You Never Leave Houston

houston

Houston, the fourth-largest city in America, has a self-esteem problem. Our local boosters are continuously looking for new branding approaches, commissioning expensive ads and websites extolling our municipal virtues. There was “Houston, It’s worth it;” “Houston is hip/tasty/inspired,” and the latest “Houston, the city without limits.” The city’s younger residents are partial to the more profane “Fuck You, Houston’s Awesome,” in response to criticisms of the city. There are many reasons for this insecurity. For Houstonians, who know of our parks, our museums, our bars, our restaurants, our people, it can feel like the rest of the country has settled on an idea of the city that’s still stuck on fading memories of Urban Cowboy. There is also the nagging sense that perhaps they’re right; that Houston, for all of its diversity, for all of its affordability, for all of its expansiveness, maybe isn’t that awesome, and that better pastures lie just a plane ride away.

The anxiety around living here, the need for outside validation, is at odds with the demographic changes in the city. Each day, dozens of people move here, the city has grown more than any other metro area in the country from 2000-2010, and Fort Bend County, on the southwestern side of the metro area, recently passed Queens County, New York as the most diverse in the country. The source of the anxiety is that we don’t like the reasons why people are coming: good jobs, cheap housing, safe neighborhoods. We hate how practical it is. We are not drawing in Patti Smiths and Joan Didions. There are no mass arrivals of Portland and San Francisco expatriates in skinny jeans and vintage dresses stepping off planes at Bush International Airport. We attract engineers from Midwestern state schools and school teachers from Florida—people who want to make a good income, and maybe get married, buy a house, and have a couple of kids. But that’s not enough. We don’t want to just be safe, and rich, and comfortable. We want to be cool.

I ended up in Houston almost by accident, the result of the vagaries of my mother’s marriages, college admissions, and bus routes. My life here began on September 7, 2002, the day I stepped off a Greyhound bus at the age of 15, having just left a pungent, Post-9/11 New York, and walked eye-deep into the hellish conditions of late summer in Houston. By the time I got to Houston, I had moved 20-odd times in my life including from one continent to another, from suburb to megalopolis, from quaint medieval town to sun-drenched California sprawl. I thought that the city that lay before me that day, with an endless supply of strip-malls, big box stores, and gargantuan trucks, was just another pitstop, that my next city awaited me, just like Los Angeles, New York, Paris, and Atlanta had before it.

If you were a third-culture kid or a military kid or any kind of child for whom “home” was more metaphysical than physical, more concept than place, you learn to not get too sentimental about the city you are moving to. There is no point in making very many good friends, in learning all of the street names, in learning too much about its history. For a long time, I imagined that my answer for the dreaded “you look/sound vaguely foreign so I must therefore interrogate your origins until you give me a satisfactory answer which matches my assumptions about you” would always be that I am from Orleans, a small city about an hour south of Paris, but I have now lived in Houston longer than I lived in Orleans, and saying that I am not from here now feels like mendacity.

It’s my hometown at this point because it was the backdrop of the experiences that have made me who I am. I first discovered love and sex and heartache here. It’s where I first heard my words spoken on a stage and first saw my name in newspaper ink. It’s where I forged my best friendships, the merry gaggle of people who listen to my confused ideas and tortured pleas for attention. It’s where I formed a political identity, aligning myself with the interest of those who did not draw a royal flush at birth. Some of this is might sound cloying, but when I think of Houston, I don’t see the majesty of the Williams Tower, or the winding cobblestone streets of Hyde Park, or the Victorian mansions along Heights Boulevard. I see myself entwined in sinuous conversations with women I have loved, or wanted to love, over bahn mi sandwiches in Little Saigon; or blitzed out of my mind dancing with abandon to Whitney Houston in a Montrose club; or laying out on the green expanse of Menil Park surrounded by wine and friends and mosquitoes, my legs folded, slightly drunk from the possibilities of youth, completely sure that I would never die.

Understanding Houston means understanding summer. It’s hard for out-of-towners to grasp how central an organizing principle summer is to life in Houston. It lasts, almost like the seasons in Game of Thrones, an interminable amount of time, beginning around mid April and abetting in the beginning of October, a six-month period of full blast air-conditioning and socially acceptable sweat stains.

