Travels Deeply South

Photos from a whirlwind trip to the Deep South are online.  Your lucky correspondent traveled in the fourth week of January, and not the fifth; I missed out on the wince-making weather miseries recently described in big fonts on news sites.  The needle dipped below freezing in Birmingham, Atlanta and Asheville, but skies remained clear and dry, and I suffered nothing worse than chilled fingers while touristing about with my camera.  Georgians stranded overnight in snowbound traffic on Interstate 285 won’t have much sympathy to spare for me.

In the mid-nineties I visited New Orleans for a science conference, but that had been the extent of my travels down south.  The press warned ominously of growing polarization between red and blue states, and most of the red states seemed to be in Dixie.  I am retired now, have time to travel.  Why not see the South for myself?

House in Charleston, South Carolina
House on East Battery Street in Charleston, South Carolina

A few newcomer impressions:

Southern courtesy isn’t make believe.

I look, talk, act — and, for all I know, smell — like a Yankee, and had expected my California accent to earn at least an occasional hostile once-over while refueling my rental car in the Deep South boonies.  My expectations had been shaped largely by Hollywood, after all; didn’t I remember how Rod Steiger had snarled at Sidney Poitier over a lukewarm cola in Heat of the Night?

Well, no one like Mr. Steiger snarled at me.  Maybe I was lucky, but I will no longer dismiss posts like this one as wishful thinking.  Even the gas station attendants were nice.

At least superficially, the South is more thoroughly integrated than the North.

This is controversial.

An Asian friend who visited the South frequently in decades past experienced small discriminations never encountered out west.  Mississippi minister John Sanders, met by happy chance while strolling Jackson’s downtown, noted that electorate decisions often break along ethnic lines.  Jackson has a black mayor because Jackson is mostly black.  In contrast, white lawmakers retained the Confederate symbol on the state flag because they had the votes to get their way.  How ‘thoroughly integrated’ is that?

Ministers pose at Fallen Fire Fighters Memorial
John and Daisy Sanders pose at Fallen Fire Fighters Memorial in Jackson, Mississippi

Just the same:

I included the Lakeshore megachurch in my itinerary after reading that it boasts the largest denomination in the country.  I’ll have to fall back on the same homely phrase: the 8:30 a.m. service on January 19 was the most thoroughly integrated I have attended in a lifetime of admittedly irregular churchgoing.  I say this less because of a tallying-up of represented ethnicities than because of the easygoing vibe I sensed while there.  I don’t know much much else about Lakeshore, and don’t want to hold it up as an exemplar of other virtues, but at least give it credit on that score.

At a morning breakfast buffet in Hoover, Alabama, in the cheerful give-and-take at a Charleston delicatessen, in a Birmingham supermarket: the comfort level between the races simply felt different than the norm out west.  In the South blacks and whites seem thoroughly used to each other.

Houston deserves special attention from transit geeks.

This is not because Houston is a transit city — trust me, it’s not — but because Houston may be the leading example of the Other Way.  I have never visited a place so dependent on car ownership.

Highway 290 and Sam Houston Tollway
On westbound 290 in suburban Houston.  Photo by Joe Wolf, Flickr.

To explain why, I will offer two points gleaned from reading Texas author Oscar Slotboom’s excellent, even-handed Houston Freeways:

(♦)  Houston cut back on freeway construction when the nationwide ‘freeway revolts’ struck in the 50s and 60s, but then grit its metropolitan teeth and forged ahead with more freeways in the 70s.  Los Angeles, in contrast, held the line with the Century/105 freeway, opened in 1993.

(Give credit where credit is due here, incidentally.  Houston does seem to have ‘built their way out of it,’ although transit experts have assured repeatedly that this can’t be done.  Houston led the nation in traffic congestion in the early eighties, and is now ranked seventeenth on the Inrix scorecard.)

(♦) Houston encouraged what might be termed ‘freeway oriented development’ with a gridwork of frontage roads, a.k.a. ‘feeders.’

