Houston Arts Alliance Folklife Director Pat Jasper says she was drawn to the project because she wanted to explore how people develop their identity around their occupation. With the help of a grant from the Library of Congress, Jasper launched the “Working the Port” project. She says the goal is to capture the voices of men and women who work in the diverse businesses that support the shipping industry.
“And understanding better the kind of role that the Ship Channel and the port play in making Houston a great place to be for for individuals. It’s really a story about individuals who are part of those industries.”
The port contributes billions of dollars to the local economy but Jasper says it’s not really part of the everyday lives of most Houstonians. For one, it’s tucked away on Houston’s East End, away from the other major centers of the city. They’ve also tightened up security since 9-11. That means there aren’t many places where the public can see what goes on at the port. But for many Houstonians, the port is where they make a living.
“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.”
And while many port jobs that required back-breaking labor have now gone hi-tech, Jasper says there are still people who do work she describes as “heroic.” 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. In his interview Bennett talked about the old days before extensive training and safety programs when one generation passed on knowledge to another.
“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 below is his work. Once the interviews are completed, they’ll be housed at the Library of Congress. Several local organizations have also also expressed interest.