INTERVIEWEE: Barrie Zimmelmann (BZ)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Radcliffe (DR)
DATE: 23 February 1997
LOCATION: Houston, Texas
NUMBER OF TAPES: Two
TRANSCRIBER: Judy Holloway
REEL: 1002 (Hi-8 and DAT)
[Tape 1 of two, Side A.]
DT: Here we go again. This is David Todd, and I’m here with David Radcliffe from the University of Houston, and we’re fortunate enough to have some time with Barrie Zimmelmann to talk about the conservation movement in Houston, Texas.
DT: And, I think that maybe David Radcliffe could start with a few questions, and then I know that Barrie can run with this.
DR: Let’s start with why you came to Houston. You came in 1962 or ’63 for your …
BZ: I came in-January 29th. I arrived in 1962 in what was supposedly the fifth largest city in the United States, and I couldn’t believe that dinky little downtown that I saw was the fifth largest city in the United States. And I came because a company here was looking for someone who could do research, feasibility studies in setting up plants-small plants and industries in underdeveloped countries-and that’s what I had been doing research on and writing articles about in Washington. And my alumnae-my college sent me a letter saying, “Would you be interested in going to a southwestern city”-they didn’t say what-and sent me a copy of the ad from the Wall Street Journal, and I hadn’t really been looking at ads. It was very funny. May I tell you a funny thing that happened to me?
BZ: The-I had gone-we had-the organization I worked for was a non-profit organization and we had lent our director to Jack Kennedy for his campaign, and after he won-he had promised us that if he won he was going to really support our organization and give us back our director. Instead of that he decided to set up his own organization, kept our director, and the assistant director and I were doing so much fund-raising we never had time to do the things that we were supposed to do. And I’d gone home and I hadn’t gotten on my knees for a long time, and said my prayers before I went to bed but that night, I got on my knees and I said, “Just tell me-give me a sign, some kind of direction, where should I be going, what should I do? Should I stay with this and fund-raise,” because the organization was a good one, “or should I go some place else.” And, the next day I got this letter from college, [laughs], saying, “Would you be interested in going to a southwestern city, for a company that’s looking for someone to do the kind of work you’ve been doing on an-sort of a-you know, a-a theoretical basis. [Laughs.] Shook me, I’ll tell you. I hadn’t been in touch with my college or anything. And so I-they sent me a copy of this ad and I called the people in New York who were interviewing and asked if they’d already found somebody and no, they hadn’t, so I sent them my résumé‚. And I got a call back a few weeks later, would I come up for an interview and-and I could tell when I went for the interview-it was a psychologist. I’d never been-no, I had an interview with them first, and then later there was-I was interviewed by a psychologist. I’d never been interviewed by a psychologist before-that was interesting-and from him I could figure that there were four of us being considered. It turned out that 400 and some people had applied for the job and he picked me, …
BZ: … because, he said, he was impressed with how I could find the source of information. He said, “Nobody can carry it all around in their head,” although he did a pretty good job. But, he wanted somebody who could-who knew how to find the information.
BZ: And that’s one thing Bryn Mawr did teach us. And so, I got the job and I ended up in Houston. However, one year after I got here, the company itself became very suspicious of this man. What, it turned out, he was was a raider-I’d never heard of raiders. He would buy up companies and-sell off their assets. He would buy up companies that were-their individual assets were worth more than their book value, and then he would sell off their assets. But there would be assets that he wouldn’t be able to sell in this country and he wanted me to find places overseas where he could sell these assets, or trade them. Now he-he recognized that you can’t always get dollars. The United States is about the only-the only industrialized country in the world that sells its stuff. It wants dollars in return for whatever it lets go-I mean, even foreign aid. The money’s spent here, …
BZ: … because our foreign aid is dollars that go to these countries but they have to buy the stuff here, and they-they use dollars. Most countries do trading. You know, they’ll trade a shipload of grain for two bars of gold or-or for something-for silk or silkworms or something that they need. This has gone on for centuries.
BZ: We were the only one that wanted money for whatever we sold, and he-now I think most countries are getting into that more and more, the-using money but in a different way. Anyway, he was willing to trade, and my job, when I got here I found out, was to find places where they-they-where we could trade assets. Get something back from a country in Africa that we could trade to another country and trade to somebody else, and end up with gold bars in the Swiss bank. So, it was interesting and he was a very interesting guy. But a year after I got here, the Board of Directors got suspicious of him, and fired him, and I was on a trip for the company in the Caribbean and came back and found that my little area-my little office had been eliminated. So then-in the meantime-going to work, I had to go across the Bayou into an old railroad property where he had his office-where we had our offices-and I’d go through the old part of downtown, and I was fascinated. And here was Buffalo Bayou, that was-they turn their backs on it. It was the water running through-it was the river running through the city. Any city in the world, river-front property is-you know, is the best property there is. And here you go over Buffalo Bayou …
BZ: … downtown, and everybody had their backs turned to it, and it was a drainage ditch. It was being used to flush toilets into and anything else, you know. I couldn’t believe it! And even with all the weeds and all these falling-down buildings and so on, when I-if I left at the right time in the evening and came across the-what was it called, the Elysian Viaduct Bridge, and looked down with the sun setting, it was absolutely gorgeous. And I kept thinking, [laughs], what is the matter with this city, you know. Right then I should’ve left. But anyway, I got interested and then I began to go through that old area and I thought, all these wonderful old buildings, and-with nothing but-but hoboes sleeping in the front and going to the bathroom and doing-you know, I mean, it stank around Old Market Square.
DT: And what year was this?
BZ: This was in January, ’62.
BZ: Well, this was the year. And so when-when I-my job was eliminated-it was in ’63–I had been talking to the chairman of the board about this area and had said to him, “Who owns all that property? You know, it’s-it’s just criminal what’s happening to it,” and here they have the Bayou. So he told me Ben Taub owned all that property. I didn’t know who Ben Taub was, so I called Ben Taub on the phone and I had a nice long chat with him.
DT: And this is old man Ben Taub.
BZ: Old Ben Taub, yeah. The man for whom they named the hotel-the hospital. And he said, “Oh, no,” he said, “I-I got rid of all that land years ago.” He said, “I don’t own any property down here.” And I said to him, “Well, Mr. Taub, I think someday you’re gonna be sorry you’re covering that land.” [Laughs.] I didn’t know who I was talking to. Anyway-so we had a long chat and he told me who owned some of it but he said it was mostly in trusts, with different trusts. And, I didn’t really do much about it, but-except talk to some people, particularly chairmen of the board. So, when my little area-my office was eliminated and the little department that I was heading up, the chairman hired-gave-because I had spent my own money on this business trip and I was gonna collect when I got back-which was a big mistake, and the secretary of the company had said to me, “Take your money first, you never know what they’re gonna do here.” And then I would’ve had my expenses paid, but since-I didn’t, so he put me to work for a-sort of a little-well, I had been working for a sort of foundation they had set up to have people talk on economics different places here in Texas and …
DR: And that’s your training, right? You’re an economist?
BZ: Well, economics, world-international trade and economics. History was my major but economics was my minor and I actually took more courses in economics but anyway-so, he put me to work and I got a little bit of salary from that, and then I heard about the Chamber of Commerce going to hold a meeting about the old part of downtown, and that they’d held four meetings in different parts with the property owners and now they were-this was open to the public. And I thought, hey, I’m gonna go and see what they’re gonna talk about. And at that meeting, they announced-I remember Durell Carothers got up and-when I asked the question about-did anybody have a plan for this area, and Durell Carothers stood up. He-I didn’t remind him later that I was the person who had asked this. But-his face was absolutely purple, because when I said “plan,” to him that meant the federal government coming in, you know, with a plan that you–[laughs]–they were gonna shove down your throat. He said, “We don’t have any plan for this area! We aren’t gonna have any government tell us what to do in this area! This is a free country and free enterprise and we just want something to be done!” So then they announced they were gonna have-set up an…
DR: You didn’t mention the Z word, did you?
BZ: Oh, no, no. I didn’t know there wasn’t zoning at that-well, I did know because they’d just had an election, just about-in the middle of ’62, I think it was, right after I came-that they had an election that was solidly, soundly turned down, because all the real estate people went into the-into the minority areas and said, “Zoning is a way of keeping you out of the nice parts of town.” That’s how they defeated it that time.
BZ: But I-you know, I stood in the middle on zoning, …
BZ: … because, you have a problem here. Without planning, zoning is a farce, and that zoning they came up to was a farce-came up with. You’ve gotta have planning, and with planning-if you have good planning-you don’t really need zoning if you have good planning because you can decide, here’s where the city has to develop, and you put in new sewer lines and streets and so on. You don’t do it willy-nilly wherever the developers say. “Hey, I’m gonna build a development here, put in this stuff,” and they do it. That’s-there’s no planning. All that the Planning Department does is approve plans. And every once in a while they start collecting information ’cause they’re gonna start planning. They don’t plan, and without planning, zoning is-is ridiculous. I grew up in a city that has no zoning and is one of the most beautiful in the world. Buenos Aires has no zoning. But, people decide what the-is gonna happen and the city decides on certain things and that’s what happens. They plan, or else they have a dictator who decides and-you know. But it has parks everywhere, and-where they used to have what they call a-a peripheral road, they-it was-it was originally the garbage dump, and they dumped the garbage sort of in a circle all around the city so they didn’t have to go any long distance in any direction,
BZ: … and then they covered it. Well, that is now a peripheral road, …
BZ: … like a parkway, with all these-you know, they’ve got landscaping and everything, it’s quite beautiful. And it’s a circle, and now no industry’s allowed-new industry is allowed to build within that circle. It all has to be outside that circle, because it was getting too crowded, and so on, in the city.
BZ: Now that’s a city of-I think now they have 12 million or 14 million. When I was growing up it was three and a half million. But-there’s plenty, you know. They-they have some ideas, and of course we have parks everywhere. You can’t go anywhere in that city, the worst slum or anything-six, eight blocks without coming on a park, because Mr.-gosh, I keep forgetting names- [Domingo Faustino] Sarmiento when he was president, and over through Rosas-he confiscated all of Rosas’ properties and all the people who were with Rosas and turned them into parks. So we have beautiful parks everywhere.
DR: [Laughs.] That’s one way that’s …
DT: That’s one way to get ’em, that’s …
DT: That’s …
BZ: Yeah, that’s one way to get ’em. But at least you get them, and they take care of ’em, you know.
DT: Well, in Houston, did you find that-that there was some sort of vision or plan, …
BZ: Absolutely none.
DT: … even if it wasn’t codified or …
BZ: No, except in the minds of a few wealthy people who had plans for what they were gonna do to make money. But there was no general plan. Now, I did learn that, for instance in 1914, the last city plan that somebody was hired to do for the city was done, and that was when they proposed making linear parks along the Bayous.
DT: This is Kessler?
BZ: No, I don’t …
DR: It was Art-Art Comie was the man they hired to do the park-to do the planning.
BZ: Somebody from Boston or something. It was some firm.
DR: Yeah, it was Boston or Chicago.
BZ: Yeah. Yeah, some place. And they came down and they said, “Here, you’ve got all these 22 Bayous and all sorts of little streams and why don’t you make parks along them? Which, you know, they ignored. I mean, the-and nothing was done.
DT: And nothing was really brought up about that until you started talking about it in ’62 or ’63?
BZ: It was forgotten about, and actually, I didn’t know about those at that time, but I did know that Buffalo Bayou was the main waterway through the city and it was where the city was founded, and here was this potentially beautiful spot, and even in River Oaks when you go there, all the houses-at that time, anyway-had their backs turned to it, and even emptied their sewage into it because River Oaks ignored the rules and would just …
DT: Until just a few years ago.
BZ: … until just a very few years ago.
