Monday, August 10, 2009

Houston's intangible identity

You 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:
I posted this on HAIF, and I want your opinion -
There’s an article on 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.

And my response:
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.

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.
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)

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.

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At 6:29 PM, August 10, 2009, Blogger QViews said...

Pick your guests up at Intercontinental Airport Houston (that's it's REAL name) and keep them talking all the time about THEIR hometown so they don't spend too much time looking out the window. If they do comment on the HIDEOUS view along I45, US59, whatever, say No, no, no, You haven't seen Houston Yet!

They're probably staying downtown of the Galleria. Don't go directly there. Stay on the Freeway and interchange to 288 so you can exit into the middle of the Texas Medical Center, then go back toward downtown via Main Street, past the Museum, midtown, and through downtown. NOW you should be directing their attention toward the hospitals, Rice University, the Museum of Fine Arts, Lawndale, older buildings waiting for redevelopment, your favorite clubs, the skyline, etc.

If they are going to the Galleria, exit Downtown on Allen Parkway. (It was good enough for Judge Hofheinz, it's good enough for your guests, requiring you to drive through River Oaks and along San Felipe to the Galleria.

Your guests will have a good impression of Houston now.

At 6:57 PM, August 10, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That is a very good route! Memorial vs. Allen Parkway would be the toss-up for me.

At 6:58 PM, August 10, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is probably a good time to plug my "Houston: solidly top 40% in most categories" slogan again...

Being above average in many different aspects of city life makes for a nice place to live. Being near the top in hardly anything makes for a hard place to market.

I don't have a marketing solution, but we really look bad when we try too hard in light of that reality ("largest theater district outside of NYC!").


At 10:38 PM, August 10, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>Pick your guests up at Intercontinental Airport Houston (that's it's REAL name)

Heh. I prefer Intergalactic myself. I called it IAH on wedding invites and had confused people calling me from outside Texas asking me if that was the same airport as the one named after our unpopular president's father - oh well. It really wouldn't have been such a bad name without 43.

Agreed on the nice drive. Show people central and western parts of Houston (which I still argue is Houston's favored quarter) and they are impressed by the greenery, trees, parks, bayous etc. Bob Hope said that area of Main Street near Rice / Hotel Zaza was one of "the most beautiful views in the world" (source).

At 11:05 AM, August 12, 2009, Blogger Jill said...

Well I wrote this blog post about two years ago that I thought would have the tourists absolutely FLOCKING here: Houston: cooler than you thought! But we still seem to have sort of an image problem.

At 11:06 AM, August 12, 2009, Blogger Jill said...

"Memorial vs. Allen Parkway would be the toss-up for me."

Allen Parkway! During the art car parade of course...

:-) :-) :-)

At 4:17 PM, August 13, 2009, Blogger Unofficial Texas said...

The lack of Houstonians (and visitors) understanding of Houston is part of it's mystique and intertesting nature. We're less absorbed by it all and actually USE the city instead of "oohh and ahhh" over it's coolness.

At 11:45 PM, August 22, 2009, Blogger Algosome said...

The discussion on HAIF is good as far as it goes about bikeways, but it seems obvious to me that "The Bayou City" is not taking advatage of its namesake resource. Every named Bayou needs to be navigable by canoe or kayak, with occasional portages, and have a hike-bike-ride trail alongside. Terry Hershey Park along Buffalo Bayou sets an impressive precedent -- its 26-mile canoe/kayak trail is so long it can't be covered in a single day.

And then only a few Houstonians know about the largest urban park in the country that's entirely within city limits -- Armand Bayou.
Those of us who like close locations to get away from all the crowds and traffic thank you for your ignorance.

At 10:39 AM, January 10, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Definitely take out of town guests through South Main/Hermann Park corridor. It's a remnant from the old "Houston Vision Class" who planned the Med Center, deepened the Port and planned a layout of the city according to great world capitals standards. I believe the confluence of the depression, attrition, WWII all ended that. We need a new group of planners pick up where they left off, to replan the rest of the city. Who wants in?

Wouldn't a traffic circle at W'heimer & Post Oak, like the Arc de Triumph be fitting for the one of the top shopping districts in the world?

Re Houston's self image, we ARE world leaders in a few major industries, Energy, Medicine, NASA, Transportation (Port), Entrepreneurial Hub, Corporate HQ's, etc, not many cities in the world or US can claim that.

My suggestion is for us to start meeting some place, Torry just say when and where. How 'bout burgers at Christians Tailgate?


At 11:04 AM, January 10, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I like the idea of getting HS readers together. The hard part for me is finding the time. What I might do is join up with Kuff's (from Off the Kuff) monthly Friday lunches at Amazon. Instant critical mass. Next time I get one of his invites (probably Feb), if I can make it I'll announce it here on the blog.

Thanks for the support.


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