South of Houston

Who knew that Houston had an underground? The Tunnel, as the befuddling, 6.3-mile subsurface promenade is informally known, has been with us since the mid-1930s, but it remains one of the city's least-trumpeted destinations. On purpose.

"The Tunnel was never intended to be an attraction. It was not designed; it just kind of evolved," says Sandra Lord, one of the people most familiar with the free-enterprise netherworld, which connects the Theater District with east and southwest downtown via foot traffic only. The Tunnel's raison d'étre is -- or has come to be -- the servicing of central Houston's 180,000-plus workforce; the corporate drones transform the area under the skyscrapers into a swarming hive of consumption between the hours of 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. weekdays. "Avocational historian" Lord is pretty free-enterprising herself. A former employee at one of the buildings above the Tunnel, she's morphed into a professional tour guide and unofficial keeper of Tunnel arcana. The so-called "Tunnel Lady" has been leading walking excursions through the system for "ten years and about 1,400 miles."

It's a public system -- well, quasi-public -- and a product of the same mindset that's made Houston the only major U.S. city without zoning laws: laissez faire with a twang. The Tunnel's not city-owned; it's operated by the corporate interests (oil companies, banks) that possess the pricey digs aboveground. While they can't stop you from visiting, they sure aren't out beating the bushes for new customers; these folks treat the Tunnel as a private perk/playground for their employees, and micromanage the little areas nestled in the bowels of their buildings like feudal barons on a one-upmanship binge. "There's more competition than cooperation," Lord admits. Ironically, one of the results of this rampant baronialism is a glut of pure peonage: fast food.

The smell of deep-fried fat permeates many of the concourses. "There are more places to eat down here than in any other part of the city," says Lord. "Of course, the food's not all gourmet." Chains like Arby's and McDonald's duke it out with delis and coffee wagons for the business of budget-conscious patrons. The predominant food courts share occupancy with various retail outlets, including a full-service Eckerd's and the world's first Pennzoil signature store -- where you can buy an oil filter or a Pennzoil-imprinted Etch-a-Sketch. Though self-contained, the Tunnel is a classic supply-and-demand society, unusual because the demand is so lunch-rush specific. And, yes, because the society's subterranean.

The Tunnel may be south of Houston, but it's no SoHo. It's more like a cross between a mall without kids and the ebbing/flowing passenger level at an airport. Sure, there are white-marble floors and a "waterwall" beneath Wells Fargo Plaza and a solid-gold ceiling at One Shell Plaza, but mostly these passages are governed by strict utilitarianism; they're about getting around without having to brave the heat or the rain. (Or the street people. "Downtown is the safest part of Houston, and the Tunnel system is the safest part of downtown," Lord claims.)

An exception to the function-over-form rule is the area known as "The Hub" beneath Bank One Center. Built in the fifties, it retains the architectural flourishes of that era: shiny linoleum, gaudy curves, sculptural neon, pre-Space Age spaciness. Indeed, at the center of this lovely little microverse are the so-called "Jetson Pillars" -- serving-cup-shaped columns that glow internally, as if they hold creamy vanilla milkshakes.

It's a charmed and charming spot -- and an utter surprise after two wearying miles of undistilled drudgery. My tour companion rightly pointed out that, on whole, the Tunnel evokes the bland futurism envisioned by author Philip K. Dick in "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," the story that inspired Paul Verhoeven's movie Total Recall. "The Tunnel needs to become a much funkier place," she added.

Lord doesn't see it that way. The seemingly tireless promoter (and self-promoter) approaches the Tunnel with the zeal of a Baptist preacher or a bass fisherman. "I'm a real booster," she says as she stoops to pick up a plastic fork some harried or careless diner has dropped. "Now why do people do things like that? The Tunnel's a beautiful thing, and I don't want to see it damaged."

-- Clay McNear

The Tunnel is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. For a free map, call 650-3022. For tour reservations, call 222-

 
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