Living in Houston these days, the phrase that comes to mind most often is “déjà vu all over again.” There are the grim, daily headlines in the Houston Chronicle : “Port of Houston Showing Signs of a Slowdown” and “Desperate Acts Can Follow Financial Ruin.” There are the For Lease signs sprouting up in a seemingly infinite number of strip centers. The Galleria on weekday mornings feels a little like a pharaoh’s tomb—packed with upscale afterlife accessories but no bodies. Down on Kirby Drive, dozens of lovely live oaks have probably lost their lives for nothing, having been struck down to widen a road that may or may not need to be wider, now that a flashy, mid-rise development called West Avenue may or may not be completed “at the present time,” the new euphemism for “We’re gonna wait this one out for a while.”
The future of the proposed Whole Foods, just off Allen Parkway, the one that was the hope of every Montrose, Heights, and Downtown resident? Someone tied into the development just responded with a sad shake of the head. In fact, that seems to be the current response to just about everything right now. Got a nicely restored building in the Heights? A condo skyscraper looming over River Oaks? An entire apartment complex that was due to be razed and rebuilt from the ground up? Don’t think so. The only good news is that the widely loathed Ashby High Rise—a soaring apartment complex that was going to cast shadows over some of the nicest (and priciest) parts of town—is, most likely, a no go.
This kind of stasis has an unfortunate familiarity to people (like me) who were here during the bad old days of the mid- to late-eighties, when the price of a barrel of oil plummeted from a now unimpressive high of around $30 to $9 and caused the whole city to fall into one enormous identity crisis. In those days, self-flagellation was part of the recovery process—we had believed the price of oil would never, or rather could never, fall, and so had allowed the city to become overbuilt, overconfident and, maybe, just a little overly enthused with itself. It was a sad time to be in Houston, largely because the city’s entertainment value dropped right along with oil prices: no more of developer Harold Farb, warbling at his own supper club; no more designer skyscrapers going up downtown that made you feel like you really were living in a world-class city.
Eventually, of course, Houston pulled itself together, diversified its economy, and went back to booming again. Then, even better, the price of oil started its upward surge, and people started doing dumb but very entertaining things like refurbishing the great, empty-for-years oil sheik’s home on Kirby, the one that (still) looks like an embassy in Abu Dhabi, and putting Martha Stewart–designed MacMansions on the Katy prairie. If the crash that has followed hasn’t exactly been our fault—though Houstonians were stunned anew when the price of oil dropped from nearly $140 a barrel to, well, $40—the result has been that same sad sense that maybe we’ll never have fun again.
Or rather, living in Houston in troubled times requires that you take your fun where you find it. Since most of the people here aren’t and never have been rich, a little bit of Schadenfreude has been helpful: The story of the collapse of the Stanford Group, a pseudo-stuffy investment firm now under investigation by the SEC, might wind up serving as a nifty old-fashioned morality play. (It should have been a sign that the executive director went by the nickname Rocky.) Then, too, it should be fun to watch the many luxury publications that sprung up here during good times scramble for survival. (I’m sure they didn’t mean to, but in good times they had a way of making you feel like you were nobody unless you owned a treasure chest full of Mariquita Masterson’s chunky jewelry and your very own Hummer.)
Shotgun marriages are also appearing on the horizon, like the one being trotted out now between the famously spendthrift Baylor College of Medicine and fiscally conservative Rice University. In general, watching Houstonians trying to be cautious is always novel—the divorce rate among the high-lifers has slowed as spoiled second wives decide to hang in until the pickings and the portfolios grow ripe again. (At least one is claiming to economize by selling her collection of designer handbags on eBay.) Then too, a River Oaks committee has chosen 2009 to get picky about architecture, setting up guidelines that permit the erection of just about anything faux—French provincials, English Tudors, Mediterraneans—while turning down (already paid for) designs by well-regarded architects. (Maybe they are trying to bring down property values by turning River Oaks into a reassuring replica of the Woodlands.)
And yes, it will be interesting to see if society couple John and Becca Cason Thrash start having even bigger and better bacchanals, as his natural gas storage business booms in these days of “super-contango.” That’s the buzzword in the futures market now—a time when it’s better to store rather than sell your cheaper oil and gas until the price goes up, otherwise known here as “betting on the come.” As Loren Steffy of the Chronicle recently wrote, “no one believes $40 oil is going to last.”
Sounds familiar, no?