Tearing down a myth

Originally published: November 2013

Voters in Houston, Texas, have rejected a proposal that would’ve spent millions to refurbish the aging Astrodome. As a result, it’ll probably be demolished.Houston Astrodome - aerial view

I have no desire to second-guess the voters, who opted for the choice that made the most sense to them. Still, I lament the passing of a building that’s both a literal and a cultural landmark.

The opening of the Harris County Domed Stadium in 1965 made national news at a time when Americans were in love with technology. The challenge laid down four years earlier by then-President Kennedy — to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade — was halfway to being achieved. At the New York World’s Fair that year, an 8-year old Jetsons-watching kid saw paraded before him a whole host of wonders that promised a future of health, prosperity, and ease.

If the Fair showed me the future, the Astrodome — so dubbed to honor Houston’s close ties to the space program — was here and now. Imagine playing (and watching) baseball indoors, in air-conditioned comfort. I loved the newspaper photos of the ballplayers under the glass roof, of the space-suited grounds crew. The sheer audacity thrilled me. Why did we build it? Because we could.

It was an audacious time. To live in America in the ’60s was to be steeped in the myth that technology would lead us all to better and happier lives. As a child I probably bought into it more than most people, but I know I wasn’t the only one.

Since then I, along with the whole culture, have learned to take a more realistic and pragmatic view of techology. But I miss the bold confidence, some might say the hubris, of that time. There for a while, we really believed. It was intoxicating.

It was 20 years before I finally made it to Houston and saw a game at the Astrodome. By then there were other domed stadiums, but I thought — and still think — that the Astrodome was special. The yellow and orange seats, the cross-hatched roof, the Texas-sized scoreboard, gave it a personality that’s totally lacking in other domed stadiums I’ve visited.

But even then the place looked frayed around the edges. Concession stands, restrooms, and other spaces were showing signs of wear and tear. So was the technology myth of the ’60s.

The year after my visit to Houston, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. At that moment, for me, the myth was shattered once and for all.

Now they’re going to tear down the Astrodome, or blow it up or whatever. When they do, I’m sure there’ll be a YouTube video and it’ll attract millions of views. I’ll be one of them, thinking about the demolition of a myth and hoping to recapture the way it felt, if only for a few minutes.

Update, May 2015: Authorities in Houston still haven’t decided whether to demolish the Astrodome or refurbish it. So it continues to sit, dishevelled and moldy. Last month about 25,000 Houstonians turned out for a 50th birthday party that had to be bittersweet.

Update, July 2019: No, they still haven’t decided what to do with the Astrodome. In 2017 it was designated a state antiquities landmark, so it can’t be demolished or even altered without approval from the Texas Historical Commission. Once a technological marvel, the elephantine structure is now a white elephant.

1 thought on “Tearing down a myth

  1. Pingback: Trying to make things better | Leading Technical Communication

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