One City, Two Summits

When most people think of Houston, they're likely to conjure up all-day barbecues, not economic-summit meetings. Yet that image will change this week--as Houston hosts not one summit, but two. There's the grand one for the great powers, the one for which Houston has spent nearly $10 million and planted thousands of begonias. Then there's another l gathering, made up largely of leftist academics and activists, that has taken on the pun-prone acronym TOES: The Other Economic Summit. This second get-together--a three-day affair kicked off on Friday--includes a range of seminars on such subjects as environmental decay and economic self-reliance for Third World nations. The object: to serve as a counterpoint to concerns of the industrialized nations. Says participant Max Sisulu, son of African National Congress leader Walter Sisulu and a recent returnee to South Africa after 27 years in exile, "It is a summit for the ordinary people who want to have a say in the running of their lives."

By coinciding with the bigtime summit, TOES draws a little of the international spotlight to its own agenda. The G-7 group may try to avert a trade war (page 30), but these guys want to explain the class war. Formed in 1984, TOES uses humor and spectacle to drive its lessons home: parodying the seven wealthiest nations, it sponsors a "Summit of Seven of the World's Poorest Peoples," with Haitian, Nigerian, Bangladeshi, and even Native American representatives, among others. At last year's Paris summit, organizers floated a bargeful of its Third World summiteers down the Seine. The little people are in the spotlight, but TOES also has some big names on the program, including politicians Luiz Inacio da Silva of Brazil and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of Mexico--as well as Jesse Jackson, who addressed the conference via a telephone hookup.

TOES works against the good-news image that cities hosting G-7 summits invariably try to project. The group turns the host city into its example, pointing out such harsh realities of urban life as pollution, disease and want. Civic boosters want to show that Houston has come back from the economic slump of the late 1980s; but the Other Summiteers counter that the recovery has helped white Houston and left the rest behind, citing estimates from the Interfaith Hunger Coalition that 500,000 Houstonians live below the poverty line. Former Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sissy Farenthold called the TOES summit "Houston without hype."

Shiner Bock: But not without a hitch. The Other Economic Summit has run into a string of bad fortune. The University of Houston backed out of its contract to host the event--perhaps a mix-up, but others saw conspiracy. The Rev. Jew Don Boney from the Black United Front Houston says, "They simply tried to block this summit from happening to present a mythology that no alternatives to the G-7 exist." With the university claiming that the 150 dormitory rooms it had promised were occupied, attendees had to find another home quickly. Their second choice: the unposh Astro Village Hotel, hard by the Astrodome.

The G-7 crowd will barely know the Other Summit is there; the Houstonian Hotel is a long way from Astro Village. It's hardly likely that Margaret Thatcher and Toshiki Kaifu would sneak off to Goode Company Barbeque for smoky brisket and Shiner Bock beer, and meet up with a Third World toga party. That's too much to ask of coincidence. But what a summit that would be.