There are cities I’ve never seen that nonetheless claim pleasant real estate in my mind, thanks to movies, TV shows and songs. Detroit, for instance, is a town of hard workers who, against a picturesquely crumbling infrastructure, proudly build cars, rap and invent whole subgenres of dance music. Cleveland and Milwaukee are filled with amusing everymen and girls-next-door who just want to get through the workweek, then run outside and sing their cities’ praises.
I’ve only been to New York and Los Angeles a few times each, but know their citizens intimately—their major plots and subplots—to the point that I could tell their fortunes based on their boroughs or proximity to LAX.
Through pop culture, I’ve learned there’s an ultra-hip liberal paradise called Austin. The depictions somewhat resemble the Austin I inhabited in the ’90s, but are so much cooler and undoubtedly attract new indie rock and roller derby hopefuls every year.
And what about Houston? What does the silver screen reflect about my hometown? By and large, three things: Cowboys, politicians drenched in oil money, and NASA. It doesn’t look like a place worth visiting, much less living in, unless you have a penchant for morally ambiguous, white-male-centered dramas.
As a Houstonian, a Texan, and a Southerner, I’m troubled by these impediments to hospitality. I love showing off my city to visitors, but it’s hard to get them here when all they expect to see is mechanical bulls, oil wells and the occasional explosion.
Is the problem that too many stories about Houston have been told by people outside it? Probably. Are there people here who could write or perform better stories about the Bayou City for the national stage? Probably, but they keep moving away, to New York, LA, and Portland—cities that make more evocative impressions. (Thank you forever, Beyoncé, for continuing to rep Houston regardless.)
I get tired of waiting for Hollywood to portray my favorite place in a favorable light and turn to the Internet to see who’s writing about us and what they’re saying. Turns out it’s people who were forced to come here, by their employers or natural disasters, saying they’re surprised. They didn’t know about our diversity and friendly sophistication. They had no way of knowing—there were no shows to prepare them, and three-one-three is perhaps easier to remember than seven-one-three or eight-three-two.
Off the blogs, there are conversations. The Kinder Institute for Urban Research conducted a 2017 study that reveals most of our natives would rather live in Houston than anywhere else. Those of us who feel this way emit minor transmissions: We send friends listings from HAR.com. We post pictures of our restaurant meals and outings. We assure friends and relatives, one by one, that their lifestyles, their languages, their religions, their cuisines and their job skills aren’t merely practiced here, but welcomed. That wasn’t made explicit in Urban Cowboy or Reality Bites (and certainly not in the news), but we convince them to come down and see for themselves.
Anthony Bourdain claimed to uncover the real Houston, one far surpassing his prejudices, in last year’s episode of Parts Unknown. I think he came closer than anyone ever to documenting what we are—disparate pieces of it, anyway. He captured our diversity, but not the way it flows and blends.
That gave me an idea for a film that’s a near-perfect depiction of our city: Two hours of footage at the Galleria, any given Saturday afternoon. It would show us all, from the oil exec’s wives dropping by in yoga gear to pick up eye cream to the kids who walked in all dolled up from the Metro stop. People of every ethnicity and occupation, shopping for everything while drinking Starbucks and bubble tea. Roving packs of teens repping every single neighborhood. Quinceañera courts in full regalia; gay boys in contour and highlight. Women in niqabs alongside women in the scantiest clubwear. Men from the satellites of Katy, Humble, Baytown, trying not to gawk.
It’s a beautiful, ever-captivating parade of culture, consumerism and food, underpinned by the hum of the Zamboni. That’s how my film would end: The giant machine perfects the ice at the center of the mall, our little knockoff of Central Park. It’s surrounded by the wistful faces of skaters impatient to take part in something that doesn’t belong here—that literally isn’t in our nature.
This film wouldn’t win awards, or even YouTube views. But I know one of you, one day, will produce a story, with an actual plot and compelling characters, that’s just as true. You’ll make us all proud.