Saturday, August 21, 2004


Is Houston worth it?

My wife and I have a running debate about which of our native cities is better: San Antonio or Houston. I'm in San Antonio's corner, and I usually joke to my wife that it's hardly a fair fight to pit my fair city against the sprawling tangle of interstates and smokestacks known as Houston.

This is the kind of thing that current or former Texans can get pretty worked up about. Even my wife will admit that Houstonians bristle easily in behalf of home. For example, to tell a Houstonian you are even thinking of visiting Dallas-Fort Worth is a sure way to give offense. (Consider yourself warned, and remember that concealed handguns are legal in Texas.)

Both of us were therefore interested to discover this new website: "Houston. It's Worth It." (Flash required.) The site takes a reverse-psychology approach to city boosterism by confessing to Houston's many afflictions, only then to declare with defiant braggadocio that it's worth it to live there. The site is sort of like a community blog; it allows Houstonians to complain about the city's problems but still defend its unique charms. Here are some samples:
Methinks these people protest too much, but decide for yourself. And you can read about the program in the New York Times.

My wife has just learned that I am writing a post about Houston and has made veiled threats about what will happen if I "say mean things." I should publish before I chicken out.

Collective Improvisation:
Hi everyone. This is Caleb’s wife. Let me start by making a clarification: my threats toward Caleb were not “veiled.” They were in fact very clear, but I will spare you the intimate details.

And why shouldn’t I be offended when my husband rejects my home city? It played an immeasurable role in who I became. A rejection of my beloved Houston is a rejection of me.

In Houston, I learned to play YMCA basketball under the watchful eye of caring and supportive adults. My first season my teammates passed me the ball exactly twice. Once I shot a complete airball, and once I managed to pass it away. My second season, though, I was the leading scorer. It was the more humbling season, though, because I discovered that I did not receive any more playing time. YMCA rules state that everyone gets to play at least two quarters. It wasn’t about winning or being a star, it was about learning and playing. In other cities, more competitive recreation leagues rule. But in Houston, the YMCA is home to youth sports.

In Houston, I learned how important community was. At age 6, when I was diagnosed with a rare but dangerous blood disorder, people came out of the woodwork to help. My progress and recovery was tracked by the local paper. You have heard older generations say that if they got punished at school, punishment at home was bound to follow. In my community the opposite was true as well. I remember after one misguided teenage weekend, I was thrilled when Monday morning came and I could get away from the “I’m so disappointed in you” looks from my parents. But when I arrived at school, my student council sponsor had somehow found out as well, and gave me a stern lecture. Many New Yorkers talked about how September 11th changed the city, how people looked each other in the eye and said hello. How unfortunate that it took an event of such magnitude for people to become friendly. Houston has always been that way!

In Houston, I learned to love football. During my sophomore year, my suburban community high school football team broke the record for the longest losing streak. Seven years without a district win. In Texas, this should spell doom, but it didn’t. We consistently sold out of tickets for the games. Every weekend we filled the stands, hopeful that this would be our night, and determined not to give up if it wasn’t. While some may point to this as an example of how inflated the attention for football can be, I saw it as positive thing. The strongest, most well supported organizations at our school were associated with football. Our award winning marching band, our nationally ranked drill team, the spirit committee of the Student Council. These things are important. Extra-curricular activities require patience, dedication, and people skills. I get so frustrated by the lack of support for clubs and sports here on the east coast. -Gasp!- Am I, a high school teacher myself, suggesting that we sometimes get too wrapped up in academics? Why, yes, I am. The students at the school where I teach lead such sad, sad lives, obsessing about SAT’s and Ivy league schools. Those things are important, but material knowledge only gets you so far. I’ve been teaching over a year now, and while there are some things I definitely want to improve on, I think that the personal skills I developed in high school played the most significant role in my success so far. Had it not been for those opportunities in my Houston community, I might have ended up just some history PhD with lots of knowledge and not a lick of sense in relating to other people. (A note: I am not in any way suggesting that this problem afflicts Caleb. In fact, those of you that know him best know that he is an excellent teacher and leader. But let’s face it, there are plenty that we know that aren’t so lucky…)

In Houston, I learned the importance of family. One reason people are so reluctant to leave the city is because that’s where their roots are. In Houston, we always had the Wednesday before Thanksgiving off, and at least two weeks for Christmas. That was because if, God forbid, your family didn’t live in the area, you would need time to travel. Everyone in Houston knows that a holiday without family is no holiday at all.

