Enter artist and community activist Rick Lowe, who rallied organizers and volunteers to renovate the homes, and Project Row Houses became a mixture of workshops and galleries for artists in residence. Next came housing for young mothers and mentoring programs on such topics as managing finances and cooking. Shearer says it's what German performance artist, sculptor and politician Joseph Beuys called "social sculpture," transforming a society through art.
It's also become a prime example of how to improve a neighborhood without displacing people, as gentrification often does. Project Row Houses has since expanded to encompass a community garden, newly built housing with the cooperation of the architecture school at Houston's Rice University, a sculpture park, a boxing studio and the Eldorado Ballroom, where acts such as B.B. King entertained African Americans from the 1940s to 1960s, when the city's venues were segregated.
National Museum of Funeral History: On the northern side of Houston, in a nondescript office park a (comparatively) short drive from George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the museum bills itself as "the largest educational center on funeral heritage in the United States and perhaps the world."
The museum's slogan is, "Any day above ground is a good one," and good it is. Its 33,500 square feet showcase funerary exhibits large and small, including historical hearses — a British Rolls-Royce model and specially decorated ones from Japan, Germany and West Africa — and Victorian mourning jewelry made out of human hair. A timeline of embalming practices dates to ancient Egypt, there's an exhibit of presidential funerals beginning with George Washington, plus a cheery video explaining the process and history of embalming.
Other treasures include a casket covered in coins, a horse-drawn funeral bus, a funeral sleigh and an open-backed "flower car" for the blooms funeral guests pile on top of the casket. My favorite was the ambulance-hearse, macabre for its dual purposeness.
Actually, macabre is a matter of degree here. As the museum's director, Genevieve Keeney, told me, "A funeral is a celebration of life." Nowhere was that philosophy more apparent than in the brightly painted "fantasy" coffins from Ghana, in shapes including a chicken, boat, an airplane and various forms of seafood.
Now, do you believe "quirky" and "Houston" belong together?