Cities, United States

Seeing it for myself – Houston,Texas

Johnson Space Center

 

Growing up in the northeast, watching “Paris, Texas”, “From Dusk Till Dawn” “Judge Roy Bean,” etc.  getting news from the NYTimes, it was easy to write Texas off as that crazy place that we can’t ignore. A strange family member who we have to tolerate in our union of fifty states. In Norway, around the time I visited in 2015, they were using the term “Texas” to mean both crazy and big, as in “her book sale went Texas!”

Texas has long fascinated me. When I was a kid, my dad got me a book about Texas that I would look at over and over again, and it’s such a large state in every sense of the word, I couldn’t ignore it if I tried. An article written by Garrison Keillor talked about how the Dallas-Fort Worth airport is larger in terms of square footage than Manhattan.  Everywhere you look, there’s things written about Texas. It’s big, vast actually, and growing in scale in so many categories.  It’s powerful, rich, and yes, it’s kinda hard to avoid.

Minute Maid Park

 

I had sort of wanted to see it, but some of its politics and the vast distance from everywhere I’ve lived made it a remote destination, like Paris or Japan – – one day I’d probably go there, but not sure when.  Just enough certainty in my intentions so that I’m likely to get there at some point, so I don’t really need to think about the whys & wherefores, or actually making plans. 

And whatever impressions I’d gotten second-hand, I believe in seeing things for yourself.  You must experience places in person and ideally on foot to get a better sense of the picture. And especially because Texas generates a lot of controversial and personal “takes” and that makes it hard to trust what you read. A few years ago work sent me to India, for example and it’s easy to see that if you expect chaos and poverty, and if that’s what you’re looking for, the bias will be confirmed.  And if you want to see a bunch of beef-eating, truck-driving, red-voting, blue-blooded Americans in Texas who jes hate big guv’ment but luv politicking, I guess you’ll find ’em.  But really, you can find them anywhere.  I live in Wisconsin, and we’ve got more than a few scenery-chewing characters of our own holding public office.

When I was traveling through India, I experienced the whole thing at lighting speed from the back of various taxi cabs or airplanes. My first sample of Texas was also a really limited exposure, only a short business trip to Houston and mostly experienced in a convention center with a bunch of people from the Midwest, but I did get to spend a bit of time with some “boots on the ground.”

dismantling the convention

 

The first thing I noticed was how friendly everyone was. I didn’t meet too many locals, but the ones I did meet were all very nice. I would say they were sort of rough but friendly. I think that is the best way to describe them. Hard scrabble and outgoing. I liked them all. Everyone seemed sincere, and I liked that.

 

This was apparently an oil refinery-sized coffee plant for Maxwell House (!)

The other big standout was just how much good food there was. I had read that Houston is a great town to eat in, they weren’t kidding. There were restaurants and cafes all over, many of them trendy and the more old school joints were all very good. I ate well the whole time I was there. Everywhere was pretty cool that I saw. The retrofitted gas-station-turned-cafe with third wave beans, the old school Mom ‘n’ Pop- style place that hasn’t changed since the 30s and still makes great ground steak burgers; and all staffed by very nice people. And diverse. Everyone I saw was different from everyone else. Every race, age, gender and sexual orientation seemed to be there, mingling comfortably. It was a really nice thing to see how integrated it all seemed.

I was struck by the humidity and the heat, I am always caught off guard by that.  And flattened.

I was struck by how green and swampy it all was, I knew the Bayou city wasn’t going to be sage and juniper like El Paso or that part of the state, but I still expected it to be more arid than it was. There were palms and large leafy plants and it felt very much like the last time I traveled for work, India. I was struck by how similar it felt to India. It wasn’t just the green and the heat, though that helped. It was the sprawl and the urbanity. Houston is the largest city in the US without any zoning laws. So there would be an old stockyard turned hamburger shack next to a gas station next to a bunch of newly constructed houses next to a light rail station.
There were skyscrapers dropped at random and housing and fields just randomly dropped in between, meanwhile the endless highways snaked in all directions through it all. It flowed well, it felt organic, not planned strictly, but just popped up helter-skelter, like so many cities in the developing world.

