Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Local pride and Houston's identity

Hope you caught Lisa Falkenberg's column in the Chronicle today on GHCVB efforts to build local pride in our city, so, in turn, we'll promote it to others. I thought it made a lot of good points, especially coming from someone moving here from Austin.
..."Austin gets really small after a while. There's Prozac in the water, and people seem overly concerned with being weird. Houston, with all its imperfections, is real to me. I love this place."

But this is exactly the kind of anecdote that worries the folks at the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

They're concerned that Houstonians lack pride in their sprawling urban metropolis, that they're so caught up in the hustle and flow of daily life we can't see all that America's fourth-largest city has to offer.


All this would seem fine and good, except that I'm not convinced Houstonians need a remedial course in civic pride. The same folks who ask me if I miss Austin will, in the same breath, spout off for a half-hour about Houston's best barbecue joints, the iFest and the Art Car Museum.

Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg is skeptical as well: "I don't know where they get this idea that Houstonians bad-mouth their city."

In fact, Klineberg says, given Houstonians' persistent concerns about traffic, crime and pollution, it's shocking how much they love the place. According to the most recent annual Houston Area Survey results, more than 80 percent think H-Town is better than other metropolitan areas. Less than 10 percent said it's worse.

For more scientific proof, look at the wildly successful "Houston. It's Worth it." campaign, still available on its Web site of the same name. A photo book is due out soon.

Once you get past the comedic references to flying cockroaches and the miraculous skin-preserving benefits of humidity, there are thousands of comments on the site that could have been written by the visitors bureau folks themselves.

Houstonians gush over the low cost of living, authentic local restaurants, diversity, world-class museums, endless opportunity and generosity of the people, as exhibited after Hurricane Katrina. ...

If there is a problem with Houstonians' perception of their city, it may be an inferiority complex inspired, as best I can tell, by the stereotypes of outsiders.


The quality of life surveys say Houston is fat, dirty and hard to navigate. They leave out the good stuff: Houston just completed a $4.5 billion downtown revitalization. It's planting a million trees and converting bayous from drainage ditches to parks. It's diversifying its economy from oil to every kind of tech: bio, nano, info, enviro.

"We're in the process of redefining this city," Klineberg says.

Meanwhile, there's one truth about this city I hope will never change: Houston is whatever you want it to be.

Celebrities have their opinions and I have mine. My Houston is a drive down Rice Boulevard's tunnel of oaks. It's banana pancakes at Buffalo Grill. It's Urban Cowboy flashbacks when I approach the skyline from I-45. It's the best classic country radio station this side of my iPod.

I'll do my part to spread the word.

Hear, Hear! It's a big part of why I've made so many efforts on this blog to brand Houston - not just for outsiders, but to build our own pride in the city - to understand the essence of what makes us special and forge an identity around that. My current favorite is Mayor White's "Open City of Opportunity" summing up our friendliness, hospitality, entrepreneurial energy, minimal regulations (including no zoning), open-mindedness, diversity, affordability, social mobility, optimism, and charity (especially after Katrina) - although I think there are others that are complimentary and could be used in certain contexts:
Would love to hear your perspectives on our identity in the comments.



At 8:26 PM, April 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like Houston and I think it has a lot of positives going for it. But part of the reason I think some lack the civic pride you may see in other cities is because the city really doesn't have a very good national or international image. We have to face that reality.

Part of the reason is temporary but some things are larger, more long-term issues. As far as the temporary, I can tell you that given the current President is from Texas, if you travel anywhere and say you are from Texas, people will examine your head to make you're not growing horns. I remember the last time I was in Europe how much time I spent trying to explain to this guy that not everyone in Texas loves GW and not everyone is a fundamentalist. Outside of the Bible Belt, you're going to run into trouble.

But, there are some larger problems that Houston has to deal with. One is that it is the international home of the oil industry. Face it folks, the oil industry is a much maligned industry, some of it fair, some of it not fair. But, until very recently, their "screw'um" attitude to any outside criticism seemed to only make the problem worse. Even if you think it was justified, it was very poor PR.

