There’s that mythic line from America’s long-abandoned manned lunar space adventures: “Houston, we have a problem.” Nearly fifty years on, I can correct that statement from my hotel room in the city’s so-called downtown some twenty-five miles from the Space Center where those words first came to earth: Houston, you’re the one that’s got the problem.
It’s you who’s been abandoned by all but the destitute, who seek shade from the early summer heat in the highway underpasses that moat the central district. One can assume that there are sometimes people in the corporate skyscrapers and heavily fortified apartment buildings downtown. They scuttle between the towers in skyways and tunnels. But these cryogenic shut-ins aren’t city-dwellers as that concept has been understood for several millennia. Speaking of lunar landings, the downtown rich might as well be on the moon.
I’ve come to Houston to write concert reviews for the American Guild of Organists’ biennial convention. Checking into the hotel last Sunday evening the vast, frigid lobby was full of some odd characters—and I don’t just mean the organists. There were also people dressed up in outlandish outfits, from winsome mice to muscly heroes—some martial, some whimsical (not that you can’t be both: look at any US Prez of the last twenty-five years — and the next eight). A comic convention was just concluding. I peered through the potted palms in search of someone to pitch my Organ Man idea to: when so called upon, the unassuming air-conditioning technician Jimmy Buxtehude pilots a giant mobile organ that transforms into a thousand-barreled weapon for good …
Before I could make my move I was collared by a colleague, and dreams of a ten-picture deal were sucked up into the air handling ducts towards a giant Chihuly chandelier of fiery red and orange.
At last I made it to the elevator and dropped my bag in my room overlooking the Toyota Center where the Houston Rockets play basketball. Next to it there was city block of transformers required to deal, I guess, with the energy demands of this concrete entertainment bunker. Beyond this spread a bleak and unpeopled landscape. Was the terrain habitable—or even inhabited?
I went in search of tacos.
Out in the moist and welcoming heat—a good thirty degrees warmer than the hotel’s stifling climate—a brick monolith beckoned above the low palm trees and magnolias ringing what appeared to be a park.
I made my way towards a building, which, without a trace of irony, proclaimed itself to be One Park Place, so named because it looks onto Houston’s Discovery Green. This luxury apartment block faced with brick rises up nearly forty floors to neo-Victorian gables and a pitched roof crowned by what, from street level, looks like wrought iron, but surely isn’t. The building’s jokey allusions to nineteenth-century architecture of a more human scale makes the absurdity of its size and isolation, even though placed at the purported geographic center of Houston, all the more blatant and depressing.
There is a grand piano in the narrow lobby that gives onto the green. The instrument invites us to imagine we are looking into a mansion on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. In five days of walking past this entrance I saw no one enter the building here, not to mention sit down and play the piano. The residents arrive and escape by car.
After dark this Steinway looks as abandoned and forlorn as any human figure in an Edward Hooper painting. Silent and sullen, this accouterment of a forgotten era stares out from its interior emptiness into the urban emptiness beyond. Is it an alien? A lunar lander? Or simply another of the city’s tombstones?
As for Discovery Green, it is a bell-shaped public space of abraded grass paired and a water feature grandly called Kinder Lake—actually a bleakly artificial basin of straight lines and right angles given the natural touch along one flank with a bit of contouring. You can rent kayaks if you really want to investigate the pond’s misguided assertion that water alone equals the natural world. Actually, Kinder Lake isn’t so much bigger than the palm-lined pool on the massive terrace several floors above street level of One Park Place—an oasis in the sky visible on Google Earth.
The Green itself is less a park than a platform onto which have been plunked life-size architectural models: a free-standing café and restaurant and across the Avenida de Las Americas the convention center—a manically happy eyesore of bright white topped by goofy red pipes that seem to refer to the air intake pipes of old steamers. One just wishes this Titanic would be towed from its blighted berth down the Buffalo Bayou (the city’s sluggish central water way) to a breaking yard on Galveston Bay.
Taking in this post-urban desert not from above, but from the edge of Discovery Green, I fell into a conversation with a homeless man as we watched a couple of kids kick a soccer ball around the otherwise unpopulated lawn in the golden Gulf light of early evening. The air was humid but hardly stultifying enough on its own to keep people away.