BZ: And-so, it was-anyhow, I got interested, and when they said they needed an organization, I decided to apply, because I figure if they have an organization somebody has to run it, and I’ll never forget-I met with the Corps-with the Board, and-or no. When I called one of the people, Johnny Crooker, who was a junior partner in Fulbright, Crooker, Bates, blah blah blah blah, now Fulbright & Jaworski-was heading up this particular group ’cause he was chairman of the Civic Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Commerce. And of course, the Board-the Chairman of the Board of Homeco was a senior partner, Hugh Buck-a senior partner in Fulbright & Jaworski, and he talked to Johnny Crooker about me. And when I called Johnny Crooker to say that I wanted to apply, he said, “Well, how fast can you type?” And I said, “I don’t intend to type. I’m not a typist. I’m going to-I’m applying for the job of executive director or whatever you want to call it.” Well, since I was a woman they called it executive secretary for many years and made me-silly thing, these little prejudices these men have. [Laughs.] But anyway, I went to the meeting, and I didn’t know anybody else that applied. Apparently, I found out later, others had-and they said two things to me. They would rather hire a man, but they figured they could get more out of me for half the salary–[laughs]–that they would have to pay a man, and I just thought, well, you know, that’s how I get interesting jobs. And the other job-the other thing they said to me was, “Do something.” That was it, “Do something.” They had no plan, had no idea what could be done or anything.
DT: It’s a nice portfolio, though.
BZ: Yeah. [Laughs.] So, …
DR: And this is Civic Houston?
BZ: Civic Houston, yeah.
BZ: And, so, the first thing I found I had to do was figure out who owned everything down there, because I had to get membership dues from them.
DT: Well, back up. The-the charge of Civic Houston to do something–but I guess it’s towards the Bayou and Bayou development?
BZ: No. It was just-they wanted people to come down here. They wanted the price of land to go up, they wanted things to happen, they wanted somebody to build things down there.
DR: They wanted to make money exclusively.
BZ: They wanted to make money.
DT: This is downtown, the Bayou …
BZ: The only person who didn’t own property or have a direct interest down there who was on the board was Latney Temple, which reminds me-I saw his name on that list of people with money in the state thing, and he’s down in San Miguel de Allende and I don’t know what his phone number is anyway. [Laughs.] And it’s probably a lot of money.
BZ: The-anyway, they just wanted somebody to do something. This whole area had deteriorated. You could buy property down there at that time for three-fifty a square foot. Three dollars and 50 cents a square foot.
DT: And this is the area-the whole-along the Bayou, …
BZ: This is the whole old part of-the original part of Houston. It’s 78 square blocks, and it goes from just north of the Bayou-although at first we didn’t take in the area north of the Bayou-from Buffalo Bayou to-they decided to go to Capital, instead of just to Texas, ’cause the-the cancer was spreading. And so we went from Buffalo Bayou to Capital, and it went from Buffalo Bayou over here, where-you know, where the bend is, to beyond Union Station, to about where 59 comes down now, ’cause of course 59 didn’t exist then. And-so, I had this whole area that-I was supposed to go to the owners and ask them-or the tenants or somebody, the leaseholders-for dues based on the appraised value in the county-not the city, ’cause the county’s value’s always lower in the county taxes. And so they were paying things like $21 and $90 a month and that sort of thing for properties. It was interesting. So it ended up after two years-I mean, it took me two years to pin down some of these property ownerships because the city and county records were so out of date, and I was the only person in the city who knew where everything was. At one point the Federal Government was doing some project and they were taking a block in every major city in the United States, and analyzing who owned it and-I don’t know what the whole project was, and so they went to the city and said, “Who owns this particular-who owns the property in this particular block?”, and the city said, “Hey, we don’t know. Go ask Barrie.” They went to the county and they said, “Hey, we don’t know” they said, “Ask Barrie.” So they called me, and I told them who owned it and who the long-term tenants were and who-I mean, who the long-term lease-holders were and who the tenants were. Up until then, you know, nobody really knew who owned every square inch of that land. But, some of them gave-joined and some of them didn’t. But I remember my conversation with old Mr. George Meyer, the son of Joseph F. Meyer. The Meyers were the second largest private property owners in that whole area. They owned property all over the place around Old Market Square and over-all over.
DT: Is this Meyer and them, from …
BZ: Yeah, the same Meyer-the same …
BZ: … Meyers. And, Houston Endowment was the largest private property owner. They owned the Chronicle and-all sorts of stuff. But, the Meyers were second. Now the county owned-well, at that time I don’t think the county owned more. But anyway, I went to see Mr. Meyer, and I remember his dues were ninety-something a year. And-‘course in those days that was more money than now but it certainly wasn’t what they get for the-from these people for any organizations now. So anyway, I went to see him and I walked in and I told him what I was there for, and he said to me, “I wouldn’t give one nickel to anything that Jesse Jones was involved in!” [Laughs.]
BZ: And I said, “Jesse Jones has been dead for ten years, Mr. Meyer. I don’t know Jesse Jones and I’m not working for Jesse Jones or Houston Endowment. I am trying to do something for that whole end of-north-north end of downtown, and your family is the second largest single property-private property owner in that area, and so whatever I do is gonna help you, more than most people. And I just want your ninety-something or other dollars, so-and I told Joe Meyer, his son, this the other day when we had the old clock inauguration, because I’d never told him this story and he said to me, “I should’ve kicked you out before you walked in the door!” [Laughs.] Very gruff, you know.
BZ: But he pulled out his checkbook and he gave me a check for a hundred dollars. And he sent me his hundred-dollar check every year after that. I never had to ask him or anything, just automatically came.
DR: Well, did you find …
BZ: And what I found was those old characters were very straightforward and very honest, and if you spoke to them straightforwardly and honestly, there was no problem. I mean, they-they respected you for it. I had some really wonderful experiences because of that, that-they trusted me, and they believed me. And-anyway, after that he sent me his check, and one time when someone was gonna rent one of his buildings, they called me and said, “Oh, Barrie! He wants an incredible amount of rent!” You know, and I-it was something like seven or $800 a month, which in those days was terrible, and this was a building that hadn’t been occupied for 40 years.
BZ: And it was falling down, and-well, it wasn’t falling down ’cause it was well built but it was a total wreck, and nothing but people urinating in the front doorway and-I mean, it was a mess. And this guy was gonna spend a lot of money to fix up the building. He-Meyer wasn’t gonna spend a nickel. He was gonna spend all his money to fix it up and put in bathrooms and make it attractive and so on, and then he want-and this man wants 700 or whatever it was a month. So I called Mr. Meyer and I said, “You can’t do that! This guy’s gonna spend all this money on your building. You’re not spending a nickel. That building’s been empty for 40 years. And you want him to pay all this money and yet he’s fixing your building up for you, and here-he’s not gonna get any-and if it fails, he’s stuck. So at least let him have it for a reasonable rent.” “Hmm.” They all go, “Hmm,” you know. [Laughs.]
BZ: They remind me of my great-grandfather.
BZ: So, what he did was he called his chauffeur, and he went down and he drove all around the square and he saw what was happening and that things were being done and so on, and so he called the guy and said, “O.K., you can have it for $200 and don’t start paying rent until you actually occupy it.”
BZ: So you see, you could talk to them.
BZ: And you were talking to somebody who was a straight shooter. I found out later why the Meyer hated Jesse Jones and-Joe Meyers, the grandfather, father of that generation, used to play poker with Jones and two or three others and they had a falling-out over poker one time and-the reason the Rice Hotel does not go around the whole block is because the Meyer own that little building up to that side and that little building on that side and they would never sell to Jesse Jones!
BZ: And the day that it came out that-oh, dear. What’s the name of the young man? I can’t think of his name now. One of Houston’s big money people-oil men-was going to buy-he wanted to buy the Rice. He owned the Warrick. What on earth was his name?
BZ: Mecom. And-he wanted to buy the Rice, and Howard-Howard-what’s his name, who was on my board at-had been and-he was then head of Houston Endowment, Howard Creedmore-said, “Well, we’ll sell you the Rice, if you’ll buy the newspaper and our shares in Texas Commerce Bank,” because there had been a law passed in Congress that foundations couldn’t own certain things or had to give away a certain amount of money and so on.
DR: You couldn’t own-you couldn’t own profit-making enterprises if you were not on …
BZ: Something like that, yeah.
DR: … Or did the Hilton family put that in the book?
BZ: Yeah. Well, what’s-his-name, the Congressman from northeast Texas who knew how these foundations in Texas work, he would-he-Patman. He pushed it-he pushed it through Congress, for whomever.
DR: For the Hiltons.
BZ: Was it the Hiltons? O.K., so, anyway, he-they said, “We’ll sell it to you if you’ll buy these other two things.” Well, he thought, hey, it’d be fun to own a newspaper and he wouldn’t mind owning shares of-in Houston Endowment. So, the day it was announced that he was gonna buy, his architect-Mr. Weener, Weiner?-called George Meyer. The other Meyer, the other-the brother-it was George Meyer and Frank. Frank Meyer was in a mental institution, so George was sort of taking care of his things for him-and they were the two sons of Joseph P., the first one. So anyway, they called George and said, “Would you be willing to sell those two properties, when Mr. Mecom takes over, and he said-or no. He called the-he called Werley. He called the architect and said, “When Mecom takes over, we will sell those two properties if he wants ’em, so that he can take-round out the whole block for them. They weren’t saving them for-for prosterity [posterity] or anything, they just weren’t gonna sell ’em to Mr. Jones. And he sat down and …
DR: Well, did-did you find that …
BZ: And then of course the Mecom thing fell through, so they wouldn’t sell, …
BZ: Even when-even when the-Rice University was given the hotel, they wouldn’t sell because it could always go back to Houston Endowment. [Laughs.]
DR: Oh, yeah. Well, do you-do you think that for many years, things did sort of revolve on-on the individuals and the personalities and it-you know, all that kind of-relationships?
BZ: Definitely, and it still does. it’s still there. Not everything, but wherever there are old, long-term families in this town and where there are counter-relationships or whatever you want to call it, those things still go on.
BZ: They still go on. It’s very interesting. John T. Jones told me one-several times, “You’ve gotta write a book, Barrie, you’ve gotta write a book,” ’cause I would find out all these things. I talked to a lot of those old people in those days, ’cause they were still alive.
BZ: They were old, but they told me all these wonderful stories about the old part of downtown and all the people who were involved and so on, and-I told them no, I couldn’t write that book until I left town because otherwise they’d run me out on a rail, tar and feather me. But, it-there’s a lot of that.
DR: The reason I ask is it seems like a lot of non-profit groups now, especially ones that are more sort of booster-like and, you know, are talking about beautification …
BZ: Yeah. Want a little more?
DR: … often have as their-yeah, a little bit-as their donor base and their board members representatives of corporations, …
DR: … and that it’s-it’s-not too many …
BZ: Well, the corporations are-are less personal, of course, …
BZ: … although you have that in corporations, too, to a certain extent. But, you can have a situation where you get-even with corporations, if you’ve got old-timers at the head of them. The thing is that most of the old-timers now are gone.
BZ: But if you had old-timers in the banks and so on, they still had these old family feuds and what-not. It was interesting. And the Meyer-now that the Rice Hotel -what’s happening to it is going on, they probably said, “We’ll sell you those,” but I think the guy who’s bought it can’t take any more than what he’s got. He’s-you know, he’s got as much on his plate as he can possibly handle. So he wouldn’t want any more. Plus, he probably would like to have those old buildings-things done with them.
DT: Well, while we’re on the Rice Hotel-and I know David wants to talk to you about some things-about Citizens Who Care …
DT: … and CEC. But, I’ve noticed in Austin where I live and in Austin and Houston that there’s this interesting implosion going on where a lot of professionals and middle-class people were turning to near-town, downtown areas, …
BZ: Downtown, sure.
DT: … and living in high-rise areas and in high-density areas. And I’m wondering what you think about that process, where, you know, there is no plan, there is no zone, in Houston, but it seems to be happening …
BZ: Well, the zoning in the case with downtown doesn’t matter. I mean, downtown is a commercial center but if people want to live there, hey. And people have wanted to live downtown all along.
BZ: When I moved to Houston it was full of little two-and-three-and-four-story apartment buildings, all over, and Allright Auto Parks bought ’em up and tore ’em down and made parking lots.
DT: Oh. That was …
BZ: The-it was just full of all these little houses. And you had grocery stores downtown and you had bowling alleys downtown and you had movie houses downtown-you had everything going on downtown. Downtown was full of activity because people lived there, and the only thing that is going to revitalize downtown is people moving back in and I said this in ’68 and ’69 and ’70 and ’72 and I kept on saying it, and everybody said I was crazy, and that nobody wanted to live downtown. I told Louie Welch, “People will live downtown”-and, I was talking to him one time about-about sidewalks. “You’ve gotta put the sidewalks in.” We …
[Tape 1, Side B.]
