway

When you are driving east on I-10 or south on I-45 in that tiny segment just north of downtown where the two freeways become one, you might notice this sculpture as you whiz by.

Giant Heads

They are actually located on a tiny little street called Elder Street in a tiny little neighborhood kind of trapped between Houston Ave. and the freeways.

The heads are, of course, by David Adickes, the guy who did the giant Sam Houston up in Huntsville, and more famously has done super-sized presidential busts. I like them--they are so out of scale that they become almost pop art. But this has been his schtick for a while (because, I assume, this is what folks commission from him.)

Look, if we're going to have giant heads visible from the freeway, lets honor some great Houstonians. I want to see a giant head group that includes Donald Barthelme, Lightnin' Hopkins, A.J. Foyt, and Jesse H. Jones. And maybe Beyonce. Who else deserves to be a giant head by the freeway? (Nominate your own choices in the comments.)

(I couldn't decide whether this was an art post or a "Houston" post, so I am cross-posting it to my art blog, The Great God Pan Is Dead.)

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Houston Streets 16--Idylwood

Idylwood Map

After a long hiatus, I am restarting my "Houston Streets" bicycle travelogue series. This time, I was inspired by a post about the area on the ever excellent Swamplot to give Idylwood a look. Specifically the comments peeked my interest. There were a few negative ones about the East Side, which brought a bunch of impassioned defenders. I checked it out on the map and was intrigued by its Brays Bayou location. So I loaded the bike in the station wagon and drove out for a look.

It's a rather isolated neighborhood in some ways. Across Wayside is a giant convent (probably not too many raucous parties there). Across Lawndale is a golf course.  Of course, Brays Bayou forms its eastern border, and on the other side of Brays Bayou is the enormous Forest Park Cemetery. There are a few crappy apartments between the neighborhood and I-45, though. Anyway, it's a good neighborhood, and the residents are determined to keep it that way.

Sylvan @ S. Wayside

It is deed restricted, and the civic association is obviously very active. (This was confirmed in a discussion with a resident--more later.)

One thing that is really cool about the neighborhood--but also the source of much pain--is that it is right next to Brays Bayou. North MacGregor runs along the bayou (this is not connected with the MacGregor that connects the Medical Center with MacGregor Park--that's about a mile and a half west of Idylwood. Houston lacks impressive bodies of water--there are no great rivers, lakes, or bays in the city. We have a few roads that run along bayous which are quite lovely, but they are all relatively high-speed arterials (Memorial, Allen Parkway, the other MacGregor/Braeswood, and T.C. Jester). This is the only neighborhood street that runs along a bayou that I have found. It's the kind of street that you wouldn't feel like you were risking body and soul by riding or jogging along it. And what a great view for cyclists!

MacGregor Panorama

I wish I had taken some closer photos of the metal and concrete structures you can see along the road. I meant to (more later). These are recent additions to the bayou, put in by the Harris County flood control after Ike. In addition to building some flood-control structures, they have condemned some properties. Several houses have been torn down and a few more are on the chopping block.

Meadowlawn @ MacGregor

This house on MacGregor at Fairfield looks like it will be relocated. The resident I spoke with said that the lots where the houses were would be maintained by Harris County, and that they could be used by the neighborhood but that no one could build anything there. The problem is that they will become, in essence, a commons. This fellow said that if they start a community garden (one idea that had been floated), there would be no enforcement mechanism to keep anyone from stealing veggies. (I would be worrying about felonious nuns with garden shovels.)

MacGregor @ Merry

His house was not one of the condemned ones, and as you can see, it is way up on a high bank. It must have a stunning view, especially from that beautiful covered balcony on the left side. Nonetheless, he said water had gotten just a foot below his front door. Scary.

MacGregor at Fairfield

This is my favorite house in the neighborhood. It's on MacGregor at Meadowlawn. It could use a little restoration, but I love the moderne lines of it and the color.

If you look at the map, it looks like Maxwell connects Idylwood with the I-45 feeder road. There is, however, a gate across Maxwell to prevent vehicles from using it as a through street. Bikes can get through, fortunately. On the east side of Maxwell is a large modern building that houses the AAMA, the Association for the Advancement of Mexican-Americans. This is also the location of the George I. Sanchez High School, a charter school operated by the AAMA.

