By Terrance Turner
Houston is a city on the mend. After the failure of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which was rejected by voters in November, Houston’s reputation for diversity was threatened. At the time, then-mayor Annise Parker said, “I fear this will have stained Houston’s reputation as a tolerant, welcoming global city.” The New York Times published an editorial under the headline “In Houston, Hate Trumped Fairness.” It blasted the law’s opponents—Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and Houston lawyer Jared Woodfill, who led the anti-HERO campaign—as “latter-day Jim Crow elders.” The editorial board did not mince words: “Their demagogy is egregious because it preys on some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”
While the media firestorm surrounding the ordinance didn’t jeopardize Houston’s status as the 2017 Super Bowl host, Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin wrote a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell shortly after the vote. Griffin called for an emergency meeting to address the ordinance. “Houston is now the only major city in the nation without nondiscrimination protections,” Griffin stated. “It is also the largest city in Texas without such a measure; Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Fort Worth all have nondiscrimination protections like this on the books. . . . [T]he repeal of HERO was a tremendous setback for fairness, justice, and equality throughout the region.”
The HRC made its displeasure clear with its 2015 Municipal Quality Index Scorecard, which rates cities “on the basis of their inclusivity of LGBTQ people who live and work there.” Houston scored a 48/100, in sharp contrast to the perfect scores of 100 for Dallas and Austin, a 99 for Fort Worth, and a 90 for San Antonio. This dismal grade—from the largest LGBT civil rights organization in the United States—cast a pall over Houston’s image as a diverse and accepting place.
Luckily, a project has emerged that presents a more positive view of the city. The Downtown District, formed to revitalize urban areas in Houston, has launched a colorful new street banner program. Titled “Figurative Poetics,” the project aims to achieve the vision of Downtown Management District director Bob Eury: “This beautification project speaks to Houston’s diversity and our progressive nature while giving everyone something to smile about.”
The project was developed by Houston-based design, art, and communications outlet Core Design Studio, founded in 1995 by Fiona McGettigan and Alan Krathaus. They conceived the idea for 575 banners that combined poetry, quotations, and lyrics with images of life in downtown Houston. The collection comments on Houston’s heat, humidity, traffic, flora, and fauna, placing emphasis on one word in each banner. “We used a singular frame around one word to punctuate and create a more immediate secondary narrative describing the city,” Krathaus said. “Collectively, the text reveals Houstonians as humorous, with a hint of cynicism that’s punctuated by a positive outlook,” added McGettigan.
Diversity permeates every aspect of the project. The participants quoted include Beyoncé, Neil Armstrong, Texas Monthly executive editor Mimi Swartz, Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Gray, and elementary-school students (courtesy of a partnership with community organization Writers in the Schools). The project also involved the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) and the Creative Writing Department at the University of Houston. The posters are displayed in sports venues (Minute Maid Park), government sites (City Hall), health hubs (St. Joseph Medical Center), the Theater District, and on Main Street.
“The series portrays the Bayou City as an energetic destination that values creativity, diversity, and individuality, offering commuters and passersby a patchwork of thought-provoking messages that encourages them to muse on what it means to be a Houstonian,” the press release said. Angie Bertinot, director of marketing and communications at the Downtown District, added that “the banner program is meant to enliven and beautify the streetscape. . . . The end result is not only colorful and vibrant, but meaningful! We think it very much supports the image and ‘brand’ of Houston.”
Best of all, Bertinot says that Houstonians have welcomed the new project: “We’ve had a great response by the public, including Mayor Turner, who told me he loved the new banners!” As Houston recovers from blows to its infrastructure and its image, the vivid new banners provide a comforting sight for residents’ weary eyes.