“Look at that tree up here on the right. Someone’s carved a face onto it.”
My girlfriend doesn’t really look. I’m trying to drive here was her response, and of course a reasonable one. Still, I can’t believe how little people see of this town when peering at it through a car window.
I used to be one of them, a card-carrying member of Houston’s car class, a group that includes almost every 16-and-up resident who can afford one. I even sold cars for a time in my early 20s. I like cars. I just choose not to drive one anymore. I am a cyclist—by which I mean that riding a bike is not a hobby or form of exercise. It’s a lifestyle.
It all started back in 2007, by happenstance more than anything. I was living at the Sabine Street lofts just outside of downtown and working off of Allen Parkway when one day my car broke down. I wasn’t sure whether to fix or replace it, and in any case didn’t have the money for either, so I bought a bike as a stopgap measure while saving money and considering my options.
To my surprise, I found bike commuting to be easy and exhilarating (even before the city invested in those swoon-inducing bayou trails). I loved it. The liberating feel of the wind in your hair might be a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason. Houston has a reputation for being a city where a car is a necessity, but I found that between the bike and the public transit system, it’s actually pretty simple to get around sans auto—with some planning and some patience. Gradually, I began to fantasize about what my Bayou City life would be like without a car payment, insurance payment and worries over the cost of gas and the environment. I stuck with the bike and I’ve never regretted it, except perhaps on rainy days—but thankfully that’s what Uber is for.
Streets you’ve probably never heard of are my major thoroughfares, like Jackson Hill. It’s in the Rice Military neighborhood, and looks like nothing special, but a bayou trail ends there, so it is special. That’s where I found Raymond’s, my longtime barbershop, the kind of place that gets little attention save from the lawyers and other suits that get their trims there on lunch breaks. You don’t have to be a cyclist to discover a gem like Raymond’s, but it doesn’t hurt.
And there are other perks to the biking life. I’ve become a connoisseur of Houston’s street art, my knowledge of the Montrose rental market is encyclopedic, and I see history everywhere. Yes, history. People who think this is a city without one just aren’t looking very hard. There’s the monument from the 1920s I discovered commemorating the safety record of a cement plant that closed down decades ago. I came upon that one in the Second Ward after a trip to grab some breakfast tacos. There’s the old brick wall with a tiny, wooden door that leads to the old Donnellan family crypt underneath Franklin St. And then of course there’s The Big Bubble, Dean Ruck’s little-known downtown art project in which you push a red button on the Preston Street Bridge and a giant air bubble gurgles up from the bayou below. I have to push that button every time I ride by it. I don’t know why.
When an apartment complex on W. Dallas burned down in a huge blaze last year, the surrounding streets were closed to traffic but I was able to pedal in and watch the awe-inducing destruction from a gas station across the street. Ditto for imploding buildings downtown.
Moral: if you want the best view of something big, arrive by bike.