Houston vs. Dallas

A Rivalrous History

Up until 1900, Galveston was Houston’s chief rival. And then came the Great Hurricane, and suddenly an inland port seemed like not just a good idea, but a necessary one.

By John Lomax August 1, 2013 Published in the August 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Dallas had long feared us and even tried to stymie our growth: in the 19th century, their cotton growers bent over backward to steer product to Galveston rather than Houston. Still, after we finished the Ship Channel, they had no choice but to send it our way. They hated it, but we became their lifeline to the world, and we grew at their expense.

Fate intervened in the form of the Federal Reserve, without which Dallas would be Tyler today.  Through the sort of underhanded trickery that J.R. Ewing would one day make internationally infamous—and which would become indelibly associated with Dallas—the city’s leaders wrested the Texas branch of the bank from Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Houston. It was written, they thought, in stone: Dallas would be the financial center of Texas.

The rivalry has ebbed and flowed over the years. In the 1960s, we didn’t shoot a president and did build the Eighth Wonder of the World. Advantage: Houston. Dallas edged ahead in the ’70s with the rise of the Cowboys and J.R. To the chagrin of Houston boosters, our city was branded as blue-collar, thanks to tobacco-chewin’ Bum Phillips and his “Earlers,” the rise and rise of the rodeo, the freeways choked with KIKK-up trucks, and Urban Cowboy, which showcased a side of the city many locals to this day prefer not to display. We came to be seen as Odessa to Dallas’s Midland, Pittsburgh to their Philly, Manchester to their London. (Our symbolic head-men, salty cowboy Bum Phillips and staid, fedora-adorned, grey-flannel-suited Tom Landry, nicely encapsulated the stereotype.)

As with so many myths, this was at best a half-truth. Most of Urban Cowboy was set in Pasadena, not Houston, and J.R.-like awl-bidness shenanigans were (and are) just as common on Louisiana Street as Pearl Street. Big ol’ belt buckles and cowboy hats are all over Garland and Mesquite, not just Humble and Pasadena. River Oaks was and is every bit as swanky as Highland Park, if populated by women slightly less baroquely ornate.

And yet … there’s something about our cities’ respective mindsets that argues for an egalitarian/elitist divide. You don’t have to deck yourself out in designer gear just to grab a carton of eggs here, even at Central Market. We like to knock back beers in ice houses—they tipple themed martinis in “ultralounges.” Dallas is perhaps the cleanest, blandest, most orderly of Texas cities, while Houston is chaotic and cluttered. Houston has long been known as a city of whiskey and trombones, just as Dallas is a city of piccolos and soufflés.

There are people who say the two places are more alike than different. On the surface, they are correct. Both are super-sprawling megalopolises with booming economies, subpar public transit, and rejuvenating urban cores, slowly morphing from red to blue on the political spectrum. (In the cities proper, if not the ’burbs.)

But dive beneath that surface, and things could not be more different. Houston is bursting with grassroots civic pride at the moment on a scale we’ve never seen before. The slogans are everywhere: “Houston, It’s Worth It.” “No, I’m Not Moving to Austin.” “It’s Okay to Love Houston.”  “F*** You, Houston’s Awesome.” 

To hear D magazine columnist and long-time Dallas curmudgeon Eric Celeste tell it, the same thing’s going down on the Trinity. Over breakfast in Oak Cliff, he told us he’s running out of things to complain about, that Dallas is acquiring its own awesomeness. The city’s ruling oligarchy is doing things like building soccer complexes for the masses. Light rail is snaking out into the suburbs. Even Plano is getting hip, Celeste claims.

But in talking to people out on the streets, a different story emerges. Five of the six strangers we accosted confessed to being miserable. They had the same old tried-and-true Dallas complaints. The people were fake. Unless you were loaded, you were a zero. Pseudo-religiosity and hypocrisy abounded. Women said that guys were jerks just out for one thing, and African-Americans said the city was still shockingly segregated. Dallas was once known as the City of Hate. Today it feels more like the City of Self-Loathing.

So yes, Houston’s better. But then again, you knew that already.

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