Saturday, April 29, 2023

From the Archives: Washington Avenue, Houston, 1981 (TX 09)

In the long-ago earlier life, my wife and I moved to Houston, Texas, in 1980. The big city! There was so much to see and explore! 

Having a real job and some income, I bought a used Rolleiflex 3.5E camera at Southside Camera Center (long gone). What do you do with your first medium format camera? Well, start looking for interesting urban decay topics. Back then, Houston was full of grunge and decay. (Some critics say Houston is still full of grunge, but we better not go there this time.) As you long-term readers can see, I have been doing this decay topic for a long time. 

My 1956 Rolleiflex 3.5E camera with 75mm ƒ/3.5 Xenotar lens (with fantastic resolution) - why did I stupidly sell it when I though digital might be the next great thing?

Washington Avenue runs approximately east-west out of downtown Houston, Texas, through the former Sixth Ward. Washington Avenues in US cities are typically older streets that run through well-established and often run-down neighborhoods. This one fit the pattern in 1981. Here are some samples. Please click any frame to see it enlarged.

Turney Motor Company occupied a 1920s gas station building. You could drive a Chevrolet Nova for $35/week - it says so!

The building is gone, and the lot provides parking for the trendy Ivy House cocktail bar next door. Washington Avenue was not very trendy in 1981....

Houston Junk, now possibly Rose Recycling on Center Street
Time for a 50¢ beer, corner of Center and National Streets
Historic 1872 Glenwood Cemetery, an oasis of green and peace in the city
June 1980 view of Houston from Glenwood Cemetery (Kodak Panatomic-X film, Nikkormat camera, 28mm ƒ/3.5 lens)

Early 20th century brick commercial building, 1722 Washington Avenue 

In the mid-20th century, all American cities had commercial buildings of this type. The families who ran the shops or small businesses often lived in apartments on the second floor. White flight to the suburbs after World War II destroyed many traditional and mixed inner city communities that would have depended on local shops in such buildings. 

This building is gone. A modern town house/condominium is in its place. At least in Houston, the cycle is turning and professionals are returning to live within the city. 

Early 20th century wood cottages Washington Avenue. 

This was one of my early examples of photographing dilapidated houses. This building is gone, probably demolished years ago. A large framed print of this scene has hung in my house for four decades, but the print has changed colors and faded.  

This handsome old fire station is still extant
Gent with his laundry, 1712 Washington Avenue

This is another example of an early-20th century commercial building. Note the formerly handsome tall arched windows. The lower floor had ventilation transoms. 

I took these photographs on 120-size Kodak Vericolor II Film with my Rolleiflex on September 5, 1981. The colors are a bit muted, but all in all, the film survived the decades quite well. In those days, you could buy 120 film in many camera stores, but professional emulsions, like Vericolor II, came from larger stores with a film refrigerator. This roll probably came from Southside Camera Center on Bellaire Blvd.

Thank you for joining me for this look back to 1981. I also wrote about Main Street in 1982 (click the link).

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Downtown Houston in November 2022 (TX 08)

In November (2022), I wandered around downtown Houston. Everything is so modern, big, and overwhelming, it was hard to find the type of subject matter I like. Thanksgiving Day was gloomy but also uncrowded compared to normal. Here are a few scenes from the area near the Amtrak station and around Buffalo Bayou just north of downtown.


Bail bonds, a ubiquitous part of the American justice system, 1418 Washington Avenue

I found some 1981 negatives of Washington Avenue. Stand-by for a future post.

Houston's decidedly uninspiring Amtrak station (250mm ƒ/5.6 Sonnar lens)
Waiting for the train, Houston Amtrak station

Houston once had three passenger railroad stations. Only one remains, the magnificent 1911 Union Station. The main concourse of the former railroad station has been reused as a clubhouse, cafe, team store, office space, and lobby at Minute Maid Park (previously known as Enron Field until the financial scandal). They did a superb job of refurbishing the elegant entry hall. 