In the summer, we drink beer on patios, or in the cool apartments of friends, or in the too-short time between work and home. In the summer we avoid touch, or, sometimes, seek out touch, hungering for the tactile sensation of each other, going out to the dankiest bar, the most crowded dance floors, to partake in the transcendence of being hot and sweaty and horny together. But even summer, the most trying time in the city, the period when even the most ardent H-towner will pledge to go live in a place with actual seasons, isn’t enough to mitigate the livability of the city. We find ways to avoid the outdoors or we gather around bodies of water, usually with animal carcasses on grills not far away, seeking not just relief from the heat but communion with others who have decided to be here with us in the dog days of August.

Apart from the heat, the city, even in the summer, offers simple, hearty treasures, like a carne torta from a food truck parked outside a bar you paid $1 for whiskey sours in, or some dhosa masala from the ubiquitous Indian restaurants dotting the city. There are apartments available in beautiful neighborhoods, with coffee shops and terraces on every corner for less than what New Yorkers pay for closets. Our streets are congested and our traffic can drive a Jesuit to madness, but when all the suburbanites have gone home, on evenings or on weekends, you can navigate the far reaches of the city at 70 miles per hour, like a character from Mario Kart that has just activated rainbow speed. There are jobs aplenty too, especially in our twin economic engines, the Energy and Medical sectors, or in the industries that support them. The people are friendly and welcoming and accepting of each other’s foibles. The city is full of social ills too, including worsening schools, wider economic stratification, and crumbling infrastructure, but these are made small by the bounty available.

The stickiness of Houston, living in the city for longer than planned, is borne out of this ease. Unlike New York or D.C. or San Francisco, Houston is not a layover city, a place to play out one’s youth and eventually settle into more comfortable circumstances. People who are here came for college or for jobs or to escape their small towns. They came to Houston to stay. Some of the young who grew up here grumble about moving to Austin, our popular sibling with its great music and coolness oozing out of its hippie streets, or to some other supposedly better city. Some of them left, to try their lucks in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago, but a lot came back, finding that while Houston does not have the cultural friction of those glittering cities, it has friends and money and time and hope. Those who come back, especially those with artistic inclinations, are embraced with open hearts and fatted tacos, because those of us who live here are aware of this inescapable truth: we’ve got it pretty good here, not great, but good. Instead of throwing ourselves face first into the whetstones of New York and L.A., a lot of us stay in Houston and make enough working at desk jobs or part-time to have to time for artistic endeavors. Half the baristas and bartenders in Houston are artists or designers or musicians or writers, all of them living lives of mediocre content, rising at the most to local celebrity and local adoration. I sometimes, half-seriously, call Houston the Land of the Lotus Eaters, full of people who are continually high from a cocktail of affluence, affability, and comfort.

You never leave Houston. Even if you live out your days in Brooklyn or Belize, you never really forget the grid of the highways. You never stop thinking of the first time you had tamales. You never leave behind the feeling that you once lived in a place where the prices were right and the living was easy. I type this as I prepare to move soon to one of these glitzy cities, and I know that I cannot escape the slight worry that I am making a mistake. I type this while sitting on a coffee shop patio, in 90-degree weather, trying to smack down the ‘skeetas that hover around me, and I feel like I could never truly leave this swamp. See, Houston’s not awesome, it’s real.

 

See also: What Does It Cost to Live in the Overlooked Parts of a City?

Aboubacar Ndiaye is a writer living in Houston. He has written for the Atlantic, McSweeney’s, and NPR.

Photo: Bill Jacobus

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37 Comments / Post A Comment

Sorry I was mean to you, Houston.

slothario (#6,917)

@Ester Bloom It’s okay. Houston doesn’t care.

Clare (#2,138)

You don’t need to sell me on Houston.

When I visited Houston on a road trip through Texas last summer, I had the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever eaten, one of the most memorable donuts ever, amazing popsicles from a paleteria where I was the only patron who spoke English, saw The Heat in a movie theater with full bar, and got lost in the gem vault at the natural history museum. And all that was in just 36 hours!

In fact I had such a shitty time in Austin that when I got home from my trip, I wished I’d spent more time in Houston and Dallas.

Katni (#6,141)

@Clare You should come back to DFW sometime! We have a real live house you could stay at now and everything!