 

I have read many articles about cities, and many say different things. There is talk of the Portland Oregon Model of city building, which is strictly zoned and tries to reduce sprawl. I haven’t been to Oregon (I’d go partly to see Milwaukie, named for the city I live in) and would mostly want to see the forests & coast, but also to get an idea of that model of urban planning. The other city of the future, that some say will determine how so many American cities will look, is Houston.

 

 

I haven’t really seen most of the sprawling Sun Belt towns. But I know that’s where everyone and their dog are moving. I know as people flee the taxes of the big northern cities they are landing in Texas, and I know the trend is not ending. Dallas metro area is now the second largest in the country, sprawling so far that Fort Worth is basically touching it.

 

Houston is an energy city, then and now. And with energy comes money and migration. Everyone is there. I saw all ethnicities, from Korean grocers to halal butchers. Everyone seemed to have come from somewhere, or they’re from Houston, left, and found their way back again.  In the 70s it was The City, in the midst of the oil crisis that proclaimed they would “Drive 70 and freeze a Yankee”. That legacy as an oil capitol stands in the many towering skyscrapers, lit up against the night sky. It felt a bit like Dubai or something, some other entrepot city built on oil in a harsh climate. I kept being struck by the vastness and the skyline, it impressed me, maybe more than in other towns, due to the stark contrast it had with the otherwise low-rise sprawl.

 

 

What did surprise me, was not that there’s a lot of uncontrolled growth and a chaotic smattering of buildings all over. I sort of knew that from reading, but experiencing it drives the point home. What did catch me off guard is that there is anything old left. I figured they would have torn it all down, but the growth is asymmetrical, and random, so there are things that are new plopped next to older buildings or in some cases abandoned ones. I guess when there is no issue with space (it isn’t a condensed island like NYC) that you don’t have to raze buildings to make room for more, you just build them wherever there is room. I have read that Houston is twice as sprawling as Los Angeles despite being significantly smaller in terms of population. Given the dystopian depiction of LA’s sprawl, this was hard to believe, but riding on the freeways it was easy to see that this might really be the case.

Houston’s port is one of the largest in the country, the international airport flies to more locations in Mexico than any other in the nation, and outside of NYC it has the most theater seats. The downtown is easy to get around, the museum and theater districts are pretty close to each other, there are restaurants and galleries thrown into the mix, and the stadiums are all within walking distance of the downtown, not that you would walk. The light rail is modern, clean, and efficient. It seems pretty easy to navigate if you’re from out of town.

I was able to get to a few older places in the city, one of which has been there since the 30s, and it felt sort of small town and how I imagine the south, with a magnolia on its lawn and an old time Coca-Cola machine and sweet tea on the menu, but across the street were brand new condos. Everyone seemed friendly, everyone was surprised that a northern boy like me would venture there, which puzzled me, wasn’t everyone coming there?!

 

Apart from the conference itself, I was also able to visit Rice University where I learned more about their admissions, which is an important part of my job role. Rice is a remarkable school, 6:1 faculty to student ratio, one of the top schools in the nation, and still relatively affordable. Sadly, they have had to raise their tuition as their lower tuition was apparently a turn off to top tier students who felt it couldn’t be as good as it was if it was affordable; the way we view colleges and approach the topic I think would be worth an essay on it’s own. I had heard of Rice for many years, my mother has been involved in higher ed for most of her career and so had always said great things about it (and their mascot is an owl which I think is nice). So I’d heard of the school, and it was nice to see it for myself. The campus is lovely and the students seemed friendly and enthusiastic about the school and it struck me as a diverse campus. It is not uncommon in my current position as a college counselor to think about colleges and the great “what if” I had gone to such and such place instead. Rice was great, I think it’s an excellent school, and yet I know I wouldn’t have done well there. I think being in a big city as a student would have been a distraction and I can’t hack the heat. That isn’t to detract for those who have more discipline and focus and don’t mind the heat, I think it’s a great school across the board, but I was glad to learn that about myself too.

