“Austin had naively existed in my mind as an antidote to the overstuffed burrito-ness of America,” says the unnamed narrator of David Heymann’s new book of fiction, My Beautiful City Austin (John Hardy Publishing, 2014). The narrator is a residential architect who fails again and again to dissuade his clients from building 8,000-square-foot Italian villas. He participates in the erasure of the landscape he loves.
The long lament is beautifully balanced by lyricism and humor. Many of the scenes take place in lakes, creeks, and swimming holes. I felt like I was right there in an inner tube, a floating cooler within arm’s reach. I read the book in one sitting.
Early on, the narrator explains that he came out of school in the mid-1980s and you get a sense of the impact the dismal economy had on his psyche: “When you start in architecture, especially when you first start studying architecture, it’s all high-mindedness, a hangover from the Frank Lloyd Wright Fountainhead idea of architects actually having a say in the way the world becomes. But Wright could behave the way he did, telling people how to live, because he had work, and everything in architecture, all authority and identity, stems from having work.”
Urban Movement members demonstrate parkour on the Navigation Esplanade. Photos: Allyn West.
Though last weekend’s Sunday Streets HTX was not quite as lively with participants or as busy with the pop-up shenanigans of previous ones, it was compelling, all the same. The 1.5-mile route along Navigation Boulevard, connecting the East End and Fifth Ward, showed parts of a city in transition and invited us to experience close-in neighborhoods still on this side of gentrification.
Land use, in these neighborhoods, has always been truly mixed. As Raj Mankad pointed out in his “unofficial guide,” heavy-duty industry and family-owned restaurants co-exist. Buffalo Bayou is bordered on the north by a noisy Prolerizing facility and on the south by a serene hike and bike trail. Empty buildings are decorated with murals; decommissioned railroad tracks sinking into the pavement lie just a few blocks from shiny new brass sidewalk inlays marking the stamp of a management district initiative. Which is it?, the question seems to be. Past or future? These neighborhoods answer that — at least for now — it’s both.
1920s Houston streetcar on Mandell Line headed toward Montrose.
City-wide gridlock. Long stretches of highway that look like parking lots, not at rush hour, but midday. Welcome back to traffic panic, Houston. In the past we have given ourselves brief reprieves by widening our highways, but there’s little appetite for swallowing up whole neighborhoods for right-of-way and no money to do such a thing. Can light rail save us?
Two new light rail lines set to start service early next year will drastically expand Houston’s rail network, but our city will remain dreadfully underserved by the system. Many neighborhoods seeing a greater density of midrise and townhouse developments will not be reached by rail. The bus system is undergoing a much needed reimagining but it will be difficult to coax those moving into luxury apartments to ride the bus. Furthermore, the current political climate will not yield federal funding for new light rail anytime soon. Now is a good time to consider further expansion of transit through a combined streetcar and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that we can afford, and possibly even agree upon.
The next Sunday Streets HTX is December 7 from noon to 4 p.m. along Navigation and N. York in the East End and Fifth Ward. The city closes the street to motorized traffic and opens it to human-powered traffic like walking and bicycling. This 1.5-mile curve through historic Houston neighborhoods becomes a 2.5-mile loop if you include the hike and bike trail along Buffalo Bayou that intersects with the route at both ends.
This final of six Sunday Streets held in Houston this first year promises to bring together all the elements that distinguished the previous routes. The rapid succession of landscapes is unparalleled. You’ll move from urban to small-town feel to industrial ruins to active industry to alternative art to agriculture and back again. The layers of history in the built and natural environments, and the connection of the communities there to the history, are visible. As in the Third Ward last month, streets that were dividing lines in a segregated Houston will serve as public spaces where all are invited.
Rendering from http://www.houstonneedsaswimminghole.com/.
Monte Large, Jeff Kaplan, and Evan O’Neil have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a feasibility study of building a swimming hole in Houston several acres in size with a capacity of hosting more than 2,000 people. Their efforts rapidly gained momentum after coverage in Andrea White’s column for the Houston Chronicle.
According to Springs of Texas, Volume 1, Harris County once had swimming holes with “pure white sand and clean and limpid water.” Beauchamps Springs, now beneath I-10 or possibly trickling out on its margin, was a popular swimming spot on White Oak Bayou. I have heard that high school students swim in Spring Creek to this day.