“Well,” he said, “nobody in Houston loves to walk. It’s too hot.” I said, “You advertise that year round this is a place for playing golf. You can play golf year-round.” And in those days they didn’t use the carts so much, they walked. I said, “People walk to do that.” I said, “If you have someplace to walk from and someplace to walk to and something to walk on, people will walk.” “Oh, they don’t want to be out in the heat in Houston.” It was mid summer when I was talking to him. His office of course looks toward that tangle of freeways and on beyond, and he wanted to see Buffalo Bayou all concrete. Every time I see an ad for Houston with Buffalo Bayou in the foreground and all-there’s trees and then the sky-line, I think, boy, and we fought so hard to save Buffalo Bayou, ’cause it was all slated to be straightened and concreted, just like Brays and anything else. And now they’ve-with their ad-you know, this is Houston.
BZ: And he looked toward-west toward the freeway tangle, the spaghetti bowl, and River Oaks, and he didn’t look toward that little reflecting pond park. But I went outside and there were people sitting on every bench around the park, some of them eating lunch and some of them just-you know, sitting there reading and so on and it was blazing hot, but the ones that were in the shade-there were people sitting there. And I felt like going back upstairs.
DR: By the way, I have two hours of tape on both machines, so-let-maybe we could sort of budget our time-what we’re doing.
BZ: O.K. I was ready to go back upstairs to his office and say-grab him by the ear literally and take him downstairs and say, “People will be outside, they will do things if you have sidewalks, and people want to be downtown.” At that time they did.
BZ: But when you don’t have people living downtown, then everything that people use disappears. The movies are all gone, the bowling alley’s gone, all the old restaurants, the-the cafeteria that used to be there where there’s now some kind of Chinese restaurant down-underground-they all closed down because there were no people downtown to use ’em after dark and you cannot-what’s his name? One of the old restaurateurs in this town told me, “You cannot run a restaurant profitably on one meal a day. You have to have two meals a day.” Now the places in the tunnel operate on breakfast and lunch. But the reason they’re expensive is because breakfast and lunch do not give you as much as dinner.
DT: Dinner, yeah.
BZ: Dinner is the problem.
DT: Well, the reason I’m sort of following this, I’m curious about-what’s causing all the habitat problems out in the Katy prairie where you’ve got sprawl effecting-and is it-was it people fleeing downtown because these things were evaporating, or was it, you know, that there’s this great magnet …
BZ: It was the developers who built the things out there and they-they had planned communities and they built new things and-that’s like this neighborhood. Actually this neighborhood was never abandoned the way some inner-city neighborhoods were, because it was a blue-collar neighborhood and the old folks stayed. Mr. Parsons just died over there. He’s lived here 60 years.
DT: Um-hmm. Yeah. This is the Heights, usually, the …
BZ: Woodland Heights.
DT: Woodland Heights.
BZ: Woodland Heights. The Heights was abandoned to a great extent and really went down. Woodland Heights …
DT: And that’s east of here?
BZ: West of here.
DT: West of here. O.K.
BZ: Woodland Heights never really went down. It wasn’t-see, the Heights had more wealthy people, and those children and the people left. They went to River Oaks or they went to Southampton or they went to other places. The blue-collar workers didn’t have any place to go. Their children left, but the old folks stayed here, so this area never went down the way the Heights went. And it never went up to the extent that the Heights went, either, although it’s certainly doing things now that are very nice. When I sell this place, hopefully, it’ll still be going up. But, the old folks stayed and the young people left. Now what’s interesting is the young people are moving back into here. I mean, people who grew up here or whose parents lived here are buying houses back in this area and fixing them up and enlarging them and so on. But-the flight was not so much because they were trying to escape as because they tore down what they lived in. I mean, when they tear down the apartment building you live in you have to live-move someplace else, so they moved to apartments farther out.
DT: Is it …
BZ: And then they built town houses in the prairie. My father visited me one time, said, “What on earth is a town house?” And I said, “A town house, Daddy, is a Philadelphia row house with a fancier name and different faces-facades on each one, but it’s a Philadelphia row house.” “Oh, O.K., he knows what a Philadelphia row house is. But-they built them in the middle of the prairie but, you know, they were new and they looked good and that’s where the young people went, because nobody was planning anything, and we keep building highways making it easier and easier-we build accessibility. We are not building mobility. This is highway business, and what we have-and I mean it both ways-we have highway men running the Department of Transportation, and the Commission-the Highway Commission.
DT: How absurd.
BZ: It is highway men-yeah, and the city-he’s a highwayman-in both senses of the word. And, they don’t know-I went to a meeting the other day, and I almost didn’t go because I’m so fed up with the whole thing-asking-and, you know, transportation is key to any city, to any place, any country, and they can destroy a place or they can help a place, the way they plan transportation. It is not planned here. It’s-wherever that somebody decides he’s gonna build something, then they make sure that the highway goes there. Look at Sharpstown. Sharp-the-59 was supposed to-had a totally different configuration. But Mr. Sharp decided to do Sharpstown and he went and said, “Hey, I want your highway to go through Sharpstown.” So the highway goes-does a curve and goes through Sharpstown. That’s the way things were done in Houston and probably all of Texas. Just-you know. Somebody comes along and says, “I’m gonna do something.” So, they-and they do highways, which exacerbates sprawl. It encourages sprawl. There is not a person in this regional office of the so-called Texas Department of Transportation who has any experience with anything outside of highways. I went to the meeting, I said, “Do you have anyone on your staff, anyone, who knows anything about rail, who knows anything about any other kind of transportation?” “We’ve got a transportation planner. He’s a great man, very good.” And I said, “Who is he?” Christopher-Chris Olufson. “Oh, where’s he?” “He’s over there.” “O.K., may I go talk to him then?” “He’s our planner. He’s our regional planner, and he’s very good.” I said, “But what-what is he, you know, does he know anything about trains?” “Well, he’s a good man.” So I went over and talked to him and I said, “Are you the regional planner for this area?” Yes. He had been with the Highway Department for some years and now he’s the regional planner. He’s slowly risen to the top. And I asked him, “What’s your degree?” Civil engineer. Highways. That’s all he knows. He doesn’t know anything about trains. You talk to him, “Oh, it would cost millions dollars more to build trains.” That’s not true, that’s not true! Plus, I asked them, “Are you taking into account how many acres you take off the tax rolls when you build your highways?” This interchange of 288, 45 and 59-that interchange took 132 acres of tax-paying land off the tax rolls. A hundred and 32 acres, just for that interchange. Now they say, “Well, it develops other things that bring money.” That interchange there hasn’t developed anything, and trains will develop much more intelligently, because what happens is, you cluster-you cluster around the stations, and you have high-density development here. ‘Course one of my Libertarian friends, Barry Klein, with whom I do not always agree, …
BZ: … said, “Well, I don’t want to be forced to live in any particular place, and I don’t want trains because I don’t want to be forced to live here or there.” I said, “Barry, do you live in a tent, or did you build the house you live in right now? Where do you live? You live where somebody built a house, and you have to live in that house because that’s where it’s built.” I mean-all of these people. They come up with an answer any time they like. One of my sisters …
BZ: … has no brains whatsoever but she can react. They-they don’t think through, and rail does not cost-doesn’t cost as much as these HOV [High Occupancy Vehicle] lanes, and it doesn’t disrupt the highway system as much to put ’em in, and it does-if nothing else, it helps to develop-Efrain-what’s his name who was the planner when I was working briefly for the City Planning Department when Kathy Whitmire was Mayor . Efrain-what’s his last name-Garcia. He said to me one time-he said, “If we”-he said it would make sense to put in rail. For instance, he-his idea was put it in where we don’t have a good highway system yet, and show how things will develop a line, because, for instance, out Katy now, Ten-it’s just one long shopping-strip shopping center when it comes right down there. There was nothing out there until they put that highway in.
BZ: I mean, there was nothing along the Katy Freeway. An occasional something or other, but nothing really. I watched when they built 59. There was nothing going out there until it got to Sharpstown. But as soon as you built-it’s just one long strip shopping center essentially, all along the freeway. It’s sprawl. It doesn’t make it cohesive, anyway, and it took up all that land. But, the rail, you-it-you can have your concentration and then you can have more open spaces in between. Some Italian city planner came to Houston one time back in the ’60’s, maybe the early ’70’s. Oh, he was so excited at all the open spaces he saw. You go along the highway, and then there’d be a big open space and then, development. He said, “Oh, and you’re preserving your open spaces and parks,” and so on. And they finally had to admit to him that those were just open spaces because the person who owned that was asking so much money for that property that they just jump over it to the next property owner, and eventually they’d come back to him and pay his price but there was none of it being saved for parks or anything like that.
DT: Well, I have a question about freeways. Maybe you would know why there are feeder roads in Texas and in a lot of states there aren’t.
BZ: They don’t have ’em.
DT: Right. Why is that?
BZ: I suspect it’s ’cause they didn’t think it through. It’s like, you know, the-Sam Houston Parkway?
BZ: That first piece they built, they put feeder roads the whole length of it, and so most people were just going on the feeder roads-there were only two or three stop signs-and not riding on the parkway. [Laughs.] They woke up …
BZ: … and said, “Hey, the next section we’re not gonna put feeder roads like that.” You can get to it, and so on, but you look at the rest of it-doesn’t have those feeder roads going the whole length of it.
DT: Now it seems like the feeder roads are what makes possible this strip development, rather than just development at the access.
BZ: Sure. And that’s probably why they do it-did it. I really never stopped to think about it but that’s probably why they did it, because otherwise it would just be at the access points is what you’re saying.
BZ: Yeah, to a certain extent that’s true. The trouble is that car-because of the way the car operates, that it doesn’t give the density-it doesn’t really coagulate in one place the same way as it does with trains, where people have to either walk or take a bus to-or a trolley or something to-to connect them to something else, so they want it as close as possible.
DT: I see. Why-this is interesting. I didn’t …
BZ: Whereas the car-the car encourages sprawl. What the car-what the automobile has done to this country is appalling, and now it’s doing it to every other country in the world, ’cause they’re all getting cars.
DT: Well, that’s-I think it’s a good lead-in to a lot of what-what interests me and I think David as well as…
BZ: It …
DT: … is how infrastructure-whether it’s roads or electrical-you know, ditches for bayous, influences conservation and …
BZ: Sure. Sure.
DT: … instruction in habitat and …
BZ: Sure. And not only that, but roads for instance cut through neighborhoods, traditionally. They don’t …
BZ: … care. They just go right straight through.
BZ: Now, they’re-under ISTEA [Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act] they’re getting more-more sensitive to this, but not really the Texas Department of Transportation, Highway Department, what it is. They hold these hearings-meetings with the public ’cause the law says they have to. They split you up so that nobody can hear-in one group can hear what the other group is saying, and then at the end they’ll give you ten minutes to say something in general. And-but they’ve already made up their mind. They already know, and they give false information. This one sweet young thing was showing what the costs would be for the different-different alternatives-do nothing; just fix the connections, and that’s one of the things that they could do. The connection between 610 and 59, for instance, needs to be widened. That’s-that’s a terrible bottleneck, and causes a lot of the backup on 610 in that area between I-10 and 59. And so they have that alternative and the costs and so on, and the cost for rail-for one rail line was some billion something, for-for ten miles or whatever, as against 300 million for the HOV lands and all this other. I said, “Who gave you those figures?” “Oh, well, we-we, you know, our department got them together. I said, “And you really believe them?” I mean, you know, they don’t have a single rail man there who knows anything about rail, who can really tell them, and the railroads all got together and-at the request of Bob Lanier and his-and what’s-his-name, who was head of Metro, to come together and show what could be done with rail and how much it would cost. And they showed that you could build 300 miles of rail in the Houston area because we already have the rights of way and because at that time the railroads were willing to work with the city.
