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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

If nothing else, the Kinder Institute’s reports underscore how little the country really knows about Houston. Is it, as most New Yorkers and Californians assume, a cultural wasteland? “The only time this city hits the news is when we get a hurricane!” complains James Harithas, director of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. “People have no idea.” Its image in the outside world is stuck in the 1970s, of a Darwinian frontier city where business interests rule, taxation and regulation are minimal, public services are thin and the automobile is worshiped. “This was boomtown America,” says Klineberg of the giddy oil years. “While the rest of the country was in recession, we were seen as wealthy, arrogant rednecks, with bumper stickers that read, ‘Drive 70 and freeze a Yankee.’” Today, he adds, “Houston has become integrated into the U.S. and global economies, but we still like to think we’re an independent country. We contribute to the image!”

In movies, Houston has served as a metaphor for all that is wrong with urban American life. In the 1983 comedy Local Hero, Burt Lancaster plays an oil CEO who sits in a glass tower plotting environmental devastation, and Houston has been the scene for a disconcerting number of dystopian science fiction movies.

A first-time visitor can still be bewildered by Houston’s sprawl: The population density is less than half that of Los Angeles. It’s the only major U.S. city with no formal zoning code—hence the chaotic and often disheveled urban landscape. Skyscrapers sprout between high schools, strip joints, restaurants and parking lots, all tied into the knots of endless concrete highways. And yet Houston has a thriving art scene, with a startling choice of museums and galleries, and its 17-block theater district claims to have the largest concentration of seats outside of Broadway. Last summer, Forbes declared Houston “the coolest city in America,” based on indices such as the number of cultural venues, the amount of designated green space, and, of course, ethnic diversity. It didn’t hurt that the Houston area has largely brushed off the recent recession, reporting 3.8 percent (non-farm) job growth in 2012, or that the city’s median age is only 32.1, compared with 37.2 for the United States as a whole in 2010.

“We need to reinvent ourselves and improve our image,” says Cressandra Thibodeaux, executive director of 14 Pews, a cinema and gallery in a renovated church, which was set to host the H-Town Multicultural Film Festival, celebrating Houston’s diversity, in June. “You hear about how Pittsburgh and Detroit are going through a renaissance, with new immigrant cultures and artists changing the city. But people don’t know about how Houston is being transformed. It’s still got the old cowboy hat image, a hot, ugly city, where you just go to work.”

To thwart this stereotype, the first place to visit is the Rothko Chapel. A Modernist masterpiece of religious art, it lies in a verdant oasis of museums, gardens and outdoor sculptures created in the 1960s by two philanthropists flush with oil money, John and Dominique de Menil. (The superb Menil Collection Museum, designed by Renzo Piano, has been a pilgrimage site for international art lovers since it opened in 1987.) The nondenominational chapel is the most serene corner of this leafy precinct: Mark Rothko created 14 rich black, maroon and plum-colored paintings for the octagonal space (designed in part by Philip Johnson), which has meditation cushions for visitors to contemplate the art in silence. On a bench are more than two dozen texts from world religions, including the King James Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the Book of Mormon, and Hindu and Buddhist works. The chapel is a clue that Houston is perhaps a more tolerant and open-minded place than it is given credit for.

Another clue is that Houston is the largest U.S. city to have an openly lesbian mayor, Annise Parker, a Democrat, who has pressed President Obama to act on gay marriage, which is banned in Texas.

Clearly, a lot more is happening in Houston—nicknamed The Big Heart after the city and its people aided Hurricane Katrina victims—than concrete freeways. So I sought out four people for anecdotal evidence of the city’s unexpected new life.

***

Only two miles east of the manicured Museum District lies the Third Ward, for decades one of the city’s poorest African-American neighborhoods—and the site of Houston’s most ambitious creative project, the brainchild of artist Rick Lowe.

In 1993, Lowe and others began renovating a block of derelict shotgun shacks into gallery spaces, creating Project Row Houses. He was inspired by the idea of “social sculpture,” pioneered by the artists Joseph Beuys and John Biggers, who argued that any way we shape the world around us is a form of art, including urban renovation. Today, seven formerly abandoned houses, some of which had been used for drugs and prostitution, are exhibition spaces for resident artists, who participate in community life. Another row of salvaged houses, sporting neat lawns and gleaming white paint, is occupied by single mothers. Their success has brought life back to the neighborhood, and has been a springboard for renovations across the Third Ward. Abandoned venues have been given practical functions and turned into social hubs. An old speakeasy has been reborn as a laundromat. The Eldorado Ballroom, where B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington played, has been rescued from dereliction and once again stages music events. “From the 1940s to the ’60s, the Third Ward was known as Little Harlem,” says Project Row Houses’ public art curator, Ryan Dennis. “There was a tailor’s shop in this building for musicians. The Temptations flew to Houston just to get their suits cut here.”

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