Y'all, I'm on a business trip in Houston. this is my first time in the city, so I figured I'd get the "authentic Houston experience" by not driving at all and walking the half mile radius around my hotel. It's so dismal it makes me giddy. Come along with me, won't you?
I'm staying in a Fairfield Inn and Suites right by the highway. In isolation, it's nice. It's a quick half mile walk from where my conference will be. Though it's the cheapest marriott hotel, it gets me points and has free breakfast and such.
In other words, nothing about it is objectionable or dirty. It also happens to be the saddest place in north america. Why? Let's explore further to find out!
This fairfield is conveniently located near some commercial space, a couple strip malls, and residential areas that are completely gated off. there are no sidewalks; the road next to it people are going roughly 40 mph / 65 kmph.
so, if you want to do anything, you basically need a car. But lets say you don't wanna have a car and decide to risk your life by jaywalking in in an unfamiliar, pedestrian unfriendly city. Let's see what we can find!
the safest places to walk to are this restaurant that's closed on sundays which looks like a former drive-in, a shipley donuts (will try--would like to get a kolache while I'm here, and a popeyes. I ate lunch at that popeyes. the restaurant was blaring a station that was peaking and distorting the speakers. It played "the 80s, 90s, and today," which is code for unoffensive white people music. this popeye's by the side of the highway was good. I am satisfied.
across the street from this popeyes, we find a strip mall; based on the design I'd guess early to mid 2000s in design.
couple things I like here. I like how there are no places to sit or interact with outside, but they still put that one sad desperate plant. Also I like this Kolache place that has no clue what its identity is, advertising italian panini and korean bulgogi right next to each other. Is it a drug front? who knows!
We turn around from this strip mall, and look under the overpass. Hmm. Signs of civilization on the other side!
So let's do something that no texan expects you to do: cross the street. Seriously, I did not see one single other pedestrian and all the drivers were looking at me cheerfully walking down this sidewalk as if I had three heads. Let's see what's over there, shall we?
Okay. We've got an utterly ordinary strip mall from the early to mid 2000s. Needs power washing. The mexican place (Carnitas, seen in previous shot) looks nice and is quite busy during sunday lunch rush. Nowhere else is.
The "for lease" place has a hell of a lot of abandoned crap inside. It'd be fun to root around in.
We sally forth and find a comfort inn and suites not too different than the fairfield inn where I'm staying.
On one side there's a weird for sale house (could be former medical offices?), and on the other side we find a drab industrial building.
also, lots of security cameras. remember, this is the comfort inn and suites. for there to be true comfort everyone must be watched at all times
next to the strip mall with the mexican place, there's a road that suddenly ends, and a best western that looks even more comfortable than the comfort inn
It's got that nice prison yard feel, and seems like a great and unique place for a family of four to get away for the weekend in beautiful houston. after all, they are right near a popeyes and a mexican restaurant and vague, nonspecific industry and commercial space
walking back under the overpass we can hear cars whooshing by overhead. We've encountered no pedestrians thusfar but there are countless people whizzing over us.
Looking up, we can see that this structure has a lot of thought put into it. It's the only thing we've seen so far that really feels intentional and impressive. a feat of engineering, all to make sure nobody has to stop in this area unless they have to
we go back to the first strip mall we saw, the one with the sushi place. We stand in the parking lot and look east. we can see why Arcade Fire wrote The Suburbs about this place:
"Sometimes I wonder if the world's so small,
Then we can never get away from the sprawl,
Living in the sprawl,
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains,
And there's no end in sight,
I need the darkness someone please cut the lights."
an ordinary houston office park on a sunday. a contextless, almost featureless space; like something from a PS1 game with distance fog
zones without people. spaces without meaning.
sometimes, as in the second office, things get so drab that they cross over back to being interesting. Like, why is that path leading into a window with no door? did this level not get tested yet?
past these offices, we find a golf course. this particular golf course borders more offices one one side and a gated residential community on the other
courses like this one typically aren't built to make money from people playing on them. Rather, they make money from selling the land adjacent to them so people have a view of something green and quasi-natural.
now here's something I love, because it's so quintessentially american.
at first glance this is a pond with a path around it. In reality, its a retention pond, because Houston has a very high water table and is contantly at risk of flooding.
so much of american public space is not meant to be used, but just to appear as if it could be used. around this pond are some offices, another sad hotel, and a parking lot
who is this for?
