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 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.
Next Week: The Long March to the West.