I was in Houston for a conference; I didn’t choose the hotel. Therefore it came as a pleasant surprise to find it situated a mere block away from Buffalo Bayou, the city’s primary waterway. Houston was founded on its banks in 1836. According to a park guide, it also is one of the few regional rivers left that has not been lined in concrete. I had to go see.
The block between the river and the glass towers of downtown is occupied by Sam Houston Park. The park is a leafy enclave that contains historic wooden buildings and wide lawn landscaped to slope down to a picturesque pond. It is inhabited by a flock of unfamiliar-looking geese with extravagant coloration. Cypresses at the water’s edge have extended a series of their distinctive “knees” along the bank of the pond like a palisade.
My first view of Buffalo Bayou was inauspicious. The river is decked with a freeway. Concrete columns outnumber trees. In places the steeply sloped lawn is in fact replaced by even more steeply sloped concrete.
I walked eastward, downstream, heading deeper and deeper into the concrete jungle. I spent a leisurely and largely solitary afternoon strolling and shooting pictures. Although the sound of traffic on the Gulf Freeway overhead was as constant as the muddy river flowing below, the biking/jogging path that cuts through the concrete was mostly empty. Now and then a jogger flashed by. I saw a man walking two large dogs, a pair of equestrian cops plodding slowly along.
A lone kayaker in a homemade wooden craft briefly danced around the concrete columns rising from the swiftly flowing river. Then, like flotsam, he swept on downriver.
The park’s infrastructure is impressive, if your taste in parks runs to red brick buttresses, grand staircases, faux-Classical balustrades, and ivy-encrusted walls. Entrances into the park/river corridor are graced with sculptural gateways emblazoned with river-inspired poetry. Little expense, it seemed, had been spared once the already constricted bayou was deemed an amenity.
(As in so many cities, this epiphany was relatively recent. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a coalition of civic, environmental and business interests, was formed in 1984, not long after the social/environmental transformations during the decade that followed the first Earth Day in 1970.)
I don’t know how long ago the current “improvements” were completed, but erosion has taken its toll even where the hardscape is most intensive. Rivers, like adolescents, always find ways to defy our efforts to constrain them. My downstream foray ended when I came to a place where the concrete path disappeared under the muddy silt of recent flooding.
After brooding all afternoon the sky finally decided on a hard, straight downpour. I sat on a park bench in the shelter of the elevated freeway and watched the rain fall in sheets. It felt like sitting under an immense plantation house porch overlooking the river and its skyline backdrop.
I mused on the word “bayou,” which brings to my mind dark recesses in a thickly forested swamp and stagnant water. It was impossible to reconcile this image with the scene before my eyes.
Upstream, according to the park guide, the riparian corridor widens and there is more green on the map. I would need another day to explore.
Click here to read Buffalo Bayou, Part 2.
To read my first post from Houston, about the underground tunnel system, go to “Waking to a New World.”