Sunday best: Houston's Super Bowl face-lift

A city of floods and billboards gears up to host thousands - and burnish its national image.

Put on your best smile; company is coming to town. That's the message in Houston these days, as Super Bowl XXXVIII turns the world's attention to the Bayou City.

But in a world where style often goes further than substance, it will take an awful lot of beaming faces to cover up Houston's flaws: The city is in many ways, well, ugly.

Granted, Houston has lovely areas - such as Hermann Park, a forested oasis of gardens and ponds, and River Oaks, where mansions nestle along the slow-moving Buffalo Bayou - but throughout much of the city, unsightly billboards line choked freeways, trash is strewn without regard, and belching oil refineries dot the horizon.

Because the past several years have brought the national media to cover air pollution, corporate scandal, floods, and a mother who drowned her children, the Super Bowl comes as rare good news - and the city wants to show off.

For civic leaders, that means picking up trash, planting thousands of trees, demolishing hundreds of abandoned buildings, and installing dozens of fountains - mainly along the routes that visitors will travel.

Detractors say it's like putting a bow on a pig, and once the Super Bowl is gone, the motivation to beautify the city will vanish, too. Others see what can be done and are clamoring for more.

For their part, city leaders insist that wowing football fans was not the primary motive: Many of the efforts were under way before Houston was named the Super Bowl host. Still, it's an incentive for completing projects early, such as the first leg of a light-rail system, which links a redeveloped downtown to the new football stadium seven miles away.

"A number of these things would have eventually been done, but the Super Bowl put everything into focus," says Houston Councilman Gordon Quan. "We saw the economic benefit of moving things along."

He believes first-time visitors will be surprised at how green Houston is. "I'm looking out my window right now and I think it's a beautiful city. Of course, I'm a little prejudiced."

A bum rap and an oil boom

So what will visitors find when they get here? A work in progress, says Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University in Houston.

"Two things are true," he explains. "One, we get a bum rap. Houston is more interesting and more beautiful than people think. And two, we have a lot of work to do to make it beautiful."

For nearly a century, city leaders - led by the business community - paid little attention to the quality of life, riding instead the boom of the industrial age, fed by east Texas oil fields.

"But the strategy needed for economic prosperity in the 21st century is radically different than what was needed in the 20th century," says Dr. Klineberg. "Our success has less and less to do with our physical resources and more and more to do with our human resources, as is true with the rest of the world. And I think the business community finally understands that."

Indeed, after the oil bust of the 1980s, Houston's economy was forced to diversify. While oil still accounts about half of all revenue, the city is also home to NASA, the largest medical complex in the country, the second-busiest port in the nation, and a strong international business sector. It has a wealth of world-class museums and performing arts venues. When the Hobby Center opened in 2002, for instance, Houston became home to the largest theater district outside New York City.

But much of this won't be apparent in a Super Bowl weekend, say city boosters: Houston's charms take longer to discover. "At first sight you think, 'What an ugly city.' It's big and flat with little cutting-edge architecture and not much interest in preservation," says City Controller Annise Parker. "But it grows on you."

The "Put Your Smile On" campaign, for instance, plays on Houston's reputation for friendliness. This city is more culturally diverse than most and at the same time, many describe it as more inclusive. Its lack of zoning breeds a rare, eclectic mix of neighborhoods and ideas. "I'm really glad that we have the Super Bowl," says Ms. Parker. "But Houston is more about being a great place to live and conduct business than a great tourist destination."

'One big rent city'

Part of the reason that Houston never became a prominent tourist destination is its location. The city was built on a swamp. It's flat, fairly remote, and floods routinely.

It began as a place where, with a little hard work and a lot of perseverance, anyone could make a buck. Today that attitude is still prevalent - but that may be part of the problem, says local architect Daniel Barnum. "People come here to make their fortune, but they never intend to stay. So they don't care for it like they would their home," he says. "Houston is one big rent city."

To transform the city's appearance, says Mr. Barnum, "an awful lot of education and civic pride has to take place." The public, at least, seems receptive. Last summer, Barnum wrote an opinion piece for the Houston Chronicle, detailing how the city lost its bid for the 2012 Olympics in part because the host committee found it too ugly.

That opinion piece triggered a flood of calls and letters for months, and Barnum believes it sparked a latent anger and frustration over the city's appearance.

"Houstonians are so centered on money, and here's something that is worth two or three billion dollars to the city. And we lost it because we can't get to the airport to the inner city without passing through a garbage dump," he says. "That rattles Houstonians."

Still, many residents dismiss the censure or pretend not to care what outsiders think of their city. They say simply, "You don't understand" - even though they can't defend or define it.

"Houston is kind of an odd city. We have the sprawl of Los Angeles without the old-world charm," says Mickey Herskowitz, a Houston Chronicle sports columnist. "It's really a city still groping for an image." He remembers a contest to come up with a slogan to describe Houston in the 1990s. No one could figure out what made Houston special, so they settled on "Houston Proud."

"Yeah, we're proud," Mr. Herskowitz says now. "We just don't know why."

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