Well, "best" up until his retirement a few weeks ago, but Hersh is still working on the city's SMART Housing initiative, about the only part of Smart Growth that hasn't lost its luster. If you find someone else who's learned and mastered the building and land development codes and the arcane rules governing federal funds -- and who shares Hersh's passion for doing right by the citizens who need safe, decent, affordable housing -- send them on over. Better yet, clone them.
When the TNRCC claimed it couldn't record pollution complaints on the Web, Schneider, TCE, and its research arm, Public Research Works did it themselves - as one more way of goading the regulatory agency into doing its job. Schneider was a central member of this year's environmentalist caucus that kept the pressure on the Lege to finally do something about grandfathered industrial polluters - and succeeded, with one of the big people's victories of the session. She met Lege skepticism with knowledge in the committee room and in the lobby, and stayed late into the night to counter the polluters' arguments with more knowledgeable arguments of her own. "They've had 30 years to 'volunteer' to do the right thing," testified Schneider. "It's long past time to require them to get the job done." She was right - and won.
In a nonprofit world where everyone is working hard to raise money for each worthy cause, one crusader is indefatigable and ubiquitous. The go-to guy at Project Transitions (a nonprofit that provides hospice, housing, and supportive care for people living with HIV/AIDS in Central Texas), Stern not only publicizes dozens of benefits each year, he cross-pollinates and does legwork for other organizations. His fingerprints are all over e-mails, press releases, and pleas for volunteers for a variety of charitable organizations. As if that isn't enough (and it is), he never fails to do the simple thing that is so often overlooked: He says thank you. On behalf of the recipients of the kind and compassionate care provided at Project Transitions and other places, thank you, Lonny Stern.
The University of Texas at Austin is a well-oiled machine. With more than 50,000 students, it has to be. Because of TEX (the Telephone Enrollment eXchange), students don't have to wait in outrageously long lines for every problem and process involved with registration, course adds and drops, and the like (ask pre-computer-age alumni about the old punchcard system). Still, getting emergency student loans by touch-tone doesn't offset the oppressive sense of being a tiny cog in the Longhorn assembly line. But the friendly Texas drawl of UT senior vice president William Livingston -- the voice of TEX -- seems to magically alleviate students' small-fish syndrome, especially the empathetic "Goodbye, and good luck," with which every TEX session is terminated. And you still feel like a number-not-a-name after this hearty heave-ho, the "TEX Talk" service provides mental health guidance among its 500 topics.
University of Texas at Austin
727 E. Dean Keeton, 512/471-3434
Sarah M. & Charles E. Seay Building, Speedway & Dean Keeton, 512/471-1157
UT Architecture Library, 200 Battle Hall, 512/495-4620
University of Texas Department of Art & Art History, 2301 San Jacinto, 512/475-7718
Bercu, chief executive officer of BookPeople, started the "Declaration of Independents" campaign to persuade Austinites to shop locally owned businesses instead of the mega-malls of the world. With an ad in the Chronicle designed by GSD&M Advertising Agency, Bercu is "attempting to preserve what is unique about Austin." An initial membership of 20 area companies formed the Independent Business Alliance to educate the public on the customer service value of owner-operated businesses. By this fall the coalition hopes to grow to 100 members, plus have a Web site and directory of local businesses. One common thread that runs through the list of independent businesses, ranging from coffeehouses to print shops, is that the owner is usually on-site to solve problems. Instead of rows of cashiers ready to take a shopper's money there is someone behind the counter of the locally owned business who has a relationship with the product and an interest in pleasing the customer.
Actually, they haven't slain the dragon (Alcoa Corp.), but they've certainly pulled its tail. By digging through long-dormant EPA and TNRCC files, Neighbors for Neighbors volunteers discovered that Alcoa's Rockdale plant may have been violating grandfathered pollution laws for many years - triggering a state and federal investigation and putting Alcoa's pollution in a national and international spotlight. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, NFN has been an indispensable player in the fight against grandfathered pollution, only one aspect of its own fight, centered in Lee and Bastrop Counties, against Alcoa's expanding strip-mining and pending export of Central Texas water. They don't want Alcoa to leave, they want it to become a responsible company and a good neighbor to the surrounding countryside. Can the Neighbors tame the dragon? With the help of a few more neighbors ...
Neighbors for Neighbors Community Organization
Let's forget about the ongoing redistricting confusion for a moment and think about the good marks Ann Kitchen earned during her freshman year at the Legislature. Though the incoming class is generally seen and not heard at the seniority-driven Lege, Kitchen, a policy expert by profession, quickly impressed the big fish with her depth of knowledge on issues such as health care and education. She also put up a good fight on behalf of her South/Southwest Austin constituents who don't exactly fancy the idea of the Longhorn gasoline pipeline running through their back yards. Kitchen didn't get everything she wanted on pipeline safety requirements, but her ability to argue a case with passion did not go unnoticed either. Now there's not a soul at the Lege who doesn't know something about the pipeline, thanks to Kitchen. As the representative told the Chronicle a few months ago, "You have to know when to fight and when to step back and observe the process." She's a quick study, that one.
