Today, citys' secrets. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
You know Guy Noir's tagline,
"A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets." Well, what
city doesn't have its secrets? Some years ago I did a program on Stanley
Greenberg's book, Invisible New York,
about the secret recesses of that city.
Houston, Texas, is somewhat smaller and a lot younger, but none of us lives
here very long without making all kinds of secret places uniquely ours.
Many of mine are on the University of Houston campus: our Meditation Garden,
the mysterious statue in the middle of our University Center. (It harbors
symbolism that only we old-timers know.) The forested banks of the Bayou
running through the campus, so rich in water birds. Of course, any other
part of the city harbors secrets of its own.
And few of us ever think about the greatest secret of any city: its
subterranean mirror image. For just below the surface
lie telephone conduits and electric power ducts. Further down are gas lines,
low-pressure domestic water, high-pressure water for fire-fighting. Deeper
yet we find sewage lines, storm drains, and building foundations.
Systems of tunnels often serve the utilities. In many large cities, below
all else run subway tunnels, linked to the surface only by long ventilation
shafts. The shining city above ground is inevitably served by that second
invisible city below -- the one we hardly know is there.
Of course, as cities grow, the trenchers and powered shovels come in to expose
its subterranean past. So much urban archeology is what's called reclamation
archaeology. Every time a new building goes up, a new past is exposed below.
Take the building of New York's BMT subway line in 1912. At one point,
excavators burst into a huge closed room decked out in Victorian splendor.
A small pneumatic subway, built there 46 years before,
had failed as a business venture, been sealed up, and forgotten.
We have a splendid secret subterranean place here in Houston -- our system of
downtown underground tunnels. Seven miles of tunnels link some 95 city blocks
and hold every kind of shop and service. How can such a thing be secret? Well,
how many of you, my Houston listeners, have actually walked and used that system?
It really does remain a secret to more people than not.
So, your assignment today is: Go out and find the unexpected. Here in Houston
that might be the old Gable Street Power Station or the
1940 Air Terminal Museum.
Both are architectural relics, too little known and too seldom visited. Or maybe
you'll simply find your own family of barn swallows below a bayou bridge.
Our secret place might be no more than a special shop or restaurant. No matter,
a city becomes ours when we feel we own its special places. When you or I own our
city, we become its custodian. And that's the point at which all those secret
places truly serve the common good.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
See the Discover Houston Tours site
for more on special places in Houston and
their site describing the tunnel system.
The Houston Tunnels site
provides a map of the system.
All photos by J. Lienhard
Note Added, March 19, 2015: Since this episode was first run in early 2010, one of these
Secret Places is no more. Ron Bass has written to point out that the Gable Street Power
Station was razed in 2011. It was not the first nor will it be the last such landmark to
be lost. I recall my horror when the great silos of the Old Rice Mill on Studewood went
down in 1996.
A few more special places -- "secret" only to those who have not seen them.:
Fountain in the shadow of the Transco/Williams Tower
Whistling ducks in the Meditation Garden pool by the UH engineering and architecture buildings.
Small park and lighthouse near the Southshore Marina in Houston
Viewing plaza overlooking Buffalo Bayou below the Houston Grand Opera House
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.