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The Port of Houston Through the Voices of Workers

Tuesday, April 10, 2012 - 10:31 AM

Father and son sailors wave to each other from their ships at the Port of Houston. (Photo by veteran Houston Ship Channel pilot Lou Vest)

(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) The Port of Houston will turn 100 years old in 2014 and as part of the observance, a local arts organization is recording oral histories of longtime port workers, everyone from executives to deck hands, in an effort to tell the stories of the individual people behind one of Houston's biggest industries.

Houston Arts Alliance Folklife Director Pat Jasper is working to record 100 interviews for the centennial. She says she was drawn to the work because she wanted to explore how people develop their identities around their occupation.

With the help of a grant from the Library of Congress, Jasper launched the "Working the Port" project, with the goal of capturing the voices of the men and women who work in the diverse businesses that support the shipping industry. She says she also wants to create a better understanding of the port's role in the city's development.

"It's really amazing to think about the scale of the work they are doing, the size of those docks, the heft of those lines they are responsible for," she said.

The Port of Houston is one of the busiest ports in the world. The sprawling 25-mile complex along the Houston Ship Channel contributes billions to the local economy but Jasper says it's not really part of the everyday lives of most Houstonians. For one, much of the port's operations are tucked away on Houston's East End, a working-class neighborhood east of downtown that's away from the other major centers of the city. They've also tightened up security since 9-11. That means there aren't many viewing areas where the public can see what goes on at the port.

Boatmen at the Port of Houston. (Photo by Lou Vest)

One of the people she talked to is Steve Bennett. He's a boatman, and his job is to help tie up the big ships. He talked about what it was like when he was first hired and learning from the older guys.

"When I joined the union what they did: they said, 'Okay, when you come to a union meeting, bring you a big Coke and a bag of popcorn, sit back in the back and just shut up. We don't want to hear anything from you.' So you know that kind of opened your eyes, what's going on here. But they treated you good."

Another person Jasper spoke with is Lou Vest. He's been a ship pilot since the 1980's. There's a lot of competition to become a pilot and Vest was interviewed about how he learned he'd gotten the coveted job.

"In the maritime industry being a pilot is like being invited to be in the major leagues, and it's like being invited to play with the St. Louis Cardinals. I was very pleased."

Vest is also a photographer, and has used his access to the port to capture vibrant images that are currently on display in the Houston Arts Alliance's gallery. As for Jasper's project, her interviews will be housed at the Library of Congress once they're complete. Several Houston organizations have also also expressed interest in preserving the voices of the port for future generations.

Listen to some of the voices here, in the audio version of this story at KUHF.

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