My earliest memory of Houston, like most of my early memories, took place as a backseat passenger in the family station wagon. Houston was always our home-base when we packed our quarters and relocated for my father’s next call to duty as a military officer. Each time we visited Houston en-route to my grandparents’ house, my father would crank down the window and point to the third floor of St. Joseph’s Hospital, shouting over the traffic and wind, “that’s where I was born.” Sometimes we would caravan with my father in the lead car and my mother and the kids in the wagon. Despite the separation, he communicated with a persistent pointing gesture directly to the hospital while practically hanging out the side of the car. As a child I didn’t understand how someone could be born in a building so close to a highway and amid the towering skyscrapers. It seemed impossible to enter and frighteningly close to the high-speed of traffic.
I always told people I was from Texas. It was a lie and one that I am reckoning in my adulthood. With both my mother and father growing up in Houston I felt it was my right to claim that legacy and call it my hometown; a foreign concept to an army brat who averaged a new home every 18 months. There was security in knowing I would return to Houston every summer. It was a place where I knew the weather would be heavy and warm, the food spicy, and the community supportive before we launched into another town. I credit this vague familiarity with Houston as one of the reasons I was willing to transfer from one architecture graduate school to another, leaving Dallas for Houston. Duty and honor pushed our family around the country. I was being led by love and commitment. After a year of a long-distance relationship, I could finally share a city with my fiancé.
Visiting Houston over long weekends while in the “courtship” stage with my now-husband, my impression of the city was one of greenspaces, festivals, and countless restaurants. We cheered for marathoners downtown, gawked at the art car parade down Allen Parkway, and rested on the knoll at Hermann Park, vowing to return for an outdoor movie. We drank iced americanos and Tecate from a can, anything to dissipate the heat. The days’ events seamlessly merged from one to the other with no difficulty in crossing town or jumping from Memorial Park to Tanglewood to Montrose in a matter of a few quick turns. From my perspective as a passenger, these neighborhoods had distinction; I could easily discern West U, Montrose, Midtown, or the Heights.
Now, having lived in Houston for nearly two years, my impression is no longer greenspaces, festivals and food; but rather hecticness, highways, and contradiction. Boundaries between neighborhoods that had visual clarity are now blurred. Links from one area to another feel consumed in a series of mergers and yields and street name changes. Traffic reports sound like inside jokes. “Accident slow at Westloop Northbound feeder near Southwest Freeway.” I’m not privy to the nicknames used for interstates; my map has numbers. It is not uncommon for my husband to receive a frantic call somewhere along the lines of “I don’t understand where I am, how do I get to the Guild Shop from Tacos-a-go-go?” My questions are always landmark based. My husbands answers are always cardinal. I can never tell him if I’m heading North or South and downtown is not an anchor to springboard me to the correct path. Despite this predictable song and dance we do on the phone, he always seems to be able to pin-point my whereabouts and steer me in the right direction.
And yet, despite the constant confusion and frustration, Houston is a city I would defend, and a city I am committed to exploring not as a passenger but as a driver in command.
My well-worn path from my house in the Heights to the University of Houston takes me through neighborhood streets with stop lights and stop signs and along interstates and access roads with six lanes of speeding cars. It is a path I know well and one where I allow myself to drift past the urgency of the traffic patterns around me and see the world beyond my windshield. I am not looking for confirmation in street names, it is my commute of two years and one I can do without a phone call asking for directions. Yale Boulevard has a speed limit of 30 miles per hour, but I often find myself dipping well below that. At the flashing yellow lights of school zones, I reduce my speed for the children filing by on their pedestrian commute home. With my sunroof open I can hear the alarming bell of the crosswalk guiding both the school children and the elderly across the busy intersection at 19th Street. I always wonder if there is a sense of independence these elderly pedestrians have with their living community being so close to a grocery store, pharmacy, shopping, and fast food. From an urban planning perspective it should be ideal, but from my perspective the destinations seem limited and travel unsettling with craggy sidewalks and street curbs hugging the pedestrian path. The Heights has a certain historic feel to it with craftsman homes, wide boulevards, and mature trees, but ever so often there is a puncture of modern development or remnants of a time when land value had dropped and compact apartment living marked the landscape.
