One of my requests on this trip was to tour the downtown area of Houston as I had not seen it on my previous visit. Much is sometimes made, when people write of this sprawling metropolis, about it's total lack of zoning laws. Venerable structures are razed to make way for towering highrises completely out of scale and without respect to their surroundings. Out of town, former farm and pasture land disappear under faceless subdivisions and strip malls. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that a historic section of the city, abutting the bayou that winds it's way near downtown, has been rehabilitated.
Storefronts, office buildings and hotels, some dating back to the mid 19th century, grace the area. A small restaurant, originally a bakery built in 1860, is one of the oldest buildings in the city still on it's original site. It sits across from the Market Square, the center of the early city, used in those days as an open air produce market. Today it is a lovely area of flower beds, sculptures and fountains, one a memorial to the victims of 9/11. Misters spray diners at an outdoor eating area in an effort to keep the Texas heat at bay.
The old courthouse, a solid, domed, stone symbol of the law is located a few blocks away. The new civil courthouse is designed to reference and pay homage to it's older sibling. The area's architectural styles range from Beaux Arts to Victorian to Art Deco. Old hotels have been rehabbed and office buildings have been reclaimed for residential uses. Bars, nightclubs and restaurants fill the street level floors of many of the buildings. A bike path runs alongside the bayou which was used to bring goods from the gulf during the 18th century, giving rise to the city.
As you move away from the Historic District you encounter the more modern portion of downtown. Yet, every so often, an older building can be seen sandwiched between two glass walled highrises, appearing to resist the cities determination to completely relinquish it's history in this part of town.
There are also neighborhood historical districts. We drove through two of them, Westmoreland and Audubon. Old trees shade streets of late 19th and early 20th century homes which range from cozy, quaint bungalows to grand, sometimes imposing mansions. The southern influences on Houston are evidenced by occasional rows of shotgun houses, a staple of cities such as New Orleans. We drove past the impressive home of Houston's mayor, an out lesbian. In a state as conservative as Texas it is interesting to note that Houston is the largest city in the country where an openly gay woman holds it's highest elective office.
Though homes and buildings possessing character and charm are still being torn down in Houston, sacrificed to make way for newer structures without these attributes, it is heartening to know that in some areas these traits are still respected and preserved.