Houston's intangible identityYou may have seen the recent commentary in the Chronicle defending Houston against criticism from Outside magazine (great HAIF response: "This just in: RVing magazine rates Manhattan poorly!", or my own version, "Boating magazine disses Albuquerque.") Christopher Dentler sent me an email we agreed would be worth sharing on the blog:
And my response:I posted this on HAIF, and I want your opinion -
There’s an article on Chron.com this morning called “Stop Hating On Houston”
First off, I want to mention that the article is a thin skinned response to a legitimate criticism (we are a flat, sprawling and hot and not exactly an “out doorsy” city). But most importantly I want to comment on Houston’s national rep, which I know is a discussion that has been done to death. But I’m a relatively recent transplant (4 years) and haven’t had the chance to really discuss this anyone.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed since living here is that Houstonians only have themselves to blame for the city’s bad reputation. They are positively the WORST ambassadors any city has ever had. You have a diverse, cosmopolitan, laid back and in many areas, hip city. But are most Houstonians even aware? Do many Houstonians even care? When I first moved to this city from Austin I lived in midtown/Montrose and worked out near Harwin and the Beltway. I was struck with how interesting and eclectic the city was. There is always a new neighborhood to discover, a new restaurant to eat at and an interesting person to talk to. I had fun exploring my new city and enjoyed showing it off to friends from Austin, Boston, San Fran, LA – all of whom were struck by how “cool” this town actually could be.
But as the years went on I was shocked at how little many Houstonians knew about their own city. I had a coworker tell me he wanted to live in another town because Houston wasn’t that interesting to him. This coworker lives, like many Houstonians do, on the outer fringes of the city (which I don’t consider Houston, but that’s beside the point). I mentioned that I found Montrose to be a very vibrant area and asked how often he explored that part of town. And his response was, and I still have trouble coming to grips with this, “Montrose? What’s that?” - and therein lies Houston’s problem.
When these people move, or visit other cities, they describe Houston as boring and soulless. When a relative visits from out of town, or when a coworker is here on business they may take them down a bland freeway to the Galleria or a sporting event (both things I love, but nothing unique), but otherwise it’s back to the suburbs by dinner. How do you expect to establish a great reputation if you’re showing people the same crap they could find anywhere.
Bottom line, I think Houston needs to work on improving its reputation with its own citizens before it starts trying to impress the world. It’s not a town for everyone.
I saw that article, and I thought it was a good defense. I absolutely agree Houston has a problem here. We are a great city to live in. Surveys show very high satisfaction among people that live here a while. And I hear tons of people leave and then wish they could get back. The problem is that what makes us great is subtle. It's not easy to articulate. Very intangible.I'd like to hear your thoughts in the comments. And if you wanted to spend an afternoon showing a visitor what made Houston special, where would you take them? (including restaurants)
Part of that comes from not having one district that represents Houston like you find in most other cities (NOLA: French Quarter; Austin: 6th street, downtown, Zilker; San Antonio: Riverwalk; Miami: South Beach, Chicago: downtown; etc.). NYC, LA, and SF don't really have a single defining district, but are so overexposed in TV and movies that people "get" those cities. We also don't have defining natural features, like Denver's mountains or Seattle or Portland's forests.
The lack of a clear district, distinct geography, or much media exposure not only makes it really hard for short-term visitors to appreciate the city, it makes it hard for locals to point to and articulate what makes it great (and why it's worth all the downsides, like heat, hurricanes, and traffic). It's some mix of diversity, eclecticism (driven by a lack of zoning), restaurants, opportunity, entrepreneurialism, openness, friendliness, tolerance, charity, and affordability (I think we have the highest standard of living among major world metros, in terms of how well the median salary lives here) - but there's no easy way to sum up that list or convey it to people. This is why I have continuously struggled with Houston's identity on my blog.
If we can define that identity clearly, we can then convey it to both locals and outsiders.
Another problem that prevents that identity formation: the city has delegated our branding to GHCVB. Their mission is to attract tourists, so they build our brand around that - when what makes Houston great really has nothing to do with tourism.
On an unrelated final note: the presidential commission on the future of NASA just released a document with the final options they are evaluating. What they report - and what the President decides - will have a big impact on Houston in the years to come. Final deliberations Wednesday afternoon are watchable on the web on NASA TV.