BZ: They were willing to. When we made this proposal back in ’68, they weren’t that willing to. We were gonna have to do a little arm-twisting and blood-letting. But, they were willing to-they were willing at that time. They put together-they put all their top men on it. Now I’m not saying the railroad people are all that brilliant, but they put all their top men on it, and figured out how it could be done-100 miles of rail for 300 million. And that’s three million a mile, and there isn’t a speck of highway around here that can be built for three million a mile. And those HOV wagons-they now say eight million-they’re actually running between 10 and 15 million a mile for the HOV lanes, and, widening them runs about eight million and-seven million, something like that, a mile. They could’ve had it for three million a mile. A hundred miles, and they were planning-now this is what Billy Bird was planning for-12 miles, along where that road goes-what’s it called? West-not West Park, what is it that runs parallel to 59 for a while, …
BZ: … and he wants to bring an HOV-a sort of HOV-toll road kind of combination thing and-don’t get me on that-and he’s gonna bring it up over Kirby a hundred feet or something like that onto 59 and have a dual lane HOV coming along, and-and the people of 59 are fighting it who live along there, and it’s to be a dual HOV lane-and he was gonna spend 295 million for 12 miles for that. And yet, the railroad-well, what did they do with this report that they did that was that thick? Threw it away. They didn’t really want to know, you know. They don’t know anything about-well, let’s put it this way. I finally learned that what it all comes down to is money. We have Lone Star Cement in Texas, we have hundreds of people who own cement mixers in this town. We have hundreds of companies that know how to lay cement. We don’t have a single builder or constructor of rail lines in this town or in this state or anywhere near here. And these people give contributions to political campaigns, and that’s what it comes down to. It’s strictly money, and that’s all they care about.
Z: And they don’t give a darn about their city or what happens. And the only reason now they think that Buffalo Bayou Park is wonderful is because it looks so great and they can use it in their ads and, you know, this is the downtown of Houston and so on and so forth, and yet they fought us tooth and nail. And when-when I was-the only reason I was hired to work for the Planning Department was because they had just set up a task force on Buffalo Bayou, and …
DT: And what year was that?
BZ: … when did I go, ’84. Task force for Buffalo Bayou, and a task force of the Houston Committee-the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission-and I was the staff person assigned to those two organizations, Buffalo Bayou Task Force and the other. And when I was on it, all these people were talking about, “We gotta do somethin’, we gotta do somethin’,” and they’d have these meetings and everybody appointed to it by Kathy Whitmire didn’t know anything about Buffalo Bayou and they had to be educated about Buffalo Bayou. And the first-I’d start to talk-you know, I was the staff person, I was supposed to shut my mouth and just take notes. But, [laughs], they got the wrong person to do that. And what’s-his-name, Green or whatever it is, who’s with Texas-with that group that used to own Tenneco or-no, not-yeah, Tenneco, that owned the-Texas Eastern that owned that East Side development.
BZ: He’s with them, and now he’s with a Chicago company. Well, whoever it is, he stays there and he’s still running the things. And, he was in charge, and I’ll never forget the first couple of times I opened my mouth. I mean, he just sat there as though-“Who the hell are you and what’re you saying anything for?” But finally they did-they came to realize that I knew a little bit about Buffalo Bayou, that I’d been fighting for Buffalo Bayou for years. And so they kept saying, “Well, we gotta do something, we gotta show that we’re really accomplishing something. What can we do,” and so on and so forth. And they were saying, you know, “We’ll do the park and we’ll do-Sesquicentennial Park in phase one,” blah, blah, blah. And I said, “I’ll tell you something you can do right off the bat that will save Buffalo Bayou more than anything and save every other Bayou in town from encroachment and help with floods, and that is to put an addition-an addenda, another part-to the development ordinance in this town, which we got through with much-well, what’s her name, Johnnie Kaye Crooker really pushed it hard. But I helped her get all the civic clubs together that she wanted to get together on that thing. And it took ’em two or three years but they got the development ordinance through, which says that you cannot build within 25 feet of a major thoroughfare because of that canyon they’ve got on Woodway. And so now that’s passed, and you can’t build within ten feet of other streets and so on, except for downtown. Downtown is exempt from all this. Well, I said, “All you have to do is put an addition to that ordinance, saying that you can’t build within 250 feet or 500 feet of the center line of any bayou in this town.” And I remember the former head of Harris County Flood Control District was on the task force and he looked at me and said-“Well,” he said, “if we pass that, such-and-such a-a town house development would never’ve been allowed.” And I said, “Absolutely, and it shouldn’t’ve been allowed and you know it shouldn’t’ve been allowed.” I mean, it was caving-the way it was built they had the-the runoffs at the top of the cliffs of Buffalo Bayou, and so every time it rained, it was digging out the whole bank of Buffalo Bayou, and it was all collapsing and getting closer and closer to the town houses and they were screaming at the Flood Control District, “You gotta come and put concrete embankments around here,” which is what the Flood Control District wanted them to say, you know. If they-it gives ’em jobs. It’s the only reason that they existed.
BZ: And so I said of course it would have eliminated that and that would’ve been a good thing for this city. But I said, “At least if you put it in, you can stop people from building.” Well, they thought it was a great idea. Nobody thought of that-it was a great idea. So one of the guys who’s with one of those engineering firms-I forget the name of it-and this girl, Linda, who was at the meeting the other night, works for that firm. I wondered why she jumped up and said something about private property. Anyway, he volunteered to be head of the committee that was gonna investigate this. So I think they had about eight meetings before he managed to kill that whole thing. And that could’ve been done so easily. And then, not-and we had a meeting the other night of the White Oak Bayou Association-I’m on the board. It was my last night. I’ve been on the board since it started nine, ten, 12 years ago, whatever. And, Art Story was the speaker, and he was talking about flood control districts, and finally I couldn’t resist and when he was asking for questions I said-“First of all,” I said, you know, “you really shouldn’t cal it the flood control district because you can’t control floods. All you’re doing is building-when you build concrete embankments is to move the flood faster from point A to point B and then at point B they flood and so you gotta move it faster from point B to point C, until you keep doing that to all the bayous in town. And eventually Galveston will disappear from the …
BZ: … face of the earth because this great wave will come down from Galveston Bay and-and they don’t have a wall at the back of Galveston. But I said, …
BZ: … maybe that wouldn’t be bad, either, but-but the point is that a lot of people’s lives would be lost. But I said, “You’re not controlling floods. You’re just a flood mover, … ”
BZ: “…with the exception of the retention-the-basins, which is something we’ve been fighting for for years.” I said, “If you couldn’t build so close to the bayous, and if those places that were built now were bought up,” I said, “you have to admit yourselves because they have admitted it in the past-it would be cheaper just to go down and buy up everything that’s been built within so many feet of every bayou in this town. Or maybe more feet from Buffalo Bayou, ’cause it’s the biggest, than some of the smaller ones. But if that were done, …
BZ: … you’d have-you wouldn’t have the flooding. And it would cost you less and we wouldn’t be paying all these millions out for insurance, for all these places that keep flooding, and …
DR: Or the construction costs.
BZ: But, you see, that doesn’t give jobs to people-going out and buying-and I said that. I said, “But I realize, that doesn’t give jobs to people.” Well, Art Story, who is a great speaker-boy, can he lay it on! He said, “You’re absolutely right. You’re absolutely right, we’re not a flood control organization because you can’t control floods. There’s no way we can control Mother Nature. And you’re right, it would cost less, but that would raise-you know, people would get mad, and we’re trying to do these things that will ameliorate and blah, blah, and we cannot do anything more than just lower the flood from this point to this point. And people have to face it.” I think he thought I’m in the flood zone. When we flood here, downtown Houston would be flooded up to the fifth or sixth floor of Gulf-of the Shell Building, and Houston will be no more, and I hope I’m long gone.
BZ: [Laughs.] I don’t have to worry about it. But I don’t buy houses on slabs in this town because of all the faults, and I don’t buy in areas close to bayous. One, I don’t want the snakes coming up in my back yard …
BZ: … that I have to rescue from my cats, particularly if they’re poisonous snakes, and …
BZ: … and I don’t want alligators. We have raccoons and a few other things up here that-we have our own invasion of wild life. But, I would not-I would not buy near a bayou in this town because the whole place is a flood plain, with a few exceptions, and I’m in one of the few exceptions. And I always buy on piers and beams ’cause if I have to level a house on pears and beams, it’s a whole heck of a lot cheaper than leveling it on a slab.
BZ: So, anyway, …
DR: Why don’t-you touched on the bayous, and it seems like a vein that goes through your whole life here in Houston.
BZ: Yeah, because there’re 22 of them in this city.
DR: Can you tell us a little bit about Bayou Preservation Association and White Oak Bayou Association and …
BZ: Well, yeah.
DR: … Buffalo Bayou and the Buffalition and …
BZ: Yeah, the …
DR: … all this sort of-generations of them.
BZ: … they all-yeah, they were, and-when the Citizens Who Care was organized, there were none of these organizations, and the reason these women got together-and your grandmother, and your aunt-great-aunt, I guess, were amongst the first ones who met. I think they had a lunch-from your grandmother’s notes. I think the first meeting-I thought it was just in some restaurant-they went to the Bayou Club. And there was one man, and all the rest were women, and they decided that really something had to be done. What upset them …
DR: Who was the man? Was it Bob Lent?
BZ: Bob Lent.
BZ: Who was Bob Lent?
DT: He was an architect who died about six or seven years ago.
BZ: Ah, yes. Yes, of cancer. Yeah, O.K.
DT: He taught at Rice for a while, …
DT: … ***.
BZ: I thought that’s who it was and-but I wasn’t sure if that-I always thought his name had an S on the end. But it was Bob Lent. O.K. So, they met together, and their concern mainly was that everywhere the developers went in-they were just starting to go into Buffalo Bayou-they started to go into Montrose, and one of the things Montrose had, as we had in this area until Alicia, were incredibly big, beautiful trees. And so the developers began to see-you know, Montrose had all these great trees and it was close in but not in town and it was next to River Oaks and so on. I’ll never forget when I moved into Allen House, this guy I used to date said to me, “Oh! You’re going into that place with these horrible little slum blacks”-well, he called it Nigra slum-“right next door to it?” I said, “Hey, that so-called-[I said, ‘Negro slum’]-is between Allen House and River Oaks. It’s right across Shepherd from River Oaks, and it’s a very convenient place because you can get your servants out of that slum, … ”
BZ: “…and they can come in the morning. You can holler out the door, ‘Hey, come over earlier tomorrow morning,’ ’cause they’re just across the street,” and I said, “You know, what’s…”-well, he hadn’t thought about that.
BZ: Anyway, this was close to downtown but not too close and so they started building town houses there. But what would they do? They’d go in and absolutely level every tree and everything else and then they’d plant crepe myrtles along the-between the sidewalk and the street to make up for something. Anyhow, the women were concerned about this, and I think Terry was concerned because of the Bayous-of Buffalo Bayou. She had gone down-she used to go for long walks from their house along Buffalo Bayou, and she was appalled to find them burning down-cutting down and burning trees with old tires, you know, to make sure that they kept on burning. The smoke was incredible, of course. And so she said, “Who’s doing this, what’re you doing this for?” And they said, “Oh, well, this is the Corps of Engineers.” Well, it was Harris County Flood Control trucks and personnel. Well, the Corps of Engineers, they said. So she called the Corps of Engineers and they said, “Oh, that’s a Harris County Flood Control Project,” you know, so she got shoved back and forth. Anyway-and I had met them through a funny sort of circumstance. And so she knew what I was trying to do downtown with Buffalo Bayou, and trying to make it the waterfront of the-Houston and, you know, make it an asset. So, their feeling was, what-after they had this lunch and after I was invited, which was probably the second or third time they all got together, or maybe the fifth or sixth time-it was before we actually got our charter. This was in ’68 that they were meeting. WE were concerned, one, about the straightening in concrete of the Bayous and cutting down of trees, and what we found was that there were little groups-[O.K, I’ll let you in.] There were little groups-can you turn that off for a minute while I let her out?-that were fighting battles all over
They were fighting battles all over-
BZ: What concerned us was that there were all these little groups, fighting their little individual battles all over the place. But, you know, they were up against the Corps of Engineers and the Harris County Flood Control District and the county commissioners …
[Tape 2, Side A.]
