The most exciting parts of my Boots on The Ground columns come in the surprises I find along the way. Unlike so much of my reporting, there’s usually no hypothesis: Rather, I invite the city to show me what I need to know. To surprise me.
My latest surprise came in the form of a unique apparatus parked along the Columbia Tap Trail in Third Ward. The machine, which looks like a solar-powered lunar rover, surprised me in both its design and presence, and in the positive effect it’s had on the trail in just a few short months.
After decades of seeing the 4-mile hike-and-bike trail as a blight — largely ignored by the city — Third Ward residents are demanding the stretch of trail that connects Texas Southern University and Interstate 45 be granted more resources. In some ways, it’s working. But if you’ll pardon the hiking pun, there are miles left to go.
On a recent Monday morning, I joined a group of residents, community organizers and health advocates who regularly traverse the trail for a peek at a path filled with potential. We met at 6:45 a.m. — one minute after sunrise, to capitalize on the coolest hours of what became the ninth consecutive day with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees — in front of the community center at Cuney Homes.
After some introductions and a pre-sweat-soaked group photo, I fall into step with Ed Pettitt, who’s wearing a brimmed hat and a short-sleeve, button-up shirt with a pattern as loud as his booming voice. Pettitt founded the trail boosting organization, Friends of the Columbia Tap, last year.
“Until recently, residents have been concerned with safety issues for the trail,” Pettitt tells me as we navigate a patch of beaten-down grass where Truxillo Street dead-ends into the trail. Images taken a few months ago, live today on the Google Maps satellite view, show a cluster of heavy trash dumped along this access point. But on our Monday morning walk, there’s no debris to be seen. Illegal dumping — a pervasive nuisance in low-patrolled parts of the city such as this spot — is waning along this portion of the trail, thanks to a concerted effort by the city’s solid waste department.
The ‘lunar rover’
After walking north on the trail for several minutes, we pass that lunar rover-like contraption. This six-or-so foot tall giraffe-like robot (sorry, I don’t carry rulers on these walks!), topped with big black bulbs beside a grid of solar panels, sits along the trail. Watching.
Pettitt points to it. “So that light there was installed by the department of solid waste because there was so much dumping at this intersection,” he says. Nodding to the spot where Simmons Street butts up to the path. The light, as he calls it — or lunar rover, as I’m envisioning it — is a mobile camera unit, placed along the trail a few months ago by the city’s Solid Waste Department as part of the One Clean Houston effort, which seeks to deter rampant illegal dumping.
And given the pristine shoulders along the trail near this apparatus, it looks like the camera is doing its job. Here, at least. Pettitt would like to see more of these units rolled out (literally) along the trail to keep the entire span south of I-45 as clean as the Tap’s northern portion.
Admittedly, I know that northern portion of the trail better. My family often walks the well-landscaped, well-lit spur east of downtown early on Sunday mornings. There’s a twee coffee shop with Instagram-ready, pastel packaging, called EaDough, and the multi-hued bollards that line portions of the hike-and-bike path create a rainbow road. It feels safe and welcoming — a great option for a long walk with the baby and the dog.
Connecting the Tap
Pettitt and others who join us on this Monday jaunt envision a more seamless Columbia Tap, where the dividing line of I-45 doesn’t feel like a border between worlds. But as with so many Houston issues, that would mean a massive financial restructuring. Houston Public Works owns the land, which was once a decommissioned railway and morphed into a rails-to-trails pathway — a move made in similar cities across the country in the early 2000s.
Public Works maintains the drainage elements, while the Houston Parks and Recreation Department maintains the six-foot ribbon of land along both sides of the path, including any grass and trees within that area. It’s a piecemeal, patchwork system that effectively deprioritizes larger scale investments. North of I-45, the local tax increment reinvestment zone funds beautifying projects. But on this southern side, no such deep pockets have stepped in.
In recent years, public works spokeswoman Erin Jones tells me, the department has received feedback that the trail would be best served by having its oversight shifted to the parks department. That feedback, Jones says, has come “primarily from the Friends of the Columbia Tap group.”
Pettitt is not shy in advocating for that exact move. In his ideal world, the Columbia Tap would become a for-real city park, similar to Buffalo Bayou Park, which is similarly anchored by a miles-long, hike-and-bike path. “We just believe that it has more value as a linear park, which is what residents back in 1995 and even in the 1970s had originally envisioned,” Pettitt says.
The small changes that have been taking shape since the formation of Pettitt’s coalition have already seen a big effect. Delores Ford, newly elected president of the Cuney Homes Resident Council, has seen pushes to beautify the trail’s Third Ward section in fits and starts since she first moved into the public housing complex 24 years ago. But never has she seen an effort as concerted as the one taking shape now.
Ford says she’s glad for the recent push. “You know, beforehand, it was a place where I was told, ‘Oh, you can’t go down there! Don’t go down there!’ because it wasn’t safe,” she says as we wind southbound toward Holman Street.
Ford and a group of others take a weekly walk from Cuney Homes, through the Tap and down to Doshi House, a cafe on Emancipation Avenue, for coffee and conversation. Those weekly walks, facilitated by Friends of Columbia Tap and the nonprofit Fit Houston, have helped Ford reacquaint herself with the trail and see it for its true potential.
It used to be, she says, she’d stand at the Cuney Homes community center and look toward the trail, where she’d glimpse abandoned, stripped-down cars. As recently as this March, when she attended a community event on the trail, she remembers spotting gun shells, dead animals and trash.
“I didn’t even know people used the trail,” she says. That changed when she connected with Lharissa Jacob, the executive director of Fit Houston, and joined the weekly walks.
Now she never misses a Friday morning. Her son, at first, was concerned about her safety. But the Tap, she says, is changing. Like Pettitt and others, she’d like to see these changes continue. Speed up, even. Though change, she knows — even change for the better — can often come with a new set of issues. Especially in a part of town like Third Ward, where gentrification is taking root at a breakneck pace.
“With the Tap changing, a lot of people are concerned that they’re fixing it up for the new neighbors, not the old neighbors,” she says. She knows that beautification can often accelerate gentrification. Take New York City, for example: Rents around the High Line jumped by 35 percent after the area’s revitalization. But she’s also well aware of how long it’s taken to get to a point where walking along the Tap feels safe and free of trash and bullet casings.
So for right now, she says, this current push to advocate for the trail’s clean-up feels like it’s hitting the right step. Share your Houston stories with me. We can start on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.