Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Circus Maximus Syndrome

Great New York Times column by one of my favorite columnists, John Tierney, on the edifice syndrome of a lot of cities (read it quick - it will be pay-only by this Saturday).

Older cities have made comebacks the past decade by getting back to that core function of protecting people's lives, but most still haven't figured out how to restore their commercial marketplaces.

Instead, their leaders build projects whose economic benefits go to the Circus Maximus industrial complex: real estate developers, construction workers, bond traders, owners of hotels and sports teams. Aside from the thanks of these groups, politicians also get a pleasant distraction from their mundane duties.

It's more fun to pose next to a model of a model of a new stadium than a new water main. Announcing plans for the Olympics gets better coverage than announcing plans for bridge repairs. If you want immediate gratification, there is nothing like a circus, as a moralist named Salvian observed in the fifth century.

Kind of makes you glad we lost the 2012 Olympics, huh? A tremendous amount of precious energy in this city would be totally focused on it instead of more fundamental foundational improvements - a giant 7 year distraction.

Houston certainly builds its share of edifices, but I think we're reasonably balanced overall. We work pretty hard on the fundamentals, and the stuff we do build is fairly affordable for a city of our size and economic power (stadiums, convention centers, etc.)

He also talks about the new Kotkin book:

You have to ask if the project performs a core function identified by Joel Kotkin in his new book, "The City," a global history of urbanity starting with Ur. He finds that successful cities have always done three things, two of which are straightforward: protecting the lives of inhabitants and providing a congenial home for a commercial marketplace.

The third function is the creation of "sacred space" that gives people a sense of identity with the city. In Ur, it was the shrine of the moon god, Nanna, a 70-foot-high ziggurat towering over the Mesopotamian plain. In Athens, it was the Parthenon. In Venice, it was the Basilica of San Marco.

"In New York, it's Central Park and Fifth Avenue," Mr. Kotkin said. "In Chicago, it's the lakefront. In Los Angeles, it's the Hollywood sign and the sight of the hills ringing the city. It can be a signature building or a distinctive neighborhood - something iconic that makes the city special and binds people together."

I've posted on this before, but I'll ask the question again: we do pretty good on the first two criteria, but what is Houston's sense of sacredness? I have my own ideas, but I'd like to hear people's thoughts in the comments.


At 12:41 AM, June 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I think the Houston skyline is beautiful (being away at school makes it that much more special), perhaps Houston's "sacredness" comes less from physical things like Wall Street, the Louve or the Sydney Opera House and more from the folks who live there. Houston's got a healthy swagger that's due in large part to being Texans and from folks who are simply comfortable in their own skin. Houston is much more than the sum of all of its amenities, industries and resources.

There's a joke that I read the other day that rings true:
When folks from Atlanta think about New York City, they hope that the people up there don't think that they're rednecks. When folks from Houston think about New York City, they feel sorry for them because they're not Texans.

At 3:01 AM, June 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fact is, as someone who as lived in Houston almost all my life but has travelled, is that Houston has no sacredness.

Aside from sports stadiums, Houston is without a single edifice worthy of national or international renown. I was hoping at somepoint that Houston would win the Olympics and use it to transform this city from a suburban hodgepodge into a real international city, but it looks like Houston will never get that chance.

And as far as Atlanta goes, its true, as an east coast city in the south, it does struggle with identity issues and worries about being considered modern. But as far as Atlanta goes, it seems to have firmly taken the "Capital of the South" moniker while having some of the better aspects of living on the east coast.

Unfortunately, that joke doesn't ring true unless you've never travelled outside of Texas. To most, we're the city of Bush, Enron, obesity, and humidity. Of course, the best part about Houston is that it is cheap in all regards. Unfortunately, it is that very thrift that has made Houston into the Wal-Mart of cities. We could probably learn some things from cities like Atlanta that are having better luck diversifying their industry (instead of relying on big oil and energy) and focusing on regional planning to try and fix its problems (which are worse than ours, in large part due to their immense growth).

At 8:40 AM, June 15, 2005, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


Um... Houston has already diversified its industry to a very respectable degree. And frankly, you're the first person I've heard who has called Atlanta the "Capitol of the South" (which indicates to me that it's like being the 'Harvard of the South,' something that Rice, Vanderbilt, Emory, etc, all claim to be). Moreover, we are growing very quickly as well, so Atlanta doesn't get any breaks from me about it's problems (like having one of the highest violent crime rates in the country).

But anyway... On to the actual question. What is Houston's "sacredness?" The answer for me is downtown; the skyline. That's at least what comes the closest. Houstonians are very proud of our skyline.

At 4:27 PM, June 15, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think the classics people might talk about would be the Astrodome and the NASA moon landing (Rocket Park, I guess?). Neither of those resonates like they used to, but they are definitely a core part of Houston's history and identity.

At 5:12 PM, June 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For me, Houston's spiritual center is the whole Hermann Park/Rice U/Medical Center complex. In a relatively small area you have the world's largest medical center with some of the best hospitals anywhere, next to one of the best universities around, next to some of the finest museums in the country. And all this is wrapped up nicely with a beautiful urban park. And to top it off, Houston's new light rail runs right down the middle of it all.
I'm often surprised how this area is overlooked when people are busy deriding Houston as a car-centric, souless wasteland.

