Dallas Is Better Than Houston [February 1978]

"Good ol' boys still make it in Dallas. They catch the bus in from Winnsboro and come looking for the foot of the ladder. Not in Houston. You don't see good ol' boys on the elevators of Shell Plaza."

May 2002By Comments

TRY TO REMEMBER, BILL, Hell and Houston both begin with a h.

—letter from a 19th-century visitor

I wish I’d said it first, but I can’t say it any better. It still begins with a h. Houston today is a dozen cities, and you couldn’t give me any of them if it meant I had to live there. Dallas may have a few drawbacks, but none that the Bayou City can’t top.

First things first: the climate. Dallas has three seasons: summer, winter, and two weeks of fall, but Houston has only two: the beginning of summer, and the end. Houston humidity doesn’t just wilt your shirt, it eats away your courage. Smog is constant and ubiquitous, but Houston’s proud of it. It holds to the conceit that pollution is a sign of progress. Not just air pollution, of course . . . dear me, no. The Houston Ship Channel is the dirtiest waterway in all Texas, so befouled that it has been known to catch fire and burn.

Dallas may be short on redeeming topographical features, but Houston! Flat? Houston’s not just flat, it’s sinking, going under at a fearful rate of five inches per annum, and some parts of town have already dropped ten feet. “A disaster in slow motion,” says Charles Bowcock, chairman of the special governmental body formed to halt the city’s sinking spells. (Incidentally, we train spokesmen better than to admit things like that in Big D.)

Houston is an example of what can happen when architecture catches a venereal disease.

—Frank Lloyd Wright

Flat as it is, or sinking as it is, Houston nevertheless is on the rise in a literal way. High-rise, characterless glass boxes have sprouted all over Harris County in clumsy clumps of giant, glistening man-made asparagus—glistening, that is, on those rare days when the industrial waste in the air lets enough of God’s sunshine through to make a reflection. Collected on one string, the skyline of Houston would make an impressive (if prosaic) necklace. But collected it can’t be. Office buildings and trade modules going up in sixteen directions, carbon-copy shopping centers spinning off near the edges of Houston’s infinity . . . agoraphobia!

The whole damn thing is too big, too spread out. Nobody quite knows for sure where he is in Houston. Even the taxi drivers are confused. Your chances are no better than three-in-five that coming from Houston Intercontinental Airport (second largest airport in Texas, the largest being DFW, need I note?) you’ll draw one who can deposit you where you want to go without having to stop and ask for help along the way. In some cities this sort of thing happens because the cab driver is too new. In Houston it happens because some part of town’s too new.

On the other hand, everyone has forgotten there was once a downtown Houston. I had a native tell me, as we drove around, “I think it’s here somewhere,” and he wasn’t joking. He was lost. I finally accepted the sight of the Rice Hotel (where the capitol of the Republic of Texas once stood) as being sufficiently “downtown,” closed though that grand old hotel may be. Downtown is but one city center. It does have Maxim’s, but mostly all it possesses is a sad, shabby gentility that lingers around the spot where the Allen brothers (two New York land speculators), running a hustle on General Sam’s new fame, whipped up a village in 1836. Today, as centers of Houston go, there are numerous intersections on Westheimer that can better be called crossroads of the city than anything downtown. Houston has truly lost its heart.

After you’ve listened to the talk you begin to feel that the creation of the world, the arrangement of the solar system, and all subsequent events, including the discovery of America, were provisions of an all-wise Providence, arranged with a direct view to the advancement of the commercial interests of Houston.