My local informant told me that there is ice-skating on the Green at Christmas. He called it crazy, and I agreed, adding this Brueghelesque scene, unimaginable in the June heat, to the already growing accumulation of paradoxes I’d tallied up in my first hour in the city, and to which would be added so many more in the five summer days I would spend downtown and moving from it to points far beyond.
Houston is a megalopolis of astounding contradictions, the main one being the fact that, though the city is one of the fastest growing in the USA, with cranes everywhere visible pulling clusters of new glass towers from the plain, the geographic center nostalgically called “downtown” feels like a neutron bomb hit it. Only a few mutant souls like myself survive to walk its streets.
Houston is infamous as the American city most enslaved to the automobile. That’s quite an achievement in this auto-crazed country. Yet throughout the day many of the four lane boulevards in the center of town are virtually empty of traffic. They reminded me of the broad socialist avenues of the Eastern Block in the late days of the Cold War.
What I began sardonically calling the historic Art Deco district—a low-slung huddle of bars and empty storefronts—clings to less than a quarter of block at the corner of Dallas and Caroline Streets. New luxury apartments will soon put this enclave into still deeper shadows. Several blocks is Main Street, a lifeless boulevard of surreal flowerbeds and a valiant light rail line that, in terms of mass transit, is the equivalent to pissing into the daily hurricane of Houston’s freeway exhaust. On this once busy boulevard another can be admired another rare architectural remnant of a more vibrant past. The Rice Hotel is now dark at street level.
Scrubby, puddled parking lots alternate with skyscrapers, perfect to the point of abstraction. Looking up you sometimes think you’re seeing a 3D photograph on an architect’s webpage. But then you remember it’s real, in a way, and that the whole point is literally to be belittled—to be made little—by the glass encased egos of Philip Johnson and I. M. Pei and other men.
How to survive in this post-urban environment on the cusp of apocalypse?
My strategy was to meet contradiction with contradiction: instead of driving, I would walk.
* * *
To walk in Houston is crazy. Many think it’s illegal, or at the very least forbidden by god. If the heat doesn’t kill you, the underclasses might, or so the car-loving locals like to think.
One of my walks took me from the downtown Hilton Americas a few miles through the historic black district of Third Ward to the University of Houston. When I informed the old friend who’d enlisted me to come to review concerts at the biennial convention of the American Guild of Organists held in the city last week, his face took an uncharacteristically grave aspect. He grabbed my shoulder and said, “Never do that again.” Needless to say, that only encouraged me to do just that.
In surveying my possible route from the air-conditioned, eleventh-floor safety of my downtown hotel room, I had ascertained that a few years back the neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Dowling and McGowen Streets in the Third Ward ranked as the fifteenth-most-dangerous area in America according to statistics compiled by the F. B. I. Still higher crime rates prevailed a bit farther south in the Sunnyside district, which ranks in the top-ten on this ignominious list.
I traversed this supposed no-go zone without incident in the middle of the day, encountering one young man on a bicycle. He gave me a pleasant greeting. Few cars were to be seen on the quarter’s roadways.
Compared to the desert of downtown, with its gleaming skyscrapers rising next to weedy parking lots, the Third Ward is lush and green, its many empty lots filled with garrulous birds, mature trees and diverse plants. On foot, one realizes that Houston was once a swampy place, and likely will be again before too long.
The houses of the Third Ward are mostly small and dilapidated, many teetering on the wooden posts that keep them off the ground a few inches. Lots of dwellings are abandoned. The roads are bleached and rutted. Obviously poor, the area appears almost rural because of the number of disused parcels. These function as de facto nature preserves.
In advance of the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, Interstate 45 was blasted between downtown and the Third Ward, cordoning it off from the geographic center of the city. More recently I-69 was added to this vast moat of segregation, which now number some eighteen lanes. From the overpass at Elgin Street, the modernist high-rise monuments to capitalism rise to the north above the horizontal torrent of automobiles, and the vines of the Third Ward beckon to the south.
