A Houston Stringer for Open Salon
By Daniel Rigney
In my rich and whimsical fantasy life, I like to pretend that I’m a Houston stringer for Open Salon, covering the heat beat here in the Carbon City. My old friend Andy likes to say that Houston is a city of big positives and big negatives. He’s right. Let’s start with the negatives:
Hurricanes, alternating floods and droughts, blood-red right-wing politics in the suburbs, traffic from hell, metastasizing urban sprawl, sweltering heat and humidity during our six-month summers; giant mutant cockroaches, mosquitoes, and fire ants; tabloid television (“If it bleeds, it leads”); gun fetishism (reflected in a regular local TV news feature called “Bullet Points”); religious and political fundamentalisms; and a massive oil refining and shipping industry that feeds the warming planet's growing and unsustainable addiction to carbon. Houston is arguably the carbon capital of the world.
Other negatives include extreme economic and racial inequalities; a self-admiring and intensely status-conscious economic oligarchy; soulless materialistic values (Houston is largely about money); the shameful and shameless Houston Astros corporate baseball franchise -- and did I mention tumorous urban sprawl and traffic crawl? This is what happens when your urban planning is done by real estate developers and highway construction firms.
On the positive side, though, Houston has excellent museums and imported fine arts; a medical center that may be the best in the world; a nascent but sleek light rail system (if one can call a single 7.5-mile-long line a “system”); first-rate convention and athletic facilities; mild winters; respectable institutions of higher learning, including the esteemed Rice University and major medical and technological research institutions; America’s first openly lesbian mayor (and a skillful political tightrope walker indeed) in this surprisingly gay-tolerant city; excellent restaurants of every cuisine; and good shopping for those who have money (see mindless materialism above).
Houstonians are generally a friendly, informal and polite folk -- except when they're on the road, honking impatiently from behind the wheels of their gas-swilling urban assault vehicles.
The city's main newspaper, The Houston Chronicle, despite its sales-driven tabloid tendencies, has some fine writers and the decency to carry Paul Krugman, Dilbert, and the Jumble. Its editorial policy is generally centrist (by Texas standards, at least) apart from its obeisance to the crushingly powerful energy industry, which has its own corporate skybox on the op-ed page to which lobbyists and industry ghost-writers contribute frequent guest columns.
To its credit, the paper publicly favors cleaner natural gas over oil and coal, and even occasionally says a kind word or two about renewables, even as the energy industry continues to seek (or buy) legal ways to own the wind and sun.
Houston also enjoys a comparatively low unemployment rate and cost of living, and its surprisingly cosmopolitan population brings talented and energetic people to the city from every continent in the world. A recent Rice University study reveals that Houston now surpasses even New York City in its ethnic diversity. (Culturally and politically, of course, New York’s cosmopolitanism still makes Houston look like a backwater bayou.)
Still, there's plenty to do in this metropolitan multitude of six million. The city is full of undiscovered surprises --"easter eggs" is what one friend calls them. You never know where you'll find a hidden treasure.
As an amateur urban ethnographer, I especially enjoy taking the light rail up to the convention center or down to Reliant Stadium to visit traveling conventions and public events which are, for me, like cultural twilight zones. One week it’s the gun and knife show. The next it’s a bridal extravaganza, or an India-fest, or a quilting convention, or a rodeo, or an art car parade (my favorite event of the year), or a (non)political prayer rally led by Texas Governor and failed presidential aspirant Rick (“the Revolver”) Perry.
While the city has an ugly image nationally, a reputable annual survey finds that Houston residents generally like living here despite the city's drawbacks. A popular bumper sticker acknowledges both the city's negatives and its positives: "Houston: It's Worth It." We're finding things to like about it.
I can’t believe this. My list of positives is about as long as my list of negatives. I wasn’t expecting that.
On the whole, I think of Houston as a more Southern and less glamorous Los Angeles, for better or worse. Whether for better or for worse depends, as always, on the values of the evaluator.
I’ll be writing more about Houston and Texas in general from time to time for anyone who cares to learn more about the largest city in this vast state, and the fourth largest city in the country.
There are hundreds of bizarre subcultures in the Carbon City, including my own bizarre academic subculture. In future posts I’ll continue to reveal Houston as the urban twilight zone it is.