This Is Texas

Why the capital should rightfully be Houston, not Austin.

February 2013By Comments

Craig Washburn

A great capital city, most everyone would agree, should be representative of the state or nation over which it presides. It should be preeminent not only in size but also in learning, power, and wealth. You might say a capital should be a state or nation’s one indispensable city, the sort of hub that back in the Cold War days was on the short list of places the Russkies would nuke if they had only a few warheads to toss our way.

In Texas, that city is not Austin.

No, the rightful standard-bearer of our state—the city with the greatest number of people, of cultural happenings, of medical facilities, of gangbuster enterprises—is located 165 miles to the east of Texas’s pink-granite dome. As our lawmakers convene this spring to rule on matters both trivial and weighty, I hereby declare it their duty to rectify a grievous historical wrong and an ongoing shame. It is time we made Houston our capital.

Houston, if you recall, was the first capital of Texas to last for more than a few months. Shortly after his election as the first president of the republic, Sam Houston established the seat of government in his namesake town and reigned there—drunkenly, often as not—for a year, before term limits prevented him from running for reelection. The fate of the city was then sealed in 1838, when two of Houston’s protégés, James Collinsworth and Peter Grayson, ran against his nemesis, Mirabeau B. Lamar.

It was perhaps the most brutal presidential election ever on American soil, at least in terms of body count. Along with a “git tuff” attitude toward Native American tribes (what today we’d call “ethnic cleansing”), one of the main planks in Lamar’s campaign was the establishment of the capital in Central Texas, where, he believed, the republic’s population would eventually expand—and where lawmakers would stay alive by escaping the Bayou City’s epidemics of yellow fever and malaria. To achieve his goals, Lamar stopped at nothing. His campaign was so soul-searingly hostile, so full of calumny and lies at his opponents’ expense, that by election day Grayson had blown his brains out in a Tennessee tavern and Collins-worth had hurled himself from a ship into Galveston Bay after a seven-day whiskey spree. With those two honorable men unable to run, our dapper little poet-president won the election with ease and promptly moved the capital. He named his new city Austin, after Stephen F., who, though he has gone into history books with the rather grand title of “impresario,” was in reality little more than a glorified real estate developer.

So here we are, almost two centuries later. Austin, the capital, has forsaken the risk-taking ways of its founder and more closely resembles its dour namesake. The city is becoming ever more buttoned-down, striving, and full of modern-day “impresarios” (luxe condo flippers and McMansion builders) while insisting it is still the same “weird” Shangri-la it was when LSD and mescaline first came to town. Meanwhile, Houston—whose city father, incidentally, was known for his shaggy mane, gaudy head scarves, and Indian sashes—effortlessly goes about being one of the strangest and most wonderful metropolises on earth.

Consider first a few of its contrasts: For nine of the past eleven years, U.S. News & World Report has named MD Anderson the top cancer hospital in the country, while the Rothko Chapel will forever be an idyllic meditation space and the foremost shrine to suicidal depression on the planet. Rice is the state’s only private university with Tier One status (and the University of Houston is vying to become only the third public university in Texas with that status), while 2013 marks the twenty-sixth annual Houston Art Car Parade, a rolling spectacle and movable feast for the eyes like none other. Houston is home to more Fortune 500 companies than any American city outside New York and more taquerías than any ciudad this side of Monterrey.

Then there’s our sheer cultural heft. More than two million people avail themselves yearly of ballet, Broadway shows, opera, plays, and symphonic music at the nine arts venues downtown. Taken together, the seventeen-square-block theater district has more concentrated seating for arts events than any place besides Broadway. Seven million people a year stroll through Houston’s nineteen museum district attractions; last year the Houston Museum of Natural Science almost doubled in size with a 115,000-square-foot expansion that includes the gobsmacking, Smithsonian-level Morian Hall of Paleontology. And need I mention NASA, or that “Houston” was the first word spoken on the moon?

Houston, the broad-shouldered city of refined oil and crude people, with its leviathan port and behemoth of a petrochemical complex, propels the American economy more vitally than all the stocky bald bankers on Wall Street. “Hallowed be the Houston Ship Channel,” once wrote native son and songwriter Rodney Crowell. “Fifty miles of salt marsh bayou turned world’s longest deep-water shipping lane, host waterway to the most sludge-pumping, poisonous gas–spewing paper mills, chemical plants, and oil refineries in the Western Hemisphere.” He understood that the city’s industrial Elysia make up the throbbing heartbeat of the nation’s midsection, without which the entire economy would shudder to a halt.

