Is Houston the “Next Great American City”?

August 1st, 2013

Smithsonian Magazine has a lengthy profile about Houston, aimed (I think) at the East-Coasters who see the Bayou City as nothing but a cowboy town. This is certainly how my parents perceived of it before they visited. After visiting, my mom gave it the ultimate compliment (from a Staten Islander at least)–“It’s like Jersey.”

So here’s the good:

A first-time visitor can still be bewildered by Houston’s sprawl: The population density is less than half that of Los Angeles. It’s the only major U.S. city with no formal zoning code—hence the chaotic and often disheveled urban landscape. Skyscrapers sprout between high schools, strip joints, restaurants and parking lots, all tied into the knots of endless concrete highways. And yet Houston has a thriving art scene, with a startling choice of museums and galleries, and its 17-block theater district claims to have the largest concentration of seats outside of Broadway. Last summer, Forbes declared Houston “the coolest city in America,” based on indices such as the number of cultural venues, the amount of designated green space, and, of course, ethnic diversity. It didn’t hurt that the Houston area has largely brushed off the recent recession, reporting 3.8 percent (non-farm) job growth in 2012, or that the city’s median age is only 32.1, compared with 37.2 for the United States as a whole in 2010.

And here’s the bad:

There are, however, some arguably ominous trends. Perhaps the most disturbing is that, according to the Pew Research Center, Houston is the most income-segregated of the ten largest U.S. metropolitan areas, with the greatest percentage of rich people living among the rich and the third-greatest percentage of poor people among the poor. And the new waves of immigrants are split between highly skilled college graduates (especially Asians), who effortlessly join the upper echelons of Houston, and poorly educated manual laborers (especially Latinos), who trim the lawns and wash restaurant dishes. “The great danger for the future of America is not an ethnic divide but class divide,” Klineberg warns. “And Houston is on the front line, where the gulf between rich and poor is widest. We have the Texas Medical Center, the finest medical facility in the world, but we also have the highest percentage of kids without health care. The inequality is so clear here.” All these forces add urgency to how Houston tackles its problems. “This is where America’s future is going to be worked out.”

I’ve now lived in Houston for a year, and I’ve been so pleasantly surprised. There is always so much to do, and so much to see. It’s a great place to live. I also take advantage of the lack of zoning to obtain relatively cheap housing in a great area that is really close to work.