Was the city always this cool?
When we first started coming up here from Sweeny, back in the mid-to-late eighties, it was the coolest place in the world, to us. We were escaping a small town filled with rednecks and mouth-breathers to a big city filled with artists and free-thinkers. Coming up Highway 288, there’s a point where the curve of the Earth makes visible the distant skyscrapers of downtown. Actually, I think it’s the Transco that you see first, off to the west, a monolith against the amber horizon. And that distance–the space between that lone tower and the other Olympian peaks clustered farther east, straight ahead in the windshield, growing slowly as you loll closer at 75 mph, music playing on the cassette deck, cigarette smoke streaming out the sliver of opening in the window–that distance awakens you to the enormity of the city. Our city. Houston.
I don’t remember ever hearing the word “sprawl” when I was younger. That aspersion came later. We never thought of it as sprawl. Maybe because we always stayed inside the 610 Loop. Houston, to us, really meant Montrose. And Downtown. And Rice Village. And The Heights. The Galleria is, technically, outside the Loop, but the Dillard’s parking lot literally touches it, so we can count that too. My mom’s family all live on the southeast side: el barrio de Magnolia. When my grandparents moved into a white neighborhood, it was still near Magnolia, just over by Hobby Airport. So I never experienced any sprawl. It all just looked like big city life to me.
When I went to college in Boston, I fell in love with the East Coast. Houston lost some of its luster. And then when I moved to New York, I started to dislike my hometown. It wasn’t pretty to me anymore. It was too hot, too muggy, there was no subway, everything closed at 2:00am. In the 90s, everyone had either moved to Austin or was hoping to move there soon. Austin, where it’s all better, everyone’s younger, there’s more stuff to do–you know, like New York.
And then something happened.
Houston became cool. Not just to Houstonians, but to others. Discovery Green opened Downtown alongside high-rise condos, and people actually started living there. The Rockets moved Downtown too. And you could get there by Metro Rail. Midtown bloomed with restaurants and town-homes. Washington Avenue morphed from a sketchy stretch of dilapidated buildings to a noisy stretch of meat-market bars (which was okay because it sucked the douche-bags away from Montrose). Montrose got so cool it became too expensive for artists, so they moved up into The Heights and across I45 into East End, which is now a vibrant hybrid of Latino/Bohemian culture.
And then we visited Austin. And we found out it wasn’t any cooler at all. In fact, inside the Loop, we have everything that Austin has. Plus all the benefits of a metropolitan city: big money, international commerce, arts foundations, world-class museums, film and music festivals, myriad public parks, an endless calendar of cultural events.
And, of course, The Rockets. (There’s also an NFL team. And MLB. And MLS, for that matter.)
When it came time to buy a house, we decided on The Heights. We bought in 2011, right when the real estate market started to inch upward from its 2008 crash. Four years later, our house is worth about $100,000 more than we paid for it. Not that we’d sell it. We love it. And our dogs are quite happy with our big yard. We know all our neighbors. We know their dogs too.
Oh, and I get paid to be an actor. That’s something I never managed to do in New York. (Although, to be fair, being clean and sober now has a lot to do with it. But still.)
So was the city always this cool? I think maybe it was always cool. But it wasn’t always this cool.
And it doesn’t even matter if some outsiders don’t see it that way.
We see it. We live here. We know.