There is a mythology around Houston that forms an invisible barrier between it and the rest of the world. As long as I’ve lived outside of Texas, I’ve felt that people needed to understand the city in order to begin to understand me, and I’ve spent years trying to communicate half-formed theories about it. Now that I’m living here again, I have an opportunity to see it with fresh eyes and try to find out what exactly it is that makes its culture so incomprehensible when comparing it to urban life in other major metros.
The mythos of Houstonian identity is made up of cars, immigration, libertarianism, entrepreneurship, and energy. Bryan Washington has written beautifully about the culture of the city that is actually an accumulated disapora of cultures, that brings out a joy of driving, and that engenders a feeling of freewheeling discovery. I’m drawn into that romantic feeling on evenings when I’m driving down I-45, toward the part of town where I grew up, over bayous and through fields of tall grasses where oil taps hide behind laurel trees.
The weather is almost as temperate as southern California, but with intense thunderstorms, deep and fast torrents that drench you in just a second outside. The biggest grocery store chain, H-E-B, is a local one that features products from all over Texas and has a dedicated fan in every proud Houstonian. And when reading Twitter or listening to the news becomes overwhelming, it is genuinely a comfort to go to the store, or a restaurant, or a bar, or a cafe, and feel like here, in this town, people from every walk of life are happily coexisting, for at least just a moment.
Coming back here, I was afraid of falling back into the comfort, and I tried to push myself to ask what exactly lies under the surface. The first answer I found—the loudest above everything, and the one right in front of our eyes—is that Business. Rules. Everything.
Most people know that immigrants are core to Houston’s identity. It’s the liberal American’s paradise. “So diverse!” But what many don’t consider is that immigrants came to Houston because of jobs. They came to work in refineries and in oil fields and on rigs and fixing gear and welding and building machinery for the man. Immigrants like my parents stayed in Houston because they could go to the University of Houston for cheap, and graduates from U of H hire other graduates. The University, working with the many Fortune 500 companies based here, has been an engine for local success. It’s the reason why my brother, who develops software for process management systems in local factories, says he’s surprised and then reminded again where he is when he walks into a major oil and gas company and finds that it’s full of diverse and thriving teams. People, he says, seem happy.
It’s not surprising, then, that so many people in this city feel that businesses (Exxon, Shell, BP, Sysco, Halliburton, ConocoPhillips, etc.) are obligated to protect them. Businesses have protected them. Walking around public plazas or parks, you might notice that every sidewalk, every fountain, every decorative archway is stamped with a corporate donor. On Buffalo Bayou, “The Kinder Morgan Footpath” or “MD Anderson Bridge”. Every fun run, every festival, every place you might spend money, feeds back into the ecosystem of charitable giving that in turn launders and enables profit-making enterprise. It’s not unusual for city governments to raise private funds for public amenities, and in Houston it’s a racket. Companies are eager to put their name on public resources here, and given that the City is notoriously weak on planning and zoning, businesses are in some part responsible for any development that happens to improve the city.
The truth is that seeing what business has done for this city, it’s hard to criticize it the same way I would in another city. It’s hard to turn around and say that because I think that turning a profit off of public services is not ethical, companies should stop making life good and easy for so many privileged residents here. In fact, many Houstonians snap back very hard at any suggestion that businesses should stop “giving back” in the way that they have for the decades that Houston has remained on top.
But, put another way, it’s possible that Houstonians have been intentionally sheltered from the effects that Houston-based businesses have on its most vulnerable residents and on the rest of the world.
The American energy industry has grown to its current form on the back of Texas laborers, many of whom landed in the U.S. searching, some desperately, for work and opportunity. And in turn, the industry has taken care of its own. Houston is the truest living embodiment of the American neoliberal dream. The rising tide has created a place that stands largely on its own in a landscape of American cities on the path toward new urbanism. Houstonians will proudly tell you, “The housing crisis barely even hit here,” and they know that the rumors of World War III means the price of oil will rise, and more than anything else, it means a boon for the local community. It’s easy to point at these comments and bemoan an isolated or even close-minded worldview. But when so many came to Houston with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and have only recently seen their kids go to good colleges, get good jobs, and begin to establish lives of their own, it’s not surprising that our idea of societal well-being is a little bit myopic.
