Saturday, January 29, 2011

Finding Spaces in Houston

I visited Houston for the second time over the weekend. The first time was two years ago, in May, when it was already very warm and humid and summer was just around the corner if not already there. This time it’s still winter, and it drizzled our first day and rained steadily the next. The plants seemed grateful, and it felt special and necessary, the way rain feels in Austin too.

Marjorie is my host this time, as she was on my last visit, and indeed seeing her is the primary goal in going to Houston—at least for my mother, her husband Randy, and me. Marjorie is Randy’s mother, and she is in her nineties. She and her husband bought the land where their house still stands in the late 1930s, and the first house they built on it burned to the ground two months after Randy was born, in 1947.

The family built the current house in 1950 or thereabouts, and it could be a museum to the 1950s and 1960s: beautifully preserved period furniture whose descendants are now sold as “retro” in hip furniture stores, blue metal cabinets in the kitchen that have not been altered since the house was built, narrow twin beds that were bought when people were shorter, slighter, and more modest, a guest room papered with a vibrant yellow floral pattern and a bed skirt that matches it, an entire wall in the formal living room covered in beautiful copper panels that have not gone green with age, and another wall in the same room almost entirely made of glass.

Outside of the house are a garden and a medium-sized pool, and then woods that stretch out in every direction until you reach the boundaries of the property: a private school in one direction and a busy street in another. These piney woods are all that was here when the family first moved to Texas, and all that connected them to the city of Houston were minor roads paved with crushed shells. The woods separate the house and the property from the rest of the city, and it is hard to believe, as you are looking out a big window into the quiet greenery, that we are in a bustling city of about 2.3 million people. Both Marjorie and her husband predicted that Houston would become a megalopolis, and of course they were right. It’s now the biggest city in Texas and the fourth largest city in the United States.

When I’m in Houston, I think a lot about space—specifically, the way that people find and make oases within a massive, traffic clogged, center-less city. Marjorie’s house and property is one such oasis, and so is the Asian buffet where we ate dinner on Sunday, Kim Son. We got in two cars with the six of us to drive about 25 minutes to dinner, passing mostly shopping malls and some residential areas. If we hadn’t been navigating it for the first time, we probably would have taken a freeway that would have shortened the trip. As we got closer, we realized we’d entered a pocket of Asian culture: Asian supermarkets, restaurants, dentists, salons, law offices, etc. (I later learned that this is considered Chinatown).

When we arrived at the restaurant, we parked and then walked all the way around the corner of the building where we had first seen the sign for Kim Son Buffet, and finally found the entrance with stairs and elevators up to the large buffet room. Inside, it seemed we were far from the huge parking lot and strip mall that we had just passed through. The room was filled with big groups, probably families, seated at large, round tables, and the fragrant buffet line was set up at the back of the room. Almost everyone in the room was Asian, and most people looked as though they were familiar with the restaurant, that they came often for Sunday dinner. It felt as though we had found a real community center.

Homes and restaurants are the main oases, as far as I can tell, but a third kind that we found was churches—more specifically, the Live Oak Friends Meeting in Houston (Quaker meeting). I had an assignment from a relative to check out the building and ask people in the neighborhood about it (specifically a special skylight in the roof of the meeting room that creates light patterns at sunrise and sunset). My mother and I had a hair-raising drive to the building—via the freeway of course—on a rainy Monday, and the meeting house was closed. It being a workday, and a rainy one at that, we couldn’t find many people to talk to, but we did catch one guy as he walked his dog in the adjacent park. He has lived across the way from the meeting for the past two years, and he fairly gushed about the Friends and the work that they do to build community. According to him, Friends not only host many open houses at the meeting house, they also open the building up to community associations and other groups that need a meeting place.

Another significant contribution of the Friends was to purchase and protect the aforementioned open space behind their building to be used as a lovely park for the whole neighborhood. In any city, and especially in Houston, green space is sorely needed. Here was one such space, protected by the Friends and enjoyed by the larger community. It even looked as though a whole row of neo-Victorian houses was built facing the park after the meeting house and park were established.

I hope to go back to Houston soon for more observation of this unusual city—every visit will bring new discoveries and surprises, and I think I’ll come to like it more as I discover each new oasis. It’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen when it becomes too expensive to drive as much as Houstonians do today, but I think the city may evolve in some fascinating ways…

1 comment:

  1. There's an interesting piece on Austin's long-term downtown development plan in the most recent "Community Impact" paper. You should check it out!