Naked City

Off the Desk:

The gods of annexation were looking out for Austin in the Maple Run Utility District ruling; now the city is praying for another miracle: Regaining control over its extra-territorial jurisdiction in Cedar Park -- control that the Texas Legislature took away last year. Renea Hicks, the city's outside counsel on the case, laid out all the reasons why Austin should have that authority restored in oral arguments last month before the Third Court of Appeals. It could be one to six months before a ruling occurs...

Austin's trash will be a garbage company's treasure some day. Assistant Solid Waste Director Joe Word is on a scavenger hunt for someone to take over the city's landfill services, build a transfer station in one of the far reaches of the city, and commit to a 25-year recycling deal, beginning late next year. Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), Waste Management, Inc., and Texas Disposal Systems, Inc., are chomping at the bit for a piece of this lucrative action. The city's BFI recycling contract expires in December, but a one-year renewal is likely pending the slew of changes expected in late 1997....

Five thousand Texans agree: Consumers should be a priority when state lawmakers reconfigure the complex world of electric utilities. That's according to Texas Citizen Action (TCA), the consumer group that has collected 5,000 signatures so far in its statewide petition drive to rein in utility costs. The campaign also calls for legislators to sign a "Covenant with Constituents" that promises to work on consumers' behalf. TCA Co-Director Brigid Shea reports that politicians have been slow to sign the pledge...

We all knew it would come to this -- the so-called corporate takeover of academia. Marquette University Prof Lawrence Soley, who penned a new book about this same topic, will share his views at 7:30pm Tuesday, Nov. 19, at UT's Painter Hall, room 3.02, north of the Main Tower...

Folks who live a hard-scrabble life on the streets seldom get their due, but on Sunday, Nov. 17, House the Homeless, Inc. will honor the homeless people who have died out there in the world. The event takes place at 6:45am on the south shore of Town Lake, west of the First St. bridge. Meet at the House the Homeless marker, near the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue. Call 476-4383...

-- A.S.

A Textbook Case

Though the basic charge was to throw out old social studies textbooks for Grades 1-6 and adopt new, updated books, a Nov. 6 hearing before the State Board of Education swelled into a conservative diatribe against casting people of color in more active roles in our country's history. A few highlights:

Eleanor S. Hutcheson, of the Texas Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, complained of an "overabundance" of illustrations of brown and black cowboys in some sections on Texas history. She further noted that black poet Langston Hughes should not be featured as an American hero, because he was a card-carrying Communist dedicated to overthrowing the country. (Speaking a bit more factually, Hughes was also a homosexual, but Hutcheson curiously omitted this from her denunciation.) Hutcheson also objected to a photo of slain Corpus Christi native Selena being included in a section on the rising popularity of Tejano music -- because Selena is dead now. "So's George Washington," returned Board member Mary Helen Berlanga of Corpus Christi.

Another speaker, Linda Odom, complained that one of the textbooks did not adequately explain the Texas Revolution and made it appear as though Texans were to blame. "There was more on the Pig War than the Alamo," Odom sniffed. And, she added, it was "a biased statement" to say that slaves were held in America for 340 years. No one slave ever lived that long, Odom explained knowingly. To which SBOE member Alma Allen, an African-American representing a Houston district, retorted: "I really want you to know that blacks were enslaved for 340 years and have been free for 130."

Beyond the nit-picking, there were some glitches that simply couldn't be overlooked -- a fifth-grade history text published by Harcourt Brace came under fire for allegedly containing 50 errors of fact. Texas Education Agency (TEA) staff determined, however, that only five of the mistakes were substantial; 23 were deemed "technical" errors, and nine were points that needed clarification. A Harcourt Brace representative pledged to make the TEA-recommended changes. All books were ultimately adopted by the 15-member SBOE, but three conservative Republican Board members still voted against the Harcourt Brace text.

-- R.A.

Thugs Demolish Casa

One group of youths giveth, and another taketh away. The story of the little house at 1138 Northwestern Ave. is a classic good guy vs. bad guy story, but it doesn't have a happy ending... yet. The house, off Rosewood Ave. in East Austin, was built by Casa Verde, a project of the American Institute for Learning (AIL), which puts at-risk teen-agers to work building homes for middle to low-income families.