A rosy interpretation of the city is that Houston retains some traditional tenets of urban character (renowned cultural institutions, liberal-leaning politics), but has mostly carved out a new and different way of being free. People are concerned with their own success and that of their families, a vestige of immigrant hardship that also centers work ethic and self-determination. But inherent to this system is an implicit support for the continued success and profitability of massive industrial giants, which offer protection and safety to some of our communities and hide away the rest.
The tenets of urban character that Houston lacks are the first ones that urbanists from other major cities are quick to point out. The city is still struggling to become walkable. There are no chance encounters on the city’s sidewalks, no people-watching at the town square, no real marketplace of ideas that unites the city’s many small, nested hubs. Although many balk at Houstonian’s preferences for cars, it becomes obvious once here that a car-centric life suits a lot of people just fine, and, for young people at least, doesn’t have as much of a health impact as you might think.
Physically speaking, our communities are dispersed. And the real tragedy of this dispersion is that hardship becomes invisible. Houstonians have entrenched their lifestyles around a system that makes us constant consumers and drivers, and pulls us further apart from one another.
On a recent canvas for Bernie Sanders, we visited a neighborhood called Manchester, which is about 15 blocks bordered on two sides by a curving, raised interstate, and on the other two sides, by a Valero refinery. Kids who played on the basketball court at the local community center had drawn a mural of their version of Houston featuring high smokestacks, blinking refinery lights, and endless lines of cars. Although heightened mobility means that people who live in Manchester probably work all over town and experience various parts of the city, their homes are currently under threat of being purchased by Valero. The company is staging an aggressive campaign to buy every home out for their new refinery expansion. In telling this story elsewhere, a person I talked to who works at a local refinery said: “I don’t understand why they don’t just leave. Why won’t they sell? Their houses are terrible anyway.” The person said they had only ever driven through Manchester on their way to visit the refinery.
Houstonians do not understand what they can’t see or feel. In the weeks that I was living in Houston without a car, I walked or biked as many places as I could. On one 20-minute walk, I saw two different white bike memorials attached to lamp posts. I spoke with three different people living on the street who were stepping out into traffic asking for change. The next time I was in a car, I started to look for these memorials, look for people walking the streets, and from the road, it was hard for me to see them. I know they’re there, but I would get caught up in conversation, or in a good song, or in the feel of the cool AC, and they were gone.
In Houston, the hard things are so invisible that for many, they might as well not exist. My most cynical take is that businesses have a vested interest in ensuring that Houston remains a car city, not just because it keeps us buying gas and maintenance and new cars again, but also because it keeps us from talking to each other, from organizing. They want us to exercise more and more in our homes so that we stay out of the city’s third spaces, like the gym or the park. They want us to know exactly how unsafe it is to walk and bike so that we don’t see the white bike memorials, or the homeless, or the flooded sidewalks after a light rain, or the “for sale” signs propped up down popular streets in the loop. I think they’re worried that if the city becomes denser, if we become more like those cities from which we try so hard to set ourselves apart, that people will start to realize what’s wrong.
In my few conversations with people working in Houston’s civic sector, I’ve heard about groups like t.e.j.a.s., which organizes Toxic Tours of local plants and the neighborhoods that suffer from poor air and water quality. I’ve heard about Lone Star Legal Aid which is one of the few tenant representation groups dealing with the rapid gentrification of low-income neighborhoods inside the loop. There are groups like January Advisors and the Kinder Institute leading the charge for more data-driven discourse around Houston’s neighborhood issues, with the hope that information can illuminate exactly what Houstonians do or don’t see.
It’s likely that if Houstonians become more aware of the many issues being covered up by the allure of a comfortable lifestyle, the city’s politics will get more complicated. The 2016 election was a turning point for Houston, during which many residents were forced to admit that politics are in fact, sometimes, personal. If gentrification continues downtown, if flooding keeps destroying homes, if pedestrians keep dying, if air quality keeps getting worse, if traffic keeps increasing, if laborers keep getting used, the city might see another shift in the tenor of political action. Businesses and government won’t be able to make decisions together about the future of the city without any real oversight or consequence. People won’t trust blindly anymore that businesses and governments have their best interests at heart.