—A. E. Sweet and J. A. Knox

On a Mexican Mustang through Texas, 1883

Existence, the fact or the fancy of having an independent reality of one’s own, that’s what is missing. Living in Houston—going to work, buying groceries, taking the kids to get their shots, or dad having his—is like sharing a ten-by-twelve room with a six-foot-nine basketball player or an all-pro linebacker. You can get bruised. In the first place, Houston—the new Houston—is no place for man, woman, or child on foot. You can’t even safely walk from the famous Galleria just across the street—a matter of, at most, a hundred feet—to Sakowitz in Post Oak’s Magic Circle, two of the fanciest shopping areas in the city. No crosswalks, no overpasses, no pedestrian lights. If you want to negotiate that hundred feet alive, you drive. The whole town’s that way. Built that way on purpose. “Whatta you wanna walk for?” a girl was complaining to her husband as I stood marveling at the passion with which Houston drivers go from zero to seventy mph in half a block of heavy Shepherd Drive traffic. Burn that energy, baby! Houston is international headquarters for more oil than half a dozen Lone Star States will pump in the next twenty years, and the inhabitants seem to take that as their God-given immunity from posted speed limits and the fuel crisis.

Of course, in Freeway City, Texas, you don’t count miles: you can’t count miles. Nothing is close. The city has exploded outward along the freeways, and every place where one thoroughfare crosses another becomes a new Houston. Central Houston, an imprecise designation for a 200-square-mile area, is enclosed by Loop 610, a racetrack that tests the endurance of man and machine as you cruise along at seventy mph trying desperately to keep up with, or out from under, the rest of the pack. Interstate 45 splits the town north by southeast, IH 10 cuts the middle east and west, then it’s freeway, freeway, freeway: Gulf, Eastex, North, Southwestern, Northwestern, Katy, La Porte, East, Pasadena, South, Almeda Road, Hempstead Highway. There’s nothing wrong with freeways as a means of getting from A to B, but as a way of life? They’re the way of life in Houston, and that’s not hyperbole. You have to use them if you want to live there. In Dallas there are thousands of drivers who never put wheel to Central Expressway, who cringe at the thought of attempting to run the rapids of Carpenter Freeway, Stemmons, or R. L. Thornton. In Dallas you can live an abundant life and not drive the freeways at all. In Houston you’re on one at least half the time you’re in a car. Love it or leave it.

There is nobody here . . . worth a damn. I tell you this city is sorely in need of men.

—from a letter written by W. P. Hamblen, a Houston civic leader, 1867

Houston destroys individuality—the very city that, by an older tradition, gave the breed its Texan flavor. There was a day when colorful, happy-go-lucky individuals like Silver Dollar Jim West and Glenn McCarthy were civic heroes, and powerful men the likes of Jesse Jones and Hugh Roy Cullen spun the wheel and set the sails. Judge Roy Hofheinz, who in the sixties prodded money from the county to build his Astrodome, may have been the last of a tradition. Houston is now national and international corporations with the caution yet ruthlessness inherent in such machines. No soul, no heart, no mind. All hands, mouths, and computer brains. Faceless people sit in interchangeable tall buildings above Houston doing the same things people in the same kind of buildings do anywhere in the world. Today no Houston individual can match personal economics or powers with the people in the towers. Howard Hughes is dead on arrival in Houston; Glenn McCarthy lives in a house by a mosquito bay.

Native sons and daughters are harder and harder to find. You talk to an ambitious young jogger on the Memorial Park path (he’s in banking) and you learn what a tremendous future Houston (not Texas) has. You also learn he’s from Chicago or Cleveland, and has been “down Houston,” as he puts it, for two years and is secretly afraid to marry a Texas girl, in case he eventually makes it to the Big Apple or back to the Windy City, where she’d be a drag on his career. Perhaps that’s the price of size and growth. And Houston, with a 1.4 million population, has both. There are no public old-timers anymore. Is there a Houstonian whose name is known to everyone in town the way Dallas knows Stanley Marcus, Erik Jonsson, and Blackie Sherrod? Oh, Barbara Jordan, Leon Jaworski, John Connally, but there’re basically national figures, Houstonians no longer.

Houston has become un-Texan, no longer looking to its Texas roots—or caring. Maybe this sense of native soil is no longer very important to the residents of Houston—it’s certainly not to the leaders—but to other Texans, it leaves a gaping hole in life when you must dwell in a Texas city that acts ashamed to admit it’s Texan.

They have here more of infidelity, subtle, organized and boldly blasphemous, than I have met in any place . . . May God graciously visit Houston with a mighty revival of religion, and that right soon.