Most importantly, in Houston I learned that appearances don’t matter. It’s a lesson those of you who criticize the city should take to heart. What do too many billboards and too much cement really tell you about the “inside” of a city? What does it tell you about the actual people living there? Perhaps it suggests that people in Houston are too concerned about money or progress. Forgive me if I think that every other city in the world has that problem, too. It’s just that a few politicians many years back thought that individual liberty ruled out over those particular restrictions. I’m sorry they came to that conclusion, but it doesn’t mean my city isn’t lovable. Judging a city by its climate or appearance is the same as choosing friends based on looks or money. It’s wrong and it’s snobby. So I suggest those of you out there that claim to be open-minded, cosmopolitan, or accepting stop being so hypocritical and give Houston a chance. It’s worth it.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 8/21/2004 02:26:00 PM : Permalink  

Well, I deserved that. Not because I myself reject Houston (as my wife Brandy knows, I really am fond of the city for the same reasons that she is), but because my post did play to the snickering and dismissive attitude that many edumicated people have about Texas cities, and Houston in particular.

Since coming to an institution of higher learning on the east coast, I've found that admitting to being a native Texan is almost sure to provoke grimaces. And I think Brandy is absolutely right that it is not open-minded to judge a city by its stereotypes, as many otherwise open-minded people do. Take, for instance, these recent documentaries on Texas, whose laughing contempt for the state is thinly veiled (about as thinly veiled as were Brandy's very clear threats).

It's interesting, too, how even those people whom East-Coasters view as "atypical" Texans tend to reinforce their negative stereotypes. When the Dixie Chicks told a British audience that not all Texans were proud of George W. Bush, the media gleefully covered the backlash in Texas with stories on CD-burning bonfires. The implication of some stories was that Texans really were intolerant brutes, a conclusion precisely the opposite of what the Dixie Chicks were trying to say.

I think Brandy is also right that what makes cities and places "worth it" really have little to do with things like zoning laws and highway planning. (I take full responsibility for implying otherwise in my post.) What makes places worth it are people, community, memories. It's a testament to both San Antonio and Houston that Brandy and I feel so attached to the places where we grew up--a kind of attachment that is increasingly rare in urban centers around the country. All of which is to say that, in all seriousness, Houston is worth it, and so is Texas.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 8/21/2004 03:52:00 PM : Permalink  

Love for your home town is not a rational matter. Now, I left mine years ago. I've no particular wish to return. It's boring. But nonetheless no one but me is allowed to slag it off...

Posted by Blogger Sharon on 8/21/2004 04:40:00 PM : Permalink  

I hate to say it, but couldn't every point your wife made about Houston be made by almost anyone about almost any city? (Except, I suspect, Detroit.) I could say almost the same things in almost the same way about Evansville. What determines a city's "worth" is not just how its private sphere operates, but how its public life--its actual civic sphere--is created, maintained and experienced.

There are few cities of significant size outside of the Northeast in the United States that really manage to succeed at creating a civic space--San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle spring readily to mind, although San Antonio may well be like that too.

This is not a knock against Houston or Nashville or any other non-Northeastern American city (well, except Phoenix), it is a simple reflection of the immaturity and car-dependence of these new cities. Perhaps in fifty years or so....

