I awake in the dark, momentarily disoriented. The room smells inexplicably clean and there is a mechanical hum coming from an unknown source. Remembering that I’d arrived at the hotel in Houston the day before, I rise and go to the window. Darkness. Being unfamiliar with the Texas climate, I wonder if it should be dark at 7:30 a.m.
Suddenly rain spatters the thick, black glass of the inoperable window. I hear only a soft, almost distant percussion, as if far more than a pane of glass separates me from the world outside and whatever storms there are. The air-conditioning clicks on again, seemingly louder.
I dress, grab my umbrella and go in search of breakfast. The elevator delivers me to the cheerfully lit, wood-paneled lobby twelve floors down. As I descend an escalator towards the basement I briefly glimpse furious gray gusts of rain through the plate glass windows. No one is visible outside.
There are people underground. A long queue stretches away from a tiny coffee shop next to the escalator. Others hurry by on their way, presumably, to a workplace. An expansive but low-ceilinged food court is softly lit in cool shades of white. Fast food vendors, most of which are closed, surround it, white steel grills drawn down over glass counters.
Exiting the nearly empty food court, I head into the West Dallas Tunnel.
Houston’s subterranean tunnel system extends approximately seven miles in a labyrinthine network of pedestrian passageways, ramps, shops and food courts. It has little relationship to the street grid above and bears absolutely no resemblance to the natural world. A hurricane might be crashing through the city and, unless there was a power outage, no one down here would even notice.
That seems to be the point. It’s raining hard outside but everyone I pass is as dry as I am, dressed in power suits without outerwear or raingear. My unopened umbrella dangles from my arm.
In Houston, though, people are driven underground more often by the heat. Even in the brutal Houston summer, the climate-controlled tunnels allow them to remain comfortably suited and sweatered on their way between air-conditioned cars and air-conditioned offices. To what end, I wonder, does the march of civilization lead?
The West Dallas tunnel becomes the South Louisiana tunnel. The names vaguely correspond with street locations on the surface of the earth but nothing is straight or direct for more than the equivalent of a block down here.
Underfoot beige tile gives way to pale granite. The walls narrow into a sterile white corridor. I am reminded of a movie by George Lucas – THX 1138 – that is set in an underground city in some dystopian future. But this is not the future. It is all too present. Echoing the movie’s title character, my instinct is to escape.
I pass a block-long mural of the surface of the moon. I’m certain it is meant to be uplifting, but the irony is stunning. Who designs these places and then decides that the airless and barren lunar landscape is what we should see as we walk through them?
Just when I begin to despair of finding anything green or growing, I come upon a diminutive plastic jungle tucked in a corner, bracketed with brushed steel and ceramic tile. Green but not growing, it is scarcely more soothing than the moonscape. Is this meant to nurture our need for a connection with nature? Instead it puts me in mind of natural history museum dioramas that depict extinct species.
Every few hundred yards I stop to check the map posted on the wall or propped on a floor stanchion. If it didn’t say “you are here” in different places each time I would have no idea how far I’d gone or in which direction. North, south, east, west are equally meaningless. Distances are exaggerated by twists and turns.
I pass through the Tunnel Loop and wander down the East McKinney Tunnel before I discover that I’ve overshot my destination. I should have turned at the connector leading to the Lamar Tunnel, which runs parallel to the McKinney. The determined crowd surges around me. I am lost in a sky-less maze of polished steel fittings and white surfaces washed with invisible light sources. Urban wilderness is taking on new meaning.
King Minos of ancient Crete is supposed to have commissioned the world’s most famous labyrinth, which was guarded by the bull-headed Minotaur. Maybe that is an unfounded myth. In any case, all that remains of the powerful king and the Cretan civilization are the ruins of his palace at Knossos. Feeling not at all like Theseus, who penetrated the labyrinth and killed the monster, my hesitation and disorientation give me a moment to reflect on this modern-day labyrinth.
This is not a diatribe against cities. I believe in cities. Today we must turn Thoreau’s famous dictum on its head: In cities is the preservation of the world. I mentally genuflect to Thoreau and ask absolution for this heretical pronouncement. But the fact of the matter is, the preservation of wilderness now depends on making cities both livable and an attractive alternative to sprawl. That means bringing nature back into cities from which it has been abolished. Sustainable cities, like humans, need open space in which to breathe.
Neither is this an indictment of Houston, which may or may not deserve indictment. I have not explored it sufficiently to pass judgment. But how are we to survive if our cities lead us to mole-like lives in caverns and tunnels, unable to see the sun or smell the changing seasons?
Backtracking, I come finally to a two-story rotunda that is open to a street-level lobby above. I take the escalator, stepping briskly to speed my ascent. A soft glow of daylight gradually mingles with the unearthly shine of tunnel illumination.
I push open the heavy glass door and step out onto Main Street hoping to see trees or a planter with flowers in it. This view across the street is not reassuring.
The environments we create for our cities more and more have come to define the world we live in. A world in which nature is reduced to a twisted topiary in a concrete urn is not the world I want to wake up in tomorrow.
This is the first installment of a trilogy from Houston’s urban wilderness. To read the next, click on Buffalo Bayou, Part 1. If you want a taste of the cultural side of Houston, go to my Arts Without Borders blog.