AAMA building off Maxwell

The front of the AAMA building is quite striking.

AAMA building front

Too bad that on the east side of Maxwell is the apparently abandoned headquarters of Oshman's. Oshman's was a staple sporting goods store in Houston, started in 1912. I bought my first Converse hightops at an Oshman's when I was in high school. Oshman's merged with a national sporting goods store holding company, Garts, in 2001, and Garts merged with The Sports Authority in 2003. No more Oshman's, except for a few ghostly remnants like this building.

Oshmans 3 I-45

It's hard to read, but the side of the building once read Oshman's Corporate Office - Distribution Center. According to HCAD, the building is owned by Weingarten Realty Investors--apparently one of their many  non-income-producing properties.

But while it was functioning, Oshman's allowed some Mexican American painters to cover its entire long southeast wall with a bizarre mural that combines Mexican motifs and all kinds of sports.

Oshmans 1 Maxwell

The mural, which seems to have been partially funded by the HAA and had some undefined Orange Show participation, is fading away now.

Oshmans 2 Maxwell

As murals go, this one wasn't all that good, but it's worth taking a look at--some of the details are pretty amusing.

I wanted to check out the cemetery across Brays Bayou from Idylwood. This shot was taken from the Lawndale bridge as I rode over. This is looking northeast, downstream along the bayou.

Brays Bayou from Lawndale Bridge

Brays Bayou is huge here, which is not too far from where it empties into the Ship Channel. There are paths along the bayou at various points, but not here or through Idylwood. Since they have put up those nice metal fences (topping the concrete flood control walls), they should go whole hog and build a hike-bike path.

Forest Park Cemetery is very, very large. I mainly wanted to go there so I could photograph Idylwood from the other side of the bayou. I hoped to have a good shot of the flood control structures, which are surprisingly attractive. You can see a long U-shaped road (surrounding the word "Forest" on the map above) that would be the perfect place from which to take a picture. However, as I was riding down it, I was chased by three very angry dogs! Surely they can't belong to the cemetery--they were chasing me through an area full of graves where people leave flowers. They're a lawsuit waiting to happen. Are they neighborhood dogs that have taken over one section of the cemetery? Whatever the case, they didn't want me to be right where I wanted to be, and the three beasts vigorously chased me from their self-defined territory. It was terrifying, and it ruined the photo I wanted to take.

Still, they only "controlled" a tiny part of the whole cemetery, and I was able to get some interesting photos.

Forest Park stone well

Like this odd life-size stone statue of an Asian-looking water well. It didn't seem to be part of anyone's plot. It was near a large family plot for a family named Yang, but there were several non-Asian family plots even closer.

Forest Park guy with book

I loved this statue--it look likes a sculptor poured real work and talent into it, and I like the thought of reading for eternity. (Personally, I wouldn't be wearing a suit and tie to read for eternity, but it does give this fellow a lot of dignity.)

Forest Park Houston Skyline

This one was bizarre--it almost looks like a tombstone for the City of Houston, with a portrait of its skyline. The car under the words United Forever is nice touch. But apparently it is a grave for a fellow named Bennie Lee (1924-1987). I think it may be that he is united forever with the city of Houston, which is a beautiful thought. Or horrifying. I can't decide. I like the naive drawing style on the tombstone--it contrasts with the skilled but conventional off-the-shelf designs on many other tombstones, and I like it better than the laser-etched photos some have (although those can be pretty moving, too).

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dallas vs. Houston, part 3,296,847

"In Houston, only 250 miles to the southeast, business conservatism had never exactly been impotent, and the radicalism of its rightists had often exceeded Dallas'. Yet Houston was no monolith; it was, as one of its writers would say, a whiskey and trombone town, openly in conflict with itself, and its very disorder had encouraged a rough and open democracy. Dallas, in contrast, had grown sick from its very order, from the organized caution and self-interest of an ethos that demanded undeviating conformity."
Willie Morris, North Toward Home, 1967