Let's end this thread on a learning note. How did this space end up like this?
on one level, spaces like this developed because Houston has literally no zoning and you can basically put anything anywhere. This makes it unique among american cities.
but we can find places like this anywhere. the pictures I took could very well have been taken in Waltham, Mass., or Hunter's Creek, Fla., or Waxhaw, North Carolina. They're ubiquitous across america. What else brings these about?
in short, this type of urban planning happens because
1. the city is shaped by money, not what's actually best for people. this type of construction seems cheap (it's more expensive than it looks, though many of these costs are hidden for now) and makes money, so we do it
2. On some level, this is what people want, or think they want. I'll go into this further on the next toot.
where one might look at american suburbia and see walls that close off and isolate, others see walls that protect.
spaces that don't want you to be there reflect the wishes of americans who don't want anything to do with public space, or really any other people. This is an america that watches local news and sees that 8 people were killed this week in town and panics
Guy Debord said it well in the society of the spectacle. This is right from the beginning:
"the spectacle is both the result and the project of the dominant
mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world. It is the very heart of
this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle represents the dominant model of life"
This feels like 40% of San Jose.
@realmaxkeeble turn to page 34 if...
I have no idea why but I can't wait to see what's over there.
@realmaxkeeble it's like brutalism without any context or necessity
That's the cellar door, it's just covered up.
@realmaxkeeble I recently learned the phrase "hostile design" for urban areas, and I think it could be relevant to this discussion about suburbia.
Similar logics of inaccessibility seem to apply, since h.d. tries to "prevent crime" by making public spaces unwelcoming for homeless people, people with disabilities, etc
@realmaxkeeble positively dismal. Thank you Max, and my condolences.
@realmaxkeeble THANK YOU FOR THIS THREAD. It puts words to how absolutely fucking WEIRD the United States is.
@June thanks! I've done a couple others like it in the past on some other accounts; I'll need to find them. I particularly like one I did a while back about a massive strip mall near my house in florida that is so surreal and neoliberal that it's absurd
@realmaxkeeble large families who want to play bocce
@realmaxkeeble completely genuinely i can't imagine living here and being happy. it's like this place got designed to keep people as far away from each other outside work hours as possible. it's so fucking bleak and so unbelievably lonely
It's like the Andrei Ulmeyda level in killer 7
@stolas I didn't get to the area where most people actually live, but it's close to what i took pictures of
people who live near places like this tend to live in gated communities, these walled suburban enclaves with a whole lot of security theater that doesn't actually do anything. you need a car to enter and leave; you can't actually walk anywhere
@realmaxkeeble PFFFT people STRAIGHT up act like you've lost your tiny little mind if you cross the highway in Houston sprawl, GOD
@realmaxkeeble my parents lived in Austin ( not even Houston! ) for a couple years around when my older sibling was born ( so, oh, around 30 years ago, give or take ) and were like "oh! this is a city! let's got take walks around our neighborhood!
and got the cops called on them for being suspicious.
because they were out walking and Who Does That????
so, yeah, that totally checks out. xD
@realmaxkeeble sorry, the authentic Houston experience is cooking to death in your car at a standstill on the highway
@realmaxkeeble a trackless desert of strip malls and chain hotels is the truest vision of america i can imagine
Thank you for letting me come with you on your anthropological expedition. I've been to Houston many times, and I've seen the zoning thing both lead to blight like this and some of the most diverse and bizarre neighborhoods you can imagine.
You're absolutely right about the cause: it all depended on whether it was shaped by human necessity or faceless cash.
@realmaxkeeble thanks for the great tour!
@realmaxkeeble I would contest calling Houston a city, actually. It's more like an agglomeration of very different neighborhoods and parking lots connected by highways. If you want a city city, choose something with 50-100 thousand people in it :-)
This thread perfectly explains a lot of my not-great experience living by myself in a town in New York State for a month last year.
For context, I am ridiculously spoilt; I’ve lived in London my whole life, I don’t even _have_ a driving license.
I did a months work experience, staying in a suburban area next to a state highway and a strip mall, commuting on weird private shuttles I had to walk 20 minutes to the station to get.
@realmaxkeeble It was miserable. I dreaded going to the shops as I was frequently the only one on foot, walking on many streets with no pavement, crossing 5 lane monstrosity roads.
I tried to go and visit some nearby green spaces and parks but gave up because I didn’t feel comfortable jaywalking on the verge of 50mph roads.
@realmaxkeeble Hostile is a great word for it. This was an affluent area I was staying in but it felt like... a place you holed up in, only ever leaving or arriving in a car.
Residents would even drive to the train station despite it being a 10 minute (actually quite pleasant for a change) walk away.
@padraic_padraic I really appreciate this perspective; it took me a long time to question it as someone born in and around this
It took studying abroad in Europe for a semester for me to realize
I am from Houston and I have never walked around a day in my life.
@badical its quite an experience, let me tell you