 

I don’t really have any one Eureka moment. I can’t say I understand Texas now. I can’t tell you I have the answers and the future of America is being decided in the city of Houston and not in the former giants of the north. I know that the unrestrained building is not a sustainable method for building a city, and that the oil will run out, and that building in a flood plain in an era of increased hurricanes seems like a bad idea. But I live in a city with a spiking gun crime rate and while I love this town, is still slowly shrinking in population.  The housing market is depreciated. I pay a fair deal of taxes but see roads that wouldn’t look out of place in a documentary about the Battle of Fallujah, and at least there you could shoot at the drunks swerving into your lane.

 

Space shuttle at the Johnson Space Center

Milwaukee has its charms, by some accounts it’s the best city for coffee in America (beating Seattle) and is among the top for most indie restaurants per capita, but it also has snow and an abysmally high poverty rate, evictions and a good amount of child prostitution.  So I can’t rightly judge those who want to live in a sunny place buzzing with opportunity and prosperity, with no state taxes and cheap housing you can build with almost no regulatory hurdles.

I guess the takeaway is, we can’t view a place solely from a lens of its politics. I don’t believe that the governor of Texas represents the majority of the folks I met. We can’t stereotype a place’s people based on whatever local politician is currently grabbing media attention.  I was struck by how many very intelligent people I met there, including a former NASA engineer.

How many rocket scientists are usually associated in the Texas stereotypes? I’m from NY and I’m not remotely associated with the lifestyle of the Sopranos, Brooklyn hipsters, Westchester snobs or frenetic traders on Wall Street.  Where I grew up feels culturally more similar to the Midwest than to the East Coast bastions of money-making and style.  But when I’m out-of-state and tell someone I’m from New York, that’s probably how they would imagine me. But the thing is, growing up, I could pull in radio from Ontario on some days by the lake, and was physically closer to Toronto and Ottawa than New York City. I’m hardly Joe NYC.

In Texas, sure I expected a lot of ten-gallon hats and leather boots.  While I did see one delightfully adorned white-mustached oil baron-looking gentleman, I saw just as many fashionably dressed or comfortably- and athletically-dressed people of every race as I did anyone else. Despite its history and some of the political views, some say Houston is one of the best cities for Black Americans in the nation, it certainly can’t be worse than Milwaukee, which is still the most segregated, or Chicago, where the life expectancy discrepancy between the poorest Black neighborhood and the white one is almost thirty years. I met a good deal of Black people in Houston, they loved it there. Some had even lived elsewhere and decided to come back. 

So I guess when you hear about Texas, remember, we live in a complicated, nuanced world made up of individuals who are equally complex and nuanced. We can’t just approach the world with a singular lens built upon media depictions, stereotypes, and solely off of their politics. So I guess I’ll leave you with this, if you have to base Houston off of one idea or concept, it is: Don’t visit it in the summer unless you like hot weather! 

 

 

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31 thoughts on “Seeing it for myself – Houston,Texas

  1. A well-written essay on your perceptions and impressions of Texas! I have never been to Texas, but thanks to your detailed report, I would like to visit it for a vacation. Of course, I would avoid travelling there in the summer.

  2. “Texas […] that crazy place that we can’t ignore” –
    There’s truth in that, Robert, much truth! As the other saying goes, “Texas is a state of mind.” Like Bavaria in Germany.
    I really like this post, Robert.

  3. Being from New York, too, I know that when many people hear that name they think only of New York City and don’t realize that much of the state is rural and has two main mountain ranges (the Adirondacks and Catskills) plus lakes galore, including your Finger Lakes. People do often think in stereotypes.

    Too bad you were on such a brief business trip. If you’d had a little more time and had let it be known you were coming, I’d have driven over from Austin to say hi, and I’m sure Linda would have too, given that she’s in the Houston metro area. Maybe you can tell your college that you left something behind in Houston and need to go back and retrieve it.

    Some people’s bodies do better in heat, others in cold. From what you say, living up north suits you better. I’m the opposite, which is a big reason I moved south from New York. Warmth, in addition to low taxes, was a big draw for many of the people who’ve moved to Texas.

    • Hey Steve
      I surely would’ve said something had I had a more free schedule, most of my free time was spent networking, and the expectation really was that if we weren’t meeting college partners for lunch, we were in sessions at the conference center. About half the conference attendees went to see the Space Center, which I was glad to tag along and visit but I would have liked to have met up.

