Perhaps it is not so surprising that the turning point in Houston’s uneasy, often contemptuous relationship with its less-than-pristine environment came in the form of a political ad for Al Gore. The moment occurred during the 2000 presidential campaign. For those who might need a refresher, at the time it was fine with just about everyone in Houston that a brownish haze graced the horizon, that occasional chemical plant explosions in the Ship Channel area announced themselves with booms that shook the ground from miles away, that the oily aroma that fouled an otherwise glorious morning was described by local business leaders, accompanied by knowing winks, as “the smell of money.” But then came Gore’s TV spot, which implied that the rest of the country might become like Texas—which, of course, meant like Houston—if a certain Texas governor became president. This message was accompanied by shots of belching smokestacks, massive oil refineries, and a mother tending to her ailing child—all because, the narration went, George W. Bush was giving tax breaks to oil companies while opposing health care for thousands of kids. “Texas ranks last in air quality,” the ad pointed out.
While none of this was news to Houstonians, the concern of mortified community leaders was that the ad was also running in cities from which they were trying to lure businesses. After years of dismissing as whiners the small minority who suggested that pollution was doing damage not just to Houston’s image but also to its economic future, community leaders finally got their wake-up call. “It really had a negative impact on employers and employees moving here,” said Deborah January-Bevers, the executive director of Houston’s Quality of Life Coalition, who works closely with the Greater Houston Partnership, the city’s version of a chamber of commerce. In bygone times, she would have been the enemy. That was before civic leaders finally realized that the bargain they had made—to accept an ugly, polluted city in return for a booming business climate—was a losing one in the twenty-first century. If Houston didn’t change, new businesses wouldn’t come here, old businesses wouldn’t stay, and the city’s collective dark fears—that it would end up poor, backward, and, worst of all, ignored—would come true.
What has happened since has been an all-out effort to change Houston’s identity.