Despite having grown up in DFW, and having been back for 3 years now as an adult and saying on at least half a dozen occasions “Hey….. we should drive down to Houston this weekend”, I STILL have never been there. This piece makes me want to finally follow through with that plan.

chevyvan (#2,956)

Love this. I miss Texas. Not everything about Texas, but there is a certain ease about life there that you don’t find elsewhere. And the food. If the humidity wasn’t so godawful in Houston…

moreadventurous (#4,956)

Texas forever!

flickafly (#4,808)

I spent most of my life in houston – sweaty mouth of a city and I love it so much. I could live on tex-mex and going to #’s every friday night.

This is my brother and sister-in-law (but she’s actually from Texas, not Florida):”We attract engineers from Midwestern state schools and school teachers from Florida—people who want to make a good income, and maybe get married, buy a house, and have a couple of kids.”
They live in the suburbs but were pretty defensive about Houston’s “cool factor”, especially when we lived in Chicago. I’ve visited them a couple of times and it’s ok. They have great donuts. It’s way too damn hot for me though, and I live on the Virginia coast now, for comparison (although its hotter than I’d like here too). But it’s nice to visit every other year or so, and it’s hard to argue with the easy living appeal. Between that and my SIL’s family, I don’t think there’s a chance I will ever live near my brother, but I’m glad he’s got a good town to call home.

flickafly (#4,808)

@Punk-assBookJockey I will say that living/staying in the houston burbs is a legit houston experience, however – staying in montrose or museum district or anywhere in the loop can really give you a better flavor of the city.

but god yes donuts.

vanderlyn (#2,954)

I find it amusing that this article — which started out as a kind of tribute to finding happiness where you are — ends with the author being overwhelmed by FOMO and moving somewhere expensive and tenuous. How very Billfold!

bitzyboozer (#885)

I would say a lot of this is true, or used to be anyway, about Austin. It’s getting more expensive (and crowded) every day but if you’ve been here a while and gotten all your shit figured out it’s ridiculously easy to live well and pretty damn hard to think about leaving. You guys definitely have us beat on the Vietnamese food, though.

Sounds like a fun place to visit. But it also sounds like it wouldn’t be possible to live there without a car, which is a deal-breaker.

stinapag (#2,144)

@StanislausBabalistic My husband doesn’t have a car. He’s been here six and a half years. My sister’s boyfriend doesn’t have a car. He’s been here seven.

@StanislausBabalistic – I lived there without a car. Used Metro to get around and it was fine.

shopgirl (#6,739)

@stinapag Oh, please. I lived in Houston over 20 years. You need a damn car. It’s a pain in the ass to even get from Montrose to the Heights without a car. It ain’t easy. Not having a car in Houston is not for most people.

stinapag (#2,144)

@shopgirl I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m saying people do it. All the time.

@StanislausBabalistic The metro is reliably tardy, sometimes 45 minutes tardy; I’m lucky to live in direct shooting-distance of downtown, with a 20 minute commute via metro, and have a job that doesn’t mind if I occasionally come in late. Many people don’t have these luxuries.

Everyone I know who used to bike instead of drive has stopped because it was too goddamn dangerous.

If you visit cities like Portland, Seattle, or hell, even NOLA, you know the difference is very stark. Houston isn’t going to become more livable without a car unless we acknowledge that living without a car sucks here right now.

oldfay (#4,914)

LITERALLY CRYING

stinapag (#2,144)

I love this town so much. I grew up here, and I’ve lived here 33 of my 41 years. I tried exotic places like California and England, but Houston kept luring me back. I live in Montrose and am 20 minutes from anywhere I want to be. There are so many wonderful people in this town, and I live and work right in the middle of it all.

DebtOrAlive (#5,233)

@stinapag California… exotic? Except the difference in COL, I think most Houstonians (H-towners?) would feel quite at home in the non-LaLaLand part of LA. You know, where the people who actually were born and raised live.

ultimaterollo (#2,756)

Gotta say…I don’t miss Texas. I grew up in Austin, and lived in Dallas for 10 years. About a year ago I moved to Portland, OR and I am never going back. I’m tired of the summer. I’m tired of the republicans. I’m tired of the ugly beaches and the lack of mountains (unless you drive 12 hours to Big Bend or Guadalupe Peak). I love the rain, and the way it’s green all year here. And the PRODUCE! Oh, Texas…grapefruits and jalapenoes are nice, but having local produce like they have up here is truly devine.

