Photo: Stephanie Moreland
Houston a Second Thought
In the grand scheme of things, my life in Houston has been a blip. But time is relative. And writing about the town I have spent most of my life in can be a daunting task, because of that “state of dependence in which the existence or significance of one entity is solely dependent on that of another.” And so at the age of 28, I — a Houstonian since my days as a toddler — set out to discover my city.
Unless otherwise indicated photos courtesy of the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
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To tell you the truth, I never really gave Houston much thought, until I began thinking about leaving it. In fact, the decision has been made; I have made up my mind to leave my hometown — at least for a while. I am of course ambivalent. Already, I am looking back — at Houston.
After my recent foray to Europe, I find myself considering a quasi-gypsy life because I no longer feel I belong to any particular city, person, or place. In a strange way, I feel free. It is as if I am looking for the perfect outfit for a night on the town, a new town.What the occasion will be remains to be seen.
I reluctantly call Houston my hometown. But why am I reluctant? What is not to love about a crowded, traffic-ridden city that is sweltering and stifling about 75 per cent of the year?
Accessing the recesses of my mental database, however, I have begun to realize that there are hidden gems that make Houston an alluring and entertaining city. It is a dynamic, diverse, interesting, and fun place to visit — or to live.
Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States. It is sometimes referred to as the “Bayou City” because of the four sluggish streams that wander through it. It is more commonly referred to as “Space City”; home to NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and the “Mission Control” that has become part of our global vocabulary and our aural memory. The first word uttered on the moon was “Houston.” The complete utterance was “Houston, the Eagle has landed.”
Houston is the largest city in Texas with a population that is now estimated at more than two million people. It one of 11 U.S “global cities” — world-class urban destinations that “have a direct and tangible effect on global affairs through socio-economic, social, and political means.” This makes Houston an incredibly powerful entity in comparison to many cities in the United States. However, it has never occurred to me that my Houston was such a powerhouse. Houston has just been home. Sam Houston's home too.
Photo: Stephanie Moreland
I have been told that you can visit Houston and never have the same experience twice. And now as I revisit the city I have not yet left, I find that this is true.
One thing that many people do not know about Houston is the caliber of the arts and cultural scene in the city. As I reflect on my time here, I remember with a flutter of excitement all the times my friends and I would decide to “paint the town red.” We would dress up in our ritzy regalia, and when our heels hit the sidewalk, we would spin around the lively downtown area to grab dinner and cocktails at a chic restaurant, or catch a concert at the Wortham Center or the Hobby Center. I loved those nights when I got to live out my fantasy (or reality) of the young and independent sophisticated single woman about town — in a city that has action and style.
After the concerts, you can park in a convenient spot, hop on the monorail, and cruise to the downtown district to check out the local bar and club scene. The old buildings in the downtown area have been carefully renovated and reflect an eccentric mix of 19th-century business offices and the contemporary urban bar scene. My friends and I would decide to visit a local haunt every now and then just to be part of this unique ambiance. The theme of classic sophistication would hit me as I waltzed in and ordered a martini at a mahogany and brass bar, looking at all of the black and white pictures of the businessmen and the bank that occupied this space in the early 1900s. I could almost feel the presence of these urban ghosts as I looked around me at the new generation of Houston professionals, young and hip in the flattering dim light of this “classical meets contemporary” urban scene.
A visitor could easily spend a week in the museum district alone. I have spent many a day off wandering the museum district to enjoy a quiet reprieve from my (sometimes) emotional roller coaster of a life. Houston for the most part has temperate springs and autumns, so I can remember days when I would drive around with the air conditioner turned off, sunroof open, and absorb the sights of this very attractive part of town.
Across from the Houston Museum of Natural Science is Herman Park with it’s large grassy area lined with trees and benches, and a lake that is a picturesque recovery spot after a vigorous jog. It's good for people watching too: families picnicking with their kids, toddlers waddling over to feed the ducks. Who is mimicking whom? Next to the park, are the zoo and the train where I spent many days as a tot with my grandma and my family. As a small child I could often be found with my friends rolling down the side of the grassy hill at Miller Outdoor Theatre across from Herman Park until we were good and dirty — and very giggly.
Years later, much cleaner and certainly more sophisticated, I went to that same theater to hear the Houston Symphony perform Tchaikovsky's stirring “1812 Overture.” Despite the sweltering Fourth of July weather, I felt the chills run up and down my spine as the cannons blasted and the grandiose and triumphant music filled the air. It didn't occur to me that music composed and performed to commemorate the unsuccessful French invasion of Russia was a touch incongruous for celebrating America’s independence. I just liked it. Besides, I was with my Mom and her friends, all independent-minded people, and I think it was at that point that my adolescent mind first realized that in this city and in this country I could be anything that I wanted to be. I remember looking up at the night sky illuminated with fireworks.
My heart burns a little when I think about how much time has passed, and that I will never again see my home town again through the eyes of that child. As I dig deeper into my thoughts about what this city means to me, I catch glimpses of what how it looked to me as a child. Houston was also my classroom. I remember the first time I saw the exotic animals at the zoo, and my parents talking quietly to me about what they were and where they came from. Relying on their intuitive skills as educators, my parents used the city to focus and shape my curiosity; with frequent trips to the Natural Science Museum especially. To this day, I still remember the replica of a dinosaur that towers over an entire room in the museum. That was also when I think I first became aware of the vastness of time, and the enormity of existence; as much as my adolescent brain could process. It was also when I first learned about space travel, first climbed into part of a spacecraft, and imagined what walking on the moon might be like.
And then there's The Astrodome.
The name alone makes my mind drift through some of the most vivid images in my emotional pictorial. For me it became the Space City’s center of gravity. How I remember those valiant Houston Astros in white uniforms with bright orange orbits wrapped around their jerseys. I remember especially one unforgettable night in 1985 when I was up way past my bedtime, and it was a school night! Nonetheless my brother, mom, dad, and I stood on our feet screaming and holding up our “K” signs as we watched Nolan Ryan set a baseball record when he struck out his 4000th batter. I can still smell the beer and the cigarette smoke, and I can still taste the hot dogs. How many times did we stand up in that blindingly bright stadium during the seventh inning stretch and sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”?
There were so many memories shared with so many thousands of people in the Astrodome. But my mental journey would not be complete unless I reminisced about the dozens of times that I put on my cowgirl boots and hat and made my way to the Dome for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
There was Willie Nelson on the rotating stage singing “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” How Texan is that! And I will never forget super handsome George Straight and his piercing blue eyes on that big Astrodome screen as his dreamy voice captured all the hearts of the women in the stadium. And how many high school crushes initiated my romantic heart on the ferris wheel at the rodeo carnival as we held hands in the chilly February air? My inner rodeo girl would come alive when I saw the riding, the roping, and the rodeo clowns. I can still smell the manure and hear the sounds of the cowboy boots scuffing their way across the Astrohall floor with their livestock in tow.
Although the Astrodome no longer houses the Rodeo, it continues to symbolize warm-hearted Houston. Recently the nation watched in horror as Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans. It was a poignant time when Houston opened its doors to the victims; the emergency shelter was none other than the Astrodome. It is indeed with mixed emotions that I realize that this place that held so many good memories for me and my family would also house so many traumatized people. I only hope that they found some comfort in our domed wonder.
As a travel destination Houston has a lot to offer, much more than what you might suspect. It is a city with potential for just about anything, except maybe a lot of snow. Call it Texas pride, or whatever, I believe my city is worth a second thought. I also think I owe Houston an apology. I never meant to take you for granted old friend.
Some of my favorite places in Houston