The Bad News From SW Houston …

» Chron: Massive blaze in SW Houston kills 4 firefighters

Heartbreaking …

In an instant or close to it, a group of firefighters who had put themselves in deliberate jeopardy out of concern that people might be trapped inside the Southwest Inn were buried in burning debris. The precise series of events is at the heart of an investigation to be led by ATF specialists, who arrived at the scene later in the day. But the gist of it was clear in seconds.

“We had an early and quick catastrophic failure of the roof,” Garrison said. “There’s no way that I would have anticipated that we would lose four firefighters. I want to tell the residents of Houston their firefighters acted absolutely courageously today, that there was probably a dozen acts of heroism on that scene.”

The fire broke out not terribly far from home, although the first I got of this was a photo from fellow Sharpstown-onian Stace Medellin’s facebook page. To say the least, it added a little to the homesickness of of being stuck in Austin for a few more days. Two of the firefighters who lost their lives were from Sharpstown’s Station 51, with the other two from Station 68, also in SW Houston. Just catching some of the raw footage online yesterday, it definitely looked like it would have been a miracle to get out of that fire without losing a life. I know that Station 51 is a particular point of pride for many of the folks I know in Sharpstown, so there’s definitely no shortage of grieving in the neighborhood. My prayers and thoughts go out to those who lost loved ones in this event, as well as those still battling injuries.

From the folks at the Houston Fire Department: If you feel compelled to help the families of our fallen brothers and sisters, please donate here.

Strangely enough, I managed to snap a pic during my last visit home. I’d intended this for posting on the Empty Lot Primary blog due to the Southwestern Inn hosting a political campaign sign that nobody could see unless they were going the wrong way on the feeder road. Definitely a happier time.

UPDATE: Now there’s this …

Catching Up With Baker Ripley & NCI

» Chron: How to build strong neighborhoods (Editorial)

It’s almost a shame this was written as an editorial rather than from a news perspective.

The nonprofit was reinvigorated in the 1980s, when Houston’s economic bust coincided with a wave of new immigrants. By 2005, NCI had so nourished the East Side that neighbors from the troubled Gulfton area asked the nonprofit to found something similar there.

That’s when the “magic,” as NCI staffers call it, began. Led by Blanchard, NCI coaxed a coalition of every possible type of stakeholder – Republican, Democrat, public, private, business, activist, and community member – to help fund the new center.

NCI also commenced an interview tour, asking residents to state their own goals and their neighborhood’s strengths.

In 2010, Baker Ripley Center, a $20 million “village” of service centers, finally opened in one of the poorest, most gang-ridden, least educated communities in the city.

In keeping with the survey, the complex offers only what neighbors want most: afterschool care, tax help, education in finance and citizenship application. It also has a school and a credit union.

And in the two years since Baker Ripley opened, the neighborhood has embraced it. No one has ever broken into its buildings. More than 25,000 people have passed through the doors; 2,700 have become long-term members, continuing to use Baker Ripley’s programs – and often volunteering.

I’m pretty sure I’ll end up getting roped into volunteering at some point in the foreseeable future. To date, I’ve been a total slacker, only serving witness to the great work and social gathering place created at the Baker Ripley Center. It’s in my own neighborhood, too. So I’m not even going to offer a defense of myself. For now, it’s good to see them getting the recognition they deserve. Also good to see others taking notes from Angela Blanchard. I don’t doubt there’s a lot to learn.

Gulfton’s Baker-Ripley Community Center Featured on Visions

Great segment from last week’s Visions episode. This focuses primarily on the new Baker-Ripley Community Center in Gulfton. In particular, the place is in my own voting precinct and is a quick jog from where I usually catch the bus in the morning. From the sound of it, there may be a good excuse or two to volunteer there.

UPDATE: And since I find map stuff to be so much fun, here’s a great before & after shot for both the entire facility. In the before shot, the building on the western side was an abandoned nursing home.

And this is the view on Google Earth as of 3/2011.

KIPP Gulfton: In Need of a Little TLC

A little shaky video work from the neighborhood here for ya. I first noted that KIPP charter schools had purchased the Twelve Oaks hospital in the Sharpstown/Gulfton area back in December. There doesn’t seem to be a rush to renovate the property just yet, as it has been idle since then. One particularly negative side effect of that idleness has been that the property is reaching the point of eyesore without a modest amount of maintenance. With that, here’s a quick walkaround showing the deterioration of the front facade of the building, the littering in and around the property, and the weeds/grass moving through the parking lot out back.

All in all, there’s nothing here that isn’t fixable. A little bit of upkeep would seem to be in order, is all.

Hispanic Marketing 101 Meets My ‘Hood

» Prime Property: From Platter to Plaza

Behold, our very confusing demographic future …

“Our expertise is in lower to middle income areas, and the Bellaire Hillcroft area specifically, in my opinion, is the best retail area for the Hispanic community in Houston,” Freedman said. “There’s just not enough property there for more retail, so when this came up we knew we had to jump on it quickly.”