—Methodist Bishop J. O. Andrew, 1854

Maybe it’s the changing standards of the disillusioned and greedy young, this business of no heroes. The names you hear tossed around with reverence in Houston are broad-gauged promoters and developers like Ken Schnitzer, who built Greenway Plaza and the Summit, that self-consciously swank arena for those society sports, basketball and ice hockey. There currently is excitement about some younger men who are developing something called Park 10, one of those industrial horrors that will stretch for mile after dreary mile along an interstate of the same numerical appellation. “They’re gonna make millions” you hear, over lunch at George’s-on-Washington, a funky new eating place near the renovating Heights section where an upwardly-eyeballing set takes its noon meals. Then, that night, you run into some of the same crowd at Theodore’s in Montrose. Nice people, really. Smooth, well colleged. But you never hear anything out of them but money, power, movement, climb, climb, climb. Ambitious preppies have taken over the levers of Houston enterprise, sure of eventual success but possessed of pallid passions, “assured of certain certainties,” as T. S. Eliot (who said he preferred Dallas) put it in the “Preludes.”

And no little people are on the way up, that you can find. Not that Houston isn’t a blue-collar town, statistically speaking. But you don’t come in off the farm anymore from some little place like Sweeney or El Campo and zoom to takeoff in the new Houston. But even if you decide to gamble and take on the big town one-handed, you find it’s too flung out to make a dent. Even a secondhand car dealer, screaming like mad, can’t get on the rub and make a name for himself, or a fortune. Neatness counts. You don’t smell cow manure on the elevators of Shell Plaza or Pennzoil Place. Good ol’ boys still make it in Dallas; the good ol’ boys that come out of East Texas State and UT-Arlington to arm wrestle the establishment, who catch the bus in from Winnsboro and come looking for the foot of the ladder. That sort of thing is gone in Houston. The minimum price of admission to the shooting gallery is a UT law school sheepskin.

I like you, Houston . . . you don’t put your slums in one unsightly place. You spread them all over the city.
—architect O’Neil Ford

Houston has no city zoning ordinances. Houston people half-heartedly claim they don’t like zoning, claim they aren’t afraid of waking up some morning with a filling station on one side and a McDonald’s on the other. Well, it’s too late now. The landscape, with few exceptions, is ruined. “No Zoning” may have a pleasant democratic sound, challenging to the architectural imagination, but forget it. It doesn’t work. It spells chaos. True, there is sometimes an astonishing and fascinating mix of good-bad, new-old, commercial-residential, but sooner or later the lack of control over a city’s shared environment means that old devil progress (read “profit”) is going to overwhelm both beauty and humanity, if they still exist. The fancier residential areas are protected by deed restrictions, but some of the charming older sections that could, and should, have been revitalized, will eternally look like the rear end of a chicken shack from lack of protective zoning.

This wildly erratic scheme of development has fragmented vast sections of Houston life. Larry McMurtry, a former resident, had a character in one of his books, a comic Houston millionaire who lived in his Lincoln Continental. All day he roamed the freeways, doing a worldwide business over his car telephone, then at night he drove to the twenty-fourth floor of a parking building he owned and slept in his automobile. Wherever he was, he was home. There is no center to Houston, no gate through which everything passes if you stay long enough. You can’t refer to Commerce, Main, and Elm the way you can in Dallas, knowing that everyone will know the what and where of your statement.

There is no way to “see” Houston or “feel” it. The usual tourist trip is the Astrodome and Astroworld, with a quick drive through wealthy River Oaks to view John Mecom’s château and the late Miss Ima Hogg’s estate-museum, Bayou Bend. Don’t ask to be shown Big Jawn Connally’s home on River Oaks Boulevard because it scarcely fits the number one Republican of Texas. For a man with Connally’s wardrobe, his home is way too modest.

