about galvestion and its history
Galveston is a sand-barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles south of Houston. It's an offbeat kind of place, with a fascinating history (Indian, pirate, Jewish), lovely Victorian buildings, great seafood, gorgeous beaches with hard-packed sand that's excellent for walking, and unbelievably friendly residents. It's also a premier birding destination, especially during the migratory seasons. Galveston's population, at least in the highly-populated East End, is also unusually and interestingly mixed, with people of different races, ethnicities, and income levels living in the same neighborhoods. That's the good news.
But public transit, apart from the tourist-oriented trolleys, is something of a disaster, and many residents and enterprises are obviously struggling. In some respects, it seems that Galveston has never fully recovered from Hurricane Ike of Sept. 2008, when a massive storm surge that reached 20 feet in places swamped nearly the entire island (including UTMB, which was closed for a year). Many restaurants and shops have markers showing how high the flood waters rose. The photo below was taken at my favorite Galveston venue, the Mosquito Cafe. The flood marker reads "Hurricane Ike High Water" (above the blue arrow) and "September 13, 2008" (below it). Further damage accompanied Hurricane Harvey in Aug/Sept. 2017, though in respect to Harvey, Houston fared far worse.
Historically, the most famous storm was the Great Galveston Hurricane of September 1900, a category 4 hurricane with a 15-foot storm surge that flooded the city, which was then about 9 feet above sea level. Almost all existing structures were destroyed and about 8,000 lives lost -- it is still considered the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. (The deadliest industrial accident, a 1947 chain reaction of ship explosions resulting from the detonation of ammonium oxide, occurred in nearby Texas City and also affected Galveston). In the hurricane's aftermath, a massive seawall was constructed and the island also raised. Click here for online exhibits (from the Rosenberg Library's Galveston and Texas History Center) on Galveston's early hurricane history including the amazing grade raising and building of the Seawall following the 1900 storm.
Here are some images related to the Seawall, which is great for biking as well as walking and lined with mosaic benches on different themes, and of the adjacent beach, which stretches for 27 miles along the Gulf. The first photos are a melange of two late afternoon biking excursions with one of the UTMB graduate students, Rebecca Permar (shown in the first photo). We are resting in front of the "Pleasure Pier," one of the few structures that exist on the beach side of the Seawall. The second set of photos were taken in the evening from Benno's, a seafood shack overlooking the Seawall. The start of crawfish season coincided with a visit from my West Falmouth neighbor, Susan Garland, and for two nights running we we gorged on platters of the small, spicy, boiled crustaceans.
The Seawall: biking, beaches, benches
poretto beach and pier
Here are some photos taken at/near Poretto Beach and its pier, an area close to the small house that I have rented. (It is about 4-5 blocks east of the house). The first set of photos were taken during a visit by Evelyn Keller early in my stay.
But don't be fooled by the blue skies; in Jan. and Feb., it was often rainy and foggy, with the fog sometimes lasting for several days at a stretch.
This photo is of recent visitors Gerard Meehan and Clare Wynter (from Luxembourg), who are being given an informal lesson in kite-flying.
And here is my Cape neighbor and avid birder, Susan Garland.
On the other side of Galveston lies the bay -- a forest of oil rigs interspersed with cruise ships. Downtown, there are some nice seafood restaurants on the water. In the second photo, a neighbor (whom I met while admiring her Mardi Gras house-decorating) had generously invited me to dinner at the Olympia Grill at Pier 21. It was a lovely warm evening, and we were able to eat al fresco. Shirley Dannhaeuser is a 30-year combat-medic veteran, who also has a degree in cultural anthropology and is married to the retired former chair of the Anthropology Dept. at Texas A&M. She told me that she and her husband Norbert recently moved from College Station to Galveston (with two of their 10 grandchildren) because Galveston was the only place as quirky as they were. She also invited me to dinner again just before I left and presented me with the most wonderful book about Galveston's history.
I have had other lovely encounters with local folks here including a trolley driver who offered to drive me to a movie theatre (not on the route) if no one else were on the bus at that point and a city bus driver who stopped when she spotted me on the street one evening to yell out, "how is your friend?" (meaning Evelyn).
Below, pics of Shirley at the restaurant on Galveston Bay and nearby statue, and of a later visit to the same area with Gerard and Clare.
ferry trip to the Bolivar peninsula (crystal beach), and visit to Galveston's far east end
Other recent visitors include my old Chinese friend Ting Chen (now living in Richardson, Texas) and her daughter Karen and grandchildren Max and Fifi (a ka Vivian), who live just outside of LA. Karen rented a car at the Houston airport, and we took advantage of it to explore the Bolivar Peninsula (which had been completely destroyed by Ike; note how high the house sits on stilts) and Galveston's undeveloped far east end, with its lagoon, ponds, and estuaries. The first photo is of our trip on the free Galveston - Port Bolivar ferry, which runs continuously 7 days a week, 24 hours a day (in major contrast to the bus service, which has been reduced twice since I came and now stops at 7:30 pm).
