Phillip Lopate Reflects On Houston

Houston, awash in oil money, has long aspired to become a “world-class city.” Seth Resnick / Science Faction-Corbis

The fourth-largest city in America, graced by lushly verdant natural beauty and impressive cultural amenities, Houston remains astonishingly underappreciated. Say its name to most urbanites, and they will wrinkle their noses, imagining a phalanx of soulless glass skyscrapers connected by freeways to endless suburbs—brash, boastful, essence of Texas. Ironically, most Texans also express a dislike for Houston, saying it is too big-city, too jangling, too much like New York. Maybe that’s why I found it so congenial when, during the 1980s, lured by a university teaching job, I transplanted myself there from Manhattan.

I had come down with the usual stereotyped trepidations, thinking to find myself a nerdy stranger amid gun-toting truckdrivers and racist fanatics. In short order I was embraced by the same types who had been my friends in New York: artists, gays, intellectuals, minorities. The difference is that the arts community is much more supportive and less competitive than in New York. There is also a hardy tradition of liberalism (think Molly Ivins, The Texas Observer, Mickey Leland), and the town has a history of tolerance—witness its graceful transition to desegregation when other Southern cities were boiling over, or the recent election of its first lesbian mayor.

When I first arrived, I was amused at the urgency with which Houston, awash in oil money, seemed to want to put itself across as a “world-class city.” Then the bust came in 1982, and since then it has ridden a roller coaster of financial highs and lows and in the process has developed a calm acceptance of its status. However unfair the outside world’s judgment, the locals are too busy improving the place to care about it anymore.

In 1950 the city was still half sleepy, half go-getter, with 500,000 inhabitants—a compact place that had a functioning downtown with movie theaters and trolleys; then it went through a humongous growth spurt, quintupling in population, gobbling up all the surrounding land, until it became a notorious car city with more square mileage than Los Angeles. The original central area was girded with a circular highway, Route 610, known as the Loop, and everything outside the Loop became the laboratory for America’s suburbia: freeways, cul-de-sacs, strip malls, office parks, endless motel courts.

When I think of Houston I try to forget all that sprawl and my mind drifts to the area inside the Loop, with its museums, restaurants, parks, universities, and sweet, walkable neighborhoods. I think of beautiful Shadyside, whose boulevards are canopied with live oak trees, or the Heights, an area long hospitable to bohemians, with its funky deep-porch bungalows and Quonset-hut artist studios, or the Museum of Fine Arts, which boasts a Mies van der Rohe pavilion and a new building designed by Rafael Moneo and a superb collection.

I think of moist spring nights with mist settling over the lampposts, and strolls along the Buffalo Bayou; I think of the elegant, spare St. Thomas campus and the jewellike Bell Park and the nearby townhouses—trim modern cigarette cases by unsung Houston masters like Howard Barnstone. I think of the wealthy homes in the River Oaks, some McMansions but others tasteful spreads, like the bougainvillea-drenched villas by another local master, John Staub. I think of the deli on Taft Street specializing in po’ boys, and the zydeco clubs and jazz bars and blues joints tucked into mostly black neighborhoods—for Houston is East Texas, part of the pine forest that begins outside New Orleans, much closer to Louisiana in spirit than cattle Texas.

Contrary to the myth of boastful Houston, it’s actually quite secretive and reserved; you have to dig to find its charms, but they are so plentiful once you get clued in. There are populist grace notes like the Orange House or the Beer Can house. It’s a peculiar place, lots of lonesome warehouses and ice houses and the smell of Tex-Mex empanadas and taco sauce lingering in the warm, humid air.

There are those who appreciate Houston for what it is, and want to preserve its unique character and make it even more intensely so. The paradox is that this city—long derided as a town without zoning—has nurtured a school of highly sophisticated urbanist thinkers who have championed the new light-rail system, and the extensive tree plantings along the thoroughfares, and the improvements to Hermann Park and Discovery Green. Reversing the outflow, Houstonians have started moving back to the central city from the suburbs, and developers have filled in the weed-choked lots with townhouses. It may never be a “world-class city,” but its quiet, steady progress is certainly worth celebrating.