Houston no longer turns its bayous into trapezoidal concrete-lined ditches. In 1973, when the Rice Design Alliance (publisher of this blog) held a forum headlined by Terry Hershey and published the findings as Bayous: Recycling an Urban Resource, using the bayous for anything other than drainage was a controversial idea. Yet, the real skin-to-water intimacy that the first Houstonians enjoyed remains rare.
Double Dutch on Dowling. Photo: Theresa Keefe.
After every Sunday Streets HTX, I round up photographs and reflect on the event. What stood out for me on November 2 in the Third Ward was the play. Previous routes, especially Westheimer and 19th Street, were compact and lined with businesses, whereas on this last route activity was clustered at either end. All that space in between was open to playful appropriation.
In Play Matters (MIT Press, August 2014), Miguel Sicart argues that to play is to be in the world; playing is a form of understanding what surrounds us and a way of engaging with others. Play goes beyond games; it is a mode of being human. I am still reading Sicart’s book and trying to wrap my mind around his rhetoric. In a blog post called “The Accelerated Flaneur,” he writes that “playing is taking over the world to make it ours.”
Detail from Women in Architecture timeline. All photos courtesy Architecture Center Houston.
The exhibit is on view until January 16, 2015 at the Architecture Center Houston, 315 Capitol, Suite 120. Click here for more details.
Six-inch-square pixels — hand assembled, pushed, and pulled along a 118-foot-long three-dimensional timeline — have injected energy and life into the Architecture Center of Houston.
Women In Architecture: 1850 to the Future is an ambitious, engaging, and articulate display signifying the resurrected voices of pioneers including Charlotte Perriand, Ada Louise Huxtable, Anne Tyng, Ray Eames, and Aino Aalto, coupled with current international and local leaders in the field including Denise Scott Brown, Zaha Hadid, Kazuyo Sejima, Jeanne Gang, Val Glitsch, Elizabeth Chu Richter, Nonya Grenader, Donna Kacmar, Lisa Lamkin, and Janis Brackett.
Cite 95. Photograph: Raj Mankad.
The new issue of Cite (95) has been mailed and will be available soon at the Brazos Bookstore, CAMH, MFAH, River Oaks Bookstore, and other stores. Below is an introduction to the issue.
OffCite.org, the digital platform for Cite, has been visited by more than 100,000 users in the last year according to Google Analytics. That traffic is a game-changer. When coupled with online petitions, social media, gaming, and real-life advocacy, OffCite can have an impact, as we saw with the birth of Sunday Streets HTX.
Our print publication is thriving too. The New York Art Director’s Club recognized Cite 91 for its letterpress cover illustrated by John Earles putting us on the same list with the New York Times Magazine. External validation is nice but we go to so much trouble with Cite because the physicality of the print object matters. We invest the content, from the Latin investire meaning “to clothe” and “endow with meaning.”
Alex Maclean at West Houston Airport. Photo: Raj Mankad.
The new issue of Cite, number 95, features photographs by Alex Maclean, an award-winning aerial photographer and author of 11 books.
I rode alongside Maclean in a Cessna on one of his flights last June. From the air Houston looks like a giant game board. You can see how the Energy Corridor is sandwiched between two vast reservoirs. I-10 ripples across the city. We travel from Beltway 8 to the Galleria to Downtown in minutes.
The next Sunday Streets HTX is November 2 from noon to four in the Greater Third Ward along Dowling, Alabama, and Almeda. This route will be the fifth one this year. With each sun and rain and sweat drenched Sunday Street, we have stretched our collective imagination, reworking the “structure of feeling” of Houston’s public realm. The events are ephemeral. Once the crowds are gone we are back to cracked sidewalks for pedestrians and big wide lanes for cars. And yet, Sunday Streets change our understanding of what is possible. Sunday Streets establish a sense of belonging. Fears are relinquished. Whole landscapes are seen afresh.
And of all the routes, I believe this one in the Greater Third Ward — this mile-and-a-half lightning bolt — has the greatest significance and potential. It is a chance to experience history and a chance to make history. I hope you will be there.
Read below for a bottom-up, unofficial, incomplete guide to what you can expect once you arrive. I’ll start from the north east side of the route at Dowling and Elgin.