Saturday, January 29, 2011

Houston, We Have a Problem.

Yes, I’m afraid you do, oh fourth largest city in the United States.  Let’s be honest, if someone says the name of one of America’s three more populated cities, New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, there is an immediate sense of energy in the air.  But mention Houston—the true energy capital of the world—and the enthusiasm meter flatlines.

"Smokey City" Pittsburgh, midday 1940
I know that syndrome far too well, for I grew up in a place long-suffering from the same ailment: poor public image management.  To this day people ask me if Pittsburgh still is as smoke-filled as it was in the “old days.”  Since the skies over Pittsburgh have been clear since the late 1940’s, and Forbes Magazine (again) picked Pittsburgh as “America’s most livable city,” I’m not quite sure how to respond to such an ill-informed comment other than with a fist-pumping “GO STEELERS.”  [No offense intended to the wonderful folks of Green Bay, Wisconsin, but one must stick with one’s hometown football team in the Super Bowl, unless of course you happen to be the native Pittsburgher coach of the Packers.]
Sam Houston (1793-1863)

But this is not about expressions of civic pride for Pittsburgh.  This is about Space City/Bayou City/H-Town.  And there are at least a half-dozen more nicknames for that southeast Texas metropolis down by the Gulf of Mexico created by two New Yorkers (the Allen Brothers) in 1836 and named after the President of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston.  Yes, Texas was indeed an independent country between 1836 and 1845 and some down here seem to long for those days to return.

As far as I can tell, Houston generally gets picked-on in one of three ways: for having hot humid summers, no zoning, and one of the fattest populations in the United States.  But the weather is really no different from Florida, there are beautiful residential communities to be found all over the city, and at least four other Texas towns rank higher than Houston on the “fat list.”  Besides, “Fat City” is the nickname for New Orleans.

Murder By The Book, Houston
So, why am I suddenly springing to the defense of a city I’m just coming to know? Answer: because it’s the right thing to do.  The fact my son and his family just moved there and I kicked off my book tour this week for Prey on Patmos at Houston’s wonderful Murder By The Book is purely coincidental.

What is the real Houston?  Let’s start off with a pithy description given to me by a Houstonian.  “Houston is Los Angeles without the pretensions.”  Having far more friends in Los Angeles than Green Bay, I hasten to say those are not my words, but at least it’s a place to start.

So, how do those two great cities compare?

Downtown Houston
Though both LA and Houston have distinct downtown areas, to get around either city you must live in your car because mass transit is virtually non-existent.  Nor does either have what most would consider traditional, neighborhood street life; rather each seems an amalgam of small towns connected by freeways.  Yes, Houston is flat while LA has its mountains and canyons, but that is a difference likely lost on most commuters plodding along on their respective, clogged rush-hour freeways.

Downtown Los Angeles
On the natural disaster front, LA has its earthquakes, Houston its hurricanes.  A tradeoff.

Both cities have terrific restaurants, shopping, and civic pride.  Both have lovely residential communities, though the price of a home in Houston is likely to be one-tenth that of a similar one in LA.

1956 film of Edna Ferber novel
But how can one possibly find a comparison in Houston to the glitzy intriguing world of LA’s Hollywood.  Simple, ever hear of Enron?  Yes, LA may have the movie business, but Houston has big oil, big gas, big medicine, and the U.S. Space industry.  When is the last time you heard a commercial on an LA radio station for Saudi Aramco oil soliciting teachers to relocate to Saudi Arabia?  Or on behalf of the C.I.A. offering career opportunities in the National Clandestine Services?  The stories filmed in LA arise out of lives lived in Houston.  [Okay, a bit dramatic, but you get the point.]

