Monday, January 12, 2009

Keep Houston Houston

It's late tonight, and I've been wanting to pass this along for a while: a really insightful little blog post on what makes Houston great, and a proposal for a new slogan: Keep Houston Houston. Great stuff. Enjoy:
At any rate, we’ve all seen “keep Austin weird” and many of us are also aware of “keep Georgetown normal” and countless other variants. Houston has a unique quality all its own which I happen to prefer, but what to call it? What is that uniqueness about Houston that we all know but don’t put into words? It’s not weird. It’s not the money; yeah, we’ve got Bentleys and Lambos here, but we’re a lot more laid back about it then people in LA or the Big D. So what is it? Kotkin would tell us that it’s a low cost of living coupled with a pro-business environment and no zoning code which enables an unmatched upward mobility that mints millionaires daily and gives the poor a decent shot at attaining a comfortable middle-class existence. Which is great from an economic standpoint, but how does that explain the giant armadillo?
Houston is a special place, a dynamic place, a vibrant place, boisterous, unrestrained, “hustle town,” a city where fortunes are made and lost in a day. And it’s worth keeping it that way. We need an activist slogan that fits on a bumper sticker, something that you can slap on your Mitsubishi alongside “give peace a chance” or “gun control means using both hands” or “just say no to sex with pro-lifers.” Something that connotes that Houston is unique and it’s worth preserving that uniqueness.
...let’s keep Houston like Houston. Because there’s a lot of changes happening in this city right now, a lot of really *good* changes. Attractive architecture, interesting development projects, massive infrastructure improvements covering everything from twenty-lane freeways to complex light rail networks. And there’s a lot of good changes to push for, like preserving our most historic buildings, adding and improving the park system, increasing roadway capacity, building a coherent network of bike trails, expanding the capacity of the freight rail network, and installing a train between Galveston and College Station. But in the debates over adding these things, it’s all too easy to frame the current state of things in a negative light, as if Houston isn’t already a positive place. For those who love the city this is an annoyance, but it is also a danger; for if we get too into trashing Houston, we could very easily forget all the benefits we enjoy.

The fact is, this place is quite livable even without a commuter rail system or an un-gridlocked 290. Adding those things will make it better, and will “fix” problems in a very narrowly-defined sense, but they won’t “fix” the city, because the city is already just fine. Houston is awesome. And it’s important to ask, whenever we start talking about making changes: “will this make Houston more like Houston? Or will this outcome move Houston towards a second-rate Dallas or a third-rate Portland or a fifth-rate New York?” You can’t really argue with infrastructure improvements, but some of the other changes up in the air - like the push from the architects who want to try out their new “form-based codes” on cities un-marred by traditional land-use zoning - could seriously hamper Houston’s ability to become even more like Houston. And for those of us who love such un-PC pursuits as getting fat off cheap mexican food, driving fuel inefficient cars, or just building a sleek ultramodern house on a street full of cloyingly-cute arts and crafts bungalows, this is a dire possibility, because there aren’t a lot of places left for us to go. So, by any means necessary, let’s keep Houston Houston. And when someone who’s selling us a “good” idea starts trashing the city in which we live, let’s take a long step back and look at that person’s motivations and the effect of their ideas on the aspects of this city which we all enjoy today.

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At 7:59 AM, January 13, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice find. I like what he/she has to say.

At 8:15 AM, January 13, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somebody needs to hire this person for our promotions. It has to better than the current promotional campaign.

We definitely need to KEEP HOUSTON HOUSTON!

Avoid at all cost at trying to emulate other cities!

We've been doing a good job here, why stop.

At 1:44 PM, January 13, 2009, Blogger Alexandre L'Eveille said...

Great perspective. Houston is something of a well kept secret…way better than anyone coming from the outside could anticipate. And it is that variety and live-and-let-live lifestyle that keeps it real and wonderful.

At 3:47 PM, January 13, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Source? Seems pretty tendentious, like someone who opposes form-based zoning, probably for money reasons, disguising his opposition under some kind of saccharine "love for the city."

Looking at history, Keeping Houston Houston might have meant...

Never getting rid of the streetcar system.

Not strangling downtown with freeways.

Not ruining the pleasant cottage bungalow neighborhoods that had existed so long with tacky, oversized houses.

Not paving the bayous.

Not building the ship channel.

