Keep the Change

In Houston, the only thing that's permanent is that everything is temporary. So how does the city get over Enron? Easy—it already has.

September 2002By Comments

THIS MONTH WE PRESENT AN issue that focuses on a single city, which might seem to be a strange undertaking for a statewide magazine. In fact, we’ve never done it before. But this particular city at this particular time—Houston after the collapse of Enron—is a special case. Not since the Kennedy assassination has a Texas city been so identified with such a devastating event with such far-ranging consequences. Then as now, outsiders blame the culture of a city and a state for contributing to the catastrophe. The culture in question—the lavish use of money to buy the loyalty of politicians—was instituted in Houston more than half a century ago by mega-contractors George and Herman Brown for the benefit of Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by Enron to include accountants and lawyers as well as politicians. We are taking the measure of Houston today, just as, had Texas Monthly existed in the sixties, we would have taken the measure of Dallas then.

The articles in this issue are concerned with the city, not the scandal, and look forward, not back. The name of former Enron chairman and CEO Ken Lay appears just twice more in these pages, both brief mentions. “Enron, Schmenron,” reads the line on the cover. The message of that phrase is not that we discount the damage the company has inflicted on its employees, its investors, and its community but rather that we regard Houston as so much more than the Enron debacle. In the pages that follow, we hope that the essence of Houston comes through, quite apart from Enron.

The city can be an elusive target. “I don’t get Houston,” a colleague confessed to me when we first broached the idea of a special issue. He had lived in Los Angeles for a time, he said, and he had gotten to know the place just by driving around. It was all there in plain sight: the freeway lifestyle, the pop culture, Hollywood, the magnetic pull of the Pacific drawing a continent westward. Where, he wanted to know, do you go to understand Houston? I had no ready answer; most of Houston’s virtues are intangible. Nor did I recommend to him my two favorite places. One is personal: the tunnel of trees that forms the dramatic entrance to Rice University, where I went to college. But Rice—forever elite, insular, and rigorously intellectual—hardly typifies the city in which it is located. The other spot is metaphorical: the LaPorte Freeway, which runs past the refineries and petrochemical plants along the Ship Channel. My favorite time to view this pipescape is a damp night, when low-hanging clouds envelop the orange flares and the sky itself appears to be afire. But for those who don’t get Houston—a group that includes a lot of Texans—this slice of industrial America is not the place to see the light.

So where do you go to find the real Houston? At the height of the oil boom, Welsh travel writer Jan Morris spent five days in the city and recorded her impressions in our October 1981 issue (“City of Destiny”). Looking for things that astonished her, she found six: “The labyrinthine downtown tunnel system, so cool, elegant, and incomprehensible”; Jamail’s grocery store on Kirby, “where they offer eleven kinds of English orange marmalade”; the “concentrated opulence of River Oaks,” where the mansions are “so crammed all together in their poky green yards that there seems hardly space for your five-car garage”; the Astrodome at sunset, “when its huge humped dome, set all ablaze by the evening sun, really does look as though it has landed there”; the “macabre and thrilling mock-up” of late congressman Albert Thomas’ office in the convention center that bore his name; and a chorus line performing earnestly but not skillfully to the strains of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” on the Galleria’s ice rink. The most striking fact about this list is that half of it is obsolete: Jamail’s is long gone, the Astrodome sits in forced retirement, and a new convention center welcomes visitors to Houston. The old center has been renovated into movie theaters and restaurants, among which Thomas’ glass-enclosed office looks more out of place than ever. Morris’ list is a time capsule for Houston’s essential characteristic, which is—as Enron was the latest to prove—impermanence.

