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Space Treasures, Art Treasures, Community Treasures: Finding Things to Like About Houston

The alternative community is not obvious, driving around Houston. At least in the neighborhoods I passed through, you don't see natural foods stores or hippie boutiques; you don't see much small retail at all, in fact, other than restaurants, a few strip malls, and the occasional clump of high-end national-brand chain stores like Williams-Sonoma and Apple.

What you do see is great wealth and deep poverty, sometimes within a block or two. One of the most forlorn neighborhoods I saw was just a block from the University of Houston, and there were elegant brick mansions in between. Not quite as elegant as the estates of River Oaks, where a lot of the oil barons (local or foreign) live—but pretty darned spiffy.

But if you tap into the network, you find a close-knit community of artists, urban farmers, and progressive political activists. The people I stayed with live in an old farmhouse on a dead-end street with several rescue dogs and cats, surrounded by large light-industrial facilities like scrap-metal recyclers. They were heavily involved in creating an attractive naturescape and turning it into the city park at Japhet Creek, and now they're working on permaculture projects with local youth. They seem to know everyone in their neighborhood, centered around Clinton and Emile Streets.

Less than a mile away, the Last Organic Outpost Farmart a 2-1/2 acre urban farm, provides bushels of lettuce and greens and herbs, some of it growing aquaponically out of an old hot tub and an 11,000-gallon fish pond, other parts using permaculture in the bed of an old Caddy hearse and other ancient cars. A little gazebo with mosaic pillars and a roof made from old license plates provides a visual anchor. Most of the farm is behind locked gates, but the two farmers, Joe and Ken, plant quite a bit outside of the fence for residents of the low-income shotgun-shack neighborhood to freely harvest.

This set the mood for The Orange Show, one man's tribute to that humble fruit, and a venue available for functions. It was locked, unfortunately, but we could see some cool wireframe sculptures through the fence. This spot is also the focal point for an event called Art Cars, where people bring their gussied up vehicles decorated in all manner of non-factory designs. Next door is Smither Park, full of wonderful mosaics made of reclaimed bottle caps, sea shells, and other found materials.

Houston Museum of Fine Arts

Houston has a LOT of museums. I got to visit three of them:
I spent several hours in the two main buildings of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. The mid-20th-century Audrey Jones Beck Building has a quite decent 19th-century Impressionist, Pointillist, and Fauvist collection as well as quite a few canvases from the Renaissance and some good early-20th-century work, including several Picassos. Both well-known and lesser-known painters are well-represented. And refreshingly, so are a number of living artists still working today.

The newer Caroline Wiess Law Building concentrates on art of other cultures, especially Asia. The Indian Subcontinent and African collections are both well worth a stop. But the real show-stopper is one of the best collections of Pre-Columbian art from Mexico through Peru I've seen anywhere, with a particular emphasis on gold. Surprisingly, the display of Native American collection from what is today the United States is much less extensive. I imagine there's more that wasn't displayed, but what was being shown was sparse and for the most part not overly impressive. But the Pre-Columbian collection is almost worth a trip to Houston by itself.

Space Center Houston

Combine these art treasures with the legendary NASA facility—remember "Houston, we have a problem" from "Apollo 13"?—and you definitely have reasons to visit the city. In fact, "Houston" was the very first and so far the last word spoken from the moon. Houston Mission Control has been facilitating space flight since 1965.

Space Center Houston.

During my visit, I took the tram tour, which visits one of the several Mission Control rooms and the Saturn V hangar. The notes and quotes are from our tour guide, speaking in the observation gallery outside of the Mission Control rooms.

We heard not only about the control center but also the International Space Station, which can circle the earth at the Equator in an hour and half at 17,500 miles per hour. Astronauts aboard the ISS can see 16 sunrises and sunsets per day. Space is standardized to Greenwich Mean Time. So the astronauts have no need to adjust for time zones.

