Thursday, April 06, 2006

Live from the Astrodome?

When I kicked off this blog a year ago, one of my earliest posts was on realistically repurposing the Astrodome, where I expressed some scepticism at the convention hotel concept, and proposed a far less expensive option involving its use as a festival/community dome. Now the NY Times has an article on a strong surge of interest in live lectures, which immediately made me think of a Houston Community Dome. Unfortunately, because of procrastination on my part, that article is now buried in their pay archives - but here is Otis White's Urban Notebook summary, in its entirety since he lacks permalinks:

The New York Times is famous for spotting social trends. Sometimes they’re little more than inflated fads, but about every third one is something substantial. So here’s hoping the latest interesting trend spotted by the Times is substantial and that it spreads across the country. The trend? People in New York are turning out in big numbers to attend lectures.

That’s right. New Yorkers are filling lecture halls, bars and bookstores these days to hear poets, authors, artists and foreign-policy experts stand at a podium and, well, talk. Mind you, some speakers draw better than others. When the New York Public Library staged an event at which magazine editor Tina Brown interviewed French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy on stage, 900 people showed up. “Diane Von Furstenberg and Lauren Bacall were there,” the library’s director of public programs gushed to the Times. “There was a line 150 meters long of people who couldn’t get in. It went around the corridors of the library.”

OK, so people are nuts about celebrities, and what passes for a celebrity among New York intellectuals is a chi-chi French philosopher. But it seems that New Yorkers are turning out for more mundane talkers as well: minor poets, experts on Iraq, run-of-the-mill novelists, art historians and more.

And not just intellectuals are showing up. People are crowding places like the KGB Bar on East Fourth Street to hear authors speak and read from their works. The bar started its lectures 12 years ago to pump a little life into the slowest evenings of the week, Sundays. “Now we do 20 to 25 readings a month,” the owner told the Times. “There is fiction on Sunday, poetry on Monday, Tuesday is mainly nonfiction. On Wednesday there are special events with different literary groups, magazines, journalists.”

Two questions: Why is this good for cities? And why are people suddenly interested in being lectured to? It’s good for cities because assembling large groups on short notice is what cities do best. If people demand more live events, it makes the urban experience more valuable.

But why would people suddenly want to hear experts talk in person rather than on TV or the radio? That’s a bit more mysterious. One observer thought it might be a post-9/11 thing, where people are more interested in serious thought and analysis. Another suggested it might be a sign of aging baby boomers being burned out on Hollywood movies. “They make the same 10 movies,” he said. “How many times can you see the same movies?”

Footnote: There are tricks to turning out big crowds for lectures. The New York Public Library gave its lecture series a jazzier name, “Live from the NYPL.” (It had been called the “Public Education Program.”) It pushed the time for programs from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., so more could come after work. And it switched from mailing brochures to sending out e-mails. The library now has 7,000 names in its lectures database, so getting a big crowd on short notice is a snap.
Now I know Houston is not on the same scale as New York when it comes intellectual culture, but I think there could be a real audience here for this sort of thing. Imagine dozens of simultaneous lectures and classes around sections of the Astrodome on certain weekday evenings or weekends (when there's not a festival, concert, Texans game, or rodeo). It could be like the 30 screen megaplex theater where you just show up and pick from what's available. Leisure Learning Unlimited classes could add to the options. I'm also imagining various cafes, retail booths/shops, and other options to add a little life to the place. The parking revenues alone would cover all maintenance and probably some minor enhancements - with the light rail always an option if you don't want to pay for parking.

In a broader context, the dome could be run by a nonprofit entity that listens to feedback and experiments with adding new attractions all the time - so it would be an evolving place that would continuously be growing more popular with more options that appeal to more people. I think it could be an incredible and unique urban asset for Houston - certainly more so than another expensive convention center hotel with high-odds of becoming a white elephant.


At 9:32 AM, April 07, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

AD events would only be on days there were no conflicting events needing the parking, like a Texans game or the Rodeo. That's in their Reliant contracts. I'm thinking it would start out as Fri nights and Saturdays to start, roughly 40 weekends/year. If it's popular, it could grow to other days/evenings of the week.

I think some permanent exhibits could be nice, but experience tells me that, in a non-tourist town like Houston, they draw the locals for a few months and then attendance drops off radically. The options have to stay fresh.

I don't think the universities provide a good mass alternative. I don't think they want the crowds and security risk for one thing, but people also don't know their way around the campuses and the buildings. People want one reliable , easy-to-get-to place. Going back to the megaplex theater analogy, it would be like spreading the 30 screens in random campus buildings spread across multiple universities - it just won't attract the same crowds as concentrating them in one known place.

At 4:36 PM, April 10, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "Mayor League" lecture series was certainly pretty popular. I don't remember many vacant seats at any of those talks.

I do think universities are the best bet. If a person isn't willing to find their way around a university (maps of which can be found scattered around campus and on the internet) they're probably not really all that interested in going to see the lecture.

At 7:23 PM, July 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great idea. You might not realize it, in comparison to many other places, Houston does have a large intellectual culture. Despite the fact that everything is spread out, one can find many different lectures and events to attend. I live in Florida, which is seems to be completely void of intellectualism; in fact, lectures are one of the reason I am moving HOME to Houston in just a few weeks.

For those who don't appreciate our wonderful city and all it has to offer, I suggest you move away to a much smaller place (try Florida), and perhaps you will realize all you have taken for granted so you can embrace our glorious our city.


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