Today, Houston, once the railroad hub of the southern United States, has one uninspiring Amtrak station. The waiting room looks like a bus station. But, if you are energetic, you can take the sleeper all the way to Los Angeles. 

I arrived at the Amtrak station before the eastbound train was scheduled to arrive. When it rolled into the station, it was pulling two private rail cars at the end of the Amtrak cars. Then another locomotive pulled these two private cars away and shunted them to a siding, connecting them to a third private car. The elegant way to travel.

Downtown and Buffalo Bayou

Apartment blocks east of the Gulf Freeway (I-45) (250mm Sonnar lens)

Houston now has hundreds of residential units downtown. Compared to the 1980s, when I recall the downtown being mostly commercial, the city has become trendy.  

Buffalo Bayou and University of Houston Downtown (Panatomic-X film, 50mm Distagon lens, orange filter, 1/8 ƒ/11.5)

The University of Houston Downtown occupies the 1930 Merchants and Manufacturers Building. The building is over the site of Allen's Landing, where the Allen brothers landed and established the city of Houston in 1836. The bridge in the distance is the Main Street viaduct.

“Main Street viaduct, Houston, Texas, 1910,” Houston Waterways, accessed April 5, 2023,

Under the Main Street viaduct (80mm Planar-CB lens, 3-sec. ƒ/4.0½)

This 1910 concrete arch bridge carries the tram as well as cars over Buffalo Bayou. Despite the no camping signs, a group of homeless were camped there. They shared space with Muscovy ducks, who waddled around without concern. 

Waiting for the tram, view south towards downtown Houston (50mm Distagon lens)
Victorian House on Hamilton Street - being moved? (80mm Planar-CB lens, 1/15 ƒ/4.0½)

Third Ward

The MacGregor Tire Shop - but I'll pass (80mm, yellow filter, 1/30 ƒ/8)

Fourth Ward

No shopping today, 1122 West Grey (Fuji Acros film, Leica M2, 50mm ƒ/2 Jupiter-8 lens, 1/250 ƒ/5.6)

There are still bits and pieces of an older Houston on West Grey, but most of it has been redeveloped with modern condominiums. I have negatives from this area from the early 1980s when it was more "earthy." Another project to scan....

Corrugated metal warehouse, 1515 Spring Street (Panatomic-X film, 80mm Planar-CB lens)

This interesting warehouse and the store above are remnants of older structures in the Fourth Ward. Not many are left. I will write more about the wards in a future article.

Texas Medical Center

Room with a view: Greenbriar Drive and the Houston METRORail (250mm Sonnar lens)

The area south of the Texas Medical Center is commercial and rather uninspiring. But hundreds of apartments and temporary residential units cater to medical patients. Huge parking lots serve thousands medical staff. But it is a food desert if you can't stomach fast food. Fortunately, Rice Village and its amazing restaurants are only two miles away. 

The METRORail tram can take you to the Medical Center, Hermann Park, the Museum District, with its 19 museums, or all the way downtown. METRORail is free if you are over 70.

Port of Houston

The Port of Houston is an immense economic engine for Texas and the USA. It is the second largest port in Dollar terms in the USA, after Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach. Annually, some 22,000 deep-draft ships come in and use the 50-mile Houston Ship Canal and the Port's complex of wharfs, terminals, and refineries. The Houston Ship Canal needs regular (almost constant) dredging from its opening at the Gulf of Mexico mouth at Galveston, across Galveston Bay, and up the Buffalo Bayou. My 1981 car (still in use) came in through Houston. 

Take the free tour of the Port of Houston. Cruise right by these immense freighters. 

