The air smells like spring, a combination of an earthy smell, dog poop and freshly mown grass. My nose starts to tingle as my allergies set in. This is a small price to pay in order to be outdoors.
Often, in Houston, I feel completely disconnected from the elements. Every space I can think of is temperature controlled and insulated from the world. This is a completely new phenomenon for me, because there is not such a rigorous use of air conditioning in Trinidad, where I am originally from, even though our climates are similar.
I walk westward on Elgin Street, which runs along the northwestern border of the university. It is usually used as a traffic artery, ferrying students onto the campus as they zoom by in their cars on the way to class.
The bounds of campus are pleasant and provide what I expect from a university. Banners displaying students at play and work hang from rows of old fashioned street lamps in a Victorian/Edwardian style. The walking paths are well kept and the landscaping lush. There is even a whimsical art installation with chairs of varying sizes, some too tiny to sit on and some ten feet tall. Across the parking lots I can see the pristine lines of the rectilinear buildings that house the academics. The buildings are various shades of brown, from rust to tan.
Approaching the northeastern edge of campus, I see a sign carved in granite, announcing, “Welcome to the University of Houston Campus.” But this sign gives me a sense of foreboding because I am going in the opposite direction, and I can already see the sharp divide between what I am leaving and what I am going towards. I have never crossed this line before and might have turned if I did not have to write this essay.
My first difficulty comes when I try to cross at the intersection of Elgin Street and Scott Street at the border. I am now venturing into hostile territory for pedestrians. There is no crossing light. So I brave the traffic and cross at my own risk.
Safely on the other side now, the sidewalks immediately deteriorate. They are uneven, broken and in a few places nonexistent. As I correct my step after stumbling over the rough ground, the reduction in landscaping leaves my face vulnerable to the unmitigated rays of the sun.
Cars seem to slow and drivers give me puzzled looks as I walk around jotting notes in my bright blue notebook, snapping pictures feverishly. Then I look around to discover that I am the only person walking on this Sunday afternoon.
My curiosity is heightened by my sense of being out of place. I begin a studied observation of this section of Elgin Street. The houses that line the periphery are for the most part in a state of incredible disrepair. Dilapidated houses seemed to be the rule rather than the exception. Numerous houses have junk lying outside on their lawns, and scrap car parts piled into mountains in their front yards.
All of a sudden I hear the spinning wheels of bicycles behind me. Tu sh sh sh. Tu sh sh sh. Tu sh sh sh. This noise breaks my concentration. I turn around. Almost immediately I am filled with regret. I recognize the attire of the two men approaching me. They are dressed in black pants, white shirts, and ties, with backpacks sitting snugly on their shoulders.
“Hello, we are from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints!” They say.
“Hi,” I reply, trying to keep it terse so they will leave me alone.
“What religion are you?”
“Would you like to know more about Jesus?”
“No, I know enough about Jesus.” I reply, almost snickering to myself. This is sure to get rid of them.
They give me an incredulous look.
“So you do not want to learn more about Jesus from the book of Mormon?” They ask again, still looking puzzled.
“No, thanks, I’m good.” I reply as I turn away and quickly walk off.
They soon speed by me and I begin to feel a bit easier as they cycle so far into the distance I can no longer see them.
I slowly begin to get back into the rhythm of my walk. The uniformity of the dilapidation of the houses around me is strangely soothing. I look at them one after the next after the next trying to pick out the differences in their deteriorated conditions. One has wood rot, another has not seen a paint bucket in 20 years, the next has broken windows. To find a house that stood out as being worse than the rest is a hard feat but there is one that has stolen a place in my mind.
A huge oak tree tilts over the front of this house. That was what it reminds me of. Like the tree, the house looks as though it has been uprooted from its foundation, shaken and carelessly placed back onto the land. By some miracle it is still standing. The whole building is askew; it is as if some otherworldly force is keeping it from collapsing on itself. The structure is a humble single-story bungalow covered in wood shingles with flaking paint and rusted corrugated metal sheets where one would expect to find windows. At first I thought that this must be one of the many abandoned houses that I had seen in the neighborhood. On closer inspection, and much to my surprise, an old but fairly well maintained bicycle with fresh mud and grass on the tires is perched on the side of this precarious house, suggesting that it is occupied.
I continue down the street in a daze, astonished by the condition of the houses. Suddenly I am wrenched from my thoughts by a man’s voice calling to me.
“Hey! Hey!” he calls.
I ignore him, more than a bit put off. I hate when strangers talk to me on the street, especially since I had fended off the cycling Mormons not more than a few blocks before. Also, the look of this man is disconcerting. He is a shabbily dressed, severely overweight black man with a T-shirt that was once white but now looks a few washes short of its original condition.
“Why don’t you check out the hospital over there?” he continues, in broken English.
I decide to fight my instincts to ignore the man and listen to what he has to say.
“Are you taking pictures for school?” he asks.
“Yes,” I reply. “I am an architecture student at UH.”
“Look over there!” He then points to the Riverside General Hospital and, with pride, shows me the hospital’s campus.
“That building is the Houston Negro Hospital College of Nursing,” he goes on. He then proceeds to go through all of the hospital’s iterations and the uses of the different buildings on the hospital’s campus.
There are two buildings of note on the Riverside General Campus. These buildings stand apart from the majority of the other buildings that I have seen on Elgin Street because of their age and the permanence of their construction. The Negro Hospital College of Nursing is the oldest building on the lot, built in the 1920s when buildings were not the ephemeral constructions of today. The College of Nursing is constructed out of brick and rendered in white plaster. The windows on the building’s front façade seem as though they have been carved out of a solid form, giving it a durable look that is associated with much of 18th- and 19th-century European architecture. The second building is the new Riverside General Hospital, an unremarkable but well maintained single-story red brick building with a green canopy announcing “Emergency Room.”
These buildings are the prize at the end of what had been an emotionally and physically exhausting journey for me. I can see they are something special. Not knowing much about Houston’s history, since I am not from Texas or even the U.S., I did some research. I found out that the Negro Hospital, or Riverside Medical as it is now called, provided healthcare to the poor black residents who have lived in this area for the last 90 years, beginning in the time of segregated healthcare.
As I begin my return to campus it is almost as if my gaze is refocused. I start to notice something more than the shabby houses. I notice the spirit of the people. Many of the older people are sitting on their patios with age-worn faces that, strangely enough, bear looks of contentment. I realize I am judging a community by its houses rather than its people.
The walk back to campus seems to go quicker than my walk down the street because I am caught up in thought.
I think about how due to my sheer snobbishness I almost missed out on an education. Just because someone does not speak standard English does not mean that he does not have anything valuable to say.
I think about the sharp decline in the quality of the buildings on Elgin Street, west of the University of Houston campus.
I think how happy the people looked even though they are living in deplorable housing.
I think that although I share the same skin color with the residents of this historically black neighborhood, we share little else. My seemingly privileged upbringing in the Caribbean — weekend beach trips, well kept homes, summer vacations and mass consumerism — have made me more than a bit naïve to the reality of life as a poor black person in the U.S., and in some respects unable to relate.
By the end of my walk Elgin Street represents more than a physical boundary between extremes but a psychological one; it is a world apart from anything I have ever experienced.