BZ: What concerned us was that there were all these little groups, fighting their little individual battles all over the place. But, you know, they were up against the Corps of Engineers and the Harris County Flood Control District and the County Commissioners Court and the city and so on. And none of them knew about the other groups, and so, we felt that there ought to be some kind of central organization that they could all belong to that would tell each other about what their fight was and help each other. Well, Lois Meyer’s husband, John Meyer, gave us $40,000 worth of stock to hire somebody and to start doing something and organize something, and-we didn’t have a charter or anything, we weren’t a 501(c)(3) and he had to give it to a 501(c)(3) or he couldn’t write it off on his tax. And so, temporarily, our chairman or our president of the Citizens Who Care-or at least, we really-that-I think that was the name we sort of adopted at the time-was a person I-I don’t think I’ll name her right now-who was a member of the League of Women Voters, and the League of Women Voters took the money supposedly to keep for us, until we could use it. Well, when we got our charter there was a big fight and they almost weren’t gonna give us the money and John Meyer was gonna sue the League, [laughs], and finally we got our money but we didn’t get any of the interest that it accumulated. They kept the interest so that was O.K. But, the Chamber of Commerce said they wanted to set up something that would concern itself about Houston and the environment and all these great problems, and so we set up something called the Houston Area Forum. I’d forgotten that it was called the Houston Area Forum, which still exists, but which has speakers come down and talks to them about any subject, most of which has nothing to do with the environment. And they had a whole series of meetings all over Houston, in which-and they’d have these tables and you’d discuss things at your table and then at the end of the meeting you’d report every-someone would report from each table what their concerns were. And there were all kinds of concerns and the environment was one of the important ones, but every report that came out said what everybody’s concerned about is safety, security, police-we need more police. I mean, that’s what they said on every single report! And at the end of a year they used up our 40,000 or most of it, paying this guy who was sort of the ne’er-do-well brother of several brothers who were judges and all kinds of things and-and he was the director of this thing, and all they came out with was a report saying we need more police in Houston, that everybody’s concerned about security. And …
DT: Well, do you think that that was-wasn’t a good reflection of what was being talked about at those tables?
BZ: It was no reflection at all because all sorts of subjects were being talked about. That was one. But there were all kinds of subjects, but that was the only one that was brought out in the report. It was just incredible! So that was a total loss, and that was a result of Jake Hershey having a luncheon with all these high-falutin’ men in town, and we had all these posters that we made, and so on and so forth. And-so, we thought, we’ve gotta start-try another tack, and we kind of-there were a lot of people involved at the time and we came up with this idea of a Citizens Environmental Coalition-a coalition of organizations, all these little organizations out there. Get them together, and have them know about each other. And we held a-they held a series of hearings that-we would have these panels that were awfully good, that-you’d get people on two sides of an issue. The one I particularly remember, because I learned so much, was on-what’s that stuff they put in the water now to save everybody’s teeth?
BZ: Fluoridation. And I used to think the people who were against fluoridation were the kind who saw Communists under the bed and so on, you know, and …
DR: There’s a few of them.
BZ: Yeah. And, we had this panel and there were the people who were for fluoridation and people who were against it, and then there was a moderator. And-we had quite a good crowd, and what I found out was that the people who were hysterical were the ones who were for fluoridation. There is a great deal of fluoride in the water naturally in this part of the world. It’s there. It’s natural fluoride, which is slightly different from the fluoride they put in. And that the people who were against it were really very interesting scientists who pointed out to us, first of all, that 90% or 95%, some incredible amount of the water that we use is flushed down the toilet, washes dishes and clothes, waters lawns and doesn’t need fluoride, and that after the age of seven, fluoridation does not help your teeth at all. It’s only in the early years that it helps, and that actually the fluoride chemical that they put into the water is terrible if you have any kind of kidney problem,–I mean, it can literally kill you-and I think it’s bad-it enhances arthritis or something like that. And-but the people who were for fluoridation were literally hysterical. I mean, they-their whole argument was hysteria. So we went to a hearing at the City Council, which this great Eleanor Tinsley was pushing. She made a promise to the dentists that she would get fluoridation. We had the equipment but then, people said, “We don’t want fluoride in the water,” so they never put it in. She would get it in. And I went to that, and I never voted for Eleanor Tinsley again. She-any time anybody spoke against fluoride in the water, she just stopped listening and talked to people on the-you know, got their thoughts on it. Any time they spoke for fluoridation, she asked them questions, gave ’em lots more time and so on. And, I sat there, and I had to sit there the whole day before they came to my chance to speak. And they kept-these-the black Council member-the one who was a minister.
DR: Judson, Judson Robinson.
BZ: No, not Judson Robinson, …
BZ: … the other one, the old man who was a minister.
BZ: No, this was years ago. This was when she was first elected.
DR: No. No. It was when she first started.
BZ: McKinney was his name-he was a minister. He was not very bright, but anyway, he kept saying, “Where do you live? In the poor part-do you live on the west side or on the east side?” And ‘course most of these people lived on the west side. The people on the east side didn’t know anything about it. “Well, you see, you don’t want it ’cause you’ve got fluoride in your water and you aren’t gonna get it in your water for a while and-and the poor people on the east side who need it-you’re trying to stop them.” So when they got to me, …
DR: But there was fluoride in groundwater but not in surface water?
BZ: In-there’s fluoride in the ground water. We have a lot of that.
DR: But not from Lake Houston. So the east side wouldn’t get it for …
BZ: Apparently-yeah, the east side-they were getting what was in the water, too, but they would-they would-according to him, it was the poor kids who were gonna suffer because they wouldn’t have fluoride. When I got up to my turn, I said, “I now what you’re going to ask me, and I live-not on the west side, I live north.” At that time I lived at Allen House, I think. But I said, “I would be willing to pay to have every child have two fluoride treatments a year by a dentist, which would do some good, because they would be getting it applied directly to their teeth and gums where it helps, rather than put it into the water system where it is going to do damage to people with any kind of problem,” and so on and so forth. But, I sat there and I thought, somebody is making money. Who is making money, why are we pushing fluoride? And that was when I finally realized it all comes down to the dollar sign.
BZ: And I found out that fluoride is a by-product of the production of aluminum from bauxite. And every single ounce of fluoride is 100% profit that the aluminum companies sell. It’s 100% profit.
DR: Uh-huh, it’s gravy.
DT: I see.
BZ: And so they give big grants to the Dental Association to push fluoridation. And the dental associations push it because the aluminum companies are making a big profit off the fluoride. And-and if you’ll talk to your dentist quietly and get him-you know, and promise you don’t quote-I did this with my dentist. I said, “What really good does it do?” Well, it doesn’t do any good after about seven or eight. It’s when you’re-you’re getting your second teeth and your first teeth are in there. That’s when you need it. That’s when it does you some good. And really, fluoride treatments twice a year would much better take care of the problems. But, wow, you know, they’re not gonna say anything-and all the toothpaste now has fluoride in it, …
BZ: … and who knows how much fluoride I’m getting is destroying my kidneys-I don’t know. [Laughs.]
DR: Do you know.
BZ: It’s incredible, and it’s all because fluoride is 100% profit to the aluminum companies …
DR: That’s interesting.
BZ: … that make aluminum out of bauxite.
DT: Well, do you find that a lot of the early concerns-and I guess some of the ones that have persisted in the environmental world-are public health related? You know, that it’s-when you start talking about water, very soon you start talking about, you know, dysentery and how hard your teeth are and so on?
BZ: To a certain extent, yeah.
BZ: You know, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, …
BZ: … it’s-it’s the public.
BZ: But everybody’s being bought off, one way or the other. There’re very few people out there who are honest, who-when-when I got mad at Procter & Gamble for what they-how-I found I had all these products I was buying of Procter & Gamble’s, and I wrote and said, “I’ll never buy your products again until you stop using rabbits to test eye makeup for women. If women want eye makeup, test it on the women. Don’t test it on the rabbits.
BZ: The rabbits aren’t women, and they aren’t gonna use the stuff. I got this three-page letter back, telling me how there really was no other better way of doing it. There are better ways of doing it. “There’s really no better way,” and blah, blah, blah, three pages and how the government doctors and all these other people have said it’s great. And I wrote back and I said, “Never quote a government doctor to me because I have worked for the government and I have worked on the government. And as a taxpayer, I know that those government doctors will do what they’re told and will say what they’re told to say. Their-you know, their job depends on it and there’re very few public health officials who will come out and say it-tell the truth.
BZ: I used to know one of them, father of a friend of mine. But there’re very few of them. He never got very far in the public health services in New York City where he worked. But, they-they do-they say what they’re told to say, and they can always find-you know, they can always find-you know, they can always find an argument, I don’t care what it is. There’s always a statistic you can quote that will prove you’re telling the truth. The only thing you can’t prove with statistics is the truth. But …
DT: We talked a little bit about politicians, I guess, and its-and that sort of tie with-industries that have a stake in conservation or against it, and-I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about having been a government employee and some of the pressures that you get, pro and con, on the environment.
BZ: Um-hmm. Well–[laughs.] Well, I worked for a-oh, this is cold. I worked-and I shouldn’t be drinking it. I worked for four and a half years for City Planning Department, when Kathy Whitmire was Mayor. And-I had worked for Kathy during her-both campaigns for City Comptroller, and I worked for her on her first run for Mayor. The second run for Mayor, I actually went out and spoke to groups on her behalf. And, I thought she was pretty good. And then I worked in the City Planning Department for four and a half years and I found out (1) she was an absolutely lousy administrator. Louie Welch, with whom I often disagreed, was a much better administrator. But, she was lousy, she didn’t know what was going on in the city-except that you took care of her friends. It was just-instead of the ol’ boy-good ol’ boy network it was a good ol’ girl network. And, the reason that I was fired from the city was because I dared to disagree with John Lindsay, who at that time was a good friend of Kathy Whitmire’s, on this illegal jail they were building downtown. And as soon as she found out that I was making statements and disagreeing with that, she gave orders that I was to be fired and didn’t mind-so they had to get rid of two people who were perfectly innocent but I had seniority and they tried to fire me without going through the civil-what is it-you know, the civil service requirements and rules, and they couldn’t get away with that. Not because I protested but because somebody else protested because they were breaking civil service rules and they didn’t want to press it and so then they had to fire these two guys and they told ’em, “Don’t worry, we’ll hire you back the next day,” and all this stuff, and then somebody on the Council got wind of that and said, “You can’t be firing people and hiring them right back. There’s gotta be something”-and so the poor guys were out of a job for six months. I told them, “I’m sorry,” you know, you got caught because of me. But, I dared to speak against something that her friend, John Lindsey, was for and was gonna make money out of. And-at that time she was friends with John Lindsey. I think later she was sorry because she and he had a falling out. She probably would’ve been happy to have somebody fighting John Lindsey. But it didn’t do her any good anyway. But the pressures are there, no question about it. And one-one group that came to me-anything that had to do with bayous or old buildings or anything like that, they were automatically sent to me. I got to meet some interesting people that way. And this one group of investors came in and wanted to talk to Efrain Garcia about restoring-buying up of the – the Rice Hotel and restoring it. They were gonna turn it into apartments also. No, they were gonna make it back to a hotel but in more modern context, because we are short of hotel rooms downtown. And that’s gonna make the convention center hotel a big boondoggle but that’s another-different thing. Anyway, they wanted to do-they had some ideas and they had some money and they were gonna do something with that but they did need some backing from the city, in terms of maybe a tax benefit or something, which is what they’ve given now. And so, there was a guy on the staff who was supposedly in charge of this kind of thing, so I took them to talk to him. And as soon as I’d introduced them and we’d explained what they were there about, he told me, “O.K., Barrie, you can go. You don’t need to stay here,” so I left. And afterwards they came to me and they said, “Well, we’re not gonna do anything with this bunch.” He said, “This guy, Barrie, out and out said to us, ‘If you will contribute $2,000 to my campaign-because I intend to run for City Council next year-I will see that you get what you want for the Rice Hotel.'” [Laughs.] I said, “Oh, come on, you can’t mean it.” They said, “Absolutely. Came right out and we don’t-we’re not gonna do business that way.” These are very righteous-type people. We don’t have too many of them running around in Houston. But anyway, [laughs], they said, “We’re not gonna do it.” He said, “If you contribute $2,000 right up front to my campaign-I’m gonna run.” He was badly defeated when he ran-I was so glad to see that.