Speaking of heroes, the hearts of Texans and Texas firefighters have opened for the firefighters of D.C. and especially of New York City, where hundreds of firefighters lost their lives in the collapse of the World Trade Center, after they responded to the emergency of the initial attacks on Sept. 11. Mike Higgins, director of service for the Texas State Firefighters Association announced Sept. 22 that the state union organization had raised more than $2 million for the "9-11 Fund," for the benefit of the injured firefighters and the deceased firefighters' families. But Higgins had to correct himself - San Antonio members were still counting another $700,000, and the state total continues to grow. "We're still counting big checks and dollar donations that keep coming in," said Higgins, "and I now estimate the total to be somewhere between $4 million and $6 million - because it's still coming in faster than we can count it." Scott Toupin, president of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters, said that his members have raised more than $200,000, of more than $600,000 raised by firefighters in the Central Texas area. Care to raise the total? Bring cash or checks (made out to "The 9-11 Fund") to your local neighborhood fire station, visit the Web site at IAFF.org, or mail to Sec. Treas., IAFF, 1750 New York Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006. You could be heroes, too.
We have these two Houston lawmakers to thank for the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act. With Thompson in the House and Ellis in the Senate, this seasoned political duo led the charge to put the law on the books once and for all. They weren't alone. They had a coalition of folks fighting with them outside the chambers - the NAACP, Texas Freedom Network, the Lesbian Gay Rights Political Lobby, Anti-Defamation League - clearly too many to name here. The two legislators proved how even the most emotional battles can be fought with clarity of vision. They stayed the course and closed the deal. In the end, when Gov. Rick Perry signed the bill, Thompson let herself cry.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston
1100 Congress, Room CAP 3S.06
Every week, right here in The Austin Chronicle, perennial "Best Naughty Shop" winner Forbidden Fruit runs some yummy softcore photo ad. Every week, it's a different provocative image from the rakish eye of lensman Bob Sherman, an affable bad boy who charms much more than the socks off his alluring tattooed and pierced models. Does he love his job or what? Hmmmm, wonder if he's looking for a prop assistant? Probably not. Eat your hearts out, studs and muffins.
If there's a public-spirited proposal with hope of life at the Lege, chances are Tom Smith - known universally as "Smitty" - has a hand in it. He's probably best known for his work on environmental legislation - if there is significant improvement in the state's air over the next few years, Smitty's teeth-grinding work with the regulatory committees on Senate Bill 5 had much to do with it. But he also works on campaign finance reform, consumer action, public safety - anything that Texas Public Citizen and its national office devote their attention to. Smitty is painfully familiar with the backward state of Texas politics - "I'm tired of losing," he says, as he returns for one more meeting, one more huddle, one more floor fight - but he's indefatigable on public policy, and a refreshing straw hat in a lobby full of $400 suits with $50 consciences. All during the interims, and again in two years, he'll still be there - and we'll need him.
Where to begin? Singer-songwriter Lourdes Perez has astounded audiences with her commanding voice and socially conscious lyrics since 1992. Today, she is loved and respected as a major force in world music. The fado, cante jondo, morna, and nueva trova are a few of the musical traditions she weaves to create music which touches the soul and ignites the heart. Whether performing for Zapatista indigenous communities or in East Austin Community Centers, Perez -- along with longtime partner Annette D'Armata -- demonstrate that art and politics are not mutually exclusive activities, but a vital way of bringing beauty and truth to the world.
Just when you thought the ACLU had gone the way of Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign, along comes Will Harrell, the Texas chapter's new executive director, to make us feel 19 again. Harrell, a thirtysomething, ponytailed lawyer-activist, has breathed new life into the Texas organization that slept through much of the Nineties. The native Texan had a spectacular session at the Legislature this year; Harrell lobbied long and hard to push a record number of bills forward (that is, record number for a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals) and scored a huge victory with the racial-profiling legislation. At the end of the session, the Texas group threw its merriest victory bash in a decade.
It would take more fingers and toes than we have to count all the people we know who've been laid off from high tech jobs in Austin this year. So what's a terminated techie to do? Consider grad school. Maybe you've got a big fat severance package burning a hole in your pocket. Or, if you just walked up to your office one day and found the doors locked, wouldn't an education loan feel more respectable than a bunch of credit card debt? You could take the LSAT and go to law school. Maybe try your hand at psychiatry, or social work, or go to film school like you keep talking about. Perhaps you should have gotten your degree in chemical engineering. Grad school may be your answer. It won't be easier than working, but it will be a whole lot different.
As spokesman and leading organizer for the East Side Social Action Coalition, Lands has shaken up the AISD bureaucracy and focused renewed attention on the failings of Austin's public schools, especially on the Eastside. The Coalition's threat to pull significant numbers of minority students from the schools for private neighborhood teaching might seem impractical - yet it's clear that without emergency action, another generation of students may be sacrificed to conventional budgetary priorities. As Lands argues, the hand-wringing and inaction have gone on for 40 years. What must happen is a renewed determination by the city and state to make public education a real priority - and that will never grow unless it begins at the grassroots. Rev. Lands' work with the Coalition is unfinished, but his determination to put the schoolchildren first is the only way to go.