Evelyn and I also took the Bolivar ferry (as foot passengers) one evening and lucked out with the weather. In the second photo, Seawolf Park is on the left.
the galveston tree sculptures
Another impact of Ike was the death (either outright or as a later result of salt poisoning) of about 80% of the trees, including nearly all of the majestic oaks that once lined many streets. In an effort to make lemonade from lemons, local artists carved sculptures from some of the trunks. These sculptures are primarily located in the East End Historical District, a 50-block area that is bounded on the east by 10th Street, which is only two blocks from "The Dinghy," my rented beach house. Here are just a few of my favorites.
Galveston has the third largest Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S., which this year ran from Feb. 2 through Feb. 13. On the first Saturday, my Airbnb host, who lives only a block and a half from the parade route, always throws a large party with homemade jambalaya. Unfortunately, it rained both Mardi Gras Saturdays -- as it does many days -- but spirits still ran high. It is traditional to throw bead necklaces, mostly in the Mardi Gras colors of aqua, purple, and gold, to those lining the streets. (Houses as well as people are often strung with beads).
Beautifully restored Victorians can be found on the same block with houses in serious disrepair, a reflection of the fact that Galveston neighborhoods, and especially the East End, are racially and economically mixed. Low-income blacks and Hispanics live in the same neighborhoods, and often on the same streets, as well-to-do whites, and mansions and tiny homes can be found side-by-side. There is lots of interesting architecture, both residential and commercial, especially in the East End and Strand Historic Districts.
This last photo of the house that I've rented, "The Dinghy," which is just a few blocks from UTMB and Galveston Bay in one direction and the Gulf in the other.
Carless in galveston
Wandering the neighborhoods would be easier if there were continuous sidewalks. Galveston is the most pedestrian-unfriendly city I have ever visited. Thus, every homeowner gets to decide whether to have (and mostly pay for) a sidewalk in front of their house, resulting in a crazy patchwork of sidewalk and grass. And even when sidewalks exist, cars sometimes park across them. Moreover, the crosswalk signals at intersections fail to provide even a fit pedestrian enough time to cross. Apart from downtown, one quickly learns both to walk in the street and to ignore the signals. Pedestrians are simply not on anyone's screen: even the huge medical school/hospital complex that is UTMB has a parking (not a parking and transportation) office, and no one there has a clue if asked about alternatives (apart from carpooling and other car-based options). There is a local bus system, which anyone with a hospital badge can ride for free, but as far as I can tell, I'm the only UTMB employee who uses -- or perhaps even knows about -- it. Although the buses may not provide an efficient way to get places given the infrequent service and unreliable schedule, riding them it is a great way to engage with locals, both drivers and passengers, and experience a very different slice of Galveston life. And there is an excellent trolley system; the trolleys run almost the length of the Seawall with a spur to the downtown. They are frequent, fun, and inexpensive, but oriented to tourists. (The middle photograph of a campaign poster for Mayes Middleton, President of Middleton Oil Company, perhaps offers a clue as to why the local bus system, which serves Galveston's poorer residents, is so starved for resources).
the strand and downtown wharves
The Strand Historic District ("downtown"), which borders Galveston Bay, is full of interesting buildings, restaurants, cafes,and other attractions such as the Tall Ship Elissa and oil rig museum, and is very lively on nice weekends. At one of edge of the district are the wharves, where one can always see lots of cormorants, pelicans, and other birds (and on one occasion, while Gerard and Clare visited, dolphins) and is the site of my favorite Galveston venue, Katie's Seafood (where one must literally shoo away the pelicans to view and purchase the fish). The busy cruise ship terminal is also located in the Strand.
birding: west end, matagorda, san luis pass
Galveston is a fantastic place for bird-watching, I have been on several birding tours with a small company, "BirdingForFun" (above).
The first trip was to Galveston's largely undeveloped West End (where there is no seawall, and the houses are on tall stilts), the second an all-day raptor tour to Matagorda, a town/bay/county about 100 miles down the coast from Galveston, and the third another all-day trip to the San Luis Pass, at the western tip of Galveston Island, and Surfside Beach in Brazoria County. The day after the San Luis Pass trip, and thanks to Kristine Rivers (owner of BirdingForFun and an excellent naturalist-guide) and her husband Bobby, Susan Garland and I were also able to join an outing of the Audubon Society group in Galveston.
After a few pathetic attempts with my cellphone camera, I left the bird photography on BirdingForFun trips to Kristine, who is also a talented photographer. Below are a few non-bird photos from the West End and Matagorda trips, and also links to Kristine's terrific photos of the birds we saw.
First, Galveston's West End on a rather grey day:
For Kristine's bird photos from the West End tour, click here. The next few photos were taken at Matagorda. For the Matagorda bird photos, click here.
Here are a few photos taken during the San Luis Pass/Surfside trip. In the first photo, taken at lunch, Susan is to my left and Kristine and Bobby to my right.
And from the Audubon Society outing in Galveston (taken at Moody Gardens)
The following photos of a few of the birds seen during the Audubon outing were taken by avid birder and excellent photographer Jackie Farrell, past secretary of the Galveston Country Audubon group (posted with her permission).