110. The hands that built America – Houston skylines


Oh my love
It’s a long way we’ve -come
From the freckled hills
To the steel and glass canyons
U2 – November 2002

My watch says almost midday, and still I’m waiting for the sun to come up. I’ve been sitting in my hotel room for a couple of hours already, wide awake and yet bleary-eyed with jet-lag, but a glance out of the window and across the freeway shows a resolutely dark sky over the plains beyond The Loop.

Oh well. There’s no point in waiting any longer. I chuck on a T-shirt and shorts, lace up my shoes, trot out through the lobby and hit the sidewalk running.

One of the joys of being a committed runner is that you get to see so much more of the places you visit. I’ve explored the Left Bank, and the Right too, at enormous and gruelling length during my trips to Paris. I’ve seen the Ville de Lumière awaken from its slumbers as the grey summer dawn turns to the first tint of blue. I’ve explored Olympic Park in Calgary in summer, winter and fall – amidst sparkling July skies, golden maple and crusted ice floes buckling the Bow River two metres thick. I’ve looked down on Vienna from amongst ripening vines above the Danube, and run through the chill of an Edinburgh November morning.

And more times than I can remember, I’ve seen the sun go down in some secluded corner of the Mediterranean, enjoying the last glints of azure over a Cretan bay, the aroma of hot Corsican pine wafting down a limestone gorge, and greyly fading October evenings falling over empty Umbrian fields. A thousand windows on the world that ordinary travellers will never share.

Of course, there are less poetic moments as well. The bleak final carpark lap to make up the mileage through a business estate in Reading. A full-on Aberdeen northeaster chilling my bones deep into the docks and along the Footdee seawall. But that’s all part of the territory, too.

So what is the wisdom in heading out alone into the deserted Downtown darkness of America’s fourth largest city a full hour before light ? Maybe it’s best not to think about it too much. When you’re in training, you just have to run.

It won’t be the workout I need, I know, but there’s about thirty minutes there, if I want it. With city streets to cross and some dodgy direction-finding to factor in, they won’t take me that far. Two and a half miles or so – and I can’t remember when last I ran so short. Once, it was my longest ever distance, but in the midst of London Marathon training again – it’s refreshing – almost liberating, in a way.

So now, despite the tiredness from yesterday’s ten hour flight, and the disorienting midday darkness, there’s a spring in my step. Because whatever else the city offers me this morning, I know my legs will easily be up to the challenge.

I head into the street, past the ‘Don’t Walk’ signs, alongside City Hall, with its illuminated clock face, and down to the Allen Theater. Allen Park lies beyond, but I’ve neither the time nor the confidence to explore it this early, so instead an improvised loop brings me back to Wells Fargo Plaza to stare upwards at the skyscrapers supporting black Texas sky. Across the tram tracks on Main Street, I pass a floodlit church and then cruise a slow circle back onto Lousiana and the Skyline District.

It may be a compact Downtown here, with neither the grandeur nor sense of architectural history that Chicago can evoke, but the motley range of seventies and nineties buildings is one appropriately to reflect the cyclical peaks of the oil industry, and the troughs in between. And running around here – it’s like poring over an atlas of the biggest energy corporations in the world. Shell Plaza, Exxon, Texaco, Total, Devon, Hess, Pennzoil.

These wide streets were laid out between the bayous soon after General Sam Houston defeated the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. Houston went on to become the first President of the Republic of Texas and the city was named in his honour. This was still a small town of just 45 000 people at the turn of the twentieth century, mostly known for lawlessness, corruption and disease.

But then the gusher at Spindletop on the Gulf of Mexico coast in 1901 changed everything, with the discovery in 1930 of the East Texas oilfield, a five billion barrel global giant, finally setting the scene for economic development on a massive scale.

Over two million people live in Houston today, and the Gulf of Mexico remains one of the most prolific hydrocarbon-producing provinces in the world, with America’s status as a major importer of petroleum largely reflecting its voracious appetite for energy, rather than any lack of commitment in finding and exploiting more reserves from the region.

A hundred years after Spindletop, Houston is now the acknowledged capital of the world’s energy industry. This is the powerhouse, the hands that built and drive the economies and technologies of today’s America, and of the whole world beyond.

That appetite for energy continues, unabated. This is without doubt one of the most energy-intensive cities in the world. Urban development sprawls across the wide open Texas plains here, with four separate centres located beyond the Downtown area, all linked by their own freeways and choking traffic.

Our rental car is the same model I drive at home, but here it’s dwarfed by the gas-guzzling monster trucks that so many Americans just seem to love to drive. All those cars, houses, malls and office blocks gulp more power in hefty air-conditioning which seems to be set cooler than in any other place I’ve ever visited on the planet. And perhaps it has to be – since throughout the long Houston summers, this place is more or less uninhabitable without it.

I listened to the State of the Union address over my Heineken last night. If George Bush thinks this country is addicted to oil, then it must certainly be true, but it’s part of the culture – so how can you change it ? It would make sense to drive less, and to drive smaller cars, but how could you really deconstruct one of the world’s largest cities to make it more energy efficient ? Just the sprawling nature of the Westchase district, where we’ll spend today, extends over so many miles and miles of shopping malls and business plazas that it would be more or less unworkable without the car. And so all of us – even Texans – we’ll just have to power our cars differently, that’s all.

It’s only twentyfive minutes I run before breakfast this morning. I’ll run the same again tomorrow, and on Friday. Before I know it, I’ll be on the plane back to London. And so how can I, really, honestly, criticise energy usage when my own flights here have used more fuel than the average European family car does in a year ?

The sky is slowly lightening now. The birds are awake, screeching raucously from the trees and telegraph wires as I run down Smith. The city skyline here – it’s impressive. There’s no other word for it. The Enron building towers above me, soaring high long after the company, which collapsed so scandalously in 2001. For now, it’s still the most gleaming of all the Houston skyscrapers, even if its ship’s funnel shape is almost an appropriate metaphor for the corporate sinking which played out within.

A final sprint brings me back to my hotel for a shower and breakfast. Across the freeway and far beyond The Loop, I can see the massive trail of red tail lights still growing towards the Galleria. The Houston horizon is lightening, whilst all around the world the skies of our hydrocarbon age are slowly fading. Another time is dawning, and it’ll look different from this one. Just how different is hard from this Houston perspective to ponder, and only time and ingenuity will tell.

The pace of change seems slow sometimes, when measured against certainty, such damning inevitability. Just one man, one opinion – even millions of opinions – they can’t change the world, not today. But the world is changing slowly, all the same.

And one thing is clear to me now, this morning. These hands that built America – they’re going to have to be busy again soon, and for a very long time to come.

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2 responses to “110. The hands that built America – Houston skylines

  1. Your poetic descriptions are wonderful. The reality of fuel waste in our country is so true. Thanks for an educating and realistic view of our country. I often wonder just where the people are to keep these malls open. The money certainly doesn’t come from folks like our family. I hardly ever visit a mall or a big shopping area.

  2. Thanks as ever, Nichole. As it happens, almost two years after my last trip there, I visited Houston again last month.

    I plan to write more about the energy crisis soon.

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