There were food trucks and pushcarts. There were families with baby strollers. There were line dancers, roller derby skaters and hundreds of bicyclists.
They were among thousands of Houstonians who took advantage of sunny weather at Sunday Streets, the city’s first major civic event since Hurricane Harvey. More than a mile of Washington Avenue was shut down to let pedestrians and bicyclists and, of course, happy dogs galore, meander around the usually hectic traffic corridor.
“Now, more than ever, we need to get back into our regular routine and enjoy our neighborhoods and our neighbors,” said Ellen Cohen, Mayor Pro-Tem and city council member. Cohen and other officials said doubts had been voiced about continuing the annual series of massive autumnal block parties after the area was devastated a month ago by floods.
In addition to Sunday’s activities, November’s Sunday Streets is scheduled for the Gulfton area and the year’s final festivities will take place in one of Houston’s hardest hit areas near the Barker and Addicks reservoirs.
On a makeshift stage set up in a parking lot on Washington, Cohen on Sunday was flanked by several officials including Councilman Michael Kubosh and Harris County commissioner Rodney Ellis.
Ellis illustrated the health and fitness underpinnings of the event by riding his bicycle. He showed up on stage in bike shorts, a red racing jersey and a blue cyclist’s do-rag.
“I’m so proud of the way people in Houston and Harris County and our region came together to help,” Ellis said of the response to Harvey. “Can you imagine? People in the middle of the night setting up a webpage to figure out who needed a boat, who had to come out of their house. That really says a lot about the can-do spirit of our region.”
Complete streets the goal
He added that Houston could take a page from the rebuilding of New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Crescent City took the opportunity to rebuild infrastructure to include bike paths, hiking trails and pedestrian walkways.
“Complete streets” are streets designed to allow safe access for all users, including pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities.
The Sunday Streets initiative, which is sponsored by the health insurance company Cigna, began in 2012 as a pilot program by the city’s health department as part of a strategy to get people moving and eat more healthy foods.
Two health enthusiasts the event was intended to attract brought their bikes from Pasadena to ride the trails around Buffalo Bayou before riding down Washington.
“This is my third ‘Streets’ event,” said Ishmael Mendoza, 31. He said he appreciates the opportunity to slow down in a neighborhood and really look at all the shops and restaurants that people usually just zoom by. “You get to see what they have to offer and it’s very family friendly.”
“From what I saw, it’s a lot of community stuff,” she said. ”There’s a lot of local stuff, so that’s neat.”
Nearby, at the intersection of Washington and Yale, about 20 merchants set up a street fair under white tents.
One was Steve Sellers, 56, who makes and sells women’s jewelry and rings from coins. “People love to play in the street and you don’t get a chance to do it that often,” he said. “They ride their bikes, they bring their dogs or their kids and they enjoy the day.”
He is one of the merchants who make up the First Saturday Arts Market, in the Heights. Officials contacted the market to invite vendors to participate in Sunday Streets.
Harvey exposed flaws
On the other end of Washington, near Westcott, 29-year-old Manny Lewis walked with friends and his dog, Juneau.
“I think we’re slowly coming back,” Lewis said. “If anything, I think it’s great that they’re getting back to normal instead of cancelling stuff like this.”
Lewis lives in the Sawyer Heights area and wanted to take Juneau for a long walk.
Nearby, Bike Houston set up a tent to answer questions about making Houston more bike and pedestrian friendly.
“Sunday Streets is an important event in general because it really shows people that our streets, our road infrastructure, belongs to people, not to cars,” said Douglas Waldrep, Development director of Bike Houston.
Waldrep said Hurricane Harvey may serve as a wake-up call to begin implementing the city’s bike plan.
“What Harvey did was it really exposed a lot of flaws when it comes to the infrastructure of Houston,” he said. “Now is the time to get some pilot projects going, start to test this out, see what it looks like and keep people moving.”