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In Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park, Tolerance is seven figures—one for each continent—sculpted of letters from world alphabets. (Christina Patoski)

What Makes Houston the Next Great American City?

As Houston undergoes an ethnic and cultural transformation, its reputation grows as a place where people can dream big and succeed

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There’s nothing like being mugged to put a damper on a festive evening, which had begun at the lakeside palace of Farouk Shami, the billionaire businessman and former candidate for governor of Texas. As fine wine flowed and stuffed vine leaves and other Middle Eastern delicacies were served, some 150 guests spilled onto the veranda or wandered the gleaming white corridors, admiring the giant aquariums and Shami’s own brilliantly colored paintings and glass sculptures. Dapper as ever in a suit and cowboy boots, the 70-year-old Shami, founder of a successful line of hair care products, wove through the cosmopolitan crowd, introducing me to his Houston friends, including Miss Texas and Miss Texas USA.

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I left that wealthy enclave at around 9 p.m. and drove to the Heights, a gritty but recently gentrified neighborhood, to visit an alternative art center. Lined with tidy 1920s bungalows, the streets seemed quiet and charming. After parking my rental car in the (admittedly dimly lit and empty) block, I walked about ten yards and paused to look at street numbers when I noticed two figures coming toward me. One calmly took the iPhone out of my hand. “It’s only the 4S,” I joked, trying to defuse the situation. “The iPhone 5 is much better.”cha

That was when the taller guy pulled out a gun.

Even through the dreamlike fog of being robbed, I was aware of the irony. I was here to research a story about “the new Houston” and document how the city is reinventing itself for the 21st century. In the last 24 hours, I’d attended a show at Fashion Week, where the catwalk was lined with artists, writers and designers. I’d visited plush new art galleries. I’d met Houstonians of every origin, from Thai to Nigerian, Ecuadorean, Pakistani and Indonesian. And I’d spent much of the same evening chatting with Shami, a one-man PR firm for Houston who insists the Bayou City is the perfect place for immigrants to realize the American dream.

Then, here I was, transported back to the harsh, violent Houston of the 1970s and ’80s. As I held my arms away from my sides, the shorter guy cleaned my pockets of car keys, loose coins, business cards. Tension rose when he couldn’t pull the wallet out of my jeans pocket. The wedding ring was even harder to remove, but it’s amazing what you can do at gunpoint. The moment was so cinematic I found myself wondering whether the sleek firearm was real. Later, when I mentioned this to locals, they were amused. “Of course it was real! This is Houston. Everyone’s got a gun!”

***

My interest in exploring America’s fourth-largest city was piqued last year by a study from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University. Out of the ten largest U.S. metropolitan areas, the researchers’ analysis of census data found that the most equitable distribution of the nation’s four major racial and ethnic groups (Asians, Hispanic people, and white and black people who are not Hispanic) was not in New York City or Los Angeles, but, surprisingly, Houston (see opposite).

The people behind the study have long been focused on Houston’s ethnic and cultural transformation, which is more dramatic than that of any other U.S. city in the past century. Stephen L. Klineberg, a sociologist and co-director of the Kinder Institute, has closely charted the demographic changes in Harris County, which covers nearly all of the Houston area and then some, since 1982. “Houston was then an overwhelmingly Anglo city,” he told me. But then the eight-decade-long Texas oil boom fizzled and the city lost 100,000 jobs, mostly among Anglo oil workers, and was plunged into an economic depression that would completely change its population patterns. “In 1980, Anglos made up 63 percent of the population,” Klineberg says. “Now they’re less than 33 percent.” Hispanics in Harris County today constitute 41 percent, he adds, African-Americans 18.4 percent, and Asians and other races 7.8 percent. “The change is even more extreme if you look at the population under 30,” Klineberg says, “where 78 percent are now non-Anglos.”

In the 1960s, New York and L.A. were already vast metropolises, but Houston was a humble outpost of around one million. Since then, aided by the ubiquity of automobiles and air-conditioning, its population has leapt by an average of 20 percent every decade, surging to over four million inhabitants in Harris County and six million within the Greater Houston Metropolitan Area. Much of this growth would alter the area’s ethnic makeup as well, because it took place after 1965, when the nation ended its long-running immigration policy favoring white Western Europeans, and new arrivals were as likely to come from Korea or Congo as Italy and Ireland. In that sense, Houston is the vanguard, Klineberg says: “Houston is 25 years ahead of the rest of the country. Soon all of America will look like this city. There is no force in the world that can stop the United States becoming more Latino, more African-American, more Middle Eastern and Asian. It’s inevitable!”

There are, however, some arguably ominous trends. Perhaps the most disturbing is that, according to the Pew Research Center, Houston is the most income-segregated of the ten largest U.S. metropolitan areas, with the greatest percentage of rich people living among the rich and the third-greatest percentage of poor people among the poor. And the new waves of immigrants are split between highly skilled college graduates (especially Asians), who effortlessly join the upper echelons of Houston, and poorly educated manual laborers (especially Latinos), who trim the lawns and wash restaurant dishes. “The great danger for the future of America is not an ethnic divide but class divide,” Klineberg warns. “And Houston is on the front line, where the gulf between rich and poor is widest. We have the Texas Medical Center, the finest medical facility in the world, but we also have the highest percentage of kids without health care. The inequality is so clear here.” All these forces add urgency to how Houston tackles its problems. “This is where America’s future is going to be worked out.”

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