The Flight Director has final say on everything, including scrapping the launch. In order of importance, the Flight Director oversees overall safety of the crew, spacecraft, and the need to complete all missions,.

CAPCOM: Capsule communications officer. This person controls and handles all communication to the spacecraft. It's always an astronaut. "They can speak shuttle pilot and they've been there," said our guide—and thus they can solve many problems.

The Flight Activities Officer schedules both the six-member crew at Mission Control and the seven astronauts aboard the ISS, pretty complex. "Astronauts nickname them 'Mom.'"

Coordinating the media is the Public Affairs Officer's job. In the 1960s, when there were only four TV networks in the US, they screened all networks all the time. Now, there are too many channels to make that viable. The PAO narrates the live videos.

Visible even behind the glass wall separating the visitor gallery from the actual control room are a large display of patches. On the left, there's a patch for each successful mission—and on the right, in the place of honor, patches from Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia, and a fourth patch honoring those who lost their lives in training or on mission. "Columbia was only 16 minutes away from landing. Those who died—we still view them as being on mission. Astronauts know they risk their lives to further our knowledge." (Astronaut Megan McArthur was even filmed as saying the Challenger disaster actually inspired her to pursue a space career, because others were willing to die for it).

A more recent venture was the launch on November 26, 2011 of Curiosity, the most technically advanced Mars rover. "We hope to land humans in 2035. Those astronauts are in elementary, middle, or high school now."

Tram riders also get to walk the length of a massive Saturn V rocket with all its stages; this was the rocket that launched the Apollo moon missions. (You can also do this at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.)

The best exhibits inside the museum did manage to hold my interest, but I had to hunt for the good parts. The whole thing is really geared toward kids, and a Disneyized view of the entire space program. If you don't actively seek out the more authentic exhibits, it would be entirely too easy to just treat it as a theme park, which is kind of unfortunate. Also, a surprisingly high percentage of the self-teaching exhibits were either broken or very unintuitive

Still, underneath all the bright lights and rides and rah-rah, there was enough real stuff to make me glad I'd committed a day to it. Between the tram tour and the museum itself, I entertained myself for a solid five hours.

Particularly exciting was a moon rock exhibit, including one of only eight in the world that the public is allowed to touch. Three actual space capsules, one from each of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Brief descriptions of all the manned missions, a walk-through trainer for Skylab, good movies on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station.

Go if you're in Houston, but if you are traveling just to visit a Space Center, go to Kennedy Space Center in Florida (the link goes to the article I wrote when I visited there). And bring your own food, especially if you're vegetarian; the cafeteria offerings are pathetic.

Bus access: M-F, #249, in intercity-style coaches. $2 exact fare. Allow an hour's ride from the Eastwood Transit Center terminal.

Houston Green Building Resource Center

Much smaller than the other two museums, the Green Building Resource Center is operated by the City of Houston as a service to builders, homeowners, and tenants who want to go green. It's located downtown in the Code Enforcement Building, 1002 Washington, and is open Monday-Friday 8 am - noon and 1 pm - 5 pm. 832.394.9050.

This entity's principal purpose is not to be a museum; it's to provide advice and resources on green building projects. But it's also one of the only places to get hands-on with a wide range of eco-friendly materials, and the exhibits are certainly more extensive than plenty of places I've been that call themselves museums.

It's not obvious when you're inside, but the building itself was done as a sustainability laboratory, putting into practice many of the cool technologies that are demonstrated in its exhibits of plumbing fixtures, lightning technologies, construction techniques, and more. The building even has a green roof (with a layer of plants growing on it).

And Beyond

For a future trip, I wouldn't run out of museums for quite a while. The city has museums of natural history, contemporary arts, weather, printing, and the Holocaust, just to name a few of the myriad of choices.

In addition to being a part-time space geek, Shel Horowitz writes on the synergy of green and ethical business. His most recent book is the Amazon #1 category bestseller Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green.

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