Houston Holds its Own

The cashier at a CD store in Houston was coughing and sneezing. Are you ok? Someone asked. “Just my allergies,” he replied. “It isn’t the first time I said it: people don’t move to Houston for their health.”

Houston is a city some people, including those in much of Texas, love to hate. It just isn’t an attractive city and the weather is often unbearable. Physically, it’s a mishmash of commercial and residential, a few blocks of swanky shopping districts and then vacant lots. New urban high-rises and low-density retail development seeming to be at odds. Disorder, even ugliness reigns supreme.

So? What’s my point?

I live in Dallas. Here, it’s almost a prerequisite that I don’t like Houston. But I do like Houston. It’s also hard to find a Houstonian who doesn’t like Houston. Insiders know what outsiders can’t instantly see. In Houston, there is a lot to like.

Fortune

Where weather and charm fails, a happy stomach helps. I can’t imagine many cities in Texas, and only a handful in the U.S. can compete with the food in Houston. I’m not talking about those often pretentious, trendy restaurants opened by celebrity chefs where you go to be seen. Dallas has plenty of those places. I am talking about the authentic food options that exist only because there is a large enough ethnic population, and those familiar with it, to support it. Or the food combinations that come from a clash of cultures. In terms of large metros, Houston ranks behind San Jose and New York while tieing with Oakland, CA in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity. The largest ethnic group here doesn’t make up more than 40 percent.

If you haven’t seen Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown show on Houston, it’s a must see to get a pretty good idea about the food options here. I would also suggest it for anyone with the opinion that immigration is a bad thing. What you find in Houston can only be found in America and is in every sense of the word American.

Great food and plenty of it means Houstonians aren’t the slimmest bunch (though Dallas is fatter), in part because they drive around a lot. In many places, Houston isn’t very walkable, and the transit doesn’t seem to be anything to write home about (even to Dallas), but the parks are something for most Texan’s to envy. Memorial Park is enormous and very well used, at least on a Sunday in February. The more formal and manicured Hermann Park in the museum district is also something more familiar to residents of the older cities, primarily in the Northeast. What makes a good “park” to me is that it’s not just a loop or a linear trail, it has four sides and allows for the opportunity to get “lost.” From what I have seen, they are well-used despite the heat.

Houston is culturally rich. I can’t imagine lacking for art openings or museum shows. Museum of Fine Arts Houston is major. At any given time there are a half dozen exhibits. Plus Houston has the Menil, the Art League and other art destinations. It also helps to have a major university inside city limits. Rice University is home to the Asia Society and the newly-opened Moody Center for the Arts. Plus who can tire of taking in the sunset at Skyspace.

Skyspace at Rice University in Houston
Sunset at Skyspace, Rice University

As far as the physical city, you may have heard Houston doesn’t have zoning. As you can imagine, that brings about a different sort of place. While there may be blocks here and there with missing sidewalks, the free-range development approach allows for more of a mix of retail and residential. It also contributes to lower construction costs, which helps with affordability. Houston is one of the most affordable big cities (although don’t forget to account for the cost of increased travel times in a spread-out region, necessity of car ownership, etc).

On my trips to Houston, I have been on the lookout for “new urban” mixed-use areas comparable to West Village in Uptown Dallas. While Houston’s MidTown area is coming along, I haven’t found anything quite like West Village, nothing “built-right” from the ground up. Yet I am unsure that even if executed flawlessly the walkable mixed-use areas can compete with the mix of old and new despite the variations in density. Which is better, pretty and perfect, or real?

Houston
Recently Constructed Apartment Building in Houston

Houston, despite its flaws, is a culturally-rich place that is only discovered with time. Don’t let the weather scare you away either, most residents would say it’s a good place to live. After a few trips, I discovered it is a really good place to visit. In terms of people, places, and experiences, I’ve found a real city, and have yet to experience a moment of visual or culinary boredom.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me