BZ: Young bastard.
BZ: But anyway, that’s the kind of thing that-I mean, it’s-it’s blatant and it’s underground. It’s-it’s there all the time. Why is the-I didn’t pay too much attention when they were doing the Hardy Toll Road?
BZ: I-I heard that-you know, that-I read in the paper there was some stuff and everything and there was quite a hullabaloo, but I didn’t really pay much attention. But then when this jail thing came along, I thought, why don’t I look into that Hardy Toll Road deal? And I drove out, first of all, to see where-where it went. And of course it’s-it goes right through a major property of-oh, what’s the name of that guy?–who was a big supporter of John Lindsey’s, and who was having some problems and who did go through bankruptcy for one piece of property. I’ve known him for hears. He used to be head of the Continental Bank on the east side of Maine and then he got into-he merged with the bank of Texas in this big-Mischer, Mischer.
DT: Walter Mischer.
BZ: Walter Mischer. His-he had a big industrial property.
DT: This is senior.
BZ: Yeah. And this goes straight through his industrial property to make his property more valuable, with an access and so on, and cut off the second entrance and exit to a residential development there. They only have one way out of their development-that way. They can’t go that way ’cause it’s cut off by a Hardy Toll Road and, you know, there’s no entrance or anything, and there-that was the one I could see and the one I knew about but apparently there are two or three like that. They don’t care. This was to help Walter Mischer, who was a big supporter of John Lindsey’s, and who the hell cares about people, you know? It’s-it’s every single thing they’ve done, this whole highway thing. It’s because there are people who own cement mixers and there are people who know how to lay cement, and there’s a Lone Star Cement Company in Texas, …
BZ: … and they make a lot of money off of ’em. And it’s got nothing to do with what is good for this town or what we should have, or a total transportation system, or what ISTEA says. Now the bicycle thing’s gone ’cause there’re a lot of bicyclists and they all supported Linear because he said, “We’re gonna do this,” and they’re spending millions unnecessarily. But, you know, at least we’ll have bicycle paths but the bicycle paths are never going to replace in Houston, Texas, automobile transportation-not for 20 miles, as they’re talking about. “Oh, people’ll go for 20”-no. I used to bicycle in Washington, D.C., in the ’50’s. There were two of us, one man and I, and at that time I thought it was two miles. It turns out it was six miles that I went from Georgetown to Capitol Hill. And I got there just as fast as my friends in cars, because I could keep going right along the side of the road-there were no paths or anything at that time-until I got up to the red light, and then it would change and I could go ahead and when I got to the Hill, the Capital Hill police thought it was so funny to have me coming by bicycle, they’d stop all the traffic and let me through and I’d tie it into one of the garages or something like that and go to work. But, now in Washington, there are bicycle racks at every major government building-hundreds of them, and people go-I have a nephew who rides to work every day that it isn’t raining. When it’s raining he takes the metro, the subway, and gets to work. But, it still isn’t replacing the automobile, and those are short distances-six, eight miles, not 20 miles-and that’s not the Houston climate, either.
BZ: So, they’re never gonna replace really as transportation. They will work on short hauls, if they make them convenient on short hauls, but some of the things they’re doing are ridiculous. But there’s no one in this highway department in this area, at least, which is the area I know, that knows anything about anything except building highways. And, that’s because that’s what makes money. That’s what the local industry wants, and that’s what’s going on in this town. And to get anything besides that, the Bayous-how many years did we fight to save Buffalo Bayou before they finally took it off the pending list of projects? It was finally eliminated. But you know, they’re already beginning to say, “Well, we may have to do something with Buffalo Bayou,” and for a while they had an idea they were gonna run a canal from Buffalo-a ditch from Buffalo Bayou to White Oak Bayou and let it all come down White Oak Bayou-until the 1994 flood in which the whole of downtown-north end of downtown was surrounded by this huge lake. I’m so mad at myself that I didn’t take a picture because it was-but I-when I got home, I thought, hey, I’m not going out in this mess again.
BZ: But it was just one enormous lake, with every high part in the freeway covered with cars and pickups and trucks all huddled up there, waiting for the water to go down, and 3,000 cars on I_10 totally demolished-I mean, just, you know, completely wrecked, the-and they’re still selling those cars surreptitiously.
DR: A little moldy, that-you know, why they think …
BZ: Yeah, a little moldy. People don’t find out until-so, that stopped that idea, because, I mean, that was all White Oak that did that flood, because it was all-the rain was all north of-the north side of town, northwest of town. So, I understand from Terry that that is dead, that ditch from Buffalo Bayou-but they still-you know. The problem is that human beings are mortal. We die. The Corps of Engineers, the Harris County Flood Control District, …
BZ: …Harris County Commissioners Court, City of Houston government does not die.
BZ: It’s out there still, waiting, [laughs], like this great monster, to leap. [Laughs.]
DT: Well, can you tell us a little bit about…
BZ: And Terry and I are getting older and older.
DT: Well, …
BZ: And your grandmother is dead and your great-aunt’s dead and-you know. [Laughs.] And all I want to do is get out of this town. [Laughs.]
DT: Well, can you tell us why and when, you know, these mere mortals-just regular citizens who decided that they-there was a problem they wanted to confront, and whether it was with Citizens Who Care or CEC, why they are successful or if they were, I mean, …
BZ: Because some people are just-there’re some of us who are-we’re like the-we’re like the-we’re like the Dalmatian dog in the Fire Department. When they hear the bell, they-they can’t help it. They jump on the fire truck and they’re ready to go.
DT: Well, Pavlovian citizen.
BZ: Yeah, it’s exactly-they’re Pavlovian citizens. What’s-her-name, Mertz?
BZ: Evelyn Mertz’ – Art Storey quoted us-quoted her to us about Simms Bayou. She had been living on Brays Bayou, and she got so sick and tired of that concrete thing. ‘Course they do have a path along it and-I’ll never forget-Louie Welch looked down there. He said, “I don’t see what anybody thinks is wrong. I think that’s beautiful.” You know, he liked all that concrete, nice and neat.
BZ: ‘Course it kept falling down when-we had this terrible slide of the concrete embankments on White Oak, just where it joins with Buffalo Bayou …
BZ: …back in the ’60’s, I think it was. The whole thing collapsed. And everybody said, “But that’s concrete! How could it collapse,” and the-the excuse was, well, the grass at the top hadn’t grown yet and gotten solid enough to hold the dirt behind the-the concrete. So the concrete went ’cause the grass-’cause Mother Nature hadn’t taken care of her end of the bargain yet. But anyway, Evelyn moved to Simms Bayou because she had beautiful trees and-and it was a nice green-wide green area, and so on, and she thought, well, I’ll go here and I won’t have that concrete. She moves there and not too long after she moves there, the Welcome Wagon lady comes and tells her, “Well, it’s gonna be so great here ’cause they’re soon gonna straighten and concrete Simms Bayou and, you know, we’ll have this nice”-and Evelyn said, “What!?” And she got so mad, and so she called on people she knew that she’d gotten to know through fighting on Clear Creek and some of those other-and Armand Bayou. And they just started fighting and going to City Council and-and taking time off from work and-and just making their-their feelings known and-until finally the newspapers started listening to them and talking to them. And it’s-it’s like Barry Klein. I disagree with 80% of what Barry Klein says. But on the other hand, I’ll say this for him. He is dogged, and he also does his homework. He has his facts. Now sometimes he reaches back into the ancient past to pull out his facts and fight against trains and so on because, you know, he doesn’t want a train, he wants to live wherever he wants to live. I said, “When I see you in a tent out in the prairie, I’ll know you’re living wherever you want to live. But until then, don’t talk to me.” But anyway, he’s a libertarian, an extremist libertarian. So anyway, they’re just people-and I used to do it. I can’t anymore. I’ve-I’ve had it. I’ve just had it. And you know, it’s-let the younger generation take over and let them fight. But-and the job I have now, I’m on contract, so if I take off two hours to go talk to City Council or sit there while I’m waiting for my turn, I don’t get paid. And so, I’m just not gonna do it anymore.
DT: Well, what do you think of the generation that’s coming up? Do you think that they’re interested or they care?
BZ: Well, they-I’m not sure-the thing that appalls me-I think they would be interested if they really thought about it or knew about it. But most of them are pretty much still the “gimme” generation, in-at least in Houston. They’re still pretty much, you know, “I came here to make money.” And Houston is full of-this is-this is why people come to Houston, to make money. They don’t come to save the world. They go other places to do that. And-but there are people out there who care, and I think if they think about it-but too often they don’t really stop to think about it, and they don’t think things through. We don’t teach logic in school, and apparently they don’t think logically. Like I just heard today that 69% of the people surveyed think that what George Bush is suggesting on lowering taxes is just great. They’re not thinking. They think it’s fine to push the taxes onto the-to industry and commerce, and the sales tax. They don’t think about the fact that if industry and commerce has to pay an activity tax, hey, who’s gonna pay for that? We are, the consumer. And, he says, you know, the people on fixed income, we don’t-they-their taxes keep going up. Hey, if you’re on a fixed income, you’re-there’s nobody on a really fixed income. If you’re on Social Security, it goes up a little bit every year. Not quite as much as you’d like it to but it goes up every year. Plus, if you’re over 65 and HISD [Houston Independent School District], which has the highest tax in Harris County, highest tax rate-your taxes don’t change. Doesn’t matter how high the rate goes up. It’s fixed at the amount it was when you’re 65, and that’s what it stays, unless you add onto your house or-this is on your homestead.
BZ: It doesn’t change. So it’s a bunch of baloney that these poor people on fixed incomes-their taxes keep going up and up-the school taxes and they can’t afford it. Crap! Crap! It’s not the truth. And nobody worries to find out if it’s true or not, and nobody thinks about it, and they don’t think about that Activity Tax that he’s putting on industry. Not that I’m particularly against it, but it’s gonna be paid for by you and me.
BZ: And-and the sales tax is a retrogressive tax that affects the poor much more than it does the rich, but the rich are the ones who give money to George W. Bush’s campaign. The poor people certainly don’t give money to his campaign. So what’s he care about the poor people? And so 69% of the people-probably none of them are very poor people-are saying, “Oh, this is great.” And they’re not really thinking-I think a lot of them, if they really thought through what was going on, would realize-I don’t like paying taxes. Nobody likes paying taxes. I don’t like paying income tax. But if there’s a tax, that’s at least the fairest tax. It’s based on what your income is and how much money you have to give a certain percentage of taxes to. Property taxes, sales taxes, are terrible. The poor guy-who shouldn’t have ten children or six children or four to five children-but if he has five children they have to go to school, they have to have shoes, they have to have clothes. And they grow, and so they have to buy a lot more shoes and clothes, and they have to pay taxes on that.
DT: Well, do you think that-that the generations have changed or that the issues have changed? I mean, or is-the issues that-that are sort of environmentally oriented are still the same, that-that they’re still ones about sort of conflicts with special interests that stand to gain, or …
BZ: There’s always special interests who are-who are concerned. Look at-look at-this has nothing with the environment-well, it has a certain extent to do with the environment. But Texas Southern and the University of Houston, right next door to each other-they should be one University. But they’re not, and they tried when Hobby was vice-was Lieutenant Governor …
BZ: … there was a big effort. And they fought it tooth and nail because …
[Tape 2, Side B.]
BZ: …And they fought it tooth and nail because the guys in TSU [Texas Southern University] and the guys in the University of Houston know that some of them are gonna lose their cushy administrative jobs and whatever because to join the two together, there would be a certain amount of-what is it, downsizing, as the companies call it.
DR: Um-hmm. Yeah.
BZ: And so they fought it. There were vested interests involved. And, so we’re still paying more taxes than we should. And I’m not against more taxes for education but let’s focus on what really needs to be done. And so we have two institutions that are being run and duplicating things and-you know, not really doing-doing the best and the most efficiently for the city. Art Storey says that he has fired-that there were 1,000-some employees on the Harris County Flood Control District when he took over, there are 300 and some employees now, partly because they-they contract out a lot of their work.
