If cities can be designed to dispose of Black and brown bodies, to disappear them, they can be redesigned to save them. Illustration: Sarah Welch.

The next Houston should be for us

June 18th, 2021

If cities can be designed to dispose of Black and brown bodies, to disappear them, they can be redesigned to save them. Illustration: Sarah Welch.

The beautiful thing about a bayou is that it conceals and then it reveals. Once the water recedes, all of its secrets surface in the day and night.

Most of Houston’s bike trails are built alongside the bayous. They mimic them bend for bend. Like a shadow. Biking alongside them you can see, in the sludgy silt, the remnants of machinery, tires, sometimes a bullet-riddled car. One time, I spotted a turtle sunbathing on a chaise lounge, upholstery still intact. In the air, the chemical tang of runoff, oil, gas.

Everywhere things that were supposed to disappear suddenly appear. And then it’ll rain, and they disappear again.

During the pandemic, I grew infatuated with these trails. I thought of the attempted disappearings as secrets (people’s secrets can be a riot sometimes). But then I grew obsessed with the way reptiles and fish and birds reclaimed those disappeared things that had been bashed against other things, the tensile strength of their materials bending and twisting in the sun and the slow current until they became something else entirely. Only to be covered by water again. And then revealed, maybe 15 yards downstream, in a newer form. A perch for blue herons. A target for children wielding a small pistol. A kind of bed for pretty weeds to start to take root.

***

Tensile strength is the level of stress a material can accept before it fails. It’s measured in megapascals (MPa), a unit of pressure. Everything has a breaking point. Materials have a memory, they keep a record. Fatigue factor, it’s called.

The tensile strength for an A36 grade steel bridge is about 500 megapascals. The tensile strength for the aluminum spoke on my road bike wheel is 350 megapascals. The tensile strength of concrete is between 2 to 5 megapascals — easily sloughed away, completely removable.

The trick of concrete is that it makes you believe it’s permanent. As if a road cannot be rerouted. As if a monument might be there forever.

But concrete’s weak. Cheap. The papier-mache of material sciences, really.

Beyond the bike trail I like to ride deep into Near Northside, parallel to the South Cavalcade Superfund sites. Then into the other Superfund site across the highway in Kashmere Gardens. Then deep into Second Ward. Then into Third.

Sometimes along the way my tire catches a brick, partially paved over with the asphalt having crumbled over to reveal it. Sometimes a sliver of train track to nowhere anymore (also paved over). Sometimes the smell of something from the Ship Channel, maybe from underground. Creosote? Benzene? Who can say?

You wonder about the tensile strength of abstract things in these moments. What is the tensile strength of our social fabric? Who or what is supposed to stay? Who or what is supposed to be disappeared?

***

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been getting the same feeling around my fellow citizens as I get on a bike east of downtown. My health and safety, in the hands of strangers. Like that feeling I get sometimes in the back of a cab in Mexico City when there are no seatbelts, and I just lean into it. But then once I’m back here I wonder. Who took the seatbelts out, anyway? Is that by design?

I wonder about the city beneath the city. What’s hidden here by accident? By design? How and when was it decided it had to be built like — this?

Sometimes a pickup truck zips by too close. Or an 18-wheeler muscles you out of the road because it needs to turn. They say wear brighter colors, wear more lights. Stay in your lane, take up the lane (don’t take up the lane). Obey stop signs. You do all that. And especially in Near Northside or Kashmere Gardens or Magnolia Park you realize that the rules will not save you.

Houstonians accept the death of people on bikes like it accepts cancer like it accepts air pollution like it accepts bad water. Most people have internalized the slogan. It’s just simply the cost of doing business.

A few weeks ago a friend of a friend was killed cycling near Ellington Airport. The driver was drunk, sped off without rendering aid. That should have been the weird part — the hit and run.

The weirder part was reading the comments on Facebook and news stories. I won’t repeat them here. But if you’ve ever seen a victim blamed because their house flooded or seen someone gaslit in the wake of a chemical fire, you might guess what was written about a cyclist who was killed on one of our roads.

***

If cities can be designed to dispose of Black and brown bodies, to disappear them, they can be redesigned to save them.

Concrete — remember? — is cheap.

What is the tensile strength of our own bodies? What is our fatigue factor?

Why is it so easy to die in some parts of this city? Whether by bike or benzene, the dumps that foul the Black and brown neighborhoods of Houston.

Who built it like this?

***

During Harvey, I saw a guy trying to flood a car, a Ford Fiesta, in the underground garage of my apartment building downtown. He’d heard that the tunnels were going to flood. He assumed the basement garage would, too.

I asked him why he would do it. He said, “It’s a Ford Fiesta.”

He waited a day, two days, three days as the city filled with water. The garage stayed dry. The tunnels, too.

The guy kept checking and checking as the streets filled with water, but his Ford Fiesta stayed very dry. “They can do that? They can do that?”

He kept saying it like it was beyond his imagination.

***

Now, it’s wider roads, more highways, more death. It’s more permits, it’s more pipelines. More sickness.

The next Houston should be built for us.

Not just people on bikes, I mean, but people. That wouldn’t be business-friendly, some might say. “Just the cost of doing business then,” I’d say back to them.

By now they should know: you can’t disappear the people you’d rather not see. They’ve tried. I’m not so naïve as to believe it wasn’t intentional.

In the next Houston I want us to reemerge from the sunken bayous of our minds. To reenvision our streets rather than simply revise them. To repurpose our physical spaces and reclaim our health in a cityscape designed in every way to seperate us from that literal wealth which might be bad for the economy but is good for our bodies. Our souls. And in seeing those spaces anew, reveal the potential of what has been buried in them all along but could become spaces for tires, for feet, for you, for me.

I’m seeing a bike highway stretching from Canal to Broadway, down to Hobby Airport, west to Sunnyside along Sims Bayou until it meets up with the greenway proper (with a spur into the Medical Center) and then north on Cullen to UH and TSU, a connector along Beulah Street to the Columbia Tap to bring it all back to Second Ward. In Kashmere Gardens and Near Northside, bike highways can be built on top of the Superfund sites that need to be further capped anyway.

Here, you get the feeling that the vehicle is an extension of the body. Mentally, we’re already there in that blurred space between the two. The beautiful thing about a bike is that you are the engine, you are the machine.

***

In the next Houston, we cancel our water subscriptions. We fill up our bottles from the tap — no radium, no chromium-6, no traces of lead. We exert our bodies without wondering what we’re breathing.

We obliterate our limits, not ourselves.

We can do that. We can do that.

In the next Houston, we don’t see any more white ghost bikes, the bent rims and broken spokes like the wobbly, unequal pulls of the looped roads around Houston. That’s what happens when you true some spokes more than others. Eventually, that wheel will bend. Then that wheel will break.

I want my tires perfectly trued, all spokes in perfect tension. Everything in harmony, everything equally opposite. There’s nothing like that feeling. Nothing like it at all. And everyone who knows it knows the best way to move around is by bike anyway.

I’ve done it before. The whole damn city. Have you? It’s possible, I’m telling you. It’s possible.

Peña is a novelist and cycling enthusiast. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @danimalpena.

Take Action

  1. Dig into the shape of Houston's inequity
  2. Read the Houston Chronicle essay about the city's "hidden tax" of trauma
  3. Understand why TCEQ needs to speak the languages of all Texans

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