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Cars 1,000,000--Bikes 0

Weird, the day after I write this, another cyclist has been killed in an accident.
A bicyclist has died a day after he was hit by a van while he pedaled along a road in east Harris County. Investigators said the rider was hit while he was riding in the 12600 block of Beaumont Highway about 10 p.m. Thursday. He was seriously injured and was flown by medical helicopter to Memorial Hermann-The Texas Medical Center, where he died Friday.No charges have been filed in the case, which is still being investigated.
The rider, whose name has not been released, was riding eastbound on the highway when he rode into a lane of traffic, according to the Harris County Sheriff's Office. The driver of a 1989 Chevrolet van, which was also traveling eastbound on the highway, hit the rider when he rode into the traffic lane. (Dale Lezon, The Houston Chronicle, 10-12-2009)
It's hard to tell what happened based on this description. I don't understand what they mean "he drove into a lane of traffic." Is there some prohibition against cyclists being in "lanes of traffic" on non-freeways? Did the cyclist do something illegal or dangerous? In any case, this road is by all indications a busy arterial, just inside the Beltway up in the Northeast side of town--I am sure it is dangerous to ride on it at night, even if you are a well-lighted rider. On the other hand, maybe he had to. Maybe he had a job at night, and no other way for him to get to work except by bike on this dangerous road. It's a tragedy that he was hit and killed.

That said, check out the very first response in the "comments" section that followed the article.
bigbobbruntz wrote:
drivers are not responsible when cyclist refuse to obey traffic laws and use good judgement in sharing the streets with motorist.
Aside from his illiteracy and lack of human decency, the first thing I noticed was that he assumed the cyclist had been breaking the law--something that was not stated in the article. This is really typical of responses, that cyclists are scofflaws. I'll return to that in a moment. The second thing is the notion that drivers are not responsible for hitting cyclists if the cyclists are breaking a traffic law or not using good judgment. All I can think is what kind of shriveled morality must someone have to think this?

Sure cyclists break laws. They drive on sidewalks, for example. I often do. Why? Because I'm scared to ride on some streets. Nonetheless, it's illegal to ride on the sidewalk. Another thing cyclists do a lot is not stop for stop signs. I have done this, although I try to be a good citizen now. But I understand why cyclists do it--stopping and starting a bike is kind of a pain in the ass. And since you are moving at a very slow speed (compared to a car), you can easily see if there is traffic coming on the cross street. So cyclists get complacent about this. They shouldn't, and they should obey the traffic laws. But so should drivers--almost all drivers break traffic laws, including the law that makes them most dangerous to cyclists (and pedestrians and other cars)--the law against speeding. Everyone speeds. Cycling would be a lot safer if drivers didn't speed, and it would be a lot safer if cyclists didn't run stop signs.

But the fact that (some) cyclists break laws doesn't mean it's ok to kill them. And that is what bigbobbruntz seems to be suggesting. I don't mean to pick on him--lots of commenters agree with this view 100%. It's sickening to read some of the comments. Look, even if a cyclist is breaking a traffic law and cycling in a dangerous way, it is the responsibility of all drivers to endeavor not to hit him! I don't know what the law says on this matter, but I'm talking morality here, not law. Drivers should try to avoid hitting people on bicycles. Period. It's basic common decency. (And I should add, drivers should endeavor to avoid hitting pedestrians and other cars as well.)

To give an analogy, if a child ran out in the street in the middle of a block, right in front of your car, isn't it morally incumbent on you to try to avoid hitting the child? Even though, if you did hit the child, you would not be legally culpable? You have a responsibility to try not to hit the child.

Well, that applies to everyone. The cyclist who lacks a rear light or who blows through a stop sign; the jaywalking pedestrian or the drunk who fell into the gutter; the driver who cuts you off on the freeway or runs a red light. In any of those cases, you may not be legally culpable if you hit them--but still you should try not to!

But apparently we have a lot of people in Houston who don't have very highly developed moral codes. So Houston cyclists, ride defensively.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Cycling in Houston

The current issue of The Houston Press has a fantastic article, "Ghost Riders" by John Nova Lomax, about the dangers of cycling in Houston. "Ghost Bikes" are the term Lomax uses to describe bike memorials, the sites of where a cyclist has died that has been marked with a bicycle painted white. Lomax starts the article with the story of one such cyclist, Cisco Rios.
Rios wouldn't get to enjoy his revved-up bike for long. Pedaling down — or near, as accounts vary — the shoulder in the 7000 block Old Katy Road near the Hempstead Road fork at around seven in the dark winter evening, Cisco was rear-ended by a beer delivery van. He suffered massive head trauma and died at the scene — the 11th and last Houston-area bicycle fatality of 2007. "It was terrible," says Wurth. "I saw pictures of the accident scene. It threw him like several hundred feet. He just nailed him. There wasn't much left."