Stop! you say.  Everyone knows Houston is redneck, while LA is
Houston's Wunsche Bros. in Old Town Spring
chic and sophisticated.  Not sure what that means.  Yes, politics in Houston is more conservative than in LA, but isn’t the fairer measure of a people the way they treat others rather than the color of their necks?  Houston’s robust economy has and continues to welcome those fleeing difficult economic times elsewhere in the country, and let’s not forget how wide Houston opened its heart to the rush of New Orleans refugees fleeing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Honorable Mayor of Houston

And, oh yes, this redneck, conservative town just elected a new mayor, Annise Parker.  A Democrat, female, and the first elected mayor of a U.S. city with over a million residents who is openly gay—something NYC, LA, and Chicago haven’t come close to doing.

Now, about managing that public image thing…win a Super Bowl (or seven), it does wonders.
Downtown Pittsburgh today
By the way, tonight (Saturday) at 5 PM I'll be at Poisoned Pen Books in Scottsdale, Arizona for a joint good time event and signing with Donis Case, Dana Stabenow, and Tina Whittle, and on Monday at noon I'll be at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop.  I'd mention my signing next Saturday at M is For Mystery in San Mateo, California, but I think I'll save that bit of BSP for next Saturday's piece.

Jeff – Saturday


  1. It isn't a surprise, Jeff, that the CIA is recruiting in Houston or any part of Texas. The politics of that state place the residents firmly in the conservative column.

    I do not doubt the generosity of the people of Houston. However, if the former governor of the state had acted in a timely fashion regarding Katrina, Houston might not have needed to take in the residents of the city that is no more.

    As to natural disasters, I would take a hurricane over an earthquake. New England is on the hurricane track; it has been very lucky that it hasn't had an Andrew level storm in seventy years. But hurricanes aren't usually surprises. Trackers watch those things as they travel from the coast of Africa. Earthquakes give no warning. No one has a chance to load up on batteries, milk and bread. Like tornadoes, earthquakes come as a complete surprise. So, Houston is better off in the natural disaster competition than Los Angeles. I don't know if that makes Houston the winner or the loser.

    Enjoy your time in Houston. Now you have the best excuse to be a frequent visitor.


  2. Houston's problem is it is dull. No major disasters (name their last hurricane), no city riots, nothing to get the attention of the media. Nope, just happy nice people sharing a city and working together. Who is going to notice that?

  3. Hey, Jeff -- two great bookstores. say hi for me to Barbara and all at Poisoned Pen and everyone in Seattle. Wish I could be there.

  4. Beth, having moved on to Scottsdale and read your observation on CA earthquakes, I decided to invest in "will soon be oceanfront property" on the west side of town.:)

    Michael, I was wondering why I saw so many "down with Ike signs" around Houston. I mean they couldn't still be bearing that grudge. Then, when I read your comment I realized why: Ike was the last really big hurricane to do a job on Houston, but that was less than 3 years ago...and it's still not fully recovered.

    Tim. They love you in Scottsdale. At least Barbara does. She's my editor by the way and when I mentioned "your quote" at an author event tonight with Donis Casey, Dana Stabenow, and Tina Whittle, Barbara said, "HE"S TERRIFIC." I tried to dissuade her of course, but to no avail. I'll see what I can do for you in Seattle.

  5. Jeff--

    Illinois has had a closeted gay governor and Chicago a closeted gay mayor. Both men.

    About a year before the election, the gubernatorial candidate married a woman who worked in his office, who provided him with great cover; she got pregnant during the campaign. At the time I toyed with writing a book about a speechwriter who is tasked with knocking up his gay boss' spouse; but I was busy with other stuff at the time . Years later the guv tried to pay his wife back by getting her appointed as a Federal judge; it got shot down by her vast lack of qualifications.

    Chicago's closeted gay mayor was less ambitious; he simply had an engagement that lasted something like twenty years. But somehow his fiancee rarely got invited to show up with him at ceremonial and social events.


  6. Lenny,

    Does that mean ixnay on flowers to our nigh fortnight rendezvous?


  7. J--

    Your flowers would be wasted on me. I am no governor or mayor.

    On the other hand I spent the first fifteen years of my adult life doing professional theater, so having some guy flirt with me is not a shock.

    For me or my wife.

    In fact, having a man and/or woman flirt with one and/or both of us is hardly unprecedented.

    The civilian world is still way too skittish about this stuff.