This ends out somewhat random wandering around Houston in November and early December. Thank you all for riding along! Click any photograph to see it enlarged. Most of these photographs are from my Hasselblad 501CM medium format camera.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

The Rio Grande Valley and the Road North (TX 07)

The Rio Grande Valley is the floodplain formed by the Rio Grande River near its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. The valley spans the border of Texas and Mexico and is a rich cultural and natural habitat region. Brownsville, at 25.9º N, is the southernmost city in Texas. It is at the same latitude as Miami. But Key West, at 24.55º N is the southernmost USA city. 

We drove to the Rio Grande Valley for the fantastic birding. Being warm, humid, and far south, many semi-tropical species from Mexico and Central America occasionally nest in or visit the Rio Grande Valley. It is one of the world's major birding and butterfly hotspots. The annual Rio Grande Birding Festival, attracts participants from all over the world. 

We missed the festival by one week, but that meant we were able to get motel rooms with no difficulty.

A Quick Look

Room with a View: America the Beautiful - McAllen version

The cities of McAllen and Brownsville have historical origins, but most of the urban area is modern strip mall, asphalt, and commercial - pretty ugly.

The Wall, West Military Road, Mission, Texas (90mm ƒ/4 Elmar lens)
Bollard fencing

We were utterly astonished to round a curve on West Military Highway in Mission and see that Trump's Wall is still under construction. This was serious work with major earth work underway on the south (river) side of a tall concrete retaining wall topped with steel bollard fencing. This is a major expense, but I am glad that Mexico is paying for it. (We all know how that absurd fantasy worked out.) 

How will they handle streams, runoff, and animal corridors?

South of the wall, farm fields occupy the floodplain. We could not see the Rio Grande River from the wall. 

Mesquite tree, Resaca de la Palma State Park, Brownsville (Hasselblad, 80mm, Tri-X 400 film)
Resaca de la Palma State Park, Brownsville

The Resaca De La Palma State Park & World Birding Center is one of the fantastic birding environments in the Rio Grande Valley. The park includes the largest tract of native habitat in the World Birding Center network. We did not see too many unusual birds but spent a nice half day walking the trails. 

After a few days, a major rain front passed through the Valley and we reluctantly headed back north to Houston. 

No more gas? 6th Street, Kingsville (Fuji Acros film, Leitz 35mm ƒ/2 Summicron lens)

Route 77 goes through some rather empty countryside. I was surprised at the number of abandoned gas stations. Gas stations that can't make money in Texas?? These pumps have the same Cyclopean alien look that I have photographed in Mississippi. Lost in Space or in Texas?

Riviera Food Store, 6266 S. Hwy. 77, Riviera, Texas (Hasselblad 80mm)
The trumpet player, Riviera Food Store, 6266 S. Hwy. 77, Riviera (Hasselblad 80mm)

If you want a snack, supplies, or a giant ceramic pot, stop at The Riviera Food Store. 

A Couple of Color Examples

Mr. Trump's toilet being delivered! Does it have a telephone?
The colors can be cheerful in the Rio Grande Valley - great visuals (and not too subtle)

This ends out brief excursion to South Texas. Do visit the Rio Grande Valley. But beware, it is a long drive. 

The square photographs are Kodak Tri-X 400 film from my Hasselblad 501CM camera. The rectangle frames are Arcos 100 film from my Leica M2. Thank you all for riding along.

Friday, April 7, 2023

The Road South through Ranch Country, Texas (TX 06)

Heading south from Corpus Christi, two main roads lead through the lonely countryside to the Rio Grande Valley. You can drive US 281 south from Alice or US 77 from the western outskirts of Corpus Christi. We drove south on 281 and returned north via 77. They lead you through seemingly empty terrain with few towns and, from what I could see, not many cows. This was King Ranch country. What happened to the cows?

No gas here, Omega Mart, FM665, Petronila, Texas (50mm ƒ/2 Jupiter-8 lens)
Farm on FM665 east of Alice, Texas (50mm ƒ/2 Jupiter-8 lens, 1/60 ƒ/8, yellow filter)

The countryside becomes rather empty east and south of Corpus Christi, but there are gas plants, pipelines, and some pumping machines. 