The fatal armed robberies of four Mexican immigrants carrying a wad of cash after payday prompted these groups and others to put their heads together. The plan was to provide a safe and cheaper way for Mexican immigrants to stash away their hard-earned money before they sent it back home to Mexico. Thanks to the groundwork laid by a host of folks - the Hispanic Chamber, APD, the Mexican Consulate, Mayor Kirk Watson, City Council members, and the secretary of state's office - Wells Fargo now offers "banking facil" or easy banking. Typically, an undocumented worker can't open a bank account without a Social Security number. But laws are starting to lighten up on, sort of, our neighbors who come here to work. Now, under the "banking facil" program at Wells Fargo, all the workers have to do is flash a valid Mexican I.D. card to the smiling teller at the window. Now that's what we call facil.
2336 S. Congress
Sure, we feel sorry for all those shamed dot-commers skulking back to California, U-Haul trailer in tow. But we sure are happy to see rents take a breather, after several straight years of through-the-roof increases. Those $300,000, 900-sq.-ft., 2-BR "mansions" in Rosedale will surely be the next to fall. Don't let the door hit you on your way out!
The mainstream crowd would have us believe that SOS is so yesterday. And then we think back to "yesterday" and recall how this same crowd told us the SOS ordinance would be (in the words of Bush the Elder) baad, baad, for Austin. Well, here we are 10 years after, and the green warriors are still defying the odds. Just recently, SOS enjoyed yet another vindication when U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife issued a report declaring the Barton Springs watershed to be in a heap of trouble. The agency attributed the degradation of our water to - you guessed it - urban sprawl, not to mention the lack of development enforcement on the part of the Environmental Protection Agency. The F&W report grew out of a settlement of the lawsuit SOS had filed against the two agencies, alleging both at fault for not protecting the Springs. Victories (even the short-lived ones) are nice, but it's all in a day's work for SOS.
In the greenback biz, venture capitalists are quintessential legal skimmers. They fuel entrepreneurs and start-ups, take their cut from the top, keep a chunk, and two-step all the way to the bank, Monte Carlo, Tahiti? We're just fortunate that what Austin Ventures digs is Austin artistic Ventures and in turn, digs deep to support many of our local ones, including the Austin Film Society and One World Theatre.
501 W. Third
Could Assistant City Manager Roger Chan possibly be having fun in one of the city's most taxing administrative positions? Unlike assistant city managers who have come before him, Chan doesn't seem to mind playing liaison to the public while trying to keep both hands on the wheel of the city's fast-tracked economic development projects - the Austin Convention Center expansion and new City Hall, among others. A former businessman, Chan claims he wants to be remembered for his public service. We applaud his ambition.
When Gus Garcia announced he was retiring from public life after three decades in public service, Austin's political circles buzzed with speculation about who the next Gus Garcia would be. Turns out it's Gus Garcia. Since Kirk Watson decided to throw his hat in the AG ring, Garcia has jumped right into the mayoral fray, prompting several potential candidates to take a slow step backward to make room for Garcia's looming, legendary presence.
It's Al! No, wait, it's W.! Al! W.! Oh, who the hell knows? All those who were there know is that it was late, we were tired, and the crowd in the packed, sweaty ballroom was growing surlier and more sober by the minute. Cheers were followed by silence, which was followed by boos, as ill-informed news crews announced a Gore victory in Florida, then retreated. Only Austin Rep. Dawnna Dukes, resplendent in red suit and perfect campaign coif, kept her cool as Dems awaited the news with dread and anticipation.
A former mayoral candidate, Austinite Carl Hickerson loves to be in the public eye. Or at least it seems that way from the unabashed girth rippling he does in front of Esther's Follies weekend after weekend. Also well known for a twirling carnation on one finger for long stretches of time, Hickerson gleefully gives demonstrations of his balancing prowess and will even try to teach interested parties. He has been a staple in front of the club's window for so long that Esther's now incorporates him in one of Ray Anderson's acts.
We aren't certain whether Riata's proposed commercial district on the Bennett Tract at East 11th & I-35 will be a blessing or a blight, but we do know Mathias worked hard to create a development that Eastside neighbors could live with. Even those who hate his project don't hate Mathias. We still wish the city hadn't bailed out the project with public subsidies, but Mathias set a new standard in good-faith community dialogue.
3423 Bee Caves Rd.
If you ran into him on the street, you might start shaking in your All-Stars, apologizing to the big guy with the bones tattooed on his fingers. And he'd probably chuckle and buy your skinny ass a beer. To those who've tossed shots or talked bands with him, they know that Waldo is one of the nicest guys on the planet. Next time you wade through the smoke and elbows at the Hole in the Wall, observe the mastery behind the bar and smile back.
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