Well, yesterday we were thinking Houston was a mess, but today we think we'd like to return to stay a month. A beautifully landscaped park in a square across from a modern enclosed shopping mall Houston park

Here's the story: Sunday we drove into Houston on the back roads of Texas, keeping off the freeways. It took about six hours from Dallas, and we saw lots of small towns that were pretty well closed up: Old stores with plywood in the windows, not even a cafe or a gas station open for business. And some of these towns are actually county seats -- we saw the courthouses.

We were tired when we reached Houston, and not happy to find that our hotel is more than a little bit badly managed. First they sent us to one room which was not made up and then they changed us to another room which was also not made up so then they changed us back to the first room only they forgot to change it in the computer. So the next day the housekeepers made up the second room (which presumably was already clean) instead of the one we were actually using, and then they went home. Today they were going to surely get it all fixed but the adolescent at the front desk forgot to write down what room we were in to tell the housekeepers . And it was her fault and she was sorry. . those of you who've traveled a lot know that story!

We arrived on Sunday. On Monday we went to the museum only the museum was closed on Monday (that actually was our fault cause it was printed in the tour book) and then we decided to go to the Houston Ship Turning Basin Observation Deck, which we did read about in the tour book, only when we got all the way across town to Gate 8 at the Port of Houston the gate guard told us that the observation deck had been torn down about five years ago, and the state of Texas still keeps printing it in the tour book and she's sorry. Three modern skyscrapers soar into the blue sky over Houston Houston skyscrapers

So we returned to the hotel and did some more typing and stuff. But we did see some nice homes along our drive, not to mention an astonishing collection of hospitals.

Tuesday, however, we decided to go downtown, and at first we thought it was going to be a little bit like Monday because we got off the interstate at the exit labeled downtown only to find ourselves snaking along a little back street with a stop sign every two or three blocks and no other traffic -- clearly if you live in Houston, you know the Real Route Downtown. But actually it did get us there, and pretty soon we found some signs for the library and got to downtown.

Downtown Houston is what has got us excited. It's a brand new beautiful clean skyscraper city with underground tunnels and pedestrian overpasses and exciting architecture and heaps and heaps of prospertiy. It's divided into the city government district and the theater district and the county district and the convention center district and the historic district and has a number of parks and squares, and is chock full of yuppies who work and, increasingly, live downtown.

We stopped at the downtown library to ask directions -- it's a busy, thriving place which meets our requirements of having the books right out in the open so they are easy to reach (too many of the new buildings have lovely open spaces, with the bookstacks tucked away out of sight). A map of downtown Houston, showing districts in different colors, is bolted to a street pole Houston downtown map

For those of you who haven't visited Houston since, say 1995, your picture is not up to date. We hadn't actually stopped in Houston since 1970, the year we left Baton Rouge for California, so the amount of change was incredible. But we learned that over $4 billion has been spent by private developers in downtown Houston between 1995 and 2002, in addition to significant spending by various governmental entities.

One thing that might impress you -- it certainly impressed us -- is that downtown Houston is full of big maps mounted above the sidewalks showing where things are -- just like European cities. The same is true of the underground tunnels -- which are color coded red, yellow, aqua, green, blue, purple, and brown. The buildings were clean, the streets were clean, we didn't see any vagrants (unlike Dallas, where it seemed that's all we saw.) And the hustle and bustle persuaded us that whatever "downturn" hit Houston, the city has a bright future.

After our experiences seeing one city after another suffering from urban blight, it was really satisfying to both of us to see so much prosperity. We haven't done more than scratch the surface of Houston, but what we've seen has interested us strongly enough to make us want to come back and stay a while.

And, besides, we never did get to the art museum!