On Monday, Houston’s Glassell School of Art unveiled a massive chrome metal sculpture called Cloud Column, by British sculptor Anish Kapoor. It’s a signature piece of public art that will serve as a landmark, a backdrop for engagement photos, a checklist item for tourist Instagrams, and—of course—the perfect place for selfies.
I know this because that’s been the case in Chicago since 2006, when the city officially unveiled Cloud Gate, another massive chrome metal sculpture by Kapoor that is known colloquially as “the Bean,” because of its legume-like shape. The new piece in Houston is strikingly similar to the beloved Bean—and Chicago residents have noticed.
Chicago Tribune columnist Kim Janssen set off a mini-war of words between the two cities with his brutally headlined piece, “Unoriginal 4th place Houston gets its own bean sculpture… whatever.” The Houston Chronicle‘s Lisa Gray responded, and the two columnists published their emails, which grew increasingly defensive. Gray unconvincingly argues, “Kim, did it occur to you that maybe we wanted it just because it’s a cool thing? It’s a piece of art, and works by the same artist often look similar.” She then went on the offensive, essentially asking Janssen if he was just mad because Houston’s likely to overtake Chicago as the nation’s third most populous city. Janssen responded in the affirmative: “Chicago has spent the better part of its existence resenting New York and then Los Angeles. That is the natural order of things. The idea that a giant Texas suburb masquerading as a city may soon supplant us is galling.”
All of that bickering spoke to me. As Texans go, I’m of the “got here as soon as I could” variety. I was born just outside of Chicago, and after some jumping around as a kid, lived there through the end of high school. I came to Texas after that, and have mostly been here ever since. I still bleed Cubbie blue and weep for the Bears, but otherwise, Texas is home. I’ve lived in the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, and Austin. I’ve got family in Houston and Dallas, and find myself smitten with El Paso every time I pass through. I miss Chicago pizza, occasionally, and the hot dogs. But that’s it.
All of this makes me uniquely qualified—at least among Texas Monthly writers—to weigh in on the issue. And here’s the truth: Chicago and Houston have more in common than just similar population numbers and chrome bean sculptures; they’re also the two cities with the most pronounced inferiority complexes in America.
Chicagoans, as Janssen rightly acknowledges, resent New York and Los Angeles. But it’s not just resentment that the city’s residents feel—it is, ultimately, a deep insecurity. New Yorkers strut around as though they invented the world. If an earthquake strikes Virginia, and people in New York feel a tremor (as happened in 2011), the trending hashtag on Twitter will be #NYCEarthquake. Chicago, meanwhile, is full of people wondering if they could actually hack it in New York, or if their every success should be graded on a curve. Its history isn’t as deep—blame Mrs. O’Leary’s cow for that—and it has less of a clear identity than other cities of similar size. It’s a place that defines itself by a certain blue-collar aesthetic that stands in contrast to places like New York and Los Angeles. Former Bears head coach Mike Ditka, one of the city’s most beloved denizens, once declared that “some teams are named Smith, some are Grabowskis,” and the city proudly saw itself reflected in the comment, declaring itself a Grabowski Town. That’s what it means to be of Chicago—to constantly define yourself in contrast to the places you know get more attention.
That should sound familiar to Houstonians. Houston’s insecurities don’t come from New York or L.A., but Dallas. Our own John Nova Lomax is one of the preeminent chroniclers of this fact, which he grudgingly deemed a “rivalry” in a 2015 piece for Texas Monthly, even as he admitted that, as rivalries go, it’s decidedly one-sided:
Dallas and Houston are warring fraternal twins. Houston has always resented Dallas for being better at football, hates how global pop culture sees Dallas as the world’s oil capital when it is not, and thinks he is a little materialistic for Houston’s taste. (You know what really galls Houston about Dallas? Creator David Jacobs was inspired by Blood and Money, an epic true-crime tale that took place in Houston.)
With the exceptions of Austin, which Dallas loves to try to impress with a new-found impetus toward coolness, and scrappy little sidekick Fort Worth, the city gaslights every other Texas locale. But especially Houston. “Rivalry?” Dallas asks. “What rivalry? We don’t have a rivalry with Houston. Nobody up here ever even thinks of Houston.”
One of countless examples from Dallas enthusiasts on the ’net:
“Living in the Dallas area for 35 years, I never heard anyone say anything negative about Houston, nor did I ever hear anyone compare Dallas to Houston. Dallas views Houston as its untidy big-brother that it does not wish to emulate. Houston vs. Dallas exists as a rivalry only on sites like this one; in the real world, Dallas doesn’t see Houston as a rival, it sees Atlanta and Chicago as rivals. Houston may or may not feel the same.”
That’s the kind of talk that makes Houston’s blood boil, in the same vein as when Longhorns tell Aggies that OU’s Sooners are their “real” rivals. When Houston insists that the rivalry does exist, and that Dallas’s constant denial of that existence is proof. And then Dallas sticks the dagger in: “Five Super Bowls, Houston. Five.” And then Dallas drops the mic and exits stage left.
When I first learned about the way that Houstonians feel toward Dallas, the anguish was immediately recognizable. Both Houston and Chicago wear inferiority complexes on their sleeves, which is why the Chronicle‘s Gray, when called out by Janssen, could only respond that maybe the city just wanted something cool. Maybe it makes sense that the two cities should have a sculpture in common—they already relate on deeper levels than anyone might have guessed.
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