Inspiring neighborhood activism in Houston

3/7/22

Wow. One of my biggest goals and dreams for this journey was to meet cool and amazing people on this trip. And that is happening, to a mind-boggling degree. So many of these Warmshowers hosts I have stayed with have been just incredible people, in all different ways.

I interacted with three of them today. First, I said goodbye to Ken and Liz, after two wonderful nights with them. They were some of the friendliest and kindest people I have ever encountered, taking me to local events and restaurants and sharing many great stories about their bicycle touring and hosting adventures. As I departed today, Liz surprised me with a pair of origami earrings she had secretly made just for me! (See photo.) I was blown away by the generosity, as well as her talent. She made a point of realizing that in terms of a gift, I would need something very small and light, because I have so little packing space. But she wanted me to have something beautiful to add to my (very limited) travel wardrobe. Liz, thank you again; I am thoroughly touched.

After I pedaled away from their house, about ten miles north of downtown, I rode on neighborhood streets until I reached one of Houston’s many bayou greenways, which provide a safe and scenic off-road place to ride through several parts of the city.

As I got back onto the street grid after the greenway, I noticed a few things, which seem to be a theme for my visit to Houston in general, and today’s activities in particular: Houston is a huge and car-centric city, and it can be very dangerous for cyclists. At the same time, local activists are working hard to change this, and they are making impressive headway. Right now is an exciting but tricky time to be a cyclist here, because these two realities intersect.

Two examples, from this stretch of my trek:

There is a new physically separated bikeway along a stretch of a busy road. Liz had remarked on it last night as we drove to Rice University to see the art installation. When she was working at Rice, that bikeway had not been there. She said that if it had been in place during her tenure there, she would have been much more comfortable commuting by bike.

It was a marvelous new piece of infrastructure. However, the rough-transition period was evident in two aspects I saw: first, the ghost bike shortly after the beginning of the bikeway. I’m assuming this ghost bike commemorates a cyclist who was killed prior to installation of the separated bikeway. Perhaps her tragic death was actually one of the reasons for installing the bikeway, or for doing it on a particular timeline.

Second, after a few more blocks, I noticed that several homeowners had placed their garbage bins directly in the bicycle right-of-way, impeding flow and creating a safety hazard. I hope that in some way they can be educated and/or persuaded to put the bins outside the bikeway, perhaps on the edge of their lawn instead. I’m assuming this is a “growing pains” issue that will improve in time.

After a couple hours of leisurely riding, I arrived at Ed’s place just south of downtown again. As you may recall, I stayed here three nights ago, when I first arrived in Houston. I had an opportunity to speak with Ed very briefly at that time, but today he treated me to a comprehensive bike tour of the Columbia Tap Trail, a rails-to-trails bikeway that stretches for four miles, including both north and south of his house. Joining us on the tour was his friend and collaborator/assistant Bryant, who just moved to Houston from Miami a couple of months ago, and has already jumped right into assisting with Ed’s neighborhood activism, adding his photography and videography skills to the efforts.

As I think I alluded to before, Ed Pettitt is a veritable force of nature, staggeringly multitalented and active. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer, a PhD student of urban planning at nearby Texas Southern University, a consultant to various agencies and nonprofits based on his Masters in Public Health, an active Rotary Club member, and a neighborhood activist extraordinaire. (And that is on top of managing a busy AirBnb property with nine rooms, as well as hosting Warmshowers guests and other occasional guests.) He moved to Houston eleven ago, after growing up near Niagara Falls in New York, and volunteering in Africa with the Peace Corps for some years.

I will link to several publications he shared with me about some of the work he and many others in the area are doing. The work reflects a multifaceted approach to solve many urban problems: improving pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure; helping historically underserved communities to access transportation infrastructure, natural areas, and opportunities for employment; protecting the local natural environment, including mitigating flood dangers and reducing the effects of extreme summer heat in the area; restoring natural habitats and native vegetation; and helping at-risk youth to have opportunities to express themselves through music and to learn technical musical skills, as well as—for some youth—transitioning out of foster care and into independent adult living.

The goals are ambitious, but there are tangible steps that neighbors and city leaders can take to address all of these issues in interrelated ways. Hearing Ed talk about all of these projects and how they intersect reminded me of the innovative and integrated approaches to urban problems that visionary mayors such as Jaime Lerner of Curitiba, Brazil and Enrique Penalosa, of Bogota, Colombia, piloted and popularized years ago in South America.

I will mention just a few of the projects Ed pointed out along the trail. Please also take a look at these two links for more information:

https://kinder.rice.edu/urbanedge/2020/02/29/vacant-lot-third-ward-filled-life-after-chess-park-transformation#:~:text=Thanks%20to%20the%20hard%20work,Park%2C%20which%20opened%20in%20January.

https://kinder.rice.edu/urbanedge/2021/04/21/can-city-owned-vacant-lots-fill-need-park-equity-houston

First, we passed a “floating bus stop” (pictured) which allows buses to pull right up to the curb for loading and unloading passengers, without interrupting the flow of cyclists passing by. A very similar design is being built less than one block away from my condo in Portland; that city is implementing its first-ever Bus Rapid Transit project, from downtown Portland to the eastern suburb of Gresham, along SE Division Street. The new stops are slated to begin operation this coming September, right before I will be returning to Portland.

We also passed several do-it-yourself bicycle repair stations along the trail, including the pictured one right at the northern terminus of the path, which is also right across from the entrance to local bike shop EaDo Bike Company. (That’s Ed, working on his bike.)

As we turned around to head south, he pointed out an example of “tactical urbanism”: a bridge across a ditch that floods in the rainy season. Neighbors adjacent to the path installed this bridge themselves, because they needed a way to access the trail, and the city was not providing one. Two of the aims of tactical urbanism are to meet a pressing need, while also providing a “proof of concept” that local government leaders can follow to implement similar infrastructure elsewhere.

When we got near the south end of the trail, Ed pointed out another example of his own personal tactical urbanism effort: a kiosk with a map of the trail for residents to use. When he arrived in this neighborhood several years ago, the kiosks at either end of the trail were empty. He took it upon himself to print out large maps of the trail, then secure them inside the Plexiglas of the kiosks with his own padlocks.

Also near the end of the trail, he pointed out several murals painted by local residents (including one of George Floyd, who had grown up in this neighborhood before moving to Minneapolis). One such mural (pictured) depicted actual current residents of the neighborhood. The artist would stand by the wall and strike up conversations with passing neighbors, and some of them she would paint on the spot to add to the mural.

Right before the end of the tour, we spotted a patch of grass with the famed Texas bluebonnet flowers growing in it. I had heard people raving about the beauty of swaths of ground blanketed in bluebonnets in the spring, and I was disappointed to think I was too early in the season to see them. Clearly the ones we saw were the earliest ones of the season, so they were not creating a full carpet, as they probably will later. But Ed told me that the local tradition is to get a photo of oneself reclining amongst the flowers, and so we created this one of me.

Tomorrow is to be rather chilly, with a high of 53, so I may not get out much. But today was absolutely amazing.

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