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The Rogue Beautifier

By Lisa Gray
Houston Chronicle
Dec. 21, 2007

Kirk Farris remembers meeting the McKee Street Bridge. It was 1977, and an artist friend was reeling from the news that the Houston police were involved in the brutal death of Joe Campos Torres, whose body turned up in Buffalo Bayou.

Farris' friend wrote a song named "Torres Bread." Farris can't quite explain the bread part — it was, you know, the '70s — but he remembers clearly that the next night, the two of them stood on the bridge, and in a weird, arty ceremony, threw slices of Rainbo bread into the bayou.

"To dispel evil," Farris says. He grins. "We were nuts."

That stretch of the bayou offered plenty of evil to dispel. Just east of downtown, not far from what's now Minute Maid Park, it was a grim, grimy no-man's-land in the elbow of Interstate 10's intersection with U.S. 59. The McKee Street bridge stood surrounded by weedy, abandoned lots, industrial concerns going to seed, and a handful of rickety houses at the edge of the freeway viaduct. The bridge was gray and unlit. In some places, tires and trash were stacked 4 feet high.

But somehow Farris got it into his head that this was an important place. It felt to him like the center of Houston.

The Rainbo slices disappeared into the bayou. But Farris kept coming back.

The privateer

He began hanging out near the bridge, and he got to know its people. He became fond of Road Warrior, a homeless guy who lived beside the bayou and hunted food with a bow and arrow.
He also got to know James Bute IV, the boot-wearing CEO of Bute Paint Co. Bute's great-grandfather founded the company, and its brick building was visible from the bridge. Bute came to the bayou almost every day, Farris said. They'd drink beer and talk about women.

Somehow, during all that hanging out, Farris decided that the stretch of bayou around McKee Street ought to be a park. He considered himself a painter — Bute let him use an upper floor of the paint company as a studio — but the park idea became his real outlet. He thought of it as a site work, kin to James Turrell's Roden Crater or Rick Lowe's Project Rowhouses.

It's the kind of art that Huck Finn might have done. Although Farris formed an official nonprofit, Art and Environmental Architecture, Inc., much of his work was highly unofficial. He became, he says, a "park privateer."

Without anybody's permission, he started mowing land he didn't own, land whose owners hadn't cared for it in generations. He hauled away tires and trash. He planted banana trees and palms, prickly pears and grasses, and river cane that he found in a cemetery.

He pestered Harris County to maintain the land it owned near the bridge, and sometimes, after the county maintenance guys mowed a stretch, Farris would mow an adjacent piece to the same height. Then, according to Farris's plan, the next time the county guys were out, they'd unthinkingly mow the whole thing.

Lavender and teal

He talked Jim Bute into donating buckets of lavender and teal house paint, and in 1982, the City of Houston agreed to let Farris use it on McKee Street Bridge. The paint job transformed the bridge into a whacked-out landmark — not the center of Houston, but at least a recognizable place in the city.
Farris schemed to expand the park around the bridge, to build docks and bike paths, to plant orchards and palm gardens. He'd learned that the area was one of the oldest settlements in Houston — part was a place called Frost Town, which traces its history back to the Allen Brothers — and he dreamed of adding historic markers to his park.

Sometimes Farris was fueled by victories. He'd coax the county into leasing new park land, or would discover the long-lost owner of a plot of land. County Commissioner El Franco Lee gave the outlaw project an air of legitimacy.

But sometimes things went terribly wrong. In the fall of 1991, a robber shot and killed James Bute at a car wash. He was 42.

The Bute Paint Co. building became Dakota Lofts. Sitting in his pickup beside McKee Street Bridge, Farris points to the place. Normally Farris talks a mile a minute, his plans and project details pouring out so fast it's hard to absorb them. But for a lonesome few seconds, looking at Bute's old building, he sits quiet.

Oranges and figs

James Bute Memorial Park, as maintained by Harris County, is technically only a few acres on the southeast of the McKee Street Bridge. But as Farris figures it, "our land" includes a patchwork of more than 12 acres, on both sides of the bridge and McKee Street, controlled either by the county or Art and Environmental Architecture. If you include adjacent Texas Department of Transportation green-space, "our land" nearly doubles, and Farris has designs on more.
To everyone but Farris, Bute Park still feels like the edge of something, rather than the center. Farris knows the location of every disappeared street in the old Frost Town, but nothing yet marks them.

The park still attracts more homeless men than frolicking children. Park benches made by artist Kelly Gale Amen were stolen, as was the metal Harris County seal on the park's sign.

An attempt at a bike path bombed, but Farris has hopes that another, using an old railroad bridge, will connect his park to the University of Houston-Downtown. He likes to imagine students picnicking in an orchard full of oranges and figs.

He hasn't planted those trees yet, but he probably will soon. He knows it's not enough to cast your bread on the waters. You have to plant and mow.

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