Public Art

What's Behind the Big Burp in Buffalo Bayou

Who fixes the Big Bubble when it breaks, and other important questions.

By Marianella Orlando April 28, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

On a recent, balmy Saturday afternoon, we wandered Buffalo Bayou near Sesquicentennial Park, looking for the infamous art installation known as Big Bubble. The work, we knew, is activated by the push of a small, red button, which sends a massive bubble rushing to the water’s surface—something many Houstonians call “burping the bayou.” But the button is hidden.

We wandered the park, checking every possible area. By the Wortham Center Waterfall? No. Under the bridge alongside the bayou? Not there. Near the sculpture of President George H.W. Bush? Nope. A half-hour passed. Finally, we discovered the button and pressed it, eagerly … multiple times. We watched the murky water. Nothing happened.

As we began to depart, glum, we watched a group approach the button. One pushed it. Again, silence. “I guess it’s broken,” he said, sounding defeated. “But I don’t know if there’s anyone who can fix it.” The question lingered in our minds. Who fixes the Bubble when it breaks? It took a surprising number of calls to find out the answer: Houston First Outdoors (HFO), which manages city-owned properties including Sesquicentennial Park.

The Big Bubble, created in 1998 by artist Dean Ruck, experiences frequent breakdowns throughout the year. “If it’s simple, where you can buy something at Home Depot, it can be turned around in a day,” said Debra Justice, HFO’s general manager. Major damage caused by large storms can take up to a week, however, and sometimes requires aid from a scuba diver.

Nearly satisfied, we asked one more question: What about placing a label near the button directing people to Houston First when it breaks? “We can always think of adding a sign with a number,” said Justice. For now, Big Bubble busts can be reported to the Houston First, City Hall, even 311—though we’re imagining potholes take priority these days.

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