DT: Out source.
BZ: He claims that’s saving money and it probably is. If nothing else, there’re only 300 people who have to feel that they’ve got to be doing things so that their jobs are there, instead of a thousand people doing things that their jobs are there. But, there’re vested interests everywhere, everywhere. Teachers have vested interests. Those people in the Taj Mahal down there on Richmond have a vested interest in keeping the administration big-of the school district.
BZ: There-it doesn’t matter where you are. The interesting thing is, find out who the vested interests are-and that’s not always so easy-and figure out who they are and why they’re for something, and why they’re against something. And the real estate interests in this town govern it. Let’s face it, they govern it. They pull the strings. They give a lot of money to campaigns. But they’ve been governing it-you know why the Allen brothers came here to found Houston, don’t you? What’s his name, Hugh-you know, that the Alley Theater little stage is named after, Hugh-I’m losing my mind, I can’t remember anybody’s name. His-he’s a Baldwin-he was a Baldwin somewhere in his family. And one of-Augustus Allen’s wife was a Baldwin, and she was given property-she was left property to inherit in this part of the world. She had been left property somewhere in the vicinity of Houston. And the Allen brothers, who were real estate brokers or something up in New York state, figured if they founded a city here, her property would be more valuable. So they came down, they tried to buy Harrisburg-well, they tried to buy Morgan’s Point from ol’ Cap’n Morgan or whoever it was who owned that-he wouldn’t sell it. Then they tried to buy Harrisburg from the Harris brothers and they wouldn’t sell it. So they kept on going up Buffalo Bayou and they found where White Oak came into it and in those days it was big enough for a turning basin for the ships they had at that time. So they found somebody who would sell. And they had this area surveyed and they bought this area, and sold it as this great, wonderful place. Some of the advertising in these days was very interesting.
DT: It’s not the high point of honesty …
BZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so people who drew-the artists in Germany who drew paintings had these great hills and so on-[laughs]–coming down in this lovely place. And of course in the 1840’s Germany was going through a great deal of turmoil and being unified and all kinds of stuff happening, so a lot of Germans were looking for a place to go, and they really pushed not only Houston but all of Texas. That’s why you have so many Germans in Texas. And, they had these posters that showed it as the heavenly place, plus, someone told me once that they figured if they got enough Germans over here, the Indians couldn’t possibly kill them off, that the Germans were so tough they would-[laughs]-that the Indians would end up giving up, which apparently was true. But anyway-‘course we had the Army and all the rest of it, and the good old Buffalo soldiers, but anyway-so, they bought this area, they settled it. They started it because Mrs. Augustus Allen had inherited property here, and it has been controlled by the real estate interests ever since. Now in the early days there were people who cared about parks. It was interesting. There was a Parks Commission in the early days and this guy …
DR: Joe Eiser was the first-Joe Eiser, Sr., was the first Parks Commissioner in 18-you know, …
BZ: But that was a Commissioner.
BZ: I’m talking about the Commission itself. He was-he worked for the city, he was a staff person.
DR: He was-he started as an Alderman and then he put private-stayed as a commissioner.
BZ: Yeah. But there was a man who-who owns the-Parker, Edward Park-Edwin Parker. He was a partner with Baker Botts. He was-he and Cap’n Baker were the co-founders of that law firm, and then he went to work for Texaco and was taken to New York, and sold his homestead to Captain Baker, and that’s what they called the Baker homestead for a long time but that’s …
BZ: … yeah. On the edge of town, yeah, that…
DR: That they’re gonna develop.
BZ: …they’re gonna develop now. And, anyway, he was the first chairman of the Parks Commission that was established at that time, and was very concerned with parks, and in the old days people-you know, Hermann gave Hermann Park, and gave the reflecting pond in front of the city hall-or that park area in front of City Hall.
DR: I didn’t know that.
BZ: Yeah, he gave that, and people gave park lands.
DR: Yeah, the first city-owned park was Sam Houston Park and that was 1901 or 1900.
DR: Before that it was all private, and …
BZ: Yeah, City-the Houston Park actually we found was a couple of old cemeteries down there, …
BZ: …’cause when they were making some-some changes, there were a couple o’-caskets. [Laughs.]
BZ: And it was-one of them was a black cemetery. And so they dug up the things and moved them to that one that’s just off there on-in the Fourth Ward.
DR: Oh, no.
BZ: Yeah. Well, some of them are moved there, but-there were two cemeteries where Sam Houston Park is. And-but the reflecting pond was given by Mr. Hermann, who also gave the land for Hermann Park. And then of course ol’-the ol’ gray fox, Mr. Holcombe, went to the Hogg family and asked them to give the land they had just bought next door to Hermann Park for an extension of the park because Houston was going to grow. Now Miss Hogg told me this herself. I didn’t get this third or fourth hand. And, her brother, Will, came home one day and said, “You know, Mayor Holcombe has asked why we don’t give that, and then they can expand that park because someday Houston’s gonna be a great metropolis and it’s gonna need more park land and so on,” which is true. And so they thought about it and they finally decided to give it to the city. The city’d been good to them, so they gave it to the city. But she said, “We didn’t know about reversionary rights.” She said, “It was one of the Root family who told us about reversionary rights.” So when they gave and sold parts of-when they gave parts of Memorial Park and sold parts of Memorial Park to the city, there were reversionary rights included, because she said within a month or two weeks, she said, “I turn around and we read in the paper that Mayor Holcombe has sold that property that they had bought to the Texas Medical Center, which was set up.” And so it’s the Texas Medical Center. And so then they turned around and bought what is now River Oaks to develop with, you know, the pleasant housing and so on ***.
BZ: But that was-that was slated to be an addition to Hermann Park but-I’m sure ol’ Mayor Holcombe got his cut from ***, too[laughs], too, because I know that…
DR: Yeah. He also made money off of Memorial Park, too.
BZ: Oh, I’m sure. I’m sure he made money off anything that was done. I understand-in fact, I was told when I started working in that old part of town that that used to have a lot of red-light-houses of prostitution. There was one hotel there that was still functioning as a flop house type of hotel that was apparently one of the major red-light hotels in Houston. It was on Congress. And, this person said to me, “The Syndicate has never come into Houston. We’ve never had part of the nation-wide what do you call it-organized crime in Houston, because Mayor Holcombe controlled it all and he wasn’t about to let anybody come in and have-[laughs]-get a foothold, and so I wouldn’t be surprised at anything. And now Holcombe-whatever his name is-is chairman of the Metro. His grandson or whatever? Yeah, I think it’s his grandson. So, you know, they-they don’t let go. They don’t let go.
DR: Let’s go back to the Houston Area Forum, and you said the Chamber of Commerce had…
BZ: It was…
DR: …had come in as the-did they see the Houston Area Forum as threatening to their career?
BZ: No, no, no. They were the-they were the ones who persuaded-the men that Jerry-Jake Hershey invited to lunch were mostly big in the Chamber of Commerce, and they said, “Hey, this is a great idea. We get-get the people-the citizens involved and we’ll have something where we can hold meetings all over the city and find out what the community’s concerns are. They were really concerned with security, they want more leaks.
DR: They already had a predetermined…
BZ: They already had their predetermined thing but they didn’t say that.
BZ: And so-and they wanted a job for this particular man whose name will not be mentioned, because he never-he was an-sort of the black sheep-the ne’er-do-well of a family of judges and other very important people. So they gave him the job of executive director of this thing and they called it the Houston Area Forum, which I had forgotten but it’s in your grandmother’s notes. And we would hold these forums around the city around tables, and people would discuss around each table what their concerns were and then make a report. And in those concerns, one of them was security and that was an-and that’s what they picked up, and in their final report that was the big thing. And that wasn’t what we had wanted in this thing, and we were concerned about the environment and that wasn’t given any notice at all-the final report of this thing. And they used up all the money we’d given them, so the-the-it ended, so far as we were concerned, but it still does exist-the Houston Area Forum. I don’t know if they just took the name or what, but I-you know, they hold things every once in a while where they get people from all over the country who come and speak to the Houston Area Forum. I keep thinking-well, when I saw your grandmother’s notes, I thought, hey, I ought to go down there and tell ’em I’m the charter. I ought to get-[laughs]-some consideration, …
DR: That’s right.
BZ: …and be able to go to these meetings and listen to what they’re saying. But it’s all mostly big-business people and-you know, telling how great it is and how you should invest in Mexico and all these other places and so on and so forth.
DR: Before you were involved with Rocky-with Terry Hershey and the Cullinan sisters and the Bayous and the Citizens Who Care, were you environmentally aware before the …
BZ: I was raised by someone who never threw anything away, ’cause you could always use it. You recycled everything. I grew up in Argentina. You couldn’t buy aluminum foil in Argentina when I was growing up, you couldn’t buy paper towels. The only way you got them was if somebody from the Embassy was sent back to the States and they got rid of all the stuff that they brought down with them when they came, and my mother would go down and get rolls of aluminum foil or paper towels and so on, and we never used aluminum foil once, and then threw it out. My gosh, if you used it for anything, after you were through you smoothed it out and use it again, and I still do that and people laugh at me. I never use a paper towel once. I use it and use it until it’s all little bits and then I clean out the sink with it or something and throw it down the-in the trash, and it-and my friends all laugh at me. Hey, you know, why-why use something only once and throw it away when it’s still perfectly good to use again? Now I-it-we just were taught-we used to go to the country every summer in Argentina, which had topsoil nine feet and 12 feet thick. I mean, you stuck a fence post in the ground and it grew. They put telephone poles in upside down to stop them from taking root and growing, even though they put, you know, whatever that stuff is in to-to kill the …
BZ: Yeah, creosote, to kill-it still didn’t kill them. Every once in a while you see a-a pole sprouting. But they were so wasteful because it was so rich, and there was this horse-we used to go to this one place in the country and my mother would rent horses for us for the summer. And there was this one horse-a white horse that was going to foal and she had a foal and she broke her leg, and they had to go down to this little stream to get their water and it was hard for her to get down there and so they were gonna kill her and kill the foal because if the mother was gone, hey, what can you do? You can’t feed the foal. They were these-this Italian family, a very interesting family. And, so my mother’s-who had relatives in Canada who were farmers and who didn’t waste anything, who had 75-acre farms and used to spend winters in Florida ’cause they did very well with those 75-acre farms, because they didn’t waste anything. So she said, “Give me the colt and I’ll-I’ll feed it and I’ll raise it.” “Oh. Well, you can do that? Show us how,” you know, and so-they weren’t gonna give it to her but she wasn’t gonna let that foal die, so she showed them. You take a bucket, put milk in it and then you stick your fingers up and it sucks on your fingers and you keep teaching it to suck on your fingers and you have milk on it and then you keep pushing your hand down, until finally it’s drinking the milk. And the foal survived and grew up and that’s how I learned that all white horses are born black, because it’s-this foal was black and then he turned white, and they had a beautiful horse that they were going to kill because they had to-they had to kill the mother ’cause she had this broken leg. Actually I think in the end we persuaded them not to kill the mother and to let her graze down there or something, I don’t know. Anyway, we did save the foal.
