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, zillow.com 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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