One spring afternoon in 2011, a reporter on assignment for Gus Allen, editor of the popular real estate blog Swamplot, was snapping pics of a gorgeous-but-doomed midcentury home in Memorial when a stranger approached.
“You’re with Swamplot?” wondered the man. “Have you ever met Gus?”
“No,” replied the reporter, admitting that all her Swamplot dealings had been conducted via phone and email. “Have you?”
“No,” he said, adding pointedly, “No one ever has.”
The man was correct, for Gus Allen does not exist. He is, rather, a pseudonym employed by 49-year-old architect Larry Albert, a fact that only came to light in 2012, after Swamplot was the target of a lawsuit by a homeowners’ association (later withdrawn), and Albert countersued. The facts of Albert’s existence soon trickled out—that he’d arrived in Houston from Boston in 1993 to study architecture at Rice, that he’d stayed here ever since, working as an architect and teaching at Rice since 2001. In 2007, borrowing his pen name from one of Houston’s founding Allen brothers, Augustus, Albert launched Swamplot, which may have begun as a property-by-property chronicle of development projects and teardowns, but soon became something far more: a meditation on what kind of city we are, and what kind we want to be.
Today, Albert presides over a lively digital domain where those in-the-know about local development and real estate—and those who want to be—come together to hash over daily news from all corners of the city. Topics include everything from the latest wrinkle in the endless Ashby High Rise saga to which building site just got a demolition permit or applied to sell alcohol. The posts tend to be brief, the better to swiftly usher readers to the comments section, which is where the real action happens. Part of the fun is guessing who’s a real estate insider tipping his hand, and who’s a blowhard, crank, troll-in-training, etc.
One bona fide insider, reluctant to be outed as a Swamplot tipster, said of Albert: “He is almost always right, and when he’s not, he updates and corrects his information. And his absolute willingness to protect his sources gives him access to information available to few—if any—others.”
Albert himself rarely editorializes or prescribes solutions; he leaves that to Swamplot’s commenters. “What I’m most proud of is that it’s become a place that has a real sense of community, though not in the sense that it’s a group of like-minded people at all,” he said. “It seems to draw people from many different political viewpoints.”
Take the Astrodome. Albert’s long been on record with his own proposal for the Dome, which would reconceive it as “an actual city. You would have a school, a Starbucks, a mall, everything. Think about it this way: where else could you buy an air-conditioned lot?” Now, however, he’s less interested in his own proposals than his readership’s. “There are almost as many ideas about what we should do with the Astrodome as there are readers of Swamplot. I don’t want to step on any of that,” he said, adding, “even if it does get torn down, it still fits in. That would be another very Houston thing to do.”