Walking home last night through the flickering trees in Tranquility Park, shards of light glancing off the glittery baubles, ripples shimmying across the shallow ponds like mecury, and bundled against the first chilly evening of the year the thought snuck up on me. Dowtown Houston has grown up.
I had just been to Holidays Around the World at the Houston Visitors Centre and listened to the Harbor Lights and the UN International Choirs while admiring Christmas trees, decorated by the Consular Corps of Houston. There were trees from India, Switzerland, Colombia and many other countries, with the notable exception of Great Britain, all to be bid on with the proceeds going to Child Advocates of Houston. The Harbor Lights Choir is made up of men who have overcome substance abuse and, as part of their recovery, commit to singing with the choir for twelve months. The UN International Choir sing in a melodic multitude of tongues switching from language to language with each new song. Both are excellent.
I was so overcome by my realisation that I had to stop at Ceilo’s for a glass of wine, and a spinach and brie quesadilla. Sitting at the bar I watched the patrons reflected in the mirror along with bottles of tequila and barcardi. We were a multi-national bunch of drinkers – black, white, Latino and Asian mostly speaking English with the occasional Spanish or Vietnamese tossed into the mix. The barman is Moroccan and although he has been in Houston nearly twenty years still carries a North African lilt punctuated with touches of the East End, garnered from his stint behind the counter of a London pub.
Downtown Houston has seen a steady resurgence since 1995 when under the then mayor, Bob Lanier, the decision was made to attract both public and private investment to return the heart of Houston to the thriving hub it had once been. In the late seventies, eighties and early nineties Downtown Houston was not a safe place. Visitors were warned to merely slow at red lights. To come to a complete stop begged robbery, often at gunpoint.
The desire for the American Dream, home ownership, drove many away from the city center. The dream became a reality for some as enclaves of family homes and gardens, serviced by the ubiquitous supermarkets, clothing stores and food chains sprang up to become suburbs. Some of these communities even demanded identification before entry. Some still do.
The exodus of both people and dollars from the city centre allowed the streets to be taken over by the hobos, the transients, the drug pushers and the whores. But services were still required by the battalions of employees who spent their days in cubicles in the high-rise towers that make up the magnificent skyline of Downtown Houston. And so a system of tunnels was burrowed twenty feet below the unsafe and uneven pavements. What started as an underground link to connect two cinemas became a warren more than six miles long connecting 95 city blocks. The tunnels became home to dry cleaners, cobblers, fast-food joints, shops and restaurants providing a hobbit-like existence for the office workers and the lawyers scurrying between jails and courthouses. Weather became irrelevant, and Houston’s famous humidity became a momentary discomfort as people hurried from air-conditioned building to air-conditioned bus or car.
The Arts in Houston have always been generously supported – that’s why we have world-class ballet, opera, museums, theatre and music all within a pas de chat of each other. But for many years patrons would drive into Downtown Houston on their chosen freeway, park, be entertained and drive back to the sanctum of suburbia. It wasn’t safe to hang around.
I was lucky to miss Downtown’s teenage tantrums, those ones where people burrowed underground, though I think I might have quite liked her early years as a gulf frontier town, hustling around the bayous that carried cotton and rice to the port, though segregation would not have sat well on my global soul.
Now life in all its colours and customs is insinuating itself back onto the streets of Downtown Houston, and I only really noticed last night, even though I live in the midst of it. The multi-national, multi-cultural event at the start of my evening epitomised the mosaic that makes up this country and I am lucky enough to live in Houston at absolutely the best time.
A city resurgent, welcoming, enthusiastic and thriving with a heart regained – in her prime!