See, anyone can play the game of "keep Houston the same when it comes to my pet issue."

At 11:19 PM, January 13, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

“Keep Houston Trill”

An adjective used in hip-hop culture to describe someone who is considered to be well respected, coming from a combination of the words “true” and “real”.

At 8:51 AM, January 14, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...


It's easy to forget history if you don't really know anything about it to begin with.

Houston never "got rid of the streetcar". The street car was becoming quickly expensive and new modern technology made it obsolete. The private company running the streetcar line folded and sold off the assets. The people at the time didn't want the city to save or pay for continuing the service.

The downtown freeway network is what made downtown what it is today. The freeway network allowed offices to continue to get built in the core. Large office complexes in the suburbs developed when freeway capacity was limited.

Much of downtown was at one point elegant row houses on the east side (covention center, Houton center, MinuteMaid Park) and cottages on the west side (skyline district south of city hall). I guess we shouldn't have a downtown today because developers came in and destroyed what was then two beautiful neighborhoods. Also, your beautiful cottages (assuming Heights) wheren't orginally part of Houston and was actually an early form a sprawl. People were getting away from the denser inner city and developers obliged by CLEAR CUTTING the forest and building rows of cottages. Yes, very few of the trees in the Heights are naturally occuring. Most were planted after the clear cutting and development was put into place.

The paving of the bayous was performed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The citizens complained of flooding and at that time, that was the only really option outside of just making the bayous larger. We didn't have the software analysis tools we do today to design alternate options like detention.

The ship channel was one of the single greatest assets of Houston to begin with. If we didn't the ship channel, we wouldn't have Houston. The early town of Houston was adverstised for being an inland port. On top of that, the destruction of Galveston in the early 1900s made Houston explode in growth necessitating the need for a higher quality shipping lanes and expansion of Buffalow Bayou into a larger channel.

Keeping Houston Houston doesn't mean the previously mentioned things should or shouldn't have happened. They happened precisely because Houston was being Houston (whether good or bad).

It's easy to complain and be pessimistic. It takes guts to actually be optimistic and look for good in all aspects of life in this city. Keep Houston Houston seems to putting some effort in its happiness versus ranting on the bad and keep trotting out the same anti-Houston arguments.

At 11:02 AM, January 14, 2009, Blogger Mike said...


Wow, what a post. Did I express an opinion on any of those changes I listed, like surrounding downtown with freeways? No, I didn't. I simply mentioned some major historical changes that could have conceivably been opposed by the slogan "Keep Houston Houston."

And you come back arguing for the necessity of the ship channel?! I'm all for the ship channel! And the Bayport terminal!

"They happened precisely because Houston was being Houston."

I guess every change in Houston's history that you happen to like was because "Houston was being Houston," and every change you dislike was because "Houston wasn't being Houston." There's some real critical thinking happening on this blog...

At 1:29 PM, January 14, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree the slogan has limited utility as guidance on specific proposals and changes. But the spirit is healthy: Houston should be proud of itself, not self-loathing, and not obsessed with "fitting in" with other cities like Austin, Portland, New York, etc. Embrace our uniqueness instead of being embarrassed by it.

At 1:49 PM, January 14, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, personally I think it is the people that make Houston what it is, not some zoning code (or lack thereof).

But I agree that Houston needs to be proud of its uniqueness. I guess the ultimate question is what particular segment of the uniqueness should one be proud of and what particular segment of the uniqueness should one not.

For example, New York was pretty unique in the 1970’s and 1980’s in having an obscene crime rate. My father used to go there for business regularly and he would tell me stories of how he couldn’t even walk down the street in the middle of the day without fearing a violent mugging. Was that something to be proud of? New Orleans (arguably the country’s most unique city) is notoriously corrupt. Is that something to be proud of and protected?

I guess my point is that there are certain aspects of Houston’s uniqueness that are positives (friendly people, energy capital, generally pleasant climate, access to the ocean) but there are also some uniqueness that is negative (sprawl, pollution, drive-everywhere culture, general ugliness). As seen in other cities around the country, a city can fix these negatives without damaging the positives; in fact one can enhance the positives

At 10:44 PM, January 21, 2009, Blogger Justin said...

If Houston is concerned with being both itself and unique, it ought to first start with a slogan that isn't a poor derivative of Austin's.


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