The company has already leased the entire Luby’s building to China Star Seafood Buffet, which is already doing an interior remodel.

Emphasis mine.

I’m not complaining. I love the idea of cheap seafood buffet within walking distance from home. Then again, I’m white. As in: “knows lyrics to some Barry Manilow songs” white. Hey, it was the 70s. And I said “some.” Besides, the sketch of the property also suggests the place serves up some quality Mongolian BBQ. Who knew Hispanic culture was this rich?

Not Your Father’s Suburbs Anymore … Unless Dad Was a Hippie, That Is

Neighborhood revitalization by mass transit? … an arts district? … and organic vegetables? Surely this sort of madness must only exist in Europe or some downtrodden hovel in New York City, right? Try Haltom City, Texas. It’s the town that makes North Richland Hills look awesome. Here’s the overview, here’s the city’s presentation:

Haltom City Envision Belknap from Haltom City on Vimeo.

In my Christmas/Football playoff season vacation to visit the folks, I didn’t quite make it as far as the specific intersection that this involves. Apparently, my world ended at the Braum’s Dairy on Denton Highway. What I did see of Haltom wasn’t overly promising. It should be interesting to see how far along this plan goes.

St. Agnes’ Plans for Sharpstown

This may very well top the “best news-to-bad photo” ratio:

I apparently missed the good news when Swamplot announced it back in September (can’t imagine what was keeping me busy then!). But the signage is apparently now up in the lot and the only time I swing by that area is after dark.

The reason this is good news, of course, is that it occupies the old Gillman Auto lot that’s been sitting idle for years and it also means we won’t have to endure another dangerous nightclub trying to build a mega-complex in the area.

St. Agnes is the all-girls alternative to the all-male Strake Jesuit for the good Catholics on Houston’s southwest side. Looking at the number and type of sports fields they’re dropping in there, it seems to contrast with the relative size of the school. If there are plans to share the facility with Strake Jesuit, I’ll be interested to see if this enhances my odds of catching some quality high school baseball in the years to come.

Innovative Education in the ‘Hood

Good news for the middle school in my neighborhood …

Jane Long Middle School in southwest Houston is one of four U.S. schools or districts selected to take part this year in Microsoft’s worldwide Partners in Learning program.

Microsoft announced today that the Houston magnet school at 6501 Bellaire Blvd. was named to the program because of its partnership with Citizen Schools to lengthen the school day for all sixth graders by nearly three hours each day.

The expanded learning time offers extra academic support and project-based learning, including 10-week apprenticeships with local professionals, according to a news release.

Considering that the immediate neighborhood has something of an Ellis Island nature to it, demographically, I guess it makes a good fit for a program that connects teachers internationally.

Southwest Freeway Frogger: Pedestrian Onramps

Revisiting the pedestrian fatalities of Southwest Freeway, I’ve been meaning to include a photo of one particular feature of the freeway that, while useful for highway safety, may be a contributor to the problem of people thinking they can successfully play Freeway Frogger on 59. Here’s a Google streetview of the problem …

View Larger Map

It’s worth emphasizing that those irrigate the freeway and keep it navigable during heavy rains. It also helps prevent the runoff from flooding the access roads. But when you’re confronted with a one-mile walk to reach the point on the other side of the freeway, I can’t help but think that it also serves as a temptation to cross the freeway and save some time. There’s 10 of these along the southern side of SW Freeway between Bellaire and Hillcroft.

Another One Bites the Dust

» Swamplot: Books-A-Million Bailing out of Houston Pavilions

It’ll be interesting to if downtown can sustain another bookstore and/or movie theater in the short-term. The population downtown strikes me as a bit more “trendy” than you’d normally catch at either type of establishment.

Southeastern U.S. chain Books-A-Million has decided to close its Downtown Houston store on January 15th. The decision has left management of Houston Pavilions feeling rather put-out: Managers at the downtown mall reportedly had lowered the bookstore’s rent on the 2-story, approximately 23,000-sq.-ft. space facing the light rail line at 1201 Main St. to just $3,000 a month — in hopes the concession would prevent it from shutting down.

I was at least a little hopeful for Books-A-Million, but the few times I’ve stopped by, it was as dead as dead can be. My first thought upon visiting the DT-BAM was that they sure were betting big on a tough proposition. In years past, it wasn’t uncommon for me to spend the better part of a paycheck at the much smaller Borders store during the late 80s(/early 90s?). They were selling a lot of discount books from a much smaller footprint and still couldn’t survive. And that was before the internet.

Having recently visited the greater Ft Worth area, I managed to stop by the downtown Barnes & Noble there and found it substantially well trafficked at 3 in the afternoon. It’s only one datapoint, I realize. But I’d be willing to bet that it’s somewhat representative.

It’s been a while since I’ve trekked over to the Houston Center (aka – the old school Downtown mall) to see if the Waldenbooks is still operational. That’s been the longest running downtown bookstore that I’m aware of. But it’s still a horrible Waldenbooks that has all the selection that you can get on the front page of