Of course, most of these facts about the city are Houston’s official party line, the stuff you hear from chamber of commerce blowhards. Here’s the thing: Houston is all of that highfalutin stuff and also weirder than Austin. Where else can you light a candle to a life-size skeletal Santa Muerte in the back room of a Sharpstown strip mall yerbería by morning and watch a French Creole–speaking black man in cowboy attire dance an elaborate waltz to zydeco accordion by night? Where else can you devour pound after pound of Vietnamese crawfish and drink canned Budweiser at one of America’s largest Southeast Asian shopping malls, surrounded by arguing old men betting on checker games, and then adjourn to the bay side for fresh oysters under laughing gulls?

The traditional, the modern, the bizarre, and their collisions, that’s what makes Houston weird, much weirder than our current capital’s insular (and sneering) celebration of all things hipsterish. In fact, Austin’s parochial mind-set is what makes its unseating as our capital not just logical but necessary. Capital cities should be something of a synthesis of the places they represent, but Austin is to Texas what Saint Petersburg was to Imperial Russia: a deplorable conduit for foreign ideas and fashions. The city is a rejection of Texas, an adopter of fashions that should be banished from whence they came, starting with Formula 1 racing (Italy) and whole-wheat tortillas (California).

More so than ever, Austin lacks gravitas. A city can get away with such a deficiency so long as it is creating great, transcendent art, but is Austin doing that? It calls itself the Live Music Capital of the World, and yet one wonders if the entire Austin music movement of the past forty-plus years has sold as many albums as Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé—to name but one Houston hit-making machine. And I won’t even talk about how the city has tried to steal Houston’s folk-country legacy of Crowell, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Steve Earle. Then there’s H-Town’s hip-hop scene, from the Geto Boys and UGK to Slim Thug and Chamillionaire, which is rivaled in the South only by Atlanta’s.

My proposal has an upside for Austinites as well. By renouncing their capital status, they’d rid the city of tens of thousands of Republican politicians, appointees, lobbyists, and corporate attorneys at one fell swoop. (Think of it, my freaky Hill Country brethren, you would finally be shut of Rick Perry!) The traffic, now officially the worst in the state, would improve. And all those fat cats leaving town would sap the demand for McMansions and Douchebox condos, so the ongoing ravagement of Austin’s majestic hillsides and lakefronts would abate. Finally, hipsters, who revel in nothing more than being something before it was cool and then discarding it, could rejoice in their identity as “the historic capital of Texas.”

As for Houston, I can’t help but think our elected leaders would benefit from living in a city with high culture. Maybe hearing an aria or two would elevate the soul of a flinty-eyed Midland senator. There’s the economy too: maybe a trip through the boutiques of Harwin Drive—where trucks disgorge the cargoes of Chinese consumer goods by the containership-load—would educate our leaders on the realities of the trade imbalance and get them to do something about creating manufacturing jobs in Texas.

There is, of course, the question of logistics. What becomes of the old Capitol? And where does Houston lodge the Lege? Easy. Slap a statue of Willie Nelson in the Goddess of Liberty’s place atop the granite dome and repurpose it as the Texas Pantheon. Fill it with statues, plaques, and exhibits dedicated to all those exalted icons who were truly Texas cool, and presto: a world-class tourist attraction. As for Houston, well, let’s not forget that it has long been home to a certain Eighth Wonder of the World, now just sitting there running to ruin. The Astrodome’s merits as a seat of government are limitless. It has rail service and ample parking and seating. It has skyboxes in which lobbyists, high above the scrum, could go about their deals. The old “exploding” scoreboard could be reactivated, and we could make state politics a spectator sport. What citizen wouldn’t be more civic-minded if he could kick back in a box seat and enjoy a few cups of the Coldest Foam in the Dome while Dan Patrick and Leticia Van de Putte debated at midfield? Whenever a legislator started getting a little too grandiose up on the dais, an appointed sinecure (Nolan Ryan?) could power up that bawling, smoking-nosed bull that once thrilled baseball fans. C-SPAN ratings would be off the charts.

Texas is now an urban state, and Houston, the mestizo megalopolis where the Dirty South meets Aztlán, is every Texas city. It has an Austin inside it, in the Heights and parts of Montrose. It has barrios to rival those of El Paso and San Antonio, in the East End and on the Northside. Louisiana lagniappe is scattered about in all the Cajun, Creole, and post-Katrina New Orleans eateries and in the zydeco that is a living, vital part of black Houston culture. There’s a Dallas in and around the Galleria and Highland Village, and once a year, the whole city pretends to be Fort Worth at rodeo time. In fact, with trail rides clogging all our roads on Go Texan Day, we might even out-Cowtown Cowtown itself.

There’s just one drawback: the weather, an oppressive attribute that also figured into Lamar’s desire to move the capital in the first place. But at least the yellow fever and malaria epidemics are gone—and anyway, humidity is good for your skin. And your soul. And as the soul of Texas, Houston should be the Lone Star State’s capital, once more and forever this time, just as General Sam wanted it to be.

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