My sister is in Houston, and I have family all over the Texas map. I lived there for 29.7 years…and I don’t think I will ever leave the Pacific Northwest. Sorry, not sorry.

nonenadazilch (#6,925)

@ultimaterollo I have similar circumstances being an 8 year resident of the Goose Hollow neighborhood who grew up in Houston, spent college years in Austin, and minted my first post-college resume entries back in Houston. I enjoy the attributes of both locations and travel back to the Gulf Coast once in a while to visit. While I agree with you about the republican cacophony being extra loud down south, the social, intellectual, and professional dynamism inside Houston’s 610 loop has an atmosphere & variety Portland (and most other American cities) simply can’t match. Balancing my thoughts on the 7-8 mos of winters in the pacific northwest with the 7-8 summer months in Texas also forces me to realize that criticizing the Earth because it looks & feels more comfortable in one region than another is a futility that only highlights my inability or unwillingness to walk in line with mother nature. Houston’s merits need no outside recognition – they stand well on their own.

NoName (#3,509)

I come from a family that has been deeply ingrained in civic life in Houston for going on 100 years and yet, Houston and I never figured out how to relate to each other. There are a few good restaurants, though, I will give Houston that.

@NoName A few good restaurants? There are tons of good restaurants.

dtnguyen1999 (#6,929)

Great read and I mostly agree with everything. The heat is terrible but it wouldn’t be Houston without it. Also.. for the love of God or whoever you pray to or don’t pray to, please spell it “banh mi”.

I lived in New Orleans for 18 years before moving to Houston in 1984. New Orleanians looked down their noses at Houston. Probably still do. I lived in Houston for the next 16 years, leaving in January 2000, and moved to the middle of Mexico where I have been for 14 years now. Yes, I am not young. I loved New Orleans. I loved Houston. I love living in Mexico. New Orleanians would be surprised to learn that Houston’s restaurant scene is superior to the Big Easy’s. There is far more variety in Houston.

I have been in Houston only twice, just for a couple of days each time, in the past 14 years, and I haven’t been there at all since about 2006. It’s changed a lot, getting better from what I last saw. I miss it. Great city. Too hot in the summer, though, and it’s safer in Mexico. Yep.

Good write-up.

Loved the article. I feel like true Houstonians really don’t have an insecurity about what this place is, we just defend aggressively against the mistruths and false impressions. The latest campaign, “Houston, the city without limits” I feel is a nice change from trying to be a tourist destination, which is a very hard sell, and instead trying more to explain why it is such a great place to live and settle down, much like your article argues. While most of us realize the benefits of Houston life, when trying to attract long-term, educated, young professionals, the kind of advertising we need is not a tourist advertisement, but rather a “well, now you’re here, let’s make the most of it” advertisement. There are many places around the US and the world that are awesome to visit, but they make terrible places to actually live. There’s nothing wrong with Houston being the place you live, love, work, play, etc. and vacation elsewhere. If we try to be something we’re not, we will fail, just like all the other advertising campaigns.

What a great article! Dead on. I remember a taxi driver at IAH once told me “Welcome to Houston. If you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere”. That’s about right.

chevyvan (#2,956)

@Jeremy Jones@facebook Hilarious! Love it.

Meghan (#6,949)

Interesting that you’ve lived in Atlanta too, because the description of Houston in this article reminded me of it, a lot. That need to prove yourself and the summers (God, the summers) especially. I guess Atlanta’s not quite as practical, but it’s still pretty cheap.

Thien (#6,835)

Miss miss and miss… Hic hic.

Keith412 (#6,963)

Every time I visit Houston I am constantly shocked and horrified. It seems like building get torn down and new construction is thrown up. Its sad that the city never has so little character. The food and ppl are amazing but the sea of beige strip malls lacks luster. What happened to repair and restore all the history is constantly torn down very sad and why NYC and SF are loved because if the history.

I’m about to move somewhere else (partially to fulfill artistic dreams) and this about made me cry.

“Half the baristas and bartenders in Houston are artists or designers or musicians or writers, all of them living lives of mediocre content, rising at the most to local celebrity and local adoration. I sometimes, half-seriously, call Houston the Land of the Lotus Eaters, full of people who are continually high from a cocktail of affluence, affability, and comfort.”

It’s so true. And that’s a good life, all told, that local relevance and local celebrity. It’s very hard to leave.

brooke (#7,025)

Thank you – this is the first thing I’ve read about Houston that pins down exactly what I’ve tried to express to an outsider, or to myself on those days that I consider leaving.

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