Houston’s Central City Ghost Town

Ideas and Issues
Houston Light Rail

Houston    For a change it wasn’t work.  We were in Houston during the weekend to celebrate the wedding of Emma Graves Fitzsimmons and Gerry Smith.  First time ever any of us had attended a wedding reported in the New York Times.  It goes without saying that Emma’s job on the national desk of the Times and her marriage to Gerry, a reporter for Huffington Post, so no slouch, had a lot to do with it.  Good times or bad Times, having been at the wedding of her parents and known her since birth, we wouldn’t have missed the event for the world.  They were deliriously happy, which might not be enough to change my views about marriage, but certainly was enough to convince me that the culture has a couple of strong and persuasive advocates still.  Anything that for any reason can make two people that happy, has to have some real value.

I was also excited to have an excuse to be back in downtown Houston, 4th largest city in the United States.  We found a hotel right next to the new light rail system running down Main Street.  I could hardly wait to see it.  I could remember the arguments both pro and con about light rail when ACORN first opened our office in Houston in 1976 and now more than 30 years later, here it was.  It was beautiful, too.  Long and sleek.  At some points along its route there were watercourses.  At dawn, I watched a young woman absorbed in her cell phone with the water placidly reflecting the last shadows of the night behind her.  She was also about the only person I saw anywhere around either then or the evening before.   The light rail might be called light because its passenger loads were infinitesimally small with trains passing with only a couple of people aboard.

We were in a virtual ghost town.  In fact walking early in the morning the number of For Lease signs and vacant properties throughout the main streets of this thriving commercial center were mindboggling.  I started to wonder whether or not the buses coming up one street and the rail going down another had severed the arterial passages to the heart of the city?  Rather than attracting businesses to the pathways along the speedy rail line, it almost seemed like businesses were in full flight.

Nothing was open.  There was no place for even as much as a cup of coffee.  It felt like we had stumbled into the valleys of an urban desert walking between modern skyscrapers.  Even in Detroit, which once was the 4th largest city, I could have found a diner.  What had happened to Houston and its “catch the horse by the tail” bold and brash Texas shout to the urban future?  Had this slipped into the bayou with Enron?  Been lost in the skepticism attending a future with diminishing oil?

I love Houston, but I couldn’t help feeling with every block I stepped off along the miles of my walk that something was terribly wrong.