That abominable place, that graveyard of men . . . the City of Houston!
—Ezekiel Cullen, addressing the Third Congress of the Republic of Texas

I have a more personal irritation with Houston. It overlooks, scorns, and dismisses history, its own and everyone else’s. I managed to discover the grave of Dick Dowling—Houston’s most colorful Civil War hero—only because I was looking for the original Ninfa’s—Houston’s most colorful Mexican food restaurant. It’s hidden away in a banged-up old part of town, seedy and weedy. Dick Dowling’s grave. As for Mexican food, Casa Dominguez, Chiquita, even the El Fenix chain of Dallas, have little to fear from Houston.

Culturally, while Dallas and Houston share certain disabilities common to Texas anti-intelletualism, Houston even more than Dallas values the ship more than its cargo. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts in Houston, while stunning to the eye of the first-time beholder, is as much a place to wear white tie as to see and hear greatness. Houston is the kind of town where the price of a Strad determines the beauty of a violin concerto. The Alley Theatre, a stodgy repertory organization once dedicated to expanding theatrical experience, but now devoted to the status of its board of directors, plays in a $5-million showplace that almost overwhelms the acting, although one wants to credit Nina Vance, the founder and continuing war-mare. She is a rare instance of a woman without strategic marriage or inheritance who whipped the men-only system and climbed to the top. This, despite starting as a teacher in the Houston school system.

Several news bureaus are based in Houston because of its national economic impact, but most of the news that comes out of them is of that same character—national and international. Houston today has raw energy but little mythology, no aura. When the Houston-based news bureaus want to give out something “Texas” they have to go to Dallas to find it. “I’m from Dallas,” you say, anywhere in the world, and for the next few minutes you don’t have to worry about making conversation. Everyone has an opinion about Dallas. But try saying you’re from Houston, and after the words “petroleum” and “rich” have been said a few times, the dialogue lapses.

And there’s no need to make odious sports comparisons, there being little to compare between the transcendent Dallas Cowboys and the perennially pathetic Houston Oilers. Even the emerging baseball Rangers give indications of outclassing the Astros as an exciting professional team. And Houston, despite contributing several national notables, particularly in basketball and football, has never had very many black heroes playing there—a significant fact, perhaps, when one reviews the racial relations in the two cities. Dallas, which had no riots or outbreaks during the turbulent sixties when Houston was experiencing pitched battles between the races, saw its professional football team soar out of mediocrity to repeated contender status on the legs, hands, and shoulders of black stars. It’s impossible to be a Cowboy cult follower and remain a racial bigot.

I judge a city by its newspapers, and Dallas walks away from Houston here, for the seventies at least. The Dallas Times Herald has collected the best writers of any newspaper outside maybe New York, Chicago, and Los Angles and has become the most readable in the Southwest, if not the nation. The Houston Chronicle, saddled with a forties political outlook that damps every page, is a sad departure from its fierce glory days of the fifties. It makes the Dallas News editorial page, long considered the last outpost of Texas conservatism, seem downright contemporary. The Houston Post, which twenty years ago was as liberal a production as the Lone Star State afforded, seems to be wrestling with internal changes that take the edge off its coverage. If it retains some clever columnizing in Lynn Ashby, it still doesn’t offer a superior replacement to the News’ John Anders or the Herald‘s Dick Hitt. A Houston native son admitted recently, “Reading both Houston papers every day is a discipline I’ve yet to master.”

Still extending comparisons: NorthPark Mall in Dallas—the prototype of that commercial innovation—still outstrips the newer malls of Houston. NorthPark is light and airy, while Houston’s Galleria (which does have an ice-skating rink) is claustrophobic, like a winter head cold. And the Neiman-Marcus store there is so ordinary one blushes if one thinks about it while traversing the “real” Neiman-Marcus in downtown Dallas.

Houston has no concentration of eating and drinking places like Greenville Avenue in Dallas. In fact, for all its size, Houston has far fewer and less amusing dining or watering spots. The answer is as simple as the fact that Houston is, as noted, a blue-collar town in the way it lives. Dallas is fifteenth nationally in median family income, while Houston is twentieth.

You can’t throw any eggs half as rotten as this damnable old town!

