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