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Stephen Klineberg, movie star! New film looks to Houston's future by examining its past 30 years

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Stephen Klineberg greets friends at the premiere of Interesting Times: Tracking Houston's Transformations Through 30 Years of Surveys Photo by Eli Spector/Rice University
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An audience of Houston movers and shakers attended the premiere at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. This photograph was tinted to give an old-time movie feel. Photo by Eli Spector/Rice University
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The audience applauded in appreciation at the end of the film. Photo by Eli Spector/Rice University
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David Thompson, from left, Rich and Nancy Kinder and Stephen Klineberg Photo by Eli Spector/Rice University
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The movie generated a lot of disussion afterwards. Photo by Eli Spector/Rice University
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Klineberg never misses an opportunity to talk about Houston's future based on data gathered in the past 30 years. Photo by Eli Spector/Rice University
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The audience awaits the start of Interesting Times: Tracking Houston's Transformations Through 30 Years of Surveys Photo by Eli Spector/Rice University
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News_Kinder Urban Research movie_March 2012_Stephen Klineberg_at podium
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For 30 years, Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg has been tracking Houston attitudes in an annual survey. Now he's starring in a movie about it.

"The only thing we're missing is the popcorn," Rich Kinder joked at the premiere of Interesting Times: Tracking Houston's Transformations Through 30 Years of Surveys Wednesday night at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "Steve delivers everything else; perhaps he'll deliver that too."

While there was no popcorn there were innumerable kernels of fascinating information about Houston's transformation over the last three decades in the densely packed, 25-minute movie, which should be must-see viewing for anyone interested in the city's past and its uncertain future. (Groups are welcomed to request a viewing by contacting the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.)

 What began as a one-time survey in 1982 has become a treasure trove of information about how Houston has changed from a city dependent on natural resources to a city where knowledge is the key to success. 

What began as a one-time survey in 1982 conducted by Rice students under Klineberg's supervision has become a treasure trove of information about how Houston has changed from a city dependent on natural resources like oil, timber and cattle to a city where knowledge is the key to success.

"No other city in the United States has been studied for this long," Michael Emerson, co-director of the Kinder Institute, told the audience.

In the film, which was produced by the ttweak marketing/design agency with a grant from ExxonMobil, Klineberg notes that the gap betwen rich and poor has grown in Houston as most of the economic growth in the last 20 years has gone to the rich and the super rich. "What you earn is based on what you learn," he says, which makes education crucial to the area's future success.

"The only way to improve the lot of the poor is to invest in their skills," he says.

Quality of life issues are also taking a more paramount role as Houston competes against other cities to attract the best and the brightest to high-tech jobs, Klineberg says in the film.

Other surprising tidbits:

  • While 57 percent of the area's population continues to want a home with a big yard, a substantial 41 percent of Harris County residents would prefer smaller housing that is within walking distance of shops, schools and businesses. Houston is "a city in the process of reinventing itself in the 21st century," Klineberg says.
  • 90 percent of area residents say that Houston is a better place to live than anywhere else. "People who live here love it here," Klineberg says. But those who have never visited Houston wonder why anyone would live here. 
  • In the last three decades Houston has become one of the nation's most ethnically and culturally diverse cities. Every successful business in Houston is going to have to capitalize on the ethnic transformation, Klineberg says. Another interesting factoid: Asian and African immigrants in Houston by and large are educated and affluent; more than 50 percen of Latinos don't have high school degrees.
  • Most people over 65 in Houston are Anglo; most people under 30 are non-Anglo. The graying and browning of Houston reflects what is happening in the nation; how Houston handles the changes will determine the future. "There will never be more interesting times than right here, right now," Klineberg says.

Afterwards, Klineberg told CultureMap that he hopes the film can be used to generate discussion about the challenges facing Houston and the surrounding metropolitan area so that consensus can be reached on the best ways to tackle problems.

 "We have a lot going for us. One of the greatest things is the people who live here believe in this city and want to make it work. But the challenges are immense."

 He said he is optimistic about the future. "But I'm also very aware that we've got immense problems ahead of us and tremendous challenges. If we don't turn around, for example, the dropout rates for African Americans and Latinos now in this generation, that's who we are going to be in the future.

"But we have a lot going for us. One of the greatest things is the people who live here believe in this city and want to make it work. But the challenges are immense."

Klineberg received congratulations from Kinder and his wife, Nancy, who provided funds for the Kinder Institute, and Kinder Institute advisory board members Pat Oxford and Y. Ping Sun. Also on hand: Scott McClelland, Sofia Adrogué, Minnette Boesel, Barry Mandel, Jackie Martin, ttweak's David Thompson, ExxonMobil Gas and Power Marketing president Tom Walters and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

Kinder praised the film as "extraordinary" because "it demonstrates what the issues facing Houston are and the opportunities that come from those issues."

"What we view as a tremendously important asset of the Kinder Institute and Rice for the future is to have this treasure trove of information that's been accumulated over 30 years. To my knowledge there's no other urban survey of this depth that's been done any place in America and maybe any place in the world," Kinder said. "And we will continue."

The next Houston Area Survery will expand to include attitudes in surrounding counties. "It gives us a better look at the whole urban area," Kinder said.

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