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Where the Sidewalk Ends: Walking the Bad Streets of Houston’s Super-Elites

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.

The first part of this article can be read here.

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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  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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