More often than not, it is not the school zone that slows me but the daily sight of antiques, junk, and oddball stuff spilling out of consignment and antique stores along Yale. Near the piano tuning shop, there is the “little old lady” place with an inventory of doilies and Victorian furniture wedged between the sidewalk and the store-front. Further up the road is a store I am convinced is an on-going garage sale. The items seem to have an unloved discarded feeling to them with a mix of dated and used medical equipment. I am fascinated by the placement of a bed-pan next to a wicker outdoor set. One store which often justifies a brief stop is one we call “Ronnie’s place,” not only because the owner’s name is Ronnie, but there is no signage out front that would tell us otherwise how to refer to his business. The only sign is a pink fluorescent “OPEN.” It is lit at the oddest hours of the day which conveniently works with my own schedule. In the past when I have stopped in his store, I have found his collection of retro furniture to be an extension of himself with his drawn-out “dudes” and “totallys” fitting in perfectly with his Lucite lighting and shag carpets. His selection of sidewalk displays is the most savvy. Items with strong silhouettes and bold colors flank his store front. More often than not, the items are knock-off mid-century design or an incomplete set of some kind. Regardless, the experience is always a welcome change from the typical antique dealer.
As I drive towards St. Joseph’s hospital, which coincidentally is part of my daily commute, I notice not only the third floor, but the surrounding buildings and the slow change taking place on the Houston sky-line. From the vantage point of I-45 my understanding of downtown is in quick glimpses with buildings classified into shapes and forms, materials, and color. A fresh coat of gray paint paired with a deep red one gave one building an impressive make-over. Has that building always been there? What sort of color previously left it rendered insignificant for so many months? Thinking it is perhaps the speed at which I am passing buildings, I remind myself how quickly I detected stainless steel, side-by-side refrigerators in the glass-façade apartments recently erected along the highways’ edge. Scale is certainly a major factor in viewing the city from the car, but I’m learning that obscurity is perhaps an equal player.
As if the entry ramp from Allen Parkway to I-45 wasn’t precarious enough, I’m constantly distracted and trying to understand a bright yellow, leggy, metal sculpture nestled in a cluster of pine trees at the apex of the merging roads. The colors remind me of an early studio investigation of minimal artists and a professor’s fixation on Judy Chicago. Judy Chicago, why are you a part of my daily vocabulary and who deserves credit for this artistic distraction? One artist whose work I can instantly identify without loosing control of my car is David Addicks. I first learned of his over-sized presidential busts as I was pleading my case to allow an art studio to host my wedding reception. Spilling from his warehouse studio into the parking lot the busts were perfectly aligned with the Fab 4 towering above. British rock stars have a way of adding kitsch. I guess I was surprised to see the busts six months later relocated to the edge of downtown sitting on a traditional, regal looking green block with gold lettering.
I fall into the rhythm of my lane changes and merges and slip into my exit to the Third Ward. I pass through ornamental oblisks and arrive at the University of Houston. A promenade of stunted live oaks line my path. The turn signal is surprisingly timely and protects me as I turn onto Elgin to enter the parking lot. The massive brick architecture building crowned with its temple of glory marks the landscape. There are clues that this building is significant in a post-modern sort of way but the newness of the space has lost its luster and instead I know it just as an academic building.
When I was looking into transferring schools I thought my quest was to adapt to a new program. The Director of Architecture Graduate Studies at UH was more concerned that I had braced myself not for the change in school but for the change in cities. It was almost as if he were somehow warning me that Houston was a difficult city to reconcile and the classroom was to be extended throughout its borders in a maze of intersecting highways, parkways and neighborhood streets. In vain I attempted to explain that I wasn’t from Dallas but was simply living in Dallas. I wish I had told him the story of the my father hanging out the window, jabbing his finger at the hospital where he was born.
I think I am not alone in trying to make sense of this city. I have since noticed that the majority of my courses at the University of Houston seem to all have an investigative task in approaching the city….split up and walk down Main street, take the metro through downtown, sketch the skyline, compare taco stands, diagram the galleria. I wonder, are the assignments meant to give me a better understanding of my spatial/ urban environment or do my professors struggle with the same inverse ratio of the longer you are here, the less clarity you have. Though my experience has been fractured, I am gradually piecing it together, making a rich collage of place and belonging.