      The flight to Houston was not too pricy, and there is a direct flight from Milwaukee, so something tells me I can end up back in Texas at some point for a real visit and could meet you and Linda for lunch or something

      I agree, I think some bodies really aren’t adapted to the cold too, I know many people move south and I don’t blame them, I just know I run hot, I get overheated on a 70 degree day, so the heat just flattens me.

      I am glad to have seen even a tiny bit of Texas however briefly, I like when I can challenge my views

  4. I think I would like to go back and visit more of Texas. I’ve been to San Antonio and El Paso and had good experiences in both places, but it would be interesting to see Dallas or Houston as well.

    • Hey Cecelia
      Yeah, I feel like I want to see more now. It’s such a vast land mass, El Paso being a place I would be interested to see with the desert climate on the border. Really interesting state as a whole, I think you’d like Houston, everyone seemed to find something there that was for them!

  5. I have never been to Houston only Dallas. I have a Texan friend and we just agree to disagree about politics! However after reading your post I feel that I have had a virtual visit to Houston.

  6. Native Texan here, born in Houston, but moved 600 miles to the northwest end of the state at 19 months. In Houston you get heat and humidity. Where I live up in the panhandle, we just get the heat. (I call it “raisin weather” — you’re a grape till you step outside.) The largest ethnic group in Texas is, oddly enough, Hispanic. But the second largest ethnic group is German. Anglo is third. (My grandma spoke German better than she spoke English, and she was second generation Texan.) It’s such a big state, there’s a little of everything — plains, mountains, forests, rolling hills, bayous. and deserts. Take your pick.

    • I was surprised by how green and verdant it was in Houston, but I know the state is really varied, I definitely want to visit more parts and get a more varied feel for all of the offerings. I didn’t realize that Germans were the second largest group there, I always hear about New Braunfels but didn’t know the scope of the German population there.

  7. Darts and Letters says:

    Good essay, Robert. I’m not surprised to hear about the friendliness you encountered. Anecdotally, I’ve heard more than one person who moved to Seattle from Texas places like Houston, remark about how dramatically unfriendly and very cold, Seattleites seem in comparison. you are definitely right, you can’t write off people from a place because of stereotypes. And you can’t write off places, I sincerely agree. Thought I think next you should travel to Palm Beach Florida for a conference and give us your take on that city and help me dispel my preconceived notions.

    I’ve had the chance to visit Texas, Houston, Galveston, Austin, etc. One of my best friends was in academia at the U of Texas, ten or fifteen years ago, I think it’s been. I liked hearing about her experiences living in Austin and what it was like exploring the rest of the state. She was glad to move north for another job, after not too long a stint. She didn’t like the weather. And being a gay person and woman, she had some times exploring out of Austin where she had some unpleasant sensations of leaving the island for the sharks although we know that can take place anywhere, though to her it seemed heightened being Texas

    Your thoughts about NY identity in terms of NYC vs. midwest associations, are fascinating and illuminating, to me. It made me think of how narrow my perceptions of the Midwest are, as a native Michigander, maybe being in the middle does that. Not too long ago, I had a real debate with someone about whether Missouri was integral Midwest, they were firm in their conviction Missouri is Midwest through and through and Michigan was on the verge of getting east, I was dumbfounded and perhaps never more offended as a former Midwesterner 🙂

    • Hi Jason
      Thanks for your thoughts!
      It will be a while before I am in Florida I think, for work or otherwise, next year our conference is in Maryland, a state I’m far more familiar with from my college days.

      I struggle with the cognitive dissonance of recognizing my biases and feeling them anyway, but I have been working on it.

      The island effect I think is true in many places, New York has it too, its “Upstate” by Yonkers or Westchester County and where I live is marked “here there be monsters”. Many people in Montreal seem completely unaware of the State of New York despite presumably driving through it to get to the city.

      I always thought the Midwest debate was interesting, living in WI. Culturally, Pittsburgh and Buffalo seem more Midwestern despite being in East Coast states. Missouri could be southern or Midwest, it depends on where you are in the state I suppose, certainly I would imagine St. Louis is sort of Midwestern in it’s feeling perhaps more than Kansas City, but I haven’t been to either so wouldn’t know. Interesting debate material certainly

  8. Seeing as my Dad was from Texas and I still have a passel of relatives there, you’d think I’d know more of it (and the relatives.) But I grew up in Minnesota instead (Mom’s side), and rarely the twain did meet.

