Wednesday, May 09, 2007

houston's past future

Jean has been doing some amazing research for a project we are doing on the Pierce Elevated in downtown Houston. In the process, she uncovered a series of diagrams made by Arthur Colemen Comey, a landscape architecture from Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a report on the urban landscape of Houston in 1913. These diagrams are engrossing, first of all, for the detail in their rendering (sorry, can't get more detail from the scans), and their graphic clarity, but also because they represent an inconceivably different Houston that is so foreign and compelling as to invite historical revisionism and speculation. To Wit (click for a larger version):

A unique method of denoting population. Note, despite the fact that "white" and "colored" populations are marked separately, these populations appear to be more integrated spatially than they are today.

Once again, a unique "property value topography" map. It's been a while since Houston was this center-weighted.

Wouldn't it be nice if we had a ring of wetlands instead of the 610?

Children walking, alone, to public parks with paid attendants? What is this, Cuba?

These streetscapes seem almost quaint in their scaling. Streetcars? Pedestrians?

It's easy to dip into nostalgia for a prewar America looking at the last few images, and I do think that the scale and civic nature of what is suggested there is something that Houston should be striving for right now. But the fact is, this city will never obtain this kind of scale again. So the question becomes: what do we like about this imaginary Houston of 1913? And what can we do now, almost 100 years later, that can improve upon those desires? After all, this was a city that hadn't made it yet as a major metropolis, and yet was already struggling with infrastructure and traffic. It was a city still searching for a good port and native industry, and was occasionally crippled by outbreaks of typhoid or even tuberculosis. It was a city that had a ward system that divided its populace into informal castes. This is not a city to be nostalgic about. So how can we take the fever dreams of an impossibly remote city, and translate them into our future? That's not a rhetorical question. It's one that demands answers.

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