Friday, June 29, 2007

Houston Streets 2: bits of Bunker Hill, continued

We continue in Bunker Hill today. I mainly road on roads south of Memorial for this trip—streets often used by motorists to avoid the long light at Memorial and Gessner. (Needless to say, cut-throughs like Stoneybrook and Warrenton have speed-bumps.)

Unlike most of the other streets I’ve ridden on in Bunker Hill, neither Vanderpool nor Tamerlaine have much in the way of McMansion infestation. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. One nice side-effect is that the houses are aging and acquiring an attractive patina of soot, smog and algae. OK, it doesn’t sound nice, but it actually looks good, as on this house. It makes a house look like it didn’t just come out of its Tyvek wrapping yesterday. In a new city like Houston, that is worth seeing.

(I have to wonder—what was the developer thinking when he named the street Tamerlaine? Tamerlaine (aka Timur Leng) was a brutal Mongol conqueror of the 14th century, best known for sacking cities, slaughtering the inhabitants, and erecting pyramids of their skulls.)

Frostwood Elementary, at the corner of Gessner and Memorial, is where I went to school. When I was a kid, there was no locked gate to keep people out—I often went over there after school and on weekends to skateboard. But as seen at Bunker Hill Elementary, these are more paranoid times when it comes to kids. I just wonder if 1) the paranoia is justified or just hysterical, and 2) if kids brought up in this environment grow up right.

On Kilts, I noticed these two McMansions which were right next to each other. So you are wealthy enough to buy a large beautiful house—why do you need to shove your three-car garage right out in front (as the one on the left does)? It’s an ostentatious and unnecessary display of wealth. It is one step short of parking your fine cars on your front yard for people to see. The one on the right keeps its huge garage discreetly in that back. Additionally, it is superior because of its ample porch and balcony—features that allow the people of the house to have communication with people on the street, even if that communication is just a friendly wave. This helps make a neighborhood safer (more eyes on the street) and more neighborly.

This unusual and elegant house is on Warrenton. Note the symmetry and complete absence of windows facing front. Obviously this house lacks the neighborly virtues mentioned earlier, so on moral grounds I disapprove. But I think it looks pretty nice.

This kind of modernist house is relatively rare. Developers don’t really build them on spec—a homeowner has to really want one for it to be built. This one is on a beautiful creek side lot at the end of Naughton.

This house on Hickory Ridge is no McMansion—this is the real thing. ( only estimates its worth at $1.89 million, which seems suspiciously low to me.) The closer we get to the Loop in Memorial, the more common these mansions will be.

Hickory Ridge is a street designed to look charmingly rustic. This sort of affectation is also more common in Memorial as one gets closer to the Loop, ironically so—since as you move east on Memorial, you are moving deeper and deeper into Houston’s urban core.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Houston Streets by Bike: Bunker Hill part 1

This map shows Strey Lane and all the cul-de-sacs that branch off it. This is a street on the west side of Houston, in the municipality of Bunker Hill, one of the "villages" which form little independent enclaves of wealth completely surrounded by Houston. They are a little like Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, both of which are separate political entities surrounded by Los Angeles.

I’ve long wanted to explore the streets of Houston by bike, riding down every singles street (as well as any separate bike or footpath that I can find), and experimentally, I will try to start with the Villages.

Here we see the old and the new. The house on the left is a McMansion and the one on the right is a pretty modest ranch-style house. They are right next to each other. I’m sure the ranch style house will end up being bought, torn down, and rebuilt as a larger, grander affair for some bonus-rich oil executive—unless oil prices crash again.

The Villages are wealthy. Residents of the Villages send their kids to the excellent Spring Branch ISD schools, if they don’t send them to such exclusive private schools like Kinkaid or Duchesne. In the streets I rode today, gives house prices ranging from $615 thousand to $2.3 million. The streets are typically narrow and shaded, often no wider than one lane of asphalt. It gives some of them a curiously rustic look. The houses are on big but not huge lots.

We see here the effect of wealth on Houston. Even though the U.S. no longer dominates the world oil industry as it once did, the oil industry still dominates Houston, and the city is awash with oil money. This neighborhood dates, I would guess, from the 50s, and one can see now how proper ideas on the display of wealth in one’s home have changed. Low ranch houses used to dominate. These were large comfortable houses, one-storey, and they embodied the idea of sprawl. Land here was cheap then, as this was still on the edge of Houston. The new, much wealthier Houstonians who are tearing down these old houses in Memorial are putting up McMansions.

Neither the ranch houses nor the McMansions of the Villages are interesting architecturally. If they impress one, it’s usually for some outstandingly ugly feature—something huge and ostentatious in the case of the McMansions. But their very generic quality is itself kind of shocking. If one is wealthy enough to purchase a house like this, why not make it something unique and personal? (I suspect that many of these very ordinary colonial-style houses have interior rooms that more fully reflect the personalities of their owners. I hope so, at least.)

A McMansion under construction.

This is one of the narrow asphalt roads common in Memorial and the Villages in particular. I hope none of these residents has a Humvee—I doubt if all four wheels would fit on this street.

At the north end of Strey Lane is Bunker Hill Elementary. This sign struck me. Twenty years ago, surely it would have said something like, “Have a nice summer” or “Have a great summer.” This new sign is a symptom of societal paranoia. Are kids in Memorial less safe now than they were twenty years ago? Parents (and Spring Branch which serves them) believe it to be so.

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A much more discreet message is this tiny stone memorial to the Challenger astronauts. It quotes from Ronald Reagan’s memorial speech (written by Peggy Noonan) given after the shuttle blew up. I was surprised and moved to find it nestled in the grass near the entrance of the school. I wonder if one of the astronauts had a child at the school or lived in the neighborhood (Memorial was home to several astronaut families when I was growing up).

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Hungry Chicks

As you can see, here are two chicks ready for some worms. Mama bird is away, presumably hunting.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Chicks Gone Wild

These photos are of a bird's nest in my mom's mailbox. In the center of the nest (in the photo on the right) you can see a group of little pink shapes--those are the chicks. They admittedly don't look too wild now, but when they are hungry, they are quite active. (I'll try to get a shot of them with their little beaks open later.)

My mom is getting her mail in a cardboard box for the duration. She quite decently doesn't want to disturb the nest untill the chicks have flown away.