Houston Under Ground
Written by Terry Ward
When Houston’s blanketing humidity drapes downtown, follow the locals underground to the city’s subterranean world. Below street level in climate-controlled coolness, the myriad shops and services of the Houston tunnel system give visitors a taste of local life.
In the diverse melting pot that is Houston, cultures from around the world converge. But the sprawling logistics of America’s fourth largest city can make your visit tricky to navigate. Looking for a starting point to gauge the pulse of this hard-working city? Follow the industrious locals underground into the downtown Houston tunnel system.
Many North American cities have tunnel systems. During the winter in northern cities such as Montr?al, Chicago, and Minneapolis, severe cold drives the population into subterranean networks. Houston’s web of nearly 11 kilometres of tunnels, however, was born from the heat. During the oppressive months of the deep Texan summer, the seared-to-a-crisp streets of downtown Houston are decidedly still. But some six metres below street level, in the climate-controlled world of the tunnels, a dynamic world waits.
“People in downtown Houston sometimes say ‘Where are all the people?’,” says Veronica Nielsen of the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Well, they are underground.”
More than 6,000 people live downtown, and many more commute into the heart of the city to work. What those people head underground for, of course, depends on their needs at any given time of the working day.
At its heart, the tunnel is very utilitarian. With the exception of the tunnel-accessible The Shops at Houston Center (which are open on Saturdays, too), shops and services in Houston’s tunnel network are open weekdays only – and only during business hours, which vary depending on the building.
Nearly every service imaginable can be found in the basements of the tunnel’s buildings and the narrow passages connecting them that run under the city’s streets – from dentists and print shops to gift shops selling Texan souvenirs. You can get your watch fixed or your cowboy boots shined. And the more than 100 tunnel-accessible eateries paint a portrait of a city with a rich cultural fabric, with everything from Vietnamese bubble drinks, kolache rolls from the Czech Republic, and Japanese sushi on the menu.
“The tunnel’s main mission is to be an amenity for the people who work downtown,” says Sandra Lord. “If you need to go to the dentist during your lunch hour, it can be worked into your schedule.”
But the tunnel also appeals to visitors to Houston in search of a glimpse of local life, says Lord, who is more commonly known around Houston as ‘The Tunnel Lady’; for 22 years, she has introduced visitors to Houston’s tunnel system during weekday tours through the underground world.
“Visitors to the tunnel get to see what an international city Houston is,” says Lord, “As you walk through at lunch hour, you see people from all over the world, wearing clothes from all over the world – it reflects the Houston culture in that it’s very international and cosmopolitan.”
During her tours, Lord shares everything from personal recommendations for finding the best sandwich to tunnel history.
Inspired by New York’s Rockefeller Center, the earliest tunnel in Houston’s system was constructed in the 1930s as a way to link three downtown movie theatres. New tunnels and buildings were gradually built over the years. But it was during the construction heyday of the 1970s and 1980s that the underground building boom really flourished.
Today, more than 77 buildings are linked by the system, which covers an amazing 95 city blocks. The tunnel links the theatre district, office towers, government offices, parking garages, and city hall. And a colour-coded system of signs and maps helps visitors find their way through the labyrinth.
With the exception of Wells Fargo Plaza, where you can enter the system directly from street level, access is through the various buildings via interior stairs, escalators, and elevators. In the wide-open food court areas in the basements of buildings you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in a shopping mall. But the tunnels that run under the city streets, connecting the basements of buildings, feel more like hallways, with everything from banks and dry cleaners to salons and optometrists lining the route.
The tunnels are complemented by a skywalk system, with new buildings being connected on a regular basis. Houston’s is the only tunnel/skywalk system in the world that is predominantly privately owned, with no central governing authority – the individual buildings linked by the network have control over their own particular portions of the tunnel.
And the system, says Lord, has its own ebb and flow. “There’s a rhythm to the tunnel,” she says. “It is essentially for the people who live and work down there, so it’s busy in the morning and busy in the evening.”
“At 10.30 in the morning, some of the tunnels feel like Fifth Avenue in New York,” says Lord, “but if you’re down there around 4pm, when they’re shutting down the restaurants, it can feel sort of eerie.” Security, however, is never an issue, as building owners place security guards throughout and use video cameras to monitor people traffic. In the evenings, access is not permitted.
And while there is so much to see underground, Lord says that one of the highlights of her tours is the chance to ogle Houston’s mesmerising skyline from two very different – and vertiginous – above-ground angles.
Lord leads her tour groups into two of Houston’s most awe-inspiring skylobbies – on the 60th floor of the Chase Tower (the tallest building in Texas), and the 58th floor of the Wells Fargo Plaza.
“People are most impressed by the size of Houston,” she says of the views, which take in the city from east to west and include uptown, the shipping channel, Minute Maid Park, and beyond.
But soon enough, it’s back to the underground world – a place that never seems to lose its subterranean lustre for Lord.
Asked what her favourite part of the tunnel is, she is quick to respond: “It’s wherever I am right now – there’s something special about all of it. It’s a special world all its own.”
Shops at Houston Center
1200 McKinney St.
The Tunnel Lady’s Picks
Sandra Lord shares five favourite tunnel destinations for food and gifts.
TUNNEL LADY TOURS
For 22 years, Sandra Lord, a.k.a. ‘The Tunnel Lady’, has been leading visitors from around the world through Houston’s tunnel system, imparting historical information and sharing local lore and her own personal advice for experiencing the city’s highlights. “On any given day, I’ve had people from Germany, Delaware, India…,” she says. “They come from absolutely everywhere.” Tours last for two hours and are scheduled on weekdays at 9.30am, 1.00pm, and 4.30pm. US$15 per person (one child, age 3-12, is free with two paying adults).