Thursday, February 07, 2008

Houston Streets 13--Just North of Downtown

I finally got tired of the Villages. Don't worry, I will finish up Spring Valley, this week or next (depending on the weather). But to give my mind a break, I decided today to take the number 70 bus all the way downtown and explore a little bit north of Buffalo Bayou.

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I got off the bus a little south of where I wanted to be and headed north along Main. That's where I saw this building:
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Woah. Pretty bizarre to see this right in downtown. My experience is that non-Christian, non-Jewish religions usually have their temples, mosques, and institutional structures out in the suburbs. I've always assumed the reasons for that are that most of their worshipers are out in the burbs, and it's cheaper to build there as well. But here on a piece of very valuable downtown real estate is the Islamic Da'Wah Center. This is the brainchild of Hakeem Olajuwon, former Rockets star. It hasn't been without controversy, either, when it was discovered that some of the charities to whom they gave money were funneling the money to terrorists. If you are thinking that this building doesn't look particularly Islamic, it's because it was originally the Houston National Bank (built 1928).

As you continue north on Main (alongside the light rail), you come up on the University of Houston-Downtown.

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This sign was on the UH Downtown building at Franklin and Main. If you look closely at the sign (which I realize is a bit difficult), you can see that UH Downtown has two buildings (they are the ones with the purple roofs). But a third building, right across Main and White Oak Bayou, looks like it could be part of UH, but isn't. (It has pink walls and a bright blue top in this map.)

Main makes a high arch over Buffalo Bayou, and this entrance to U.H. Downtown is kind of weird because it's halfway up the side of the building.

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The main building (which, iceberg-like, you can only see the top portion of here) is quite handsome, although I can see how some people might think it has an institutional appearance. But I like the pattern of horizontal and vertical stripes.

When you reach the north side of the Bayou, you find that you can pull a sharp U-turn to your right and drive down under the bridge and indeed under the university. There you can enter the building at ground level, and it provides you a shortcut along a street called Girard to Travis (where you can enter the I-10). For some reason, Girard is not shown on my Key Map, but it is on Google Maps.

This is where White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou meet, and there are parks on all banks. On the north-east bank is a park that as far as I can tell has no official name (it shows up neither on the City of Houston nor the Harris County park lists).

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You ascend the stairs and then see this.

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This lovely entrance looks perfect for a university building, right? But no--it's the Harris County Detention Facility.

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And those lovely little windows? They're completely black. So if you feel like you are stuck in an institutional behemoth when you take classes at UH Downtown, glance across the bayou and remind yourself what truly scary bureaucratic building looks like. Actually, that's not fair. Except for the disturbing blacked-out windows, this building is quite lovely. It was a cold storage facility built in the 1920s, but was gutted and had two floors added in 1991. It's part of a complex of three Harris County jail buildings on Baker and San Jacinto.

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This completely enclosed pedestrian bridge leads from the jail at 1200 Baker across the Bayou to the Inmate Processing Center. That must be one grim walk to take. I wonder if prisoners are even aware that they are walking across the Bayou when they are processed. Update: A reader at HAIF called this our own Bridge of Sighs.

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This parking lot serves the jail (I think lots of people who are visiting prisoners park here). I can't tell if that curved building is part of the jail complex (looking at the satellite photo on Google Maps doesn't help). But as you can see, it doesn't look very "high security."

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If you enter the jail facility from that parking lot, they lay down some rules for you. Ladies, don't wear short skirts unless you want to officially be bird-dogged by the Duty Officer.

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I was taking this photo and a cop walked up to me.

"Why are you taking a picture of that bicycle?" he asked.
"Because it looks cool," I responded weakly.
(And doesn't it, though? That beautiful Cannondale body, painted white with the big "SHERIFF" on the side--I wish my bike looked that cool.)
"Do you have permission from the County to photograph that?"
"No." Obviously.
"You need permission from the County to take photographs of County property." (I'm sure this can't be completely true--if it were, people would need to get permission to take snapshots at County parks.) "This is like a military installation. You can't just take pictures without permission."

