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?
and that's the space around my hotel, everyone! There's plenty to do here. I can do the fun activity of not leaving the hotel, for example. I can sadly masturbate to pay per view porn or Real Sex on HBO, as many sad businessmen have before me
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
that leads to what we saw today--spaces that push you away because they're trying to.
spaces that only look right when passed by quickly in a car, because that's the only way they're meant to be seen.
spaces that are neither walkable, nor sittable, nor livable.
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"
another note, to close out on:
the suburban landscape does not like being questioned, nor does it understand being interacted with critically.
That I can walk around a space like this is undeniably a reflection of my privilege as a relatively normal looking white dude wearing glasses who dresses on the nicer side of average.
If I was not white, or dressed less conventionally, or not a man, there would be much more risk to what I'm doing.
Fantastic thread. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts!
I have a real soft spot for Houston. I started medical transition at the Legacy Clinic in Montrose neighborhood, and driving over from NOLA--it was like driving from one fever dream to a different type of fever dream.
Houston made no sense. Even the nicer neighborhoods were a surreal jumble. The food was so good. The first thing I experienced on the first trip was a sidewalk junkie punching my car.
A cool and chill place for cool and chill people.