It felt as though we cut through five distinct cities. Maybe six. 

The 11.3-mile walk from the southern tip of Chimney Rock Road, near U.S. 90 Alternate, to its northern terminus at Interstate 10 gave me a slow-and-steady, intimate peek at some of Houston’s wealthiest neighborhoods — and some of its poorest. Some of its leafiest, and some of its barest. Sidewalks that fork off to quiet streets, and some that seemed to shake with the guttural roar of traffic. 

I’d started walking because I wanted to see: In a city as expansive as Houston, just how differently could a resident live their life on one single road, depending on where exactly they planted their roots?

Tuesday morning’s five-hour trek was an experiment built upon a bed of “I wonder if” hypotheses. Some of those held up; others were dashed. But by taking five hours to traverse a stretch of street I could cover in one-tenth of the time by car, I was able to slow down and smell the sunflowers in a way urban, gotta-get-there living rarely allows. Instead of whizzing by a blur of street-side homes, I watched a northbound metamorphosis from Houston’s native low-slung single houses to their gradual displacement by the invasive lot-sized überdwellings.

Upwardly mobile

I chose to walk south to north for a reason. One of the most fundamental story structures in American literature is the upwardly-mobile arc synonymous with the American dream. And Chimney Rock is, in many ways, an upwardly mobile street. 

The first residential neighborhood I passed through was the space-aged, suburban Westbury community, where home values clock in at $264,000. The final neighborhood, curving around the northeastern edge of the tony Houston Country Club, is home to houses four times as expensive: Zillow reports the average home value here is $1.1 million. 

Talk about upward mobility. 

Both of those stats are based on the neighborhoods’ ZIP codes — those seemingly arbitrary numerical codes that tell a postmaster where to direct your mail. But in Houston, and in much of the nation, ZIP codes tell a much deeper story than a string of five numbers can convey. 

  • The intersection of Chimney Rock Road and Orem Drive in southwest Houston
  • A strip mall on the corner of Chimney Rock Road and Bellfort Avenue in Houston's Westbury neighborhood.
  • Maggie Gordon, Houston Landing columnist, walks on Chimney Rock Road
  • Framing for a raised house is constructed on a plot of land on Chimney Rock Road just past Kinglet Street
  • Maggie Gordon, Houston Landing columnist, walks on the Brays Bayou bridge on Chimney Rock Road

In Westbury’s 77035 ZIP code, the average life expectancy — the amount of time one would expect a newborn to live – averages 78.3 years, according to researchers from the University of Texas system. And as I walked northward through seven ZIP codes, that span generally increased to its highest at 85.4 years in 77024, where Chimney Rock ends (with the exception of a brief divot in Gulfton). 

This upward arc was one of my main hypotheses, based on the social determinants of health — environmental conditions that can influence our lives in nearly every way, from economic stability (poverty rates declined from 22.4 percent in Westbury to 7.1 percent on Chimney Rock’s northernmost tip), to education (you’re more than twice as likely to find adults with a bachelor’s degree at the road’s northern end than its southern beginning) and health care access.

And that hypothesis bore out. 

Others didn’t. 

Transit equity

Tuesday was the second in what has unfolded into a long stretch of too-hot-to-be-outside days. But Houston Landing photojournalist Antranik Tavitian and I began before dawn, with the promise that we’d call it quits if ever we felt unwell. We finished after exactly five hours, which included a luxurious Gatorade stop at the CVS on the corner of Chimney Rock and Bissonnet in Bellaire. 

As I dripped with sweat, I eyed the bus stops that lined both sides of Chimney Rock. Ahead of my walk, I’d hypothesized that I would see the simplest bus stops along the sections of the walk with the poorest residents; as neighborhoods became wealthier, I assumed the stops would become nicer, and better equipped to shield riders from Houston’s extreme heat. 

I thought I’d found the perfect evidence at Burnett Bayland Park in Gulfton, where a bus stop for Houston METRO Route 49 is marked only by a spartan metal sign springing from the ground.  There is no bench to sit and wait for the 30 minutes between buses. No structure to block you from the elements. And though there are trees within the park, they do not hang over the chain link fence to provide shade from the blazing sun. 

Maggie Gordon, Houston Landing columnist, walks past a strip mall and gas station on Chimney Rock Road in the Gulfton neighborhood
Houston Landing columnist Maggie Gordon walks past a strip mall and gas station on Chimney Rock Road on Tuesday in Houston’s Gulfton neighborhood. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

I wouldn’t wait there. And neither did the woman I saw, standing about 30 yards north, with a baby strapped to her chest and a second child clinging to her left hand as they instead waited in the shadow cast by a tall tree in the street’s median. It was 8:55 a.m., and already 82 degrees, though my phone’s weather app noted that it felt more like 90 degrees. 

I noted this in my phone, the same way I had noted the Route 7 bus stop with a bench and no shade structure in Westbury two and a half hours earlier. I knew from the Census data I’d already pulled that 5.4 percent of Westbury residents use public transportation to commute to work; Gulfton had the highest rate of all Chimney Rock’s neighborhoods at 8 percent. A few more examples to illustrate the differences, and I’d be able to spot a trend. 

But the other examples never came. And I learned to adjust my original theory: It’s not that “nice” neighborhoods have nice bus stops, while neighborhoods with higher need do not; rather, if you are lucky enough to find a nice bus stop, it means you’re likely in a “nice” neighborhood.

Overall, it’s rare to find a stop with amenities; according to the 2023 Heat Stress Report by the Coalition for Environment, Equity, and Resilience, most of Houston METRO’s million-plus riders wait at stops “without shade or a bench for as long as an hour.” (METRO is working to enhance bus stops across the city as part of its METRONext Moving Forward plan, which calls for added shade structures, among other infrastructure investments.)

Reconceived notions

The realization that I needed to reconceive my preconceived notions felt like a validation of the mega-blister forming across the toes on my left foot. I’ve been to all these neighborhoods before. But so much of my experience in this city has occurred behind the wheel of the car, or in reaction to events that must be covered. After eight years in Houston, I can’t think of a time I ever visited Meyerland without instructions to cover storm damage. 

That feels nearly criminal to say. But I’m sure I’m not the only one. 

Before Tuesday, I never wound through these neighborhoods slowly enough to realize the street signs change to red in Bellaire. Why would I ever amble and ramble? Mosey and meander? (Limp, a little, by mile 11?) Especially when I can learn so much about any given neighborhood by glancing at a spreadsheet. 

  • A flowering crepe myrtle tree lines the driveway of a house on Chimney Rock Road
  • Construction crews work on Evergreen Street off of Chimney Rock Road in Houston
  • Maggie Gordon, Houston Landing columnist, waits to cross the intersection of Southwest freeway on Chimney Rock Road
  • Maggie Gordon, Houston Landing columnist, takes a selfie next to the Interstate 10 signs at the end of Chimney Rock Road

I know my answer: Because our lives are so much more than data points and superlatives. They’re the distinct color of the crepe myrtle blooms you picked out to plant during a family trip to the garden center. The sidewalk chalk in the driveway. The too-spare bus stop you rush to every morning. Our lives are the world we live in. And the world we live in defines our lives. 

The least we can do is take the time to really live in it, and to know it. To spot the things we love, and note the things we think we can fix. To be a part of something, rather than feeling apart from it. 

Share your Houston stories with me. We can start on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Or you can email me at

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

Maggie Gordon is a columnist who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund industry and education...