Mr. Slotboom describes this system in Freeway Metropolis, his book’s second chapter.  (The book is available as a free .pdf on the website, although used hard copies go for north of $90 on Amazon.)  If you’re willing to open a new browser window, I’ll be honored to show you:

  • Zoom in on a freeway … say, the Sam Houston tollway, or the Katy freeway.  Zoom in close.  You can do it!  Click that mouse.
  • See how many of the freeways are paralleled by ‘service roads?’  See?  The Sam Houston Parkway runs to either side of the Sam Houston Tollway.  The East Freeway Service Road and Eastext Freeway Service Roads flank the East Freeway and Eastext Freeway.
  • Browse around a bit.  You’ll find your own examples.  Lots of them.
  • Click on a few of those feeder/frontage roads, and drag the little orange Google Street View icon for an up-close view.

Why, my goodness!  Just look at all the businesses on those feeder roads!  Shopping centers, office complexes, vets, barbers, beauty salons, hotels (like the one I slept in) and churches (like the one I visited): on and on and on they go, punctuated by the occasional onramp, so the shopper can jump on the freeway again.  “Texas U-Turns” allow drivers to duck under freeways to change course on one-way frontage roads without dealing with stop lights or signage.

Highway 288 north toward Houston
Highway 288 north toward Houston. Photo by Judy Baxter, Flickr.

The older I get, the more I see wisdom in finding points that disputants in a debate can agree on.  (At least if they disagree sincerely, and aren’t being paid to tote polemical water for a given side.)  So I’ll settle for three points about car-oriented Houston infrastructure before moving on:

(♦)  It exacts a vastly larger environmental toll than transit oriented development.  It’s not earth friendly.  At all.

(♦)  It’s permanent.  Infrastructure can be expanded, but it’s very unusual to tear down megadollar stuff that works and replace it with something new.  Alternative designs for the San Mateo Bridge aren’t ever going to happen.  You built it, you got it, you use it, you keep it, you’re stuck with it.  I’m glad I had the chance to get a good shot of the Houston Red Line, but I can’t see how it’s going to change things much now, unless Houstonians make a colossal, unprecedented commitment to rail infrastructure.

(San Franciscans curious about how such freeway-oriented development might have panned out are invited to swallow hard and look at this map.  Thankfully, the much-maligned NIMBYs protested these plans; that’s why we don’t have a freeway blasting through Glen Canyon.)

Houston Red Line approaches Fannin South station
Houston Red Line approaches Fannin South station

(♦)  It is widely regarded as unattractive.  Houston has Hermann Park and some nice blocks in the Montrose district, but I can’t speak as charitably of other acres there, and the popularity of ‘Keep Houston Ugly’ t-shirts and bumper stickers suggests that Houstonians can’t, either.  One travel web site anointed Houston as the single ugliest city in the country.

But, to be fair: you can afford a house in Houston, and drive your clean, cozy, private car to work on a relatively uncongested freeway, and park your car without taking out a payday loan.  Maybe you won’t get to stroll around beautiful San Francisco, but you won’t have to wrinkle nostrils overwhelmed by the musky, all-natural stench of a drunk next to you, or wrestle your way out of a jammed Muni bus, either.

(Although I feel obligated to digress here, and note that I haven’t ridden a jammed Muni since climbing onto a 29 loaded with 49er Faithful bound for the last game at Candlestick.  When will my luck run out? I keep wanting to pinch myself.)

Southerners are about the same as folk everywhere else.

A few sensed my disappointment, and suggested that I visit much more rural towns in search of the paleolithic types I had half-expected.  In fact, a group of Birmingham atheists quickly identified one small Alabama town that might serve as a last bastion of bad old days racism.  (Which I won’t name, because I didn’t go there, might slander the place, and also might inadvertently reward it with bus loads of tourists.)

I will no longer put the South in a different mental category, or approach travels there with a different mindset.  I was absolutely charmed by many I met.  I hope to return.

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