*This originally aired October 21, 2013
A first-time visitor to downtown Houston sees lots of Texas-sized pickup trucks on the streets. But what they don’t often see are big crowds of people on the sidewalks.
“They’re looking around going, this is such a massive city, I don’t see anybody out on the streets. And it’s because we’re all down here in the tunnel.”
Paralegal Linda Wilson works in the 75-story Chase Tower. But we caught up with her where the action really is. That’s down in the tunnels, a nearly seven-mile system of pedestrian walkways that connects over 70 buildings. Along the way you can grab some lunch, do some shopping, or even get your hair cut or your teeth cleaned.
Attorney Steve Reilley says the tunnel system is a lot like Houston itself.
“It’s big, it’s practical, it’s not real pretty sometimes, but it’s used by everyone.”
“And it’s air conditioned.”
“It’s air conditioned, yeah, the most important aspect to it.”
So what can you do to find your way through Houston’s climate-controlled labyrinth?
Meet the “tunnel lady.”
“So you’re going to go over to that map over there.”
Sandra Lord has a company called Houston Urban Adventures. She’s been taking visitors and residents on tours of the tunnels for over two decades.
And while on first glance the tunnels may just seem like a series of hallways for office workers, to Lord it’s a feast of sight, sound, and smell.
“I just want to let you know, as we walk along, you’re going to see all kinds of restaurants. There are more than 100 tunnel-accessible places to eat, and the food is from all over the world.”
Lord is wearing comfortable sandals along with earrings in the shape of Texas.
She tells the group how the first tunnels were built in the 1930’s. Over the years they evolved from dark, poorly-maps corridors to the lively public spaces they are today.
It’s sort of how Lord’s views of Houston changed.
“I came here from San Francisco in July of 1984, to visit someone for one month. I had no intention of staying. I was going to travel the world as a word processor. And I ended up staying.”
At first, she hated it.
“I hated the heat and the humidity. I hated the fact they hadn’t done any of their history. And I would complain to everybody, and after two or three years even I got tired of listening to myself complain, so I decided to do some research. And when I did I fell in love with it.”
Lord’s tours don’t just stay underground. Her tour groups also get a look at the Chase Tower sky lobby. Tours wrap up beneath the Sam Houston statue at the City Hall visitors center.
This story gained insight from sources in KUHF’s Public Insight Network ®. To become a news source for KUHF, go to www.kuhf.org/pin.