26 February 2007

Twenty-Five Observations About Houston, Texas

A journey to Houston for a contract law conference has left me with certain first impressions:

1. Houston smells bad.

2. Vast expanses of inscrutible interstate highway seem to cover a large part of the metropolitan area. The airport shuttle got lost on the way to downtown.

3. National chains have not yet conquered the local retail market place.

4. Downtown Houston looks as tired as rural towns that have survived solely because they are county seats, places like Hamilton, Ohio. The place could definitely use a face lift.

5. Houston is dead after 5 p.m. Even the bars and restaurants at the airport close well before the last flights of the day have left.

6. The locals felt that the prudent thing to do to provide local culinary culture was to give us delightful gourmet cajun food (several hundred miles out of place), rather than the actual local specialties. I believe that they made a wise choice.

7. Texas is one of the few states that acknowledges no duty on the part of people who are in contracts with each other to act in good faith. The "Texas is a lawless state" meme continues to develop vitality.

8. The stereotypical Texas accent is grossly exaggerated.

9. The itty bitty downtown light rail system looks good, but allegedly has more accidents than any other system in the country.

10. The bronze statue in the South Texas U. law library really does have a genuine Texas cowboy hat and bandanna on it.

11. Notwithstanding being a death penalty capitol of the world, locals claims that the downtown has little crime -- it is hard to mug someone when everyone spends all their time outside the office in their cars, I was told.

12. Houstonian are eager to remind outsiders that Mr. Rice, the patron of Rice University (which incidentally was originally a white males only institution) was murdered not in Texas, but on the East Coast.

13. The fog common this time of year is beautiful and adds its charm to the rest of the city.

14. Houston has a Westword clone called the Houston Press. The cover story when I was there, Homeless in Suburbia seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the city.

15. Black-white race relations in Houston are markedly less tense than in Ohio (where I grew up), or Atlanta (where I was born and have returned from time to time).

16. Houston is considerably less vibrant than Denver which has half the population. Locals acknowledged that downtown had failed to attain critical mass, in part due to a lack of zoning and lots of post-automobile development. Locals claimed that there were business centers outside downtown that were more dynamic.

17. The big stadium downtown is sponsored by that all American, genuinely Texan company known as Toyota.

18. I had hoped to get a glimpse of the Gulf Coast, but didn't from the highest vantage points I was at on my trip (7th floor windows and roof decks).

19. Houston has not joined the "if it's hot outside it needs to be chilly inside" air conditioning ethic found in most of the rest of the United States. Muggy is a joint indoor-outdoor phenomena in the city.

20. There is a certain charm about being able to eat outside, just sheltered from warm rain, in February.

21. I missed the rodeo underway there, due to conference activities, but it is apparently a big deal.

22. American Airlines cancelled a flight from Houston to Dallas on Saturday afternoon, because there were storms in Chicago and Arkansas. While I'm inclined to blame the quality of geography education in Texas for this eventuality, I'm sure that there are more rational reasons for this happening.

23. When the flight from Houston to Dallas was cancelled, passengers scrambled to find substitutes for their duties at church the next morning.

24. I overheard a fellow passenger en route to Houston make the dismayed remark that even "real news stations like Fox and CNN" were covering Britney's latest adventures rather than real news.

25. Stereotypes notwithstanding, not a single firearm was in evidence anywhere.

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