—evangelist Sam Jones, after being pelted with rotten eggs in Houston

Houston is run as much from the outside as the inside, but inside or out, the real kingpins are the big law firms: Vinson & Elkins; Fulbright & Jaworski; Baker & Botts; Butler, Binion, Rice. Even the international corporations have to come to them at times. Dallas is managed by managers: merchants, bankers, insurance people. Since lawyers seem to be above the law (especially lawyers of the Houston level), I’ll take bankers. At least you can still put them in jail for their crimes.

As for the matter of size between Houston and Dallas, what really counts is something called (if you can get your mouth around it) the Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area—and the Dallas—Fort Worth SMSA is the biggest in Texas. If Dallas wasn’t completely cut off from expansion by the smaller municipalities surrounding it—Farmers Branch, Irving, Richardson, Garland, Mesquite, and the rest—it would come very close to matching Houston’s population head for head. Fortunately for those of us who live in Dallas, this will never happen.

If there is an escape from the sterility of modern commercial architecture, which homogenizes every new office or business center in Houston, Dallas is coming closer to exploring it. The Dallas Hyatt Regency Hotel, which opens in ReUnion—a downtown project—this spring, is a dazzling polyhedral ziggurat, giving Dallas the oddest pile of glass west of the Mississippi, as well as Texas’ tallest restaurant, one revolving fifty stories up on a glass-coated needle. And Dallas’ new Municipal building, which New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable calls “a turning point for Dallas,” will open about the same time, 560 feet long, many stories tall, and 200 feet wide at its jutting, cantilevered top, with a three-block-long public plaza to bring downtown to a logical center and (if nothing else) give the leg-weary a place to sit.

Houston has no Oak Cliff, and some readers familiar with the situation may sneer that Dallas acts like it doesn’t either, even if Oak Cliff has been part of the municipality since 1903. Dallas, standing some 512 feet above sea level, is at least 450 feet higher than anything not man-made in Houston, and most of that superior elevation is in Oak Cliff, where hills, rolling scenery, and vistas dart off all the way to Fort Worth, if you pick the right hill. People who describe Dallas as “prairie” are untraveled imports who’ve never crossed the Trinity River to the south to view Big D’s pretty part.

Most Houstonians will spend eternity in hell.

—Billy Graham

But as Jon Senderling, of the Times Herald, wrote, “There is an ineffability about a city, any city, that can be unlocked only after long familiarity.” Living here or there is what counts, I guess. But I find more adventure to living in Dallas than Houston seems to offer—outside the thrilling prospect of getting murdered, a statistical nicety at which Houston annually surpasses Dallas. Dallas is still in the possession of its citizenry, run by people who consider themselves Dallasites. Houston belongs to someone else.

There are things—community things, public things—that give a city-wide unity to life in Dallas, and this sense of oneness extends top to bottom, east to west, or however city emotions might be measured. Just about every resident feels them, regardless of race or social status. The venerable old State Fair of Texas every fall has been a part of Dallas for so long that nearly all of us—even those who’ve moved in from other parts of the Southwest—have been going to the fair since we were kids. And even though you swear you’re tired of Big Tex, the Midway, and the Belgian waffles, each October you find yourself getting excited as you head for Fair Park again.

Six Flags Over Texas is still the classiest amusement park in America, without the tinsel fantasy of a Disneyland or the tawdry sham of other parks, and although (like Texas Stadium) it’s not in the Dallas city limits, Dallas takes a proprietary interest in it, almost considering it a civic project.

Then, there are the universal landmarks of the Kennedy assassination with their sad importance: the Texas School Book Depository, Dealy Plaza, the triple underpass. Living with them daily, being their custodians for the world, gives citizens of Dallas—even newcomers—a sense of historical obligation that is taken seriously, and has become a unifying, humanistic force in the city.

I take off from a Houston airport and look down on the miles of concrete spaghetti, the waves of housing, the dotted-swiss fabric of shopping centers stretching across Harris County, and I tell myself in some horror, that a man could get lost down there . . . lost, and never found again.

Related Content