In the past, whenever I’ve told someone that Houston is my hometown, more often than not, I’d get a kind of blank, pitying look. People tell me that they’ve either never been or that they’ve only passed through on their way to somewhere else.
It’s hard to take too personally. America’s fourth-largest city is not only hot and humid, but also sprawling and nearly impossible to get around by foot or public transit. By now you’ve heard that there’s famously no zoning in Houston, which means that the city is also infamously ugly. (One revelatory, self-deprecating bumper sticker around town answers “Keep Austin Weird” with “Keep Houston Ugly.”)
As that unprecedented cataclysm struck the Bayou City, the event drew some comparisons to the scope and horror of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. For people seemingly everywhere, the 2005 disaster inspired reminiscences rich with second lines, cobblestoned streets, vacation photos, and jazz. Harvey, on the other hand, has few outsiders waxing poetic. From my faraway perch, the connection feels less personal with dissections of urban infrastructure replacing elegies about culture lost. Here’s what everyone is missing.
Houston’s haphazard landscape has long meant that the city’s idiosyncrasies are never hidden. You’ll find some of the best taquerias and Vietnamese food in strip malls. The world-class art, opera, and ballet are enjoyed by university professors and young professionals and funded by oil executives.
Houston is flat, but driving around as a teenager—a local pastime if there ever were one—the circular highways spanned country, suburban, urban topographies. The port gave way to the wards and industrial became commercial and then residential again.
One of my favorite places in Houston is still The Astrodome, the world’s first domed stadium and certainly the ugliest major attraction to ever claim the mantle of 8th Wonder of the World. The famed Texas writer Larry McMurtry once described it as “the working end of the world’s largest deodorant stick.”
I still have fond memories of rodeos there, but also pro football games. Every year, my dad and I had the same seats above the end zone behind a row of genuine Texas roughnecks, who would smuggle in whiskey in fake plastic binoculars and who also consoled me when I broke into tears after the Houston Oilers lost big games (which they tended to do heartbreaking fashion). We had each other until the team moved away to Tennessee.
One of The Astrodome’s last major functions was as an emergency shelter in 2005 for some of the 100,000 Katrina evacuees from New Orleans. In what’s now an unfathomable double tragedy, tens of thousands of these refugees stayed to live in Houston permanently, only to relive another nightmare of displacement. A few years after Katrina, The Dome was deemed unusable and closed; nearly a decade later, the city remains either unable or unwilling to tear it down.
In the place of these remembrances, much is being written about the dangers of Houston’s dizzying growth. And while that certainly can be measured in developments, it can also be measured in communities. In recent decades, Houston surged to become the most ethnically diverse metropolis in the country. In 1970, nearly 63 percent of Houston’s population was white; in 2010, that figure was roughly 25 percent and shrinking.
This shift in demography isn’t a result of the city’s characteristic lack of planning, but rather from an ethos of openness and possibility. Writing in The New Yorker last week, Jia Tolentino noted that Houston “currently resettles twenty-five of every thousand refugees that the United Nations resettles anywhere,” a rate higher than all U.S. cities and some countries. That Houston became the largest American city to elect (and re-elect) an openly gay mayor in 2009 is remarkable only in how utterly unremarkable the milestone was to the city voters. According to U.S. Census data, 145 languages are now spoken in Houston.
When Harvey hit, it imperiled the special and unlikely. As the waters rose, impromptu flotillas of boat and kayak and raft owners took it upon themselves to answer calls for help and save far-flung strangers from flooding homes and rooftops. When one corrupt mega-church failed to open its doors as a shelter, others pointed to the several area mosques that did. In another surreal moment, a local reporter who was broadcasting live on the air spotted a truck driver stuck inside a cab filling up with water and managed to flag down a rescue vehicle with a boat that saved his life.
This is the spirit that ensured a patchwork metropolis of disparate people would flourish a sweltering bayou. This is the city that not only put a man on the moon, but also made sure that he got back home. That’s in part because Houston is not so much a place to visit, as it is a place to live.