Having driven about 2000 miles of Texas backroads this year alone, I can tell you that a great many of the old-fashioned country town squares are in a very bad way. What flight to the cities hasn't accomplished, Walmart has, and many towns seem on the verge of drying up and blowing away. Once-thriving squares are now empty storefronts alongside frowsy mom-and-pop video shops and "antique stores" proferring little more than junk.
My grandmother Mimi Lomax's hometown of Clarksville -- once the commercial emporium of North Texas has fared very badly. Walmart opened on the edge of town, wiped out the local merchants, and then closed down. As of a few years ago you had to drive 25 miles to Paris each way to get a pair of socks. Oh well, at least Clarksvillians are now availing themselves of the latest in Parisian fashion.
Contrast that with the neo-urbanist centers springing up all around Houston's periphery from Pearland to Sugar Land to The Woodlands, where I junketed a while back with my wife Kelly and eight-year-old daughter Harriet.
These suburban downtowns are laid out like the county towns of our grandparents' youth, but that's about all they have in common with them. Where the old towns have history and lack people, the equation is reversed in these neo-downtowns. And where the old towns lacked national chain stores (aside from a Rexall Drug) and franchise restaurants on their town squares, that is pretty much all you find on Market Square in The Woodlands Town Center: the Gap, Sur La Table, Eddie Bauer, J. Crew, etc and so on.
Ubiquitous chains usually make me queasy, and I am a guy who favors grit over glitz, dive bars over concept taverns, and yet...All of us got a bit of a buzz from Woodlands TC.
On a Friday night, I was overjoyed to see that the square's adjacent mall's Barnes and Noble was hopping like none I have seen since I was a B&N bookseller back in the mid-1990s. There's a booming Cinemark picture show right on Market Street, and it doesn't look like it's about to collapse of its own accord like many out in the country.
The meal we were treated to at La Mi Cocina was quite above-average. (When I gushed over it a little too lavishly for her taste, Kelly had to remind me that it couldn't be all that, because "they have Mi Cocinas in Dallas too.")
Gliding silently in a water taxi past the high-rise hotels and immense mall as the lights winked in the man-made canal felt truly futuristic, like Bladerunner minus the dystopia. The staff at the Hyatt Market Street was almost unnervingly courteous. People were nice to each other all over the place. The Woodlands as a whole feels planned down to the placement of the very last pine needle.
As Houstonia colleague Michael Hardy put it, The Woodlands is the Canada of Houston. My daughter was ready to pack up and move into the Hyatt forever by the end of the trip.
If you've got the money, and are headed to a concert at the Dosey Doe or the Mitchell Pavilion, I highly recommend booking a room at the Hyatt and making a mini-break out of the show. Stash your car in the free parking garage, and have a blast. (If you're headed to the pavilion you can walk or ride a boat to the show.) Feast on the gumbo, jambalaya and decadent bread pudding with praline sauce at Schilleci's, a family-run New Orleans restaurant, or pair up a hearty Rioja with any number of Castilian-inspired bites at 1252 Tapas Bar, or dig in to the manly, meaty backyard fare of Jasper's.
When morning comes, grab a Starbucks or a Jamba Juice and the morning paper, plop yourself on a bench near the village green and watch the joggers and cyclists on their morning rounds.
Savor The Woodlands Town Center in all its McMayberry glory. It sure beats the homeward death-slog on I-45.