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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!