The Stepchild

i282600889613257110._szw1280h1280_Houston is a city invented in the minds of real estate brokers and businessmen. Geographically it had no features that might have indicated that it would one day  become a mega power. It is as flat as a place can be, hot for most of the year, devoid of rivers linking it to other places. The early hucksters who first imagined building a town in  Houston often sold its potential to out of town folk with posters depicting a quaint village surrounded by mountains. When the individuals who had bought into the fake depictions arrived they usually had no means of doing anything other than staying even though they had been duped. 

Somehow Houston attracted innovators and investors with grand ideas. These were men who convinced railroad magnates to tie the city into the commercial system that crisscrossed the country. They were the same types who conceived the plan of connecting Houston with the Gulf of Mexico by building an artificial route to the sea via a ship channel. The early Houstonians were visionary enough to create a university that would become known as “the Harvard of the South.” They recruited talented young doctors to found medical facilities that would grow into a world renowned center of excellence. When World War II broke out the city of Houston was poised to tackle the business of producing the necessities of battle. By 1948, Houston was a city on the move and somehow its growth never stopped. Today it is the fourth largest city in the United States and forecasters predict that it will overtake Chicago in the next two decades. 

In spite of its many wonders, Houston still gets little respect from the world at large. It is a kind of stepchild in the grand scheme of things. When asked about world class cities most people will name Dallas long before they even think of Houston. Even though Houston boasts some of the best food in the country, most folks would consider San Francisco, Chicago, New York, or New Orleans as epicurean centers but not even think to list Houston. Descriptions of Houston from outsiders center on words like “ugly” or “red neck.” In fact, Houston is often depicted as a town with grease under its fingernails. The old saw is that it is a great place to find work but hardly a travel destination. The one time that the Rockets won back to back national championships in basketball the critique was that it only happened because Michael Jordan had quit playing for Chicago. 

Of late Houston has indeed become a bit downtrodden. The old spark that made anything seem possible appears to have faded a bit. The streets are marked with potholes. Entire sections of the city that were once lovely are in need of fresh paint and repair. When locales were competing for one of the NASA shuttlecraft the city hardly made an effort and its lack of enthusiasm resulted in no shuttle for what had once been Space City USA. Houston can boast of being the most diverse city in the country but it isn’t quite sure what that actually means for the future. The citizenry still brags about Rice University but only gives cursory attention the the University of Houston. Improvement projects languish and, unlike in the past, there does not appear to be an exciting plan for the future. Those with vision sometimes seem to be pushing a boulder uphill in their fight to both preserve the city’s history and create exciting possibilities for the next generation. 

I love Houston! I was born here and so was my mother. I flinch with a bit of anger whenever I hear people bashing my hometown. I don’t mind constructive criticism because I understand all too well the problems of the city but I can’t abide those who just find fault with every little aspect of Houston. I grow weary of hearing our city lose in comparisons with other Texas towns. I’d like to note that we certainly have traffic problems here but our congestion has nothing over the tie ups in Austin and Dallas. We may have heat but it doesn’t compare to the desert-like conditions of San Antonio. 

When it comes to down to earth, generous citizens it’s difficult to find another place with so many extraordinary people than Houston. Houston has as many entertainment venues as the most cosmopolitan cities anywhere perhaps with the exception of New York City. The food choices are extraordinary and with few rivals. Houston is a great place to live and work and raise a family and always has been. It is a hub from which it’s quite easy to branch out in all directions. 

So I still wonder why Houston seems to have such a tarnished and lackluster reputation with the outside world. Is it ignorance of the facts or a bit of snobbishness that keeps our fair city from being adequately appreciated? I really don’t know for certain. What I do believe is that Houston is one of the most misunderstood places on earth. I often get the sense that those who have never been here actually believe that we all run around wearing cowboy hats and brandishing guns. Much of the outside world sees us as being loutish and unsophisticated, a reputation born from stereotypes that have never really applied to our town. 

I’m not quite sure what Houston needs to do to gain the respect that it deserves. Our leaders might start by cleaning up the roadways and thinking about how to transform our system of bayous into the beautiful natural wonders that they were meant to be. All of the citizenry might take a bit more pride in the neighborhoods and schools. It doesn’t take much to pick up trash, trim grass, and slap a bit of paint on the side of a building. With community efforts a transformation would be much simpler than one might think. A continuation of mass transit expansion is a step toward the future. There needs to be a focus on creating more parks and green spaces inside the city. Most of all the citizens of Houston must become as enthusiastic about the city as the early pioneers were. We should be cheerleaders wherever we go. A Houstonian shouldn’t have to think about whether to support the Astros or the Rangers, the Texans or the Cowboys, the Rockets or the Spurs. We should all be proud of the Houston Cougars and Rice Owls. When asked to describe our town the words should include superlatives. 

Houston is a grand city. There is no reason whatsoever for any of us to feel anything other than great pride. I have traveled to virtually all of the cities across the country and while each has a certain character, none of them have the exuberance of Houston. This crazy idea of a town has sent men to the moon and launched a thousand dreams. Houston is living, breathing proof that no matter how crazy an idea may sound it just might work with a bit of vision and determination. Who would have thought that a once mosquito infested swampy berg would one day become the fourth largest city in the greatest nation on earth? The future is Houston’s if only its citizens choose to grab it.

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