Monday, November 24, 2008

Smithsonian on Houston

Smithsonian Magazine had a recent essay on Houston from a local transplant creative writing professor who's lived here on and off for a decade. He has some really touching things to say about his adopted city, plus a few things I'm not as agreeable with.
I used to joke with my friends in the Northeast that every fall I descend into Texas like Persephone, only to return, come spring, into the light. But after a few years, my feelings about the place shifted. I can tell you everything that's wrong with it: no zoning, bad air quality, impossible climate. Tiny, malicious mosquitoes so tough and persistent you get bitten on Christmas Day. Poor drainage, so that the ubiquitous storms create floods of biblical proportion. It's harder to name just what it is about the place that's gotten under my skin, holds my attention here, makes me want to come back.

In spite of its international petroleum-based economy, its layered ribbons of freeways and corporate spires, Houston still feels Southern. Imagine a hybrid of New Orleans and Los Angeles, with a dash of Mexico City thrown in.
My readers know my regular defense of our lack of zoning - and he himself later points out the vibrancy of our constant change and redevelopment. He's got a point on the air quality and the climate, although it's been noted by others that at least you don't have to shovel or scrape humidity off your car, sidewalk, driveway, or lawn. Drainage is getting better, and I personally have found the mosquitoes relatively mild the last few years (maybe I'm just lucky or in the right part of town?).

As far as the comparison to NOLA and LA, I see the similarities with our Southern culture and sprawl, but I'd also mention that NOLA is a city run by old families and LA has superficial culture that worships celebrity, beauty, and gossip - neither of which apply to Houston. We have a no-nonsense, get-it-done business culture with an openness to newcomers - coupled with a lack of polish that you would expect in a city of energy, health care, transportation, and NASA (none of which are image or marketing-driven industries). I like the what-you-see-is-what-you-get honesty from that lack of polish, but it also has a downside with our weak brand image as a city.

He continues on to our friendly Southern culture, then moves on to our future-orientation:
This particularly Southern social fabric, with its suggestion of a slower pace of life, no hurry in all the world, is eroding. That's not entirely a bad thing; in comes new energy, more urbane possibilities, new futures. Since Houston is about transformation, it seems by nature to be a city without much allegiance to history. If there were a motto on the town flag, I think it might read NO NOSTALGIA.
That's a characteristically Houstonian attitude: What's so hot about yesterday? Let's go forward, let's see who we can be now. A historical preservation organization has been raising concerns that a handsome Art Deco theater in the city's River Oaks neighborhood will be torn down to build a high-rise. But I've come to understand the principle at work, if not its application: Houston is about the new, about transformation and ambition, the making and remaking of the self and the environment. Of course we make mistakes, but in ten years they're gone, and there's space for the next set of possibilities.
Hear, hear. Read the whole thing. It'll renew your fondness for this town. Also scroll down for some great comments too from more fans of our fair city.

Hat tip to HAIF.

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At 8:43 AM, November 25, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If this guy's a creative writing professor, he must not be a very good one. The whole Houston's-got-humidity-and-mosquitoes gripe is about as hackneyed and threadbare as they come, a standard fixture in the first or second paragraph of nearly everything ever written by an out-of-towner about Houston. Imagine if every essay about Chicago started off by telling you that it's cold and there's lots of crime!

As far as Southern culture... only if you're from Massachusetts, and you have been conditioned from birth to think of everything between El Paso and D.C. as The South. When people have a stereotype about a place, they tend to focus on any observations that could enforce that stereotype and ignore those that don't. I could probably find Southern traits in Boston if I was looking for them.

Tory, you should keep a small library of all the hack pieces that have ever been written on Houston by clever visitors. I can think of several over the last decade that could be included.

At 5:03 PM, November 25, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Mike. This is just more junk we've all heard before. But for some reason, it sells better, especially Hollywood movie hit pieces that area written from this tripe. By the way, I've never been bitten by a mosquito on Christmas. I just can't understand people who live here and complain about it, or yammer on about how much better they did it back home. Well, alot of the things that were done here is a result of people from "back home" and their influence here. Sp they're basically seeing a mixture of evert town and city they're all from, north, east and west. Most of the people on my street are from some other state, and they think they're the only ones who ever moved here.

At 8:14 AM, November 27, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 4:35 PM, November 27, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the things about being a Houston transplant is that you maintain your old social networks across the country, and those individuals constantly ask you the same questions about the heat, mosquitoes, etcetera. So those facets tend to be nearer the top of your consciousness, even if your own personal experiences with the local insect population haven't been particularly negative.

At 11:22 PM, November 29, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

Over this Thanksgiving week I drove up to Oklahoma to visit my grandparents. In my life, I've traversed the I-45/35 corridor dozens of times. I always loved seeing the office towers in Houston and Dallas in the same day. It was always so new and exciting.

This time though I really started to notice that Dallas was different. Besides the Victory project (which is really impressive) few small buildings seem to have been remodeled on the outside. Between downtown and Lewisville, it seems that almost nothing new has been built, replace, or refaced for 20 years.

Even in poorer areas, like Gulfgate and North Gessner, there's just a constant flux of tear downs and refacing.

Don't get me wrong, the circa 1975 stretch of Stemmons freeway is still better looking than Houston's North Freeway, but it really is starting to look old.

At 12:27 PM, December 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian, that's funny, I drove the other way. I'm surprised you didn't notice all the new towers in Uptown outside of Victory. If you went up I-75 you would have seen the new Park Lane project with its several towers, and driving up the North Tollway, there's basically a whole new Dallas being built out towards Frisco. I haven't compared the two cities in terms of resurfacing/renovating buildings in more tawdry areas like the Stemmons Freeway, although in Dallas unfortunately it seems like there are much fewer buildings that need to be resurfaced.

At 1:47 PM, December 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Imagine if every essay about Chicago started off by telling you that it's cold and there's lots of crime!

Well, when a Texan writes it, they often do; in spite of the fact that Chicago's and Houston's and Dallas' per-capita violent crime rates are nearly identical.

At 3:34 PM, December 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How many essays about Chicago do Texans write? There's not a lot of publishing here. Or maybe you were referring to me? My only purpose was to ridicule cliches... the fact that Chicago's crime is an overused cliche serves my point.

At 2:21 PM, December 16, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you define classy?

I think Houston's charm is its downhome Texas culture mixed with world sophistication.

This scmuck can take a walk as far as I'm concerned. Another ignorant east coast expertocrat.

By the way the east is a dead region and has been for 30 years, they just don't know it yet. Youve got an ex gang member as mayor of Hartford of all places.

I love Houston and Texas!


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