Rather than mourn change, however, Houstonians embrace it. The idea that everything is temporary and all things are possible applies to people as well as places—particularly those who come here from somewhere else and evolve into something new. This is an old story in America, the siren song of the frontier: Leave your past behind, reinvent yourself, come to me. Houston is roughly three hundred miles east of the one hundredth meridian, the frontier line at the beginning of the final stage of Western settlement, but it has this much in common with the real thing. Life is not comfortable here. It’s hot, humid, swampy, polluted, flood prone—no rampaging Comanches or decade of drought, to be sure, but by modern standards a frontier nevertheless. The result is a freewheeling place that oozes optimism, inspires risk-taking, and rewards improvisation, cleverness, and the will to survive. “Houston,” wrote Morris, “is one of the few places in the Western world today whose vocabulary is habitually in the future tense and the positive mood: ‘I will,’ not ‘I used to,’ ‘yes’ more than ‘sorry, we’re out of it.'”

This theme of reinvention runs through this issue. We didn’t plan it that way, but if you set out to write about the most interesting people, institutions, events, and trends in Houston, reinvention is what you’re likely to get. A woman whose job is planning parties makes the transformation from hired help to international society queen. A mall evolves into a theme park for teens. Latinos by the tens of thousands flock into the city and create a hybrid culture that is part ethnic identity, part Texas flair. A lawyer known for defending celebrities in high-profile cases takes on the toughest client of his life, loses—and becomes the toast of the town. Even M. D. Anderson, the celebrated cancer hospital, scarcely resembles the financially troubled institution it was a few years ago.

Having discharged the duty of explaining why this issue is devoted exclusively to Houston, I would like to drop any pretense of journalistic objectivity and confess that I love the place. This is not an easy admission for someone who grew up in Galveston. I became inculcated with the local wisdom that when you crossed Galveston Bay to the Texas mainland, you left civilization behind. We were the underdog, Houston the behemoth that stole our TV station and our appellate court and our maritime commerce. But in time I came to appreciate that Houston was an underdog too: that Texans beyond its gravitational pull regarded its traffic and its climate as unbearable, and that outside Texas, it got no respect at all. Even my mother, a Galveston chauvinist to the end, gritted her teeth when national news commentators referred to it, without fail, as Houston, Texas. I gritted mine when, upon rereading Jan Morris’ article the other day, I discovered that she had done the same. Yet, for as long as I can remember, Dallas never had to be identified by its surname.

That’s because Dallas for many years had a cachet that Houston lacked. It was home to Neiman Marcus and its arbiter of taste, Stanley Marcus. It was the birthplace of America’s Team and the namesake of a top-rated TV series. But none of these assets count for much today. Neiman Marcus is everywhere, the Cowboys are nowhere, and the only J.R. in Dallas these days is John Rocker. Don’t get me wrong: I like Dallas. It looks like a city where someone long ago had a plan in mind and everybody has stuck to it ever since. I never find myself worrying about whether a signal light will be out of sync or wondering if the wide boulevards will clog up with traffic.

Houston, on the other hand, looks like a city where no one ever had a plan. Looks do not deceive: It is the largest American city without zoning. Periodic attempts to institute land-use controls, dating back to the forties, have always been voted down by the citizenry. (Deed restrictions, which can be enforced in court, provide a cumbersome form of regulation.) It’s probably too late to change now; imagine the political nightmare of having zoning panels review every piece of property in the city, starting from scratch. But even if it were possible, it’s a bad idea. The free-ranging appearance of Houston is fundamental to its civic character. It announces that anything can happen here, that Houston, for better or for worse, values unpredictability over certainty.

“I felt to this city something especially transient and impermanent,” Jan Morris wrote in the dark conclusion to her 1981 article. She described the exodus she sensed was coming: “the Mexican Americans streaming for the border . . . the oilmen hastening out from Hobby in their Gulfstreams and helicopters . . . the last ship swinging in the Turning Basin . . . the last pipe closed, the last tank emptied, the last furnace damped at Exxon or Armco”—all of this following her initial Old World observation that “the future never lasts.” She was so right—the oil bust was crouching in ambush, just over the horizon—and yet so wrong, because in New World Houston, the oil boom future may not last, nor the Enron future. But there is always a next one.

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