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."

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

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