It was late summer of 1967 when my twenty-year-old parents and five-month-old brother moved from Satellite Beach, Florida to Houston, Texas. Almost out of the Florida panhandle, they stopped to fill up their red ‘65 Chevy Impala.
“Where you all headed?” the station attendant asked them as he looked under the hood.
“Houston,” my father said.
The attendant raised his eyebrows watching my father check the U-Haul trailer connection. He closed the hood and told them to have a safe trip. They rolled into Houston with their engine covered in oil.
My mother can’t remember how many days the trip took. She does remember they were broke and so believes they may have driven straight through, stopping only to fuel up or to get out of the car and stretch or to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or to unfold and study and refold the map. Coming from Satellite Beach, a coastal city just south of Kennedy Space Center, my mom and dad had no idea what to expect from Houston other than they were sure they’d see tumbling tumbleweeds.
They were headed west for a job at Lockheed, where my grandfather worked in the personnel department. After high school, my dad had worked as a draftsman for Boeing, which was enough to join the army of workers NASA needed at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC, later named the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center [JSC]) to support their Apollo program. He started out doing technical illustrations of equipment, and while obtaining his degree in geography he moved to the Mapping Sciences Branch where he used Lunar Orbiter photography to do landing site analyses. I shake my head now when he tells me stories about mapping the moon. But as a kid it was no big deal, everyone’s dad worked at NASA.
My parents arrived into Houston at night, reaching the Gulf Freeway – Houston’s first freeway – after passing the twinkling lights of the big I-10 oil refineries and, from my mother’s memory, their “horrible smell.” Then around Ellington Field – complete darkness. No more street lights. She felt as if the freeway had turned to a dirt road.
“Where have you brought me?” my mother asked my father with tears in her eyes.
It took until 1970 for the Gulf Freeway to be completed south to NASA Road 1, which was Farm-to-Market 528 until the Manned Spacecraft Center moved into town. NASA’s MSC was to Clear Lake City what Amazon was to Seattle. A shot of progress right in the vein of a cattle pasture. Prior to NASA’s arrival, Clear Lake City was a population of about 6,000. By the time my parents arrived, they were amongst 45,000 residents. Lest they forget the reason why they came, my parents’ first apartment was the NASA Colonnades on NASA Road 1.
After 50 years living in Houston, my parents have seen second and third generations of freeways rebuilt. To this day, in their minds, I-45 is never finished.
“The Gulf Freeway, billed as the Highway of the Future at its inception in 1945, is still the highway of the future, for it has never been completed.” –Houston Chronicle, August 10, 1969
Over half a century later after my parents arrived in Houston, I drive the streets and freeways of my city this summer and come to the same unsatisfied feeling. It never feels completed. Orange cones are everywhere. The small triangle cone, the striped orange barrel, the wavy line of orange barricades that eliminate the shoulder road and push us closer into each other’s lanes. Houstonians know what I’m talking about. Mention 290, 288, 610, 45, Westheimer, Post Oak, Downtown, Midtown, Uptown, and we all feel each other’s pain. It doesn’t matter where we are, turn onto a little side street and a sidewalk’s being torn up or a road’s being re-paved, all lined and encircled with orange barricades and netting.
It is the summer of the orange cone.
How about two scoops of progress on top? It’s the only word the city can use to help sell this madness. Houston Magazine described in 1940 the design of the 100 year-old city seal as “the noble locomotive heralding Houston’s spirit of progress; and the humble plow, symbol of the agricultural empire of Texas from which Houston would draw her wealth – by the iron rails.”
I propose a new seal that tells the current story of my city – the noble orange cone heralding Houston’s spirit of being the biggest and therefore the best; and the humble crane, symbol of the construction empire of Texas from which Houston would draw her wealth – by the mighty buildings and expanding freeways.
Maybe the August heat has gotten to me with its multiple weeks of over 100 degree feels-like temperatures. Like when I lived in New York City and in late April still needed a coat. Enough already. With steam rising from the freeways, am I seeing mirages of rows and rows of orange cones? Orange signs tell me left lane closed, right lane closed, detour, road work ahead, merge left. Quickly. If a sign can tell me there’s construction for the next five miles, why can’t they make a sign downtown that tells me left lane closed until 2021?
I know, I get it. Cities have to change and grow. But it’s hard to love a city under continual construction. My relationship with my native city has never really evolved into a love relationship. We’re still just friends. I’d say good friends. Not once has the city been frustrated with me, told me to hurry up, asked me when I would finally lay the foundation and rebuild myself. New York City didn’t have that kind of patience with me, but I loved her anyway. To love a city takes acceptance. And when it never feels done, never feels enough, that does something to the psyche. It’s hard to relax when surrounded by the color of caution.
“The things that we experience in the built environment profoundly affect our mental health, our emotional health, our physical health…and it’s grotesquely neglected.” –Sarah Williams Goldhagen
I left my parents’ house one Saturday night a few weeks ago to find 288 North shut down and rerouted to Beltway 8. Cones everywhere in a sea of red brake lights. I had to pull over to search my maps app for my own meandering detour back to my downtown apartment. The next Saturday I drove 290 to Cypress to visit my brother. Orange barrels lined the freeway like sentinels, just waiting for darkness so they could get to work. Aren’t they done with this? My trip home involved a section that moved everyone to one right lane and another section that moved everyone to one left lane. I-10 exit closed, 610 North exit closed. I found myself on an overpass that looked so unfamiliar. I have to be on 610 South. I don’t know where I am. I recognized the Woodway/Memorial Drive exit. Yes! An orange “closed” sign was stamped right in the center of the exit sign.
“I can’t remember a summer hotter than this,” my dad repeats every year. And every year I sound more like my parents. Maybe this is what happens as we age – a growing intolerance for traffic, noise and detours. More and more it is harder to find my way around my own city.
I can’t remember a summer with more construction. The spirit of progress is pushing us all down to one lane.
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