The local group has built and sold about 15 homes throughout Austin since 1994, but the occupants of 1138 Northwestern spent only a few weeks in their new home before fleeing after being threatened at gunpoint and having their home vandalized by gang members in the area. And finally, two weeks ago, the young toughs allegedly destroyed $15,000 worth of fixtures, windows, walls and floors. The vandals left their calling card -- Dice IV Bros -- spray-painted in the carpet of the home. Austin Police Department spokesman Mike Burgess says the case has been turned over to the department's gang unit for investigation.

Businesses and service groups in the area -- Meals on Wheels, Austin Community Television (ACTV), and the NAACP -- say they are all too familiar with juvenile crime in the neighborhood. Meals on Wheels suffered through a series of slashed tires on all of their vehicles, and ACTV regularly files reports of burglarized cars. ACTV staff also point to the name, Dice IV Bros, spray-painted on their lot.

Apart from the recent setback, the Casa Verde project has been a huge success, according to the program's sponsors. Richard Halpin, executive director of AIL, says the project allows home buyers to "take a whole new look at what affordable housing means." The three-bedroom homes sell for around $40,000 to families whose incomes are 50-80% below the median Central Texas level.

The house at 1138 Northwestern will eventually be repaired, but not as long as the culprits are still on the streets. "The forces of stability have not prevailed yet in that neighborhood," Halpin says. He also cautiously suggests a plan in which area organizations buy the adjoining properties to create a learning center. One way or another, Halpin vows, Casa Verde will continue to fight for happy endings.

-- K.V.

Adios Playboy, Zig-Zags

One week after the American Family Association of Texas announced its anti-porn boycott against Diamond Shamrock, the gasoline king decided to clean house. The San Antonio-based refiner yanked its Playboy and Penthouse mags and replaced them with a purified Family Reading Center.

Yet, Diamond Shamrock refuses to acknowledge that the threatened boycott influenced the corporation's decision to discontinue its "men's sophisticate magazines." Shamrock spokeswoman Kathy Hughes says the move was strictly a marketing decision.

Wyatt Roberts, executive director of the American Family Association, says Shamrock should give credit where credit is due. "It's absolutely a result of the boycott," he counters. "I've got a stack of petitions, I've got pastors who tore up their Shamrock credit cards, and I've got callers who logged no less than 2,000 phone calls." He said a phone team of 131 callers was set up about eight weeks ago, before the boycott officially was announced.

Indeed, Roberts is no slouch when it comes to boycotts. He estimates this particular effort cost about $15,000, which included a slick mail-out campaign. Callers were given a "suggested script" to read from when they logged their daily calls to Shamrock's board of directors and vice presidents. Roberts points to one more piece of evidence to bolster his case. "Isn't it just a tad queer," he asks, "that they're calling this the Family Reading Center? I mean, really!" On another front, in keeping with the new family environment, Diamond Shamrock also pulled cigarette papers from its stores. Roberts assures us he had nothing to do with that decision.

-- A.S.

Walk the Walk

Magazine polls ranking the country's most livable cities often overlook one important factor -- the pedestrian -- when tallying up top U.S. communities. So says Dan Burden, former bicycle/pedestrian planner for the Florida Dept. of Transportation.

"A livable community is synonymous with a walkable community," Burden told an audience of area planners and engineers during a recent two-day workshop. To back up his point, Burden illustrated how four Florida cities transformed four-lane roads in a way that actually increased pedestrian and bicycle traffic. In these projects, center medians were created to provide refuge islands for crossing pedestrians, and the four lanes were reduced to two to allow space for sidewalks and bicycles lanes.

Burden also compared this country's asphalt-jungle cities to Adelaide, Australia. Adelaide and Austin are similar in that they have about the same population, as well as a fair share of surrounding suburbs. But Adelaide has no freeways. Instead, the city has an efficient bus system and neighborhood shops within walking distance of residences. Because of the lower land use and transportation costs, Adelaide residents can enjoy a high quality of life and a low cost of living, Burden said.

But encouraging more foot travel isn't so cut and dried, Burden added. Pedestrians need to feel safe from hazardous drivers. Wide, straight streets promote speeding traffic, he said, while narrow, tree-lined roads force motorists to reduce speeds. "You can't talk about motorists' respect for cyclists and pedestrians unless you level the playing field for all modes of transportation," he said.

-- N.E.

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