Community spirit takes on Houston's historic individualism. New transit plan and convention center cited as evidence of change

Valerie Branch is a new Houstonian, in more ways than one. The network operations manager with AT&T moved here from Los Angeles 10 months ago after she and her husband, who works in Houston's planning department, weighed the cities' advantages.

``We felt we could have a much better life style in Houston,'' says Mrs. Branch, pointing to affordability, but also to a strong sense of community involvement and an ``optimistic, future-oriented'' spirit, as factors she wanted - and believes she has found - in her new home.

``Coming from the outside, I'd thought I might find a boarded-up city with no opportunity,'' she says, referring to Houston's well-chronicled economic downturn following this decade's oil-price declines beginning in 1982. ``But it was surprising. It's very vibrant, people are involved, and it's forward looking.''

Valerie Branch exemplifies a major shift taking place in the nation's fourth-largest city among newcomers and old-timers alike. Instead of focusing solely on individual betterment, Houstonians are spending more time thinking about community improvement.

Once a bastion of thinking that considered almost any form of government an imposition, Houston has recently implemented guidelines approaching once-hated zoning (something Houston still does not have). Multibillion-dollar improvements in transportation, drainage, waste-water treatment, and other infrastructure have been undertaken.

``The upside to the downside,'' says Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University, ``is that the people here have taken this time as a breather to look harder at the kind of city they want.''

Dr. Klineberg predicts that Houstonians will remember this period as watershed years when Houston relinquished some of its individualism for a greater sense of community.

Klineberg cites the shifts he has seen in six annual public-opinion surveys he has conducted in the city since 1982. Those surveys show a remarkably unscathed optimism, along with growing interest in education, the environment, and other ``quality of life'' issues.

``Houston's changing economic fortunes seem to be stimulating a profound rethinking about the nature of the city and the bases for its growth,'' he says.

Others point to recent votes for a multibillion-dollar transit plan and infrastructure improvements, plus last year's opening of a huge new convention center and a major performing-arts complex, as proof that Houston's identity is changing.

``We've finally got the time to slow down, contemplate where we want to go, and take steps to get there,'' says Alan Kiepper, general manager of the city's Metropolitan Transit Authority. Following more than 300 public meetings, voters in January overwhelmingly approved a $2.6 billion transit plan that includes a light-rail system linking major employment centers and a half-billion dollars for road improvements.

For most of its 150-year existence, Houston has been a boom town with an outa-my-way, the-sky's-the-limit ethos. It's been every man for himself, in a place where any one with the next clever plan for subduing the land could make his fortune. Between 1970 and 1982, as oil prices spiraled upward, some 1,500 people moved here every week. The city grew to encompass 565 square miles.

But Klineberg says the economic downturn of the past few years has also forced Houstonians to contemplate a future based on something besides the land and its riches. The swiftness with which Houston has embraced the notion of an economy increasingly reliant on education and information makes it, he says, an ``exaggerated microcosm'' of a transition taking place over much of the world.

While the energy industry is expected to continue making up about a quarter of the city's economy in the foreseeable future, other highly technical sectors, including aerospace, tied to the Johnson Space Center, and medicine - the Texas Medical Center is the largest medical complex in the world - are of growing importance. Tourism and conventions, which depend on clean, safe, and interesting surroundings, are also expected to assume a greater economic role.

``We've already got the easy wealth that was available from the ground,'' says Lee Hogan, president of the Houston Economic Development Council, a private venture attached to the Chamber of Commerce, that was funded with $10 million in private funds. ``What we face now is a painful, more difficult process.''

Mr. Hogan says Houston stands on the ``threshold'' of a new economy and outlook geared toward the next century. And while he says the ``jury is still out'' on whether the city will wholeheartedly embrace its new direction, he believes Houston's ``entrepreneurial spirit'' will help take it in the right direction. ``We really don't have any other choice,'' he says.

Also sounding a cautionary note in his otherwise optimistic song is Klineberg, who says Houston, with its new acceptance of the partnership role government must play in building a livable city, will have to accept paying more for that role.

``Whether, in the end, the citizens are just paying lip service to these issues,'' he says, ``or are ready to pay for the improvements in living, to a certain extent remains to be seen.''

But newcomer Valerie Branch says: ``I certainly believe Houston is on a positive, forward track.''

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