Houston, city on a swamp, is rising above it

TIMES STAFF WRITER

How best to sing the praises of a city dug from a swamp?

Houston is humid and flat and crawling with bugs. Houses sink. Streets flood. Mosquitoes, day and night, crave human blood. All of which could be overlooked as long as oil was king in the '60s and '70s, when the population grew by 200 people a day and profits flowed like sweat through a crisp cotton shirt. Nobody, after all, came here for the scenery; they came to get rich.

By the '80s, the boom had become a bust. By the '90s, the bust had become a memory. Today, Houston's economy is arguably healthier and more diverse than ever, but it is not nearly as supercharged--no longer fueling the kind of instant fortunes that reduced "quality of life" to an afterthought. In short, the city now must compete for business and tourism just like any other city, downplaying its obvious shortcomings and promoting some of its less-apparent attributes.

"Houston. Expect the Unexpected."

That's the new slogan in town, the expected being heatstroke and a welter of bites swelling across your arms and legs. The unexpected, presumably, would be the sort of extravaganza being staged downtown this week, a high-tech sensory assault that has been dubbed "Power of Houston '97."

Sponsored mainly by the city's utility company, Houston Industries, the festivities include a free outdoor concert by the Houston Symphony; an aerial dance performance by Project Bandaloop, a troupe that will rappel down the side of a 757-foot skyscraper; a celebrity rally in support of President Clinton's call for volunteerism; and enough lasers, lights and fireworks to illuminate a small village well into the 20th century.

Press releases say the final surge of electricity, which is being called "Sky Power Over Houston," will be the largest visual fest of its kind "ever presented in North America." In fact, the city's spokespeople have decided that calling it a show is insufficiently grand. "We call it a spectacle, or a spectacular," they will tell you, "but not a show."

The climax, Saturday at 10:10 p.m., will cover 144 square blocks of downtown and be visible for miles on all sides of the city. More than 12 tons of fireworks will be detonated, much of it from atop the skyscrapers. More than 1,500 lighting fixtures, some burning at 16,000 watts, will be anchored around the buildings. A dozen laser units will dance from the rooftops, all of it synchronized to a pop and rock soundtrack that will be broadcast on three local radio stations. The entire event, which will be televised live, is expected to draw more than 1 million spectators.

"It's just showing the world how great we are!" said the mayor's wife, Elyse Lanier, who was appointed by her husband, Bob Lanier, to head the city's image committee. "We want the whole world to see what Houstonians are all about."

Time was when the only thing Houston really needed the world to know was that it had no income tax and no zoning laws. "There was sort of a 19th century, robber-baron, excessive individualist kind of perspective here," said Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University who has been studying the city for two decades. "Houston's image was, this is where you come to make money."

The bust changed all that. Overnight, Houston had become the nation's fourth-largest city, its population increasingly nonwhite and its neighborhoods sprawled across a maze of freeways, yet without the engine of oil to keep it all afloat. "Houston used to be unique, counter-cyclical, booming while the rest of the country was struggling," Klineberg said. "We don't have that great advantage anymore. We've become a microcosm of America, just like any other big city. So now we compete on the basis of, this is a better city than you think it is."

And that, it probably is. Houston has a first-rate symphony, theater, opera and ballet. Its clubs and festivals showcase some of greatest blues and zydeco, tejano and folk. The eating is phenomenal, which may explain why Houstonians dine out an average of 4.6 times a week--more than in any other city surveyed by Zagat guides. It's home to Compaq computers, a world-class medical center and the second-largest port in America.

But it is still a swamp, no matter how much civic leaders like to point out that the average annual temperature is "a delightful 70 degrees." For torpid late-summer days, with the mercury in the mid-90s, Houston's first lady offers the assurance that only a dyed-in-the-wool booster could muster.

"We have," Elyse Lanier said, "the best air conditioning in the world."

Times researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this story.

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