City on a Hill

Let’s Talk “Houstonization”

New meaning for a once-dirty word

By Robb Walsh October 31, 2013 Published in the November 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Oliver Munday

Rice undergrad Melanie Zook and I are seated at a table under the oaks outside Valhalla, the university’s beer hall. I’m drinking a cream ale in a plastic cup, and she’s doing her homework—an assignment from a professor, Stephen Klineberg, the sociologist whose demographic survey astonished Houstonians last year with the news that ours is the most diverse city in America. 

Zook is trying to chart the changes in Houston’s food scene brought about by this diversity, so her professor recommended she interview me. Sadly, though, my lofty lecture about the differences between hybridization, creolization, and syncretization among Houston’s culinary cultures—which, for space reasons only, I’ll spare Houstonia readers—is not what she’s looking for. 

She wants me to tell her exactly, precisely, which year the Houston food scene switched from black-and-white to Technicolor. Fine.

“1977,” I reply, pulling a rabbit out of my hat. It seems right. After all, that was the year Thu Ho, currently the owner of the b-10 banh mi shop on Bellaire, opened the first Vietnamese restaurant in Houston. It was also the year Ninfa’s was lauded as one of Houston’s most popular restaurants in Texas Monthly. Zook copies down my words of wisdom. 

And then I seize the moment and turn the tables. We’re in a beer garden, after all, and I have an Ice House question: “How is the meaning of the term ‘Houstonization’ changing?” 

Zook is not only studying sociology and public policy, she’s also working with the Houston Parks Board Bayou Greenways Initiative—so she spends a lot of time thinking about improving our city. Still, she looks a little perplexed and doesn’t have a ready reply. 

All right, I think, I’ll give her some background: the term Houstonization was coined in 1975 by Calvin Trillin in a New Yorker article, “On the Possibility of Houstonization,” about the Houston high-rollers who profited when the Superdome was built in New Orleans. The story predicted the rise of a Houston/New Orleans/Mobile corridor that would be ruled by oil money in Space City. (Of course, that was before the bust.)

Nevertheless, a word was born. “Don’t Houstonize Austin” was a popular anti-development bumper sticker in that quaint college town back in the 1980s, when urban planners across the country used “Houstonization” to describe the living hell endured by residents of municipalities that didn’t embrace urban planning. 

Lately, though, our city’s rep has improved, the national media is showering us with praise, etc. So I’ve been wondering: is the meaning of the term “Houstonization” changing as well? I ask Zook again. 

“Houston still has a horrible reputation with people in New York and the rest of the country,” she assures me. 

So I tell her about some other conversations I’ve had on the subject, with Trillin himself, for instance, who told me via email that he hadn’t visited Houston since the Republican National Convention of 1992, so he couldn’t really comment. 

Zook’s professor, Klineberg, on the other hand, had plenty to say. After years of being held up as the nation’s sorriest example of endless suburban sprawl, the most spread-out, least dense, most automobile-dependent city in the country, he explained, Houston is now being recognized as the quintessential “Multi-Centered Metropolitan Region,” with “walkable urbanism” and “good density” occurring not only in a revitalized downtown, but also in the new town centers of Sugar Land, the Woodlands, Pearland, Midtown, Uptown, Greenspoint, etc. Hence: “Houstonization means turning undifferentiated urban sprawl into a variety of livable, transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly centers.” 

And the word carries another new meaning for demographers, Klineberg observed: “By 2040, the majority of all Americans will trace their ancestry to somewhere else on this planet than to Europe. This is of course true of Houston today. The American future is here in Houston now. So all the rest of America is indeed in the process of becoming Houstonized in another very important sense.”

Meanwhile, in food-writing circles, there’s no question the perception of Houston has changed, I tell Zook (with that, we’ve come back around to her thesis topic, and she starts jotting notes again). Just consider food scholar and frequent visitor John T. Edge’s new definition: “Houstonization references the rapid diversification that is transforming much of America’s urban sprawl into multicultural suburbs that are rewarding places to live, play, work, and, especially, eat.” 

I’m finished with my beer, and Melanie Zook has to go to work. As we stand, I ask her if she wants to take another shot at a definition. Maybe she’s just humoring me, but she offers this thought: “Houstonization means taking a mess of neighborhoods and people and interests and turning it all into something cohesive,” she says. I puzzle over that for a few minutes as we walk across the Rice campus.

“By ‘cohesive,’ you mean we all cheer for the Texans?” I ask.

“Exactly,” she responds. 

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