Fair enough. I promised I wouldn't take any more (I already had plenty), and I think it was pretty obvious to him that I was not a person of evil intent. (Mildly malicious, at worst.) And as usual, I crumbled instantly before the face of authority, which seems to collectively disapprove of my hobby.

But there was one jail-related thing I could photograph that the cops couldn't do anything about.
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This welcoming sign is up on Wood Street. Now I'm not sure which I would prefer--the Las Vegas brand bail bond, or the Godfather brand bail bond. The first suggests I'm a flashy playa, but the second hints at understated power and influence.

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Heading east on Sterrett, you get into the artsy part of the neighborhood, where people live in scary old buildings intentionally. These are actual lofts--not the fake kind that developers build in Midtown. In other words, these had some kind of industrial life before artists and galleries and such moved in and converted them. I love how this building at the corner of Sterrett and William had a cement casing that has gradually fallen off. It gives it a very appealing aged look. Hey developers! Try to duplicate that look the next time you build a fake loft--it might be a selling point!

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Up on Nance is one of the funkiest old live music venues in Houston, The Last Concert Cafe. Unfortunately, it was not open when I rode by, which was too bad. I really could have used a drink after getting dressed down by the cop. It's so close to the jail, I wonder if the sheriffs ever come over for lunch? Or is it a little too "hippie" for them?

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This statue was in a parking lot at Nance and Richey. If I had to describe it, I'd say it's a welded-steel samurai wearing a tutu about to attack the viewer.

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This guy is in front of Mother Dog Studios on Walnut. This sculpture has seen better days. In fact, if you had been around in October, 1988, at the Contemporary Arts Museum, you would have seen it outside as part of that institution's first (and only, as far as I know) Texas Triennial. It is made of black rubber stretched over foam rubber, molded around a human shaped (minus the head) armature of some kind. When it was new, it looked like an inhumanly-muscled figure, like one of those freakish body-builder types, but more so. Now he's seriously gone to seed--the materials used weren't made to last, especially not exposed to the weather. (Too bad the artist didn't cast it in something more durable, like bronze or fiberglass.) I don't remember the artist's name or the title of the piece--anyone remember that CAM show?

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Then just up the street on Hardy, I stumbled across this.

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Yep, it's an art car, and the owner claims it is completely street legal, and what's more--you can have one made for yourself!

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The artist "repurposed" one of those realtor info boxes into an info box for his custom art car biz. Pretty smart, eh? The artist is Visker, the name of the truck is "Stumper."

OK, you get the idea that this is an artsy neighborhood (and there's more art coming). And look, sculpture is just laying around! There are artist studios and galleries out the wazoo here. Kick-ass artists begging you to hire them! So, all you folks on Timberwilde and Kuhlman, with your huge, sculpture-deficient front yards, come downtown with your wallets--there are some quite artistic welders and fabricators who could help you out.

A little south from there, you get to one of Houston's treasures, the McKee Street Bridge.
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OK, that photo is kind of lame. Let's try another.
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A little better, but frankly, it is hard to capture the coolness of this bridge with a photograph. Amazingly, the curvy bits actually have some engineering purpose (that I don't understand, of course). But the story of the rehabilitation of the bridge (including its pastel paint job) is fascinating. It comes down to one fanatically dedicated artist (and folk musician), Kirk Farris. The Chronicle did a great story on him in December. The bridge is not his only concern--he's interested in revitalizing the entire Bayou area downtown. But what I can't quite figure out is if he is part of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (which has some pretty drastic plans for this area of town) or opposed to them, or what. But he sure has made the McKee Street Bridge an even greater thing of beauty than it already was.

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Just south of the McKee Street bridge is this lovely little park inhabited solely by bums. This is James Bute Park, one of Kirk Farris's projects. (James Bute was a friend of Farris' who owned a paint factory and supplied Farris with the colors he needed for the bridge. Bute was shot and killed by a robber at a car wash; the park is part of the land that Farris had worked to rehabilitate.)

