Something to remember as the glow of Metro's recent announcement wears off and the reality of many long months of construction sets in: We're way better off right now than Austin is. Hold on to that thought once the streets start getting torn up and the complainers are at full volume.
How much better off are we than Austin? Enough to make Austinite Suzy Banks jealous.
It's a steamy Friday afternoon, and I'm fighting for my life on Interstate 10 heading into Houston, battling never-ending construction and kamikaze drivers. Why? Because of jealousy: Houston, which I relentlessly belittle, as every loyal Austinite should, has a newly minted light-rail train system. My oh-so-progressive city doesn't. And although the sole route, the METRORail Red Line, is a mere 7.5 miles long--running from downtown to just south of Reliant Stadium--and serves only a snippet of the nearly 600-square-mile metropolis, it still manages to link a lion's share of the city's tourist hot spots. The lure of exploring Houston, of all cities, without a car is so irresistibly counterintuitive, I've decided to swallow my envy and spend some time train hopping.
The entire trip, from the beginning to the end of the line, at Fannin South, takes exactly the 32 minutes allotted. But for a visitor, the train's appeal lies not only in its zip (and air conditioning) but also in its destinations. So, on the return, I disembark a few times to do touristy things: once to shop, once to explore a blossoming urban neighborhood, and then to prowl downtown. I begin at the Museum District, which some people tout for its culture (must be the dozen or more high-brow institutions clustered here) but which I unapologetically laud for its gift offerings. Shops at both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Contemporary Arts Museum offer scads of artsy and edgy baubles, bags, books, and glassware. In the exhibit space at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, a few blocks away, I am astonished by the creative possibilities of dried lotus blossoms and pistachio shells; in its Asher Gallery, I am equally wowed by the scope of jewelry for sale, from the Flintstone-esque to the downright diaphanous.
Next stop: the Ensemble/HCC station. A group of businesses directly across the street--a music club, a record store, a taco bar, and a white-tablecloth bistro--hint at the renaissance the entire Midtown neighborhood has experienced in the past ten years or so. Half a block away is the trendsetting restaurant T'afia, whose credo to "eat where your food lives" has spawned a tiny Saturday morning farmers' market. (I get the good out of my 24-hour rail pass and return by train the next day to join locals stocking up on artisan cheeses, organic barbecue, botanical lotions, and good-looking produce and pretzels.)
By the time I'm back downtown, at the Main Street Square station, the place is subdued: The office workers have vanished, and the clubbers and the baseball fans headed to that night's game at Minute Maid Park have yet to appear. I stroll the streets, reveling in an unexpected perk of light-rail travel: walking. Although the selection of bars and restaurants right along the rail line is overwhelming (as are, frankly, the panhandlers), I eventually wend my way to Market Square, a patch of green flanked by some of the oldest surviving buildings in the city. I sit at a sidewalk table at La Carafe, a 50-plus-year-old bar that's still going strong (although the 147-year-old redbrick building appears a bit askew), and share a beer with my new companion, the green-eyed monster.