Today, a bike painted white hangs from a fence near where Rios died. Wurth placed it there — the first such "ghost bike" memorial in Houston. It wouldn't be the last.
I have seen that bike many times, but it appears to be gone. It was an unofficial memorial, and I suspect the property owners or city workers took it down. But I would like such memorials to remain in place to remind drivers to be careful of cyclists. Of course, the ghost bike memorial for Leigh Boone at the intersection of Westhiemer and Dunlavy remains.

Leigh Boone Memorial Pictures, Images and Photos

There are places that are more dangerous to ride and less dangerous. I have to say, I would be afraid to ride where Cisco Rios was hit. People drive really fast there, and it is a weird and confusing intersection with no stoplights or stop signs.
[Houston cyclists] will tell you that drivers here are at best inattentive and at worst aggressive, and that it gets worse the farther from the city's core you go. Longtime cycling activist Dan Lundeen frequently rides from downtown to Fulshear and Richmond. He says the city's ring roads correspond to levels of danger for cyclists, with the Inner Loop being the safest, inside the Beltway a step down and beyond Highway 6/FM 1960 the worst.

A map compiled by suburban bike commuter Peter Wang, admittedly drawn from incomplete data, would seem to bear out Lundeen's premise. Wang's data comes from the In Memoriam section of the message boards at the Web site of local advocacy group BikeHouston, to which locals send news clippings of every fatal accident covered in local media.
Only ten of the 44 fatal ­incidents took place inside the Loop.
 My guess is that there are two reasons for this. First is the most obvious--on average, due to the congestion and layout of streets inside the Loop, people drive more slowly there. The further out you go, the faster the streets get--and fewer alternative routes are available to cyclists the further out you go. Almost all the old neighborhoods inside the Loop connect up on side streets, so you can avoid getting on higher speed arterials except in certain bottleneck areas (crossing freeways or bayous, for example). But as you get further out, subdivisions are more self-contained and less likely to connect with adjacent subdivisions via the surface streets. So for a cyclist outside the beltway, there may be no "back route" to get from point A to point B--you have to take the arterial. And arterials out there are a lot like highways--think of Highway 6 or FM 529. They carry car traffic at high speeds--speeds that make it harder for drivers to avoid cyclist, and more fatal for cyclists when hit by a car.

The other reason is more subtle. There is a well-known phenomenon that people don't see what they aren't looking for. The excellent book Traffic by Tom Vanderbit suggest that this goes a long way towards explaining a lot of accidents. The phenomenon is known as "inattentional blindness." Drivers are paying attention to a lot of things at once, but not expecting to see a cyclist (or a pedestrian or a motorcyclist or an emergency vehicle or a road construction worker). So a driver hits the cyclist even though the driver should have been able to see him.
This attention disorder could also help explain the "safety in numbers" phenomenon of traffic, as described by Peter Lyndon Jacobsen, a public-health consultant in California. You might think that as there are more pedestrians or cyclists on the street, the more chances there are for them to be hit. You are right. More pedestrians are killed by cars in New York City than anywhere else in the United States. But as Jacobsen found, these relationships are not linear. In other words, as the number of pedestrians or cyclists increases, the fatality rates per capita begin to drop. The reason, as Jacobsen points out, is not that pedestrians begin to act more safely when surrounded by more fellow pedestrians--in fact, in New York City, as a stroll down Fifth Avenue will reveal, the opposite is true. It is the behavior of drivers that changes. They are suddenly seeing pedestrians everywhere. The more they see, the slower they drive, and, in a neatly perpetuating cycle, the more slowly they drive, the more pedestrians they effectively see because those pedestrians stay within sight for a longer period.

And so New York, when one considers how many pedestrians it has, is actually one of the safest cities in the country for walker. (Tom Venderbilt, Traffic, pp. 85-86)
Given this, the best way to reduce the rate of car-bicycle accidents is simply to have more cyclists on the road. Cyclists need to be a visible part of traffic. I suspect there are more cyclists (on a per capita or per road mile basis) inside the Loop than outside, which might contribute to the relative safety of the inner city for cyclists.

