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