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

In Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park, Tolerance is seven figures—one for each continent—sculpted of letters from world alphabets. (Christina Patoski)
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Farouk Shami, who was born in a village near Ramallah on the West Bank of the Jordan River , arrived in the United States in 1965 at age 23 with, he recalls, $400 in his pocket. While working as a hairdresser in Houston he began to realize that he was allergic to hair dye. Though his family objected to his involvement in the industry, which they regarded as effeminate, he was spurred to create the first non-ammonia hair coloring system, a breakthrough in “cosmetic chemistry” that would lead to his own beauty product line, Farouk Systems. His privately held company, which he has said is worth a billion dollars, manufactures some 1,000 hair and spa products that are distributed in 106 countries. In 2009, he made national headlines by going against the outsourcing flow, closing a factory in China and building a new facility in Houston, which created some 800 jobs. The next year, he became the first (and so far, only) Arab-American to run for governor of Texas. Despite being defeated in the Democratic primaries, Shami spiced up the political debate by saying he preferred to hire Latino workers because Anglos felt above the menial work on factory floors and by criticizing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, where three of his eight siblings were killed in 1955 when an Israeli bomb they were playing with exploded.

Shami told me his story while we relaxed in an office in his sumptuous mansion, beneath a framed photograph of his father. He is still full of energy—he was preparing to leave for Istanbul the next morning—and is one of the most active members of Houston’s Arab community, the nation’s fifth largest. “Actually, I never felt discrimination until I ran for governor in 2010,” he says. “I was a Texan, but in the media I was always referred to as a foreigner—‘born in the West Bank.’ I’ve paid more tax than most Texans, helped the country more than most Texans!” In speeches to Palestinian immigrant youth groups, he encourages integration. “My theme is: Be an American! Unfortunately, the minds of many young Palestinians are still back home. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Go participate in American life! Go vote! They need to be mobilized.”

Shami’s political partisanship aside, the role of ethnic diversity in Houston politics intrigues scholars as well as politicians. “Why Texas still keeps voting Republican is a mystery,” Klineberg says. “Every election, there are 3 percent fewer Anglos on the rolls. Immigrants, who traditionally support the Republicans far less, aren’t registering as fast here as in other states.” But the tide is turning, he says, which he thinks will cause hard-line opponents of immigration reform to moderate their views.

“Not everyone is happy about the transitions over the last few years,” Klineberg says. “For most of its history, this was a biracial Southern city, a racist city, part of the Confederacy. But human beings adjust their opinions to suit circumstances they can’t control. Our surveys show that more and more Anglo residents are accepting the inevitable, and even saying that ethnic diversity is a source of strength for Houston.”

For Klineberg, the major social issue is education. He has seen Houston change from a city relying on natural resources such as oil, cattle and lumber to one whose prosperity is based primarily on skilled white-collar jobs in fields such as computer programming and medicine. But as long as a top-quality education remains a privilege of the rich, social inequalities will grow. “The public school system has largely been abandoned by middle-class white people,” he says. “The question is, will aging Anglos be willing to pay to educate poor Latinos? If not, it’s hard to envision a prosperous future for Houston.”

Still, Klineberg is optimistic. “Houston is in a better position to cope with all these challenges than Los Angeles, Miami or New York,” he says. “The DNA of Houston, ever since it was founded, has been pragmatic: What do we have to do to make money? From the 1860s, we made Houston the railroad hub of the West. Then, to exploit the oil fields, we built the second-biggest port in the U.S., even though it was 50 miles from the sea. The same practical thinking needs to come into play today. How do we turn our diversity to advantage? We invest in education. And we make Houston a more beautiful city, so talented people who can live anywhere will choose to live here.” On that front, voters last November approved a $100 million bond that will be matched by the Houston Parks Board and private donations to create 1,500 acres of green space along the city’s bayous over the next seven years.

The other issues will be tougher. “Luckily, in Houston,” Klineberg adds, “ideology has always been less important than prosperity.”


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