It’s been almost a year since I moved to Houston to become the arts editor of a new city magazine called Houstonia. For most of the previous five years I lived in northern New Jersey and told everyone I lived in New York. Sometimes I even believed it. (“How’s New Jersey?” my friends and family in Texas would ask. “New York is great,” I’d say.) That fact that I lived in Jersey City, right across the Hudson River from Manhattan—you can see it in the top right corner of the Manhattan photo above—and spent nearly every weekend and many weeknights in “the city,” only enhanced the illusion. It didn’t matter that I could get to Manhattan faster than many of my Brooklyn friends, or that the PATH train, like the subway, ran 24 hours a day. Brooklyn was New York. Queens was New York. Even godforsaken Staten Island, connected to Manhattan only by ferry, was New York. Living in a place called Jersey City, there was no real way to disguise my identity. My apartment was even on Jersey Avenue.
All of this is to say that I am not now, nor have ever been, a New Yorker. I did, however, regularly attend exhibitions, concerts, plays, and film screenings during my time as a bridge-and-tunnel interloper. And since moving back to Houston after a prolonged absence, I’ve noticed a few cultural differences.
1. Houston galleries actually want you to visit.
In New York, the top art galleries are fortresses of solitude. They may technically be open to the public, but they do everything possible to obscure this fact by their minimal signage and forbidding storefronts. If you’re bold enough to make it past this first line of defense, you encounter the gallery assistant, who either fixes you with an icy glare or, more commonly, ignores your existence. In Houston, on the other hand, the gallery assistant—sometimes the gallery owner, if they’re available—may actually offer a tour.
2. Houston audiences give standing ovations.
In all my time attending concerts and plays in New York, I don’t recall seeing a single unanimous standing ovation. Some of the finest performances I’ve ever seen—Kevin Spacey in Richard III, or John Turturro in Endgame—garnered only a partial standing O, whereas in Houston the audience would have been flinging their underwear at the stage. On the other hand, even a mediocre performance in Houston routinely wins a standing ovation. Is this a form of Southern hospitality, or are audiences here less discerning? Surely there must be a happy medium between New York’s frigidity and Houston’s overeagerness.
3. Houston art writers feel obliged to “support the community.”
In New York, you can’t throw a $1 pizza slice without hitting an artist or an art critic. There are so many shows, and so many reviews of each show, that (with rare exceptions) no single article is going to make or break anyone. Arts writers feel no obligation to “stay positive” because they know the New York arts scene is robust enough to survive even sustained gusts of negativity. Houston’s arts scene, if much smaller than New York’s, is also robust enough to weather some criticism, but you wouldn’t know it from reading much of the art writing here. I’m told that this holds particularly true for food writing, where any deviation from the party line (“Houston is the food capital of America”) is treated as a stab in the back.
4. Houston isn’t overrun with tourists.
This may seem obvious, but it makes a huge difference. One of the reasons Houston has such great dining, in my opinion, is that ninety-nine percent of the patrons at most restaurants are locals who know what’s good and what isn’t. The same goes for art. Most of the people who visit the Menil or the Contemporary Arts Museum are there because they want to see the current exhibition, not because their travel guide directed them there. To avoid the hordes of camera-wielding tourists, most New Yorkers make a point of going to museums on weekdays. Unless our tourist bureau manages to convince the world that Houston is indeed worth it, that isn’t something we need to worry about.
5. Our orchestra has a better concert hall.
Yes, Carnegie Hall has exquisite acoustics. I once had nosebleed seats for a solo piano recital there—I was so far away from the stage that I couldn’t tell whether the pianist was a man or a woman—and could hear every note of the Chopin nocturne as if the concert were taking place in a cozy living room. Unfortunately, the New York Philharmonic abandoned Carnegie Hall in 1962 to move into Lincoln Center, where it’s been based ever since. Despite numerous, costly upgrades to Avery Fisher Hall, the acoustics there are still dreadful. The only sounds that seem to project well are the audience’s sneezes and coughs, which can be so loud as to virtually drown out the orchestra. Jones Hall was built around the same time as Avery Fisher, and suffers from many of the same deficiencies, but in our case the renovations seem to have been more successful. While the Houston Symphony’s home is hardly ideal, it’s far better than the Philharmonic’s.