Another reason that Houston gets a bad name, which is related to the oil industry, is the fact that Houston seems to be one of the least environmentally friendly cities in the world, let alone the country. While other cities seem to be making moves to improve the environment, Houston doesn't seem to even take it into account. You can see it in some of the posts even on this board. Environmental concerns, especially global warming, are ignored or overshadowed by other issues.

Finally, I am not sure that trotting around the fact that Houston doesn't have zoning is something the city should be all that proud of. Again, that is another oft cited complaint I hear from people outside Houston. Even if there are positives (and I believe there are some), it paints the town as a free-wheeling place where schools are situated next to strip clubs. It also reenforces the city's lack of concern for the environment.

Alright, there ya go. You may open fire now.

At 2:53 AM, April 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part of our bad image could be the fact that it's like pulling teeth to get anyone to think about aesthetics or quality of life around here. The only way to do it is to justify it from a business perspective (i.e., money). You have to say that it will help attract companies, etc. Beauty in itself is not a worthy goal.

Also notice that conversations about different strategies for Houston are won and lost on the money factor. Time and again we are told to leave things alone because it better preserves the free market, which means more money. Whether money should be the highest goal (or the only goal) is never questioned. Somebody on this board once said that if we take down billboards, it will scare off companies because they might think we have a regulatory mentality. As if driving down a clean freeway could somehow be scary.

This is the city where the school district was once ridiculed for building a headquarters that looked too nice. It was called "the Taj Mahal of Houston." It wasn't even that nice of a building, but it never entered anyone's mind that a great piece of architecture could elevate the entire city. Imagine how our govt. buildings in Washington would look if the rest of the country had this mentality.

People talk about how nice Houston would look if more of the city looked like the area around Rice University. If more of it looked like that - if the view from our freeways was mostly green, if we protected the trees along our streets, if we kept more places free of gas stations and stripmalls, and if we made substantial investments in parks - our image problem would be cured in a heartbeat. But that would take planning, certain limitations on individual freedom, and of course, money.

At 8:06 AM, April 25, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Actually, there are some pretty big civic movements behind "quality of life" factors right now, and they're doing pretty well (mostly parks and trees). Not that there's not room for improvement.

> our image problem would be cured in a heartbeat.

I'm not sure. As long as we're home to the unloved oil & gas industry and the petrochemical ship channel, our image will be problematic. Could get better, yes, but not "cured". In some ways, I'm ok with that. Someone once pointed out to me that Houston is a great, well-kept secret, and if it ever got out (or our image was "cured"), millions more would move here than already are and we would become CA, particularly LA. Reasonable steady growth is good, insane growth is just overwhelming.

At 8:06 AM, April 25, 2007, Blogger John said...

Here's an observation: whenever cities try to do this kind of regional branding, they look to places like the SF Bay Area and Austin as models. (And while I agree that Austin is a nice small town with an exaggerate sense of its own importance, as a brand, it's a huge success story.)

But they miss something critical: the branding wasn't created, it developed organically. Nobody ever sat down and said, "Let's create a Silicon Valley brand!" It happened, and the Bay Area brand developed as an articulation of real characteristics of the place.

That's why, I think, HIWI is the only successful Houston branding ever, and it so popular with the locals. It's true. It got help from the folks at ttweak, but they were more midwives than creators - they offered a framework for Houstonians to tell why they love Houston.

I should note that last year I went through this exercise professionally (with a region far from Houston), and our focus was to enable organic, grass-roots branding activities. I'm distressed but not surprised that the CVB is taking a top-down approach; it's what usually happens, and it seldom works well.

At 9:31 AM, April 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From what I can tell, the impetus towards quality of life in the past few years has been driven by the concern that if we don't improve in this area, we will lose out on growth to other cities. Of course there have always been people here who wanted beauty for beauty's sake, but their efforts have never amounted to much. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership and Friends of Hermann Park might be two exceptions.

I think we can be an industrial city and have a much improved image. Chicago has twice as much industry as we do and has a great image. Most people who come here casually do not see our refineries, they just look around and think, "this doesn't look that great."

John, I think you hit the nail on the head regarding image campaigns.

At 7:04 PM, July 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How's this as a slogan: "You got to be stoned not to like Houston"


Post a Comment

<< Home