    What I know of Houston doesn’t go beyond the airport, where it seems a quick, efficient connection to/from parts elsewhere never really worked out. Your comment about the size of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport reminded me of a looong haul on their tram trying to get to a different concourse after going through a southern speed customs inspection – I think they held the flight for us. (Pretty good airport, otherwise.)

    I imagine Houston is to rural Texas as NYC is to Finger Lakes.

    I was actually just in Milwaukie (the Portland suburb) today, at the Bob’s Red Mill store. (HQ, a store/restaurant, and the factory are there.) Holler if you make it out this way, maybe I can show you around.

    • Hi Dave
      I will definitely give a shout if I’m out that way.

      I think you’re probably spot on that Houston is to the rural parts of TX as the FL are to Manhattan. I suppose that’s true everywhere, I imagine WI’s rural counties are quite different from Milwaukee, though I don’t usually venture outside the city limits.

  9. This really was fascinating. I’m one of those who likes to say I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could — and I’ve lived in and out of Houston since 1972. I love it, and can’t imagine leaving.

    You were in plenty of places that were my old stomping grounds, so to speak. When you were at the Space Center, you were only about two miles from my house. In fact, when I lived on the other side of my complex, I could see the Johnson Space Center from my desk.

    For a few years, I lived inside the loop: first at the Texas Medical Center, where I worked at Ben Taub, the county trauma hospital. Later, I moved to Kirby and Westheimer, which wasn’t so very far from the museum district that you probably visited, or at least passed through. When you were visiting Rice, you may have noticed a large stone Lutheran Church just across the street from the stadium parking lot. I was the associate pastor there for a few years, and during that time, I also was the Lutheran campus pastor at Rice. I don’t know how things are there now, but in those days I served up beer at Valhalla, the graduate student lounge.

    If I had you for a few days, I’d show you some parts of the city that are less touristy and occasionally less attractive. The light rail you mentioned actually was a bit of a boondoggle, meant to impress tourists and serve a very small portion of the urban center. One of our biggest problems is transportation, since that sprawl you mentioned means that more and more people are commuting into the city from the suburbs, and often putting in 2-3 hours a day in their cars. Slowly, different “centers” of commerce are developing; just as the Clear Lake area is the heart of our aerospace industry, the west side of town is becoming techie, etc. The various suburbs each have their own personality.

    I’d love to take you to the east side, where old Houston still survives in the third and fifth wards, the heavy industry and port are primary employers, and some of the best people in the world scrape by. I’ve experienced Houston as an inside-the-loop professional, and an outside-the-loop common laborer, and the contrast is instructive.

    One of the best songs ever written about the east side of Houston is Rodney Crowell’s “East Houston Blues. Crowell grew up here, and he experienced that side of our city’s life for himself. The song captures the feel of the area perfectly.

    • Hi Linda
      As usual, I have learned a lot from you! That song was great. I found that I tend to like songs with “American city” and “blues” in the title.

      I think I have seen the church you mentioned now that you say that. It was striking against the more modern backdrop.
      It’s amazing you could see the space center from your desk, that’s really neat

      Next time I’m there I’ll definitely take you up on your offer for an alternative tour. I would really love that

  10. Never been to Texas, myself, but you had a fascinating visit. I’ve thought about visiting Texas more than once, but always for wildflowers or butterflies not for the urban attractions. But what are third wave beans? And I had no idea that Milwaukee was a coffee town – I would have thought Boston rated as one, but I guess not!

    • I would like to see Texas beyond the cityscapes still I think, the flowers sound lovely.
      Third wave beans are the indie roasters who buy fair trade etc. I’m surprised Boston isn’t, there were plenty of good places when I lived there.

  11. For this person who’s never been to Texas, you’ve done a great job touching on a number of interesting, relevant points. The friendliness, the diversity, the lack of zoning laws, the good food, and even the bits about Rice University. Some things are no surprise (yeah, the heat!) and others are a little surprising but overall I appreciate your balanced viewpoint. 🙂

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