Saturday, February 20, 2010

Day 90: Houston Skyline

Houston. 20.7 miles/1648.6 total

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I leave the Wendy’s parking lot near the intersection of U.S. 90 and I-610, heading southwest into the center of Houston, then northwest up and out of the downtown, on a sort of parabolic route through the city. I’ll be within the city limits for the entire walk, as far as I know.

It’s a beautiful sunny morning, expected to get into the high 60s this afternoon, with clouds coming later in the day.

Off in the distance the Houston skyline is barely visible through a cloud of brownish gray smog. Houstonians have done a great deal to earn this air pollution, expanding and growing their city and its highway system, and fostering the petrochemical industry that feeds the economy. Some of them are almost proud of their poor air quality, sort of like being proud of the way your armpits smell after doing a heavy day of work. And they resent the intrusion of the EPA into their affairs. “Don’t mess with Texas” is the motto here.

This part of 90 is still lined with industry and heavy equipment—drilling pipes, truck trailer lots, truck repair shops, and the occasional gas station and restaurant.

I’m now pushing through to my next milestone, which will be the one hundredth day of walking, probably in a couple of weeks. I’ve also figured out my probable route through New Mexico, whenever I get there. Originally I toyed with the idea of going through Albuquerque or Santa Fe, but after spending part of the afternoon yesterday looking at maps I’ve concluded that would be too great a detour. So I’m going through New Mexico across the southern tier, so to speak.

About half a mile past I-10 I turn off of 90 onto Market Street. I go east into a residential area of small shabby houses, mixed with small automobile-related businesses, welding shops, and so on.

For twenty blocks I walk through a succession of Mexican neighborhoods, past the Bill Martinez Elementary School; the Resurrection School; the Denver Harbor Multi Service Center, a recreation facility and park; the Centro de Neuva Vida Asamblea Apostolica.

Down on both sides of the intersection of Market and Lockwood there’s a large old cemetery, filled with uneven and unattended graves from long ago. It’s the Historic Evergreen Negro Cemetery, according to the sign. Apparently there was once a cotton plantation here, and at some point African Americans organized this as the first black cemetery in the city. Some of the graves were lost when Lockwood Street cut through the middle of the cemetery. Here’s Annie Clay, born in Louisiana in 1850, died in 1920. And Joseph her husband, and their granddaughter. And Maggie Armstrong, 1878-1918. Gone But Not Forgotten.

I turn south onto Lockwood to cross Buffalo Bayou into downtown. I pass Southern Crushed Concrete, a large yard filled with piles of aggregate, stones, dirt, and broken concrete. They sell and collect used concrete, in different grades and sizes, from one-inch pieces all the way to chunks a foot or two across, called rip rap. Some of you probably know what rip rap is, but this comes as news to me. It's the kind of thing you see on man-made embankments and breakwaters and the like.

I turn west on Navigation Boulevard, continuing toward downtown. They’re having elections in Texas soon, probably the primaries. There are dozens of campaign signs along the boulevard. People running for judge, county offices, congressman, governor, you name it. Larry Hinojosa, Bill White, Javier Valenzuela, Olin Boudreaux, Farouk Shami, Rick Ramos, Beverly Melontree, Sheila Jackson-Lee.

In front of Our Lady of Guadeloupe Church and school there’s another old cemetery, enclosed by an iron fence. I look in and see the grave of Fritz Liek, who died in 1873 at the age of 13 years, a student for the Catholic priesthood. And an effigy of what has become my favorite saint, St. Michael the Archangel, with his foot on Satan’s head, his sword ready to pierce his neck.

I make a left on Jensen. There’s an interesting purple tunnel under the railroad tracks, but I stay up at ground level and walk across the tracks. Then I turn onto Franklin, where a great number of the city’s homeless are gathered, lounging about. Probably “homeless” isn’t the right term. Their homes are here, under the expressway bridge, and in various nooks and crannies of Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. Houseless is more like it. They eye me warily. Am I one of them, with my baggy sweatshirt and vest full of bulging pockets? Why am I on foot, they wonder? Just a pain in the ass tourist with a lot of gear? Do I represent competition for scarce resources or potential resources of my own? They seem confused.

I go past the brand new twenty-story plus Harris County Courthouse and the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, which I assume means the jail. What looks like the old Harris County Courthouse, a hundred years old or more, is undergoing extensive renovations, with scaffolding all around. Maybe they’re going to turn it into a museum.

Into view comes what looks like the tallest building in the city, and maybe in the state. But there are several just about as tall, so I don’t know. I pass the Magnolia Hotel and the Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral, built in 1893. It’s such a pleasure to be in the midst of all these tall buildings, with the occasional shorter and older art deco skyscraper. One such is the Gulf Building, built in 1929, about thirty stories high. Then there’s the 1925 Niels-Esperson Building, an example of the Italian Renaissance style. These little guys hold up well next to their newer cousins. The decade from 1925 to 1935 was probably this country’s best for public architecture. The 1990s and 2000s have been pretty good, too, but in a much different and more streamlined way. Somehow we got our heads out of our asses architecturally, where they had been pretty much from WWII until the mid-1980s. During the horrible 50s and 60s and 70s we couldn’t seem to combine functionality with elegance to save our lives. Buildings looked like concrete bunkers, or plastic and aluminum tinker toys, or spaceships, or just plain linear rectangles like the World Trade Towers. Then somehow people began to figure out how to add curves and other flourishes to all that steel and reflective glass, at least some of the time. Color is still critical and they sometimes get it wrong, with bad black and grey structures that look like they’re covered with soot.

Houstonians have a damn nice downtown going for themselves, I think. I head out Prairie and up Bagby, past the aquarium. Up at the corner of Bagby and Franklin is a little park with a statue of George H. W. Bush, that old Republican apparatchik, facing the downtown that his pals in the oil business built, with as much help as he could give them.

Franklin goes northwest. I pass under I-10. There’s some gentrification going on here, with lots of new apartment and condo complexes on the street. Middle aged white people on bicycles ply the pavement, a sure sign of the upper middle class creeping in. Behind the new housing lurk some of the old shabby one-story houses, though. Franklin turns into Washington and on I go.

Eventually I get onto Hempstead and head northwest up and out of the inner city. Hempstead, with railroad tracks on one side and light industry on the other, pretty much completes the symmetry of today’s walk, which began heading southwest on Highway 90, the same type of thoroughfare.

Then I take Clark off of Hempstead, cutting north up to the 290 expressway. Clark turns into Hollister. The neighborhood changes abruptly. It’s now white collar businesses on a shady boulevard—banks, telephone companies, computer places--big buildings again. Up at 290 I go a couple of blocks to Tidwell Road and Walmart and the motor home.

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