I’m not sure why I didn’t save anything from my old blog, but I did keep this piece. It made sense to me back then, and now, 1,500 miles and a year removed from this post, it still says something to me, though I don’t know what. But here it is:
At lunch today I chatted with a woman from Toronto, who told me that her initial impressions of Houston were quite negative: “All you see between the airport and the office is strip malls. I thought I’d ended up in hell.”
Perhaps I’m odd (yeah, I know, that should be obvious by now), but I’m fascinated by strip malls. To me, they are a microcosm of the aspirations and failures of American culture, a melting pot of the kitsch and despair of capitalism, but also a mark of its success. (That was a horribly pretentious sentence, but bear with me.)
Last night I drove home along State Highway 6, which skirts the western edge of Houston. I started in an upscale neighborhood of Missouri City, where huge homes lined an artificial lake, and then I drove through business parks and some pretty rundown neighborhoods as I made my way through Sugar Land and Richmond and north toward Jersey Village. The common denominator was the strip mall, the contents of which describe pretty well the makeup of each area.
Springing up in former rice and sugarcane fields, the recently installed strip malls in Missouri City all had the same orange brick facades, with arched windows, concrete capstones, and tiled roofs. The tenants were predictable: Starbucks, Jamba Juice, nail salons, and jewelry stores. But as I traveled northwest, the brick faded as the architecture receded from the present to the 1950s and earlier, and the road became more patched and rough.
Sugar Land, home district of Tom DeLay (there, I’m being political, OK?), lay perhaps in between, somewhere in the 1970s, I suppose. A large banner congratulated Sugar Land on being named one of America’s top places to live. The south side of town was all landscaped strip malls, as if someone had been more careful about placing their barbershops and taquerias, but time receded further on the north side of US 59 (officially Senator Lloyd Bentsen Freeway, but no one calls it that). A garish sign announced the SteaKountry Buffet in an otherwise deserted strip mall.
In Richmond, one peeling white strip mall contained Tailor’s Touch Menswear, a store marked “Lingerie and Adult Novelties” in violet neon, and a shabby law office, in front of which was a battered Astro Van painted with block letters: “Divorce Quick.” If you think about it, you could pick up your wedding tux; then buy something to spice up your marriage as the passion fades; and failing that, head next door for a pain-free divorce. All without getting back into your car and leaving the parking lot.
Heading north toward Bear Creek Park, I came across a strip mall that clearly at one time had held several stores, which had by now been swallowed up by El Patron Western Wear. This was a store celebrating norteño culture, that curious fusion of rural Mexican culture and American cowboy style. It’s difficult to say which came first, though, but the style results in strangely compelling tejano music heavy on accordions, along with latinos dressed like Hank Williams on a bad day. In its way, the strip mall presaged the absorption of latino culture into middle America; neither would emerge quite the same. (Not coincidentally, norteña star Selena met her demise in a motel not far from here.)
Across from the Harris County Courthouse Annex was a strip mall with a pawn shop and 24-hour bail bonds, bordered by a Sticker Stop, where you could get your emissions and safety inspection. A lonely Karate studio stood boarded up, a “For Lease” sign pasted over a white silhoutte of a boy doing a roundhouse kick. As I passed, I nearly ran over a group of African American teens, who sprinted across all six lanes of the road to reach the Burger King on the corner of the strip.
If you blinked in Copperfield, you would think you were back in Missouri City: more orange brick, more fast food, more nail salons.
Making its way northeast into the “Piney Woods” that stretch from here to Louisiana and beyond, highway 6 turned into FM 1960, which passes within a couple of blocks of the Houston LDS Temple. Across the street from the temple was a strip mall containing a Kroger supermarket, a coffee bar, and the Nauvoo Bookstore, among others. The bookstore seemed out of place on many levels. The temple is located in a very upscale neighborhood (only the best real estate for the Savior, apparently), but the demographics of the people going into the bookstore didn’t fit the area: elderly folks in sagging polyester, heavyset women in floral prints with lots of kids, and young boys and their pregnant wives stood out among the Lexus-and-latte crowd. Unlike the norteños, the templegoers seemed to stubbornly refuse to fit in, to adapt. Like an episode of Happy Days, the look of the era was there, but the attitude was all wrong; the Mormons seemed stuck in a 1950s that never existed.
As the sun dropped behind the loblolly pines, I stopped at a convenience store in a dilapidated strip mall just outside my neighborhood. A Middle Eastern man whose nametag read “Hassan” stood behind a counter, upon which rested a stack of shrink-wrapped “Playboy’s Vixens.” I bought my diet Dr. Pepper and headed out the door. Two boys stood by their bicycles, counting up their change to see how much candy they could buy. I looked up and noticed a newer strip mall right across the street, with blond bricks. I wondered how I had missed it.