The Spot, 281 Business, Alice, Texas. No coffee here (Jupiter-8 lens, yellow filter)

Heading south out of Alice on 281, you drive and drive. One of the towns along the way is Falfurrias. No coffee shop there, either.

Christmas store, St. Mary's Street, Falfurrias, Texas (Jupiter-8 lens, yellow filter, 1/250 ƒ/5.6)

Duplex, St. Mary's Street, Falfurrias (Jupiter-8, yellow-green filter, 1/250 ƒ/5.6)

Felfurrias had some creative and very colorful artwork on some of the buildings. Here are a couple of examples from my Samsung phone.

Falfurrias Chamber of Commerce
Falfurrias Chamber of Commerce

I took the black and white frames on Fuji Acros film with my 1962 Jupiter-8 50mm ƒ/2 lens. It is a Soviet adaptation of the pre-war Zeiss 50mm Sonnar lens. Mine is fully coated, and Brian Sweeney adjusted it to work correctly on Leica cameras. Leica lenses were based on a slightly different focal length standard than Soviet lenses, so the Soviet lenses need minor adjustment to focus properly on Leica thread-mount bodies. I like the results from this lens. Camera people write about the special magic of Sonnar lenses. For my type of documentation, I am not sure if I see any unique magic. But regardless, stopped down to ƒ/5.6 or so, it is high resolution and renders very well.

Next article: the Rio Grande Valley

Saturday, April 1, 2023

The Central Texas Coast - Freeport to Corpus Christi (TX 05)

Hook'ers' Bait Shop, Hwy 332, Freeport, Texas (Rolleiflex 3.5E, Tri-X 400 film)

The Texas coast south of Galveston is a complicated terrain of wide bays, barrier islands, and inlets. In Texas, these openings between the sea and the bays are called Passes. Most are used by fishing and other commercial boats. The entire coast is famous for its birding because the wetlands and bays attract semi-tropical species rarely seen in other parts of the continental USA. 

Decades ago, I went in and out of some of the ports, like Port Lavaca, on crew boats. One day I'll scan some of those photographs. 

We will start in Freeport and work our way south. 

No gas any more, Tivoli, Texas (Acros film, 35mm ƒ/2 Summicron lens)
Fixer-upper house, Tivoli
Fixer-upper house 2, Tivoli

Tivoli is an unincorporated community in Refugio County, Texas. It is on Hwy 35 a short distance north of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. If you have been to Aransas, you probably zipped through Tivoli. I was surprised to see a street where most of the houses were abandoned. Did a developer buy the street?

Farmhouse near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Note the tar paper siding.

Aransas NWR is south of San Antonio Bay. The roads there are lonely and have a few abandoned old farmhouses. If you have never been to the refuge, definitely go. But be prepared for mosquitoes.  

Between Houston and Brownsville, Corpus Christi is the biggest city on the Gulf of Mexico coast. It sits on a wonderful location facing Corpus Christi Bay. 

Have a wee on the beach, North Beach, Corpus Christi (Fuji Acros film)
America the Beautiful (architecture), Surfside Blvd., Corpus Christi (Hasselblad, Tri-X 400 film)

North Beach is a rather cheesy tourist area. We stayed in a motel built up on stilts to avoid hurricane storm surge. Off season, the only food at North Beach appears to be at gas stations, so we drove across the bay into  the city.

Morgan Avenue, Corpus Christi
America the Beautiful (strip mall land), Morgan Avenue, Corpus Christi
House (bunker?) on Morgan Ave., Corpus Christi

The historic part of Corpus Christi and the business district have a beautiful setting on Corpus Christi Bay. But in my opinion, most of the city is an ugly mess of highways, urban sprawl, strip malls, fast food joints, and boring architecture. It's Americana extreme. It's a real shame.

Most of the photographs are from Fuji Acros film. I used my Leica M2 camera with 50mm and 35mm Summicron lenses.