That said, I also believe laws to protect cyclists, like the vetoed safe passing law, need to be enacted and enforced. (That veto alone is reason to vote Rick Perry out--there are many others, though.) Houston needs better bike infrastructure--bike paths, real bike lanes (not the lame, dangerous ones we have here and there now), etc. Bike infrastructure should be designed espcially with the intent of giving cyclists alternatives to dangerous arterials in places where there currently are no alternatives (so at freeways, but in general outside the Loop and definitely outside the Beltway). And when the city or county announces a bike path, it needs to really build it--there needs to be a sunset provision and real oversight. Otherwise, we have the following situation.
[M]illions of dollars flowed into the hands of consultants and the people who consult about consultants. City Councilman and current mayoral candidate Peter Brown, an architect in private life, was hired in 1995 to helped design a bike trail along White Oak Bayou. In 2004, work had not yet begun, and he told the Houston Chronicle that the city had spent $6 million paying "program managers," as people who oversee consultants are called. Brown said the waste was downright "frightening." [The Houston Press]

Right now, when a driver hits a cyclist, there is usually no particular penalty.Obviously it is hard to tell who is at fault sometimes, and everyone gets a presumption of innocence in court.
It's a good thing Rios was remembered so well by the cycling community. The world at large hasn't treated him as well. The driver of the van was questioned by police and released with no charges filed, though he and his employer — Silver Eagle Distributors — were later sued by Rios's family. The trial was ugly. Picking up on his couch-surfing temporary lifestyle, the defendant's lawyers portrayed Rios as a vagrant with no fixed abode and a reckless cyclist who was to blame for his own demise. They contended with some backing from the police that he had no light on his bicycle. Rios's friends all say he bought a light several weeks before the accident, as the Night Rider All Stars had been stopped and warned by a cop in Memorial for not having lights at the time. And everyone who knew him said he was very cautious.

The Rios family lost. According to Rios's riding partner Ahmad Cherry, Silver Eagle's attorneys successfully argued that the driver was not on the clock and thus the company was not a party to any damages. Cherry says a suit is still pending against the driver alone. "I don't know what can come of that," he says. "Even if the guy loses, what are you gonna do? Take his CD collection? He's not an affluent guy or he wouldn't be driving a beer truck." (Neither of the two firefighters involved in the collision that killed Leigh Boone was charged with a crime, and the Boone family, not optimistic about its chances of winning in court against a city employee, has not filed suit.) (The Houston Press)
At least one of the firefighters was responsible, however.
Houston police will cite the ladder truck driver in Monday's collision of two firetrucks.
Officials determined that Warren Ducote ran a red light, causing the crash that injured 11 people. [This article was written before Leigh Boone died.]

Both Houston Fire Department trucks were en route to what firefighters thought was a blaze but turned out to be a Houston public works crew smoke-testing sewer lines.
The Houston police investigation determined that Ducote ran a red light while headed northbound on Dunlavy and was broad-sided by a pumper truck westbound on Westheimer.
Investigators determined that the pumper truck had a green light, Houston Police Department spokesman Kese Smith said.
"The ladder truck driver will be found at fault for failure to use due caution," Smith said. (The Houston Chronicle, April 5, 2009).
I can't prove it, but I get the feeling that cycle accidents are simply taken less seriously by the police. But that is something that would also change if there were more cyclists on the streets, because a lot of cyclists--just by being visible--can act as a consciousness raiser. We become more visible, and crimes against us become more visible.

So why the bike tirade today? Weirdly enough, it's in celebration. I just got a new bike, a Worksman Newsboy.

My new bike

It's a heavy-duty 3-speed bike with old fashioned rear brakes (the kind where you pedal backwards to stop) augmented with a front drum-brake. Worksman basically makes bikes for industrial uses (factories, warehouses, docks), but as I researched bikes, Worksman got really positive reviews, especially as a good bike for big guys like me. It is a very different bike from any that I've had. Unlike a mountain bike or a road bike, it's not built for "sports"--it's not light, it is not designed to go really fast, but it is perfect (I hope) for urban  rambles.

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