DR: Well, see, you are …
BZ: My-my mother’s relative-they were partly-she was mostly Scotch, and the Scotch don’t throw things away, and we were taught-you conserve. You don’t-at least I was. I was the oldest, and I took all this in. My younger sisters don’t pay quite as much attention to it as I did. But you just don’t waste things. And, why cut down a beautiful tree that gives you shade-and of course gives you oxygen as well, and all of these things? It-I was just naturally a conservationist, and I came from a city-Buenos Aires is a big port city. It sits on the shallowest river in the whole world. But it’s 60 kilometers across, and you can get in a high building and see across-but it’s 60 kilometers across and they dredge a channel through it, and the whole city is a port. When I came here you weren’t allowed to go into the port. You might get hit by something. I used to-we used to have a friend who was a captain on a ship that came in all the time and he was-went down to B.A. [Buenos Aires]. and to Montevideo. And he would bring news of my family and I don’t write letters very often-so I wanted to take him to dinner. And I would try to go down-and I used to have these big battles with these guys and they wouldn’t let me in the port. Finally they got so that they’d see me coming-when the ship came they’d let me go in. I said, “I’m not gonna get hit by anything.” In Buenos Aires they had benches and trees, and people can go down and sit there and see the port and watch the ships come in. When I came here, they had had something-I forget how many bond issue elections to get money for the port, and they were turned down every time. So I went to the guy-at that time I was very involved-Mr. Kennealy, who was head of the company that hired me here-or he was the guy who hired me-told me he wanted me to be involved in politics and keep track of things ’cause I had been working on the Hill in Washington and knew-you know, was interested in politics, I’ve always been. So-I was a member of the-trade club or whatever it was called, and I knew some of these people and I went to the guy who was the director of the port-the paid staff member. And I-and they were gonna have another bond issue. And I said, “You can’t get people to vote for the port for a bond issue if they don’t know what’s down there. Half the public in Houston doesn’t even know that there’s a port over there.” They still don’t know. But at least, half of them do know now, and at that time I don’t think one-the only people who knew there was a port were the people who worked down there and their relatives. I said, “You’ve gotta let them see it, you’ve got to bring them into it.” And I said, “They don’t let anybody into the port.” So I said, “Let them see it. Bring them in there, have open house, do something.” So he thought, well, he’d try it, so they advertised in the paper, “Open House In the Port,” and they showed how you could get to that place where that little-kind of a platform is. In those days it was very small, and there was a boat that you could take that would take you down the-they had this overwhelming number of people. They had three weekends when you could come down before the bond election and look at the port, …
BZ: … and see it, and watch the ships go by. I said, “They go out to the airport and watch planes taking off, and they vote whatever they want for the airport,” ’cause in those days we still had to have bond issues. Now they make so much money they don’t have to. But, I said, “Here they don’t even know the ships exist, and ships are more interesting to look at because they don’t go so fast-than planes. So they had three weekends where they opened house-passed the bond issue overwhelmingly. I mean, they just-it’s so simple.
BZ: So, to me it’s just a matter of thinking about it. And when I was going for several years there with no income whatsoever after that banker-it’s the only thing that saved my life, is not wasting things. Don’t throw things away. I t’s about to take me over but-the day I throw something away, the next day I need it, so I don’t throw things away. But …
DR: But it’s part of your lifestyle yet
BZ: It’s part of my lifestyle.
BZ: Don’t waste what’s here, and what Nature has put here. It’s important. And everybody has their place in Nature and every time we eliminate some animal or something, there’s-something happens in the whole process. Now, things do die and die out. But unfortunately man makes things die out that shouldn’t die out. It’s like when they tell me they have to kill the deer. They have to shoot ’em to get rid of them because there’re too many. Unfortunately what they shoot are the biggest and the best. Nature gets rid of the sick and the unhealthy, and so Nature improves the breed. But man destroys the breed. When we go shooting them, we want the ones with the biggest antlers and the biggest buck, and so on. It’s a totally different thing.
DT: You said something earlier about how the Ship Channel was saved largely-or, you know, the bond issue was passed for the Ship Channel because people saw it.
DT: And I’m curious. When you tried to convince people about the value of the Bayous or whatever, you’ve probably told them about the beauty of it and I-I wonder if you’re putting their …
BZ: But they didn’t see it. What they saw was water in their first floor.
BZ: That’s all they saw. And-you know, and-and even if it wasn’t in their first floor, their cousin or somebody-all that water. Or, like the ’94 flood and the two ’89 floods-one in May and one in June-which did an incredible amount of damage. All they see is, “Oh! My house got flooded,” all this. And they-and they’re told by “the experts”-now you see, that’s another thing. Who are the experts in this world? There was a guy who used to work for the Department of Interior and he had *** somebody or other. He said, “The expert is the guy who ten years ago wrote a book based on his studies of the ten previous years, based on books written 50 years before that, and they are the experts.” There are no true experts in this world. What you have are students, and some people keep learning and some people don’t. But these people who call-whenever somebody says to me, “You’re the expert,” I say, “No, I’m not an expert. I’m constantly learning.” And unfortunately, there’re these experts who get up and tell them something-and most of it’s lies-and they believe it because they’re the experts.
DR: Well, you’re the expert on a lot of pretty places in Houston, I would think. Do you have a favorite spot that you can tell about?
BZ: A favorite spot in Houston?
DT: Yeah, I’m thinking about a natural spot or a park or …
BZ: Well, yeah, yeah. Well, for instance, I like to look at Buffalo Bayou and see what we saved, and now how people enjoy it. And so many people who enjoy it don’t even know what happened or why it’s still there and why it isn’t a straight concrete …
BZ: … ditch. I used to go down there and take my dogs and run along there-I don’t do that anymore-and I used-I bicycle sometimes along White Oak. I used to bicycle a lot more, till I had my bicycle accident in Morocco. That kind of slowed me down. And-but and really I think if I were to take a particular place, I love to go over to the old Parker estate. It is so beautiful. And, I-you know, I told Jane Blaffer Owen about it when they bought-when the Blaffer Foundation bought the property to build their own museum. I wrote her and I said, “Have you ever been there recently and really seen what it was like?” And she told me later she went with her older daughter-oldest daughter-and they had a picnic lunch there. She said she couldn’t believe how beautiful it was, and the view of downtown, and she said, “We’ve decided that what we want the museum to be is a Spanish-style-to counteract all that glass and concrete that you se downtown.” I thought, I don’t give a damn what style you do it. And-and they would put the garage and parking on that other block that they bought, …
BZ: … and not spoil-not have the parking all around the museum, and I thought, great. At least-and put the museum in the central part where there’re no trees where the old house was-and so that they would keep the trees, and I thought, I don’t give a darn what style you make the thing or one-[laughs]-you know. Put it underground, as far as I’m concerned. That’s what I’d like, but anyway-because she’d never even looked at it!
BZ: But then they decided they’d be better off giving six million to the Museum of Fine Arts and having their own floor. You know, in this-in this Beck Building they’re gonna have their own floor. And they would sell this, and what they-what Mr. Hall told me was that they had to have the six million-well, he didn’t say that. I said-I made the mistake of saying, “Well, I understand you’ve”-he said, “We have to get our money back. And I said, “Well, I understand you’ve pledged six million. Do you need six million?” He said, “Well, six million’s what we pledged.” He didn’t lie to me. And he said, “We have to get our money back,” and I said, “Well, we don’t want that extra block. Why don’t you keep that out and sell that? And that’s more feasible because it’s a little bit smaller and you might have a chance-and let us buy the other part.” Well, he thought-at least he says he thought-that we weren’t gonna pay them the full price, and that we didn’t have any money. I said, “We don’t have money. We’ll have to raise it,” but I finally got across to ’em that the-what is it, the Urban Land Institute in San Francisco will buy properties like that and then charge us a small fee for holding it-to hold it until we raised …
DR: This is the money …
BZ: … money to buy it from them. “Oh, you mean-but he said, “Will they think in terms of millions?” I said, “They’ll think in terms of millions,” and they’d already looked at this property and said, you know, “We will”-but it went up to 12 million at one point and there was no way. The Foundations wouldn’t support it or anything. But now it’s back down. Well, they still want to sell that piece, and I said-and the sign’s still up and I called them again and I said, you know, “You still haven’t sold it.” And he said, “Well”-and I saw Jane Blaffer, and she-Jane Owen, and she said that-that they were renegotiating or something. I said, “For God sakes, Jane! We’ve got an institute that will buy it and give you the price. Our only problem is with that extra piece, and that might create a problem and that might create a problem for non-profit or whatever ’cause we’d have to turn around and sell that for-to a commercial venture. So she said she was gonna talk to him. He said, well, she was wrong, they weren’t renegotiating. What they were negotiating was the closing date. And I said, “Well, please, if you have another negotiation on the closing date, call me and let me come, and Kay Crutcher will come with me, and talk to you about what we can do, and see if we can’t get this-and save it for a park.”
DT: Well, don’t give up.
BZ: I don’t know. Yeah.
DT: I’ve-I’ve just run out of tape, and …
DT: … I wanted to thank you. Always …
BZ: I’ve talked too much about all sorts of things that weren’t environmental. [Laughs.]
DT: No! Not at all. This is fascinating, and I really appreciate it.
BZ: Well, I don’t know. I get very discouraged. I do, and I-see, I’ve been here 35 years, and 34 of those years I’ve spent fighting-[laughs]-one thing or another and …
DT: Well, what do you think’s coming up, what are the trends?
BZ: Well, I think it is interesting now that we have people pushing for bikeways, and what they’re-some of the plans are so outrageous, it’s-it’s absolutely-for instance, they said they weren’t gonna put the bike path on this side, where we already have a bike path and where it makes sense and where people-where it’s accessible to the residential area and people will go and get on it. They were gonna put it on the other side, along the freeway-because somebody from the Heights Association, who lives in the Heights, says, “Oh, we don’t want a bicycle where they’re gonna be riding 25 miles an hour on this side because kids are playing ball and they’re gonna get hit.” I said, “They’ve been playing ball on this side for ten years that that bicycle trail has been there, and no kid has been hit by anybody by hitting a-kicking a ball across the path of somebody running into them. Besides, who makes-what makes you think they’re gonna be riding bicycles 25 miles an hour?” I said, “What-if they have the bike trail on the other side, kids are gonna get on the bike trail, wherever it is. And they’re gonna get over there and they’re gonna be next to the freeway and someone’s gonna say, ‘Hey, let’s go-walk over and just watch the cars,’ and somebody’s gonna get smashed to bits by some nut on the freeway.”
DT: Cars go fast driving by there.
BZ: Yeah, yeah. And, so why-well, it turns out that-that it’s gonna cost too much to put it over there so it’s gonna be on this side.
BZ: Sometimes the fact that we’re short of money is the only thing that saves us.
DT: That’s true.
BZ: It’s the only thing that saves us.
DT: That’s true.
BZ: So it’s gonna be on this side, except down there, it’s gonna be on that side because the University is putting some kind of playing field and they want the bicycle trail to go to their playing field. I said, “Let the damn University put a bridge across or they can go across on the streets to the bike trail if they want, and the bike trail can go across the street, and keep it on this side?
DT: Ah. More aggravation.
BZ: Yeah, be too long, because the-the bridges, you see, are gonna cost them a lot of money, and they’ll have to put in two bridges. But now these bicycle people who look like engineers have narrow-oh, they want to get rid of that train line and use it for-for Rails to Trails. I’m all for Rails to Trails, where they’ve already been eliminated and there’re no trains and no rails or anything, but when there’s a potential for using that for good transit-rail transit-I’m 100% against destroying the rails and taking them up to make it a bike trail. And they’re saying, “Well, someday we can do that and so we can go across the Bayou,” and so on, and spend millions on building bridges that they shouldn’t have to build. Fortunately, part of it was killed because they didn’t have the money to do it over there, …
BZ: … I don’t know exactly how-and they’re trying to get me to go to the meetings. I-the meetings normally are held the same night as Sierra Club. I’d rather just go to Sierra Club and let somebody else tell me what they’re doing, even if it’s the wrong thing, and listen to something good. I just am tired of fighting. I’m tired of going all that-we did a-there were ten-for ten years there was a-a Mayor’s Hike and Bike Advisory Council, and we put out two really good reports on safety and how you could build bike trails along the streets and how you can build them along the Bayous and so on. So, that whole thing is ignored, and some place in the Parks Department they have a copy of that. I have a copy. I’m not gonna give ’em my copy because it’ll disappear. But they have a copy someplace, and I said, “You could go to that, and it will tell you everything you need to know-that you’re gonna spend two or three years educating all these people that they appointed to the Bike Advisory Council to Mayor Lanier, and start from scratch. And spend a few hundred thousand dollars giving Williams, or whatever his name is, the-you know, he’s in charge. He’s got the overall contract, so-he’s a friend of the Mayor’s and it’s one of these planning-engineering outfits, and they get a hundred thousand a year or whatever it is or something and …
DT: I guess that’s positive, though, that at least, people are getting out of their cars and out of their houses.
BZ: But at least they’re getting involved, and there’re people doing this, and that’s good, and hopeful.
End of reel 1002
End of interview with Barrie Zimmelman