Noted columnist David Brooks recently asserted that what he termed “an American renaissance is already happening.” He noted that as the national government appears to be divided and polarized, cities far from Washington’s corridors of power are working to transform their communities — large and small.
I recently experienced this firsthand in Houston, Texas, America’s fourth largest city. From 1926 until early this century, a huge subterranean cistern supplied half its citizens with water. Suddenly, the chamber developed a massive leak — and its life as an underground reservoir was history.
In its heyday, the cistern held 15 million gallons of water. The underground chamber’s most notable feature is 221 columns, each 25 feet tall from floor to ceiling. When lighted, the chamber resembles a forest of concrete columns. What a perfect setting for an underground parking garage. But no, the city’s planners said: “We can do better than that!”
The Possibility of Attracting Visitors to the Site
The City of Houston and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership began the laborious process of transforming the once dank cistern into an underground art space. In 2016, the cistern opened to the public with an abstract light and sound installation by Venezuelan artist Magdalena Fernández titled Rain. More than 34,000 visitors from around the world strolled along the half-mile underground walkway to view the artist’s projections, and this new use for the cistern was solidified.
The cistern’s most recent artist-in-residence is Franco-Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, a pioneer in the world of kinetic and optical art. His work, Spatial Chromointerference, uses 32 projectors to project a variety of repeatedly flashing beams of colored light across the vast expanse of the cistern, magically transforming the subterranean temple and its columns into a unique and rapidly-changing canvas for visitors to experience themselves. Indeed, a quote on the winding passageway leading down to the cistern captures it all: “Art is the most beautiful form of communication.”
Local Innovations Across America
What better place to reflect Houston-like creativity across the U.S. than recent broadcasts of the Voice of America, the nation’s largest publicly-funded international broadcast network? VOA is chartered by law to be an accurate, objective, and comprehensive source of news and to reflect significant American thought and institutions — including what is happening in American cities and towns coast to coast. Here are some VOA datelines where creative ideas of citizens are underway:
MUSCATINE, IOWA —This small county has special ties with China because President Xi Jingping stayed with a local family in 1985 when Mr. Xi was a low-ranking provincial official interested in learning about agriculture. When he came back for a visit in 2012, many of the people of Muscatine came out to give him a warm welcome. The citizens’ group consisted mainly of the still active Muscatine China initiative, which promotes business ties and investment between the county and Chinese companies.
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA — Tashitaa Tufaa first arrived in Minneapolis in 1992. As a child, he had worked along with his 13 siblings on the family farm in Ethiopia. In America, he began as a Hilton Hotel dishwasher at $5.56 an hour. A decade later, after working in menial jobs and finally as a taxi driver, Tufaa and his brother founded a transportation company. At first, they used Ms. Tuffa’s single minivan, transporting homeless children to and from schools.
Today, their Metropolitan Transportation Network is a multimillion dollar company. It transports more than 15,000 children to schools and field trips throughout Minnesota. “When a person is free,” says Tashitaa Tufaa, “you can do anything. Work is work, and go out there and do what is available. Be proud of it.”
BERKELY, CALIFORNIA — One of the most striking Silicon Valley initiatives of the past year is a small company founded by two recent arrivals from Asia, founder Yosen Utomo from Indonesia and his colleague Ed Ow. It’s called Fulldive. Its aim is to make Virtual Reality, VR, available at reasonable cost to many more users around the world. It permits VR access to smart phones via a low cost viewer called Google Cardboard.
Utomo claims that the top three countries using Fulldive are in the United States, India and Indonesia. The two co-owners of this new startup say their goal is to create something new that can impact the world. With 7.1 million downloads of the Fulldive app so far, they believe they’re on the right path to making a significant difference.
MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA — A new museum was opened April 27 here in the city center on the site of a warehouse where African slaves were once auctioned off to the highest bidder. In a town that at one time was the capital of the Confederate States of America, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarcerationwas recently built. It’s filled with visual exhibits that reflect what many blacks endured for generations beginning with the long voyage from captivity in Africa to the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
Civil rights leader the Reverend Jesse Jackson was present at the museum’s opening. “We must learn to live together,” he said. “And that is one of the great challenges of our past.”
A traveler from faraway California got in line early for the opening day. Her name was Isoke Femi. Still reeling from her walk past the grim images and displays reflecting powerful and uncomfortable truths long avoided, Isoke saw hope in the crowds around her.
As Isoke put it to VOA correspondent Kane Farabaugh: “The love it took to do this, the commitment, the courage, and the fact that everybody is here … not just blacks … everybody is here. And even if they can’t find the words, they want the healing of America.”
The Healing Power of Helping Hands
AND FINALLY, BACK TO HOUSTON, TEXAS — After disastrous floods in Houston last summer, several mosques opened their doors to flood victims, providing shelter for displaced families and donations to help them. People from distant suburbs came to help, or even to accommodate some families evacuated to the mosque from their flood-ravaged homes. “We were really amazed,” said Ilyas Choudry, originally from Pakistan. “I never knew that these things can happen. People of all faiths, they have come together to help those in need.”
May 31, 2018
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More