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One of Houston's all-time great art spaces is DiverseWorks at the corner of Naylor and Providence. They were formerly located a few blocks south on the other side of the Bayou, and I was kind of disappointed when they moved into this semi-anonymous industrial space. But this neighborhood is the right place for them. Their current show is a bunch of very interesting pieces of animation--which is typical of them. They don't just show artwork in the traditional sense of a painting or drawing (although they do plenty of that). DiverseWorks is all about various kinds of art--music, performance, dance, theater, visual art--and art that doesn't comfortably fit into a clearly delineated category. I'm looking forward to Sō Percussion playing Steve Reich there on March 10.

One good thing about this warehouse-like space DiverseWorks occupies is that they can display large poster-like artworks on the outer walls, like this:
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But go a little north, you run into run-down industrial/residential areas, like this cactus patch in front of a decrepit (but functioning) workshop on Hardy at Lyons.
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Or this trash-strewn lot on Trentham.
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And just a block away, on Freeman, you have this row house.
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But wait--what's that tall thing behind the row house? Can it be...?

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Yes, a couple of brand new, hideously ugly, huge townhouses. The forces of gentrification are everywhere. I have mixed feelings about this. It's hard not to prefer gentrification to trash-strewn industrial wastelands, and while row-houses are an important part of Houston history, they do represent the impoverished existence of their residents. You might think they are quaint, but you wouldn't want to live in one. That said, can't the pioneering developer who built these things show a little more class? A soupçon of taste? I mean, geez, that thing is hideous.

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This is White Oak Bayou under I-10. UH Downtown is just to the left of this photo. The Buffalo Bayou hike/bike paths now reach as far as UH Downtown, but as you can see, there's nothing on White Oak Bayou here. That bridge is a disused railroad bridge, ends blocked to prevent pedestrians from crossing. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a bike path across this bridge, and a path along White Oak Bayou that connected downtown to the park along the Bayou at TC Jester? Someday...

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10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice. I don't know that I would be hanging around there at night, though.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Robert Boyd said...

I was scared riding through the Main tunnel during the day, but one thing you have around here are lots and lots of police...

5:51 PM  
OpenID sheeats said...

Heh. I'd definitely be willing to bet that cops don't frequent The Last Concert Cafe very often, for the very reason you described.

And it's such a shame about that park, especially since the city is "cracking down" on the homeless issue: http://www.bloghouston.net/item/5734

Riiiight. ;)

9:54 AM  
Blogger Robert Boyd said...

That park is kind of isolated from the rest of downtown, so as long as their are homeless people, it will probably attract them. It's a place they can go and largely not be bothered. Now if development continues out that direction, especially if hike and bike trails are built further east along the bayou, there will probably be conflict. The thing is, homeless people have to be somewhere. And if someone doesn't have a home, that "somewhere" necessarily means someplace public. It's a big issue for librarians, too, as you might imagine. I certainly don't know what the solution is, but I do know that if you move them out of James Bute Park (for example), they will go somewhere else. In other words, the problem won't be solved do much as moved.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Robert Boyd said...

"so much as moved" -- not "do much as moved"

11:49 AM  
Blogger Cote de Texas said...

Hi - found this blog via swamplot- great blog, enjoying it so much today.

Joni
cotedetexas.blogspot.com

2:24 PM  
Blogger Robert Boyd said...

Thanks for your kind words. Alas, I never see interiors of the places I visit, just exteriors.

6:35 PM  
Anonymous bail bonds california said...

Wow! thank you for posting these beautiful pictures.
I was amazed at the Harris County Detention Facility it looks almost like my university in New York!
Also the large poster-like artworks on the outer walls is stunning! do you know who the artist is?

Thank you for this amazing post!
Looks like you enjoyed yourself!

-Janna

1:42 PM  
Blogger Robert Boyd said...

Janna:

I don't know the muralist at Diverse Works. I should have made note of that when I was there. They change the murals every now and then, so I don't even know if they are still there. It has quite a 60s-style underground comix vibe, no?

1:54 PM  
Blogger kirk said...

Thank you for kind words about the McKee Street Bridge and the James Bute Park...I am working to turn the park back into a sample of Frost Town Houston's first addition..and make the environment more garden like...and support to banish food distribution would help reduce the street person population and normalize the use of the lands I have worked to build into public space.

10:08 PM  

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