The bridge at Elgin Street is one of the few crossing points over the interstates between Third Ward and the so-called Midtown district with its gated townhouses rising amidst light-industrial blocks and the usual retail detritus. It’s impossible to know what midtown is in the middle of, since Houston doesn’t have one. “Midtown” suffers, if somewhat less urgently, from the surreal incoherence endemic to Houston. Near the north end of the bridge is Baldwin Park with its eucalyptus and oak trees, curving paths, and lawns many shades darker than the color of money. Faux Tudor townhouses face the park. The drinking fountains are three-tiered—one each for adults, kids, and dogs.
Across the bridge after a couple of blocks I came to Emancipation Park, purchased by former slaves and in 1872. The dangerous Dowling Street runs along the park’s southeast border.
Neglected for decades, the park is now under full-on reconstruction with a pavilion, a recreation center, a pool, water features, and sculpted landscaping taking shape beyond seemingly impregnable temporary fencing; “Your Tax Dollars At Work” a large sign proclaims. Whether this will “reenergize” the Third Ward as the city’s PR claims or provide a beachhead for gentrification remains to be seen. The architects’ renderings imagine shimmering condos in the blocks surrounding the park rather than the weathered churches and battered houses that are there now.
I did couple of more miles past Emancipation Park in the direction of a towering McDonald’s sign. This garish monument marks the corner of the University of Houston. A light rail station and the usual chainstore outlets suddenly crop up. Just beyond them are the spreading sports fields and football stadium of the university.
Temperatures were in the high 90s and I was sweaty. I went around back of the Moores School of Music, took off my t-shirt and draped it over some shrubs, then put on my dry one and joined the flow of organists moving into the air-conditioned dimness of the concert hall for a program of works by Mozart and the Bach sons given by the world-class baroque orchestra, Ars Lyrica Houston.
That’s when I got the talking to from my host.
In spite of his protestations, far more perilous than this walk spanning at least three worlds in three miles was the first one I had undertaken in Houston a few days earlier.
I’ve done many walks: over the icy cliffs and receding glaciers of the Ptarmigan Traverse in the North Cascades; across long stretches of New York City’s five boroughs; over boggy fields and treacherous canals—into one of which I lost my shoes—along Germany’s North Sea coast; late-night hikes from the ferry terminal to my parents’ house while being threatened continually by the vicious dogs of then-rural Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. But none of these has been as dangerous as the nearly ten miles west from Houston’s downtown Hilton to St. Philip’s Presbyterian Church to hear a program of Bach, Brahms, and Liszt presented by a famed German organ virtuoso.
I gave myself three-and-a-half hours for the trek.
After passing under I-45 and leaving the blight of downtown, I picked up some sunscreen at Walgreens and set off through a district that apparently calls itself Hyde Park. Here as elsewhere townhouses are quickly replacing arts-and-crafts bungalows. These modest structures are rapidly disappearing from Houston, and the charm of those that remain is badly diminished by the sturdy security fences that usually surround them.
Houston has the terrible habit of permitting some blocks to dispense with sidewalks. This isn’t so bad in the unthreatening calm of Vermont Street.
But it is life-threatening along the busy four-lane thoroughfare of San Felipe Avenue running through River Oaks. There are long sidewalk-less stretches in this super-rich enclave’s main automotive artery. For most of these I could still walk along the grassy verge, robustly green from all the pricey irrigation. It’s important to the super rich to keep up appearances on the outside of their walls.
Occasionally, however, the way forward for the pedestrian would be blocked by hedges or other obstacles, so I’d have to wait for the traffic to clear and then run to the other side of the street. Mansions loomed behind brick walls with their own slate roofs as huge cars whizzed by at fifty miles-per-hour.
When gaps in the fortifications allowed views to a circular drive with porte-cochere I could see no sign of people. The environment was as humanless as it was downtown, though I was fairly sure that at least someone must be inside those piles of brick, just as there were certainly drivers behind the darkened windows of those SUVS careening along San Felipe.
With my journey approaching the three-hour mark it began to rain big tropical drops as I crossed train tracks that look like they had ran through pastureland just a decade. I was now entering the so-called Uptown district—though “up” from what I couldn’t say. New glass towers rose around the church that was my destination and the horizon was thick with cranes making more of them.
In ten-miles I had encountered two other pedestrians. Both were walking their dogs.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J.S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)