At 8:37 PM, June 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Houston holds sacred its laissez-faire no-holds-barred style of capitalism, or at least the perception of such. No other city in the world save Dubai can come as close to the libertarian ideal.

At 8:55 PM, June 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's interesting, because I've never lived in Atlanta but I've heard it referred to as the capital of the south numerous times. Then again, I keep hearing Duke is the Harvard of the South, whatever that means.

And as far as Houston's economy is concerned, I think some of you should read this chronicle article:


Things are not looking so bright, as Houston is unable to attract much venture capital for startups and the lack of a major public residential university has got Houston (and Dallas) losing high tech companies to Austin and the coasts. Once big oil starts to die off over the next 3-4 decades, Houston is unfortunately going to be in a lot of trouble economically, making the 80s disaster look like a mild wind.

And of course, most disappointing of all, is the fact that the arrogant representatives for Houston and its suburbs have completely changed the Metro plan to a bunch of buses that will likely never be converted to light rail. Referendum whatever, if they are going to do whatever they feel like anyway, why even ask us voters? Imagine if NY or DC or Atlanta or SF had cheaped out on mass transit, they would be nowhere close to as prominent as they are now. But of course, Houston's representatives don't believe we are worthy of world-class mass transit, and instead allow other cities to take a bigger portion of the federal transportation pie.

Luckily, Houston will continue to grow since people will move from other cities to get huge houses in Katy... unfortunately, that just means growth for the suburbs, and Houston proper is slowly deprived of the upper middle class population necessary to sustain a world-class city.

So when it comes to keeping taxes low versus improving our schools, parks, and transportation, the city's leaders talk a good game and say "Houston is worth it" but in fact, it's not worth it to them if it costs money. And nothing good comes cheap.

At 10:57 PM, June 16, 2005, Blogger Christopher Loyd said...

When I think of New York City, I think of people who get by in life without driver's licenses and actually pay a municipal *income tax*. I don't feel sorry for them...over eight million people live there for a reason, so it can't be that bad.

To some San Antonioans, Houston is this impossibly huge city that takes far too long to go anywhere, the traffic is far too congested, the drivers too aggressive, the climate just that much worse, but with one rather stunning shopping mall, The Galleria. Not to mention the horror of approaching a toll booth, and not knowing what to do.

What makes Houston special, for me personally, is its optimism for the future. If the future is going to happen in Texas, it's going to happen in Houston. Dallas allegedly has social problems (based on other's comments; I've only been through the town, not really in it) that Houston doesn't have. San Antonio is content playing mythical 19th century downtown-land, and partying. Austin is a contender, probably due more to the "power elite" (or whatever one wants to call the people who can get things done on a large scale) than any popular culture. Houston is the kind of town that puts off people who aren't into setting a goal and achieving it. Really, if one wants really great museums, nightlife, easy-going people, an exotic local climate, and cares not one whit about the cost of living, they will not choose to live in Houston.

I'll be honest. If I wasn't interested in space architecture, I wouldn't live in Houston. I would live in San Antonio. That may sound mean to die-hard Houston fans, but those are my irrational feelings. If one can be a rational, cool, business person, then Houston is great. As has been stated earlier, people usually don't come to Houston for a good time.

As for its skyline...it certainly has an appeal. Try looking at it, around dusk, while driving east-bound on the Katy Freeway. There will be a moment, that lasts for about a second, where your perspective lines up with the downtown street grid, and all the hi-rises fall in behind each other, and you can see the spaces in between them. Then, as you take the I-45 South exit, you'll swoop around the buildings. Very cool.

It's the curves and slopes that make I-45 'round downtown so much fun to drive on, at free-flow conditions. Part of me wishes that all the freeways here had an element of *fun* in them. Something that dances the line between "safe" and "dangerous".

As for the Rice, TMC, and Museum District Areas, those are nice, and the Village has a certain charm to it as well. It would be worth analyzing what makes these places appealing.

In a way, I consider TMC to be more urban and interesting than downtown Houston, because TMC is not on a grid, there are people out and about everywhere, and the view-perspectives change. There is no looking down a street and seeing the horizon, unless you're on Main or some other street that goes in a straight line for miles.

If one wants a strategy for generating something really special, something that only Houston would have, try letting some of the local buildings just age for a few decades. There's something to be said for (well-maintaned) patina.

Maybe one day the Enron towers will be considered charming. Transco Tower almost is. It looks really good on the TV.

At 9:00 PM, June 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Houston's core of "sacredness" is really a combination of things. Houston is the most uniqe city. It is a cocktail of New Orleans, Los Angeles, and San Antonio.

To me, the inner loop which is the center of the city is a green oasis with bayous and sub-tropical vegetation, modern and wealthy, and just enough doses of funk, quaintness, and decadence. All that surrounded by three powerfull skylines.

The people are diverse, friendly, and progressive, and liberterian for sure. Houston is one-of-a kind. Hope it stays that way.


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