Posted by Blogger P.M., Teaching Assistant on 8/21/2004 08:17:00 PM : Permalink  

I agree that civic space helps create conditions for a public sense of community; it decreases a population's tendency to bowl (and drive) alone. And P.M. is right that southern cities in particular often lack such civic spaces. Even though (or perhaps because) we grew up in Texas, we are now partial to the "walking cities" that one is more likely to find in the North and Europe.

But I'm not sure I would argue that such classical city plans are by themselves more likely to create civic feeling. Civic space is an enabling condition for the creation of community, but it is neither necessary or sufficient.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 8/22/2004 02:58:00 PM : Permalink  

P.M., Teaching Assistant, is a nom de blogger--it's really just Paul Musgrave. Boring and irrelevant story behind it.

Classical city plans--taking this VERY broadly, to include, say, the old Tian-an-men Square, the Piazza San Marco, the post-1870s Paris, Chelsea, and Manhattan--are neither necessary nor sufficient for a public space, but they are certainly conducive to it. And I would argue very strongly that freeways and onramps are not only neither necessary nor sufficient, but are antagonistic to the creation of a shared and valued area. (Am I a New Urbanist? Probably!)

There are other sorts of public spaces, but since we do not live in villages anymore and because we live in cities with many religions, they are less and less important.

Posted by Blogger P.M., Teaching Assistant on 8/23/2004 11:54:00 AM : Permalink  

I'll be the last to argue that freeways and on-ramps are good things. I think Brandy and I both tend to agree that these are Houston's great weaknesses. (Although most Houstonians will tell you that Dallas highways are worse, and they may be right.) In fact, Brandy's ace in the hole in our arguments about San Antonio is that my fair city is sadly becoming more and more like Houston in this respect: freeways upon freeways upon freeways ...

I also agree that civic spaces are conducive to community, although I still want to say that they are not necessarily so.

One reason for hedging is that so much of what passes for "civic" space today is really "commercial" space. Developers have become pretty shameless about packaging new malls and shopping strips as "promenades" or "villages." If this is what civic community has come to--a space in which to spend money together--then I wonder whether it's possible to preserve the "classical" model of public space offered by some of the cities you list. (See this related post at Crooked Timber, and be sure to follow the link. Or consider what Sydney is doing with its old Olympic spaces.)

Moreover, to create these pseudo-civic-commercial spaces, especially in cities that are already gung-ho about driving, inevitably means more concrete and more asphault. So today, developing civic space where it doesn't already exist often requires feeding the mouth that bites us, so to speak.

But that's a tangential point. We completely agree both in our antipathy for highways and in our sympathy for classical civic spaces in older cities.

Thanks for the discussion, Paul! I had an idea P.M. might be you.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 8/23/2004 09:34:00 PM : Permalink  

It was a nice discussion.

On this issue, I borrow my ideas--but not my temperament!--from a number of writers, including Scott Russell Sanders and James Howard Kunstler. (Having three names is apparently requisite.) Sanders is online here and there, but Kunstler has a nice archive at I agree with you that commercialization can be a bad thing, but having visited Florence, Venice, the City and the Ginza, I have to "nuance", as Dubya would say, your statement by pointing out that commerce is not of itself a bad thing. Each of those cities' public spaces was enriched by commerce, and especially mercantile commerce in three of them.

But! These things will work themselves out eventually; today's Wall Street Journal assures me that gas prices have begun a long and steady rise. Cars have, I hope, as long on this earth as the uniformed maid did in the Edwardian period.

Posted by Blogger P.M., Teaching Assistant on 8/24/2004 01:17:00 AM : Permalink  

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Posted by Blogger P.M., Teaching Assistant on 8/24/2004 01:17:00 AM : Permalink  

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Posted by Blogger P.M., Teaching Assistant on 8/24/2004 01:17:00 AM : Permalink  

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Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 8/24/2004 09:34:00 AM : Permalink  

Just to explain the deleted posts: Blogger gave Paul problems with posting his last comment (the last line of which is priceless), so it ended up appearing several times. I just deleted the extra copies. No censorship here!

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 8/24/2004 09:37:00 AM : Permalink  

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