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Oh Houston


Today I saw Houston being discussed on a message board; there was a lot of complaining about how Houston is the victim of negative stereotypes. Houston is the city in which I lived for most of my adult life. From 15 to 17, then 21 to 34 – almost 15 years. Even if  I never set foot in it again, it would still take up a big chunk of my life. So I feel qualified to talk about it. And now, I will.

When the subject of Houston comes up, Houstonians get defensive. This defensiveness is mostly justified, though it has to be understood within the context of Texas itself. By comparison to its neighboring cities – Dallas and Austin are the two that come to mind – Houston is quite similar, and even has some advantages. At worst? It’s a letter grade below them.

You’d think you’d need a completely different scale, however, from the way people talk – as though Houston doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Austin, for example. Yet by the standards by which modern cities are judged,  Houston is more diverse and, visually at least, greener. Diversity is an important metric by itself and should get at least get it placed in the same category, if not an equal footing.

We can’t grade everything on a Texas scale, however. I think it’s true that, to the extent that Houston suffers from national & Southern stereotypes, Houston gets an F. In that sense, it deserves a promotion. There’s a  problem, however, in just how much that grade should be nudged up; if it should really earn a C, that’s a big step up, but still pretty mediocre from a holistic perspective. So I’ll try to grade it fairly, from my lengthy experience in the city.

First off, let’s not identify ourselves too strongly with wherever we happen to be. Cities the size of Houston are enormous and so big that, frankly, the individual basically doesn’t count in them. If I was a dollar Houston would be $4 million. Its population must fluctuate by at least 20 people per day. How important is one dollar in a $4 million bank account, when shifts like that are the norm? In speaking about a city, we’re talking about something much larger than ourselves, something that is basically unaffected whether we identify with it or not. But about Houston…

Houston has a couple of strong industries, oil and medicine. These attract highly educated white-collar professionals who make a lot of money, or, in other words, everybody’s favorite demographic group. The city doesn’t stop there, though. There’s also a huge and, for all practical purposes, oppressed underclass, which is low-wage and includes almost everybody else who’s not related to those industries.

Destitute children typical admissions to Dr Barnardo's Home in 1

Another day, another dollar.

Living in Houston, it’s easy to get this false sense that you belong to the working classes, because they’re all around you (though rarely recognized as such) and you indulge, as they do, in the occasional beer. But you’re still insulated from them, you don’t feel the same economic pressures than they do, and – worst of all – you’re unlikely to be stuck in a permanent career slump, as so many of them are.

If you replace ‘oil city’ with ‘oil economy’ you can see a lot of the same problems you see in states marked by those conditions. What problems petrodollar economies tend to have? Huge income  inequality and a borderline caste system, separating people into tranches – a small but very insular community of the well-off, and a giant but only half-visible community of the people who service them, and each other, on a tiny fraction of their income. Houston has that, too.

Then there’s diversity. That’s Houston unquestioned and largely unknown big win; on that front, it kills. It hit the news recently as the most diverse city in the US, and that rings true. It is very diverse; it’s Houston’s strongest point. It may be better there than anywhere else, but even so, it’s worth noting the ways this gets interrupted, doesn’t translate perfectly into the ideal society.  For one thing, Houston is very segregated, not officially, not in a way which (to my knowledge) can be blamed on any one person, but in a way that hides large sections of the city from view and practically renders them invisible.

I, for instance, never really understood the scope of Pasadena and the Hispanic community there until I started teaching in public schools; having lived in Houston before, I’d just never ventured into that part of the city. And that’s true for a lot of parts of Houston, not the trendy ones but large ethnic communities which basically never see any crumbs or support from the rest of the city, and sort of just sit there, rotting into themselves, disconnected from  surrounding prosperity. At some point it does become an issue, when large pieces of the city never grow beyond themselves and never register on outside radar screens.

These problems place some limits on the city’s cultural possibilities. First, we have those blinders that I’ve discussed above, which sit there like stones and never seem to be resolved or even improved. Outside of that, there’s no concerted effort towards civic improvement, nothing uniting or knitting people into a stronger whole. One way to think of it is: what is the dream, in Houston? Sometimes it just seems like it’s eat in marginally better restaurants and participate in sporting events. And… that’s it. When that’s the extent of the city’s goals, when it never pushes beyond those extremely modest goals, that’s a problem.

Also, think of these two industries, oil and medicine, which are both very heavy on the credentials, in a way which essentially throws up high barriers to people looking to improve their socioeconomic station in life. Then you have the legions of the unskilled, low-wage poor, who would really like to earn more but have a hard time doing it in dead-end retail and restaurant jobs. (People can always open a restaurant, but the market is saturated, and that can only support so many people). It creates this false impression of extremely stiff walls between people and classes, in a way that makes moving up for those on the bottom (as difficult as it already is) almost completely beyond everyone’s experience.

And then there’s politics.

Houston is the victim of a kind of political civil war. The state is waging war on Houston, on its interests, and will be for some time to come. Perry’s state isn’t just neutral towards Houston; it’s basically malevolent, actively blocking funds which would have gone to it if all other things were equal. Educationally, that’s a problem, which is why most teachers seem to exist in a constant state of siege. It also means that any efforts at civic improvement requiring money are a constant uphill battle, with  no help, ever, from outside. This counterweight doesn’t make things any better, especially contrasted with cities where things aren’t so dire.

Houston may be better than the national image, but it still has these structural problems which a quick pep talk or a change in perspective can’t fix. It’s better than a lot of places in America, but unless you have a couple of specific skill sets (re: energy, law, medicine) it has problems. I wish it wasn’t true, but that’s a big part of why I left.


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