“Los Angeles,” sniffed Aldous Huxley, “is nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis.” Though undoubtedly stolen from an obscure H.L. Mencken essay – Mencken hated many things, but he hated Southern California most of all – Huxley’s bon mot fits perfectly: driving I-10 West past Palm Springs and into the relentless nightmare sprawl of metro LA leaves you with an understanding what French infantrymen must have felt as Napoleon marched them into Russia—that this goes on forever, and we will not get out alive.
Houston, whether we like it or not, follows the Los Angeles model. Endless. Gargantuan. Incoherent and disjointed, less a city than an enormous civic wine stain, oozing its way across the Gulf Coast flood plain. Like a lot of boomtowns, Houston is an accidental city: had a hurricane or two chosen to make landfall a few degrees north or south, J.J. Watt might be wondering what rich people buy as a member of the Indianola Texans, and Jose Altuve might be toiling in obscurity for the Galveston Astros. If George and Herman Brown had never partnered with a schoolteacher-turned-politician named Lyndon Johnson, billions of dollars in government construction contracts might never have found their way to South Texas, and billions of pounds of concrete might never have been poured. If the oil patch hadn’t boomed in the ’70s, if the climate hadn’t been so welcoming to immigrants from West Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, if the Rust Belt hadn’t gotten so darn rusty, Houston would still be a place that dissolved into open fields just past Meyerland, a place where most people still cared, passionately and deeply, about Rice football.
Accidental or not, we’re here, in all our glory. And we’re a mess.
There is a wide difference of opinion on whether our messiness is a good thing. Some of us find it distressing. Tory Gattis and the other evangelists of “Opportunity Urbanism” disagree, painting Houston as a sort of libertarian paradise, a place where fully actualized men and woman can work out their destinies through grit, brains, and good ol’ trial and error. Master plan? We don’t need no stinking master plan.
Surveys indicate that the majority of Houstonians are quite content to live in this Sue Ellen Mischke of metropolises: we love “the whole free-swinging, freewheeling attitude” of the place, a city that offers us the strange comfort of knowing that no matter our neighborhood, we’re never more than 37 seconds away from a gas station, a Taco Bell, or an all-night tattoo parlor.
Eventually, all the world will be Houston, endless rings of toll roads forming concentric circles around some increasingly distant downtown, endless vistas of cars and Costcos and “lifestyle environments,” worlds without end. This sprawl is “vibrant,” and suburban “opportunity zones” (opportunity is a key word for these people) are the inevitable result of vibrant, opportunistic people searching for better schools, better shopping environments, and better quality of life. In the Opportunity Urbanists’ perfect world, the Houston exurbs would stretch from the Sabine River to somewhere around Fort Stockton, and any suggestion otherwise amounts to a betrayal, a “de-Houstonizing” of Our Fair City.
Inevitably, the New York City card gets played. Those unhappy with Houston as it is currently constituted, the reasoning goes, must be angling for something that removes the opportunity and doubles down on the urban, something along the lines of Soylent Green, all of us crammed into oppressive, dystopian high-rise housing projects where everybody’s unemployed, the cops all wear flared trousers and jaunty red neckerchiefs, and the only thing left to eat is Edward G. Robinson. Anyone who’s taken the train from Newark Airport to Penn Station, through the lunar landscape of New Jersey in the morning, knows that New York is the last model anyone should emulate. We don’t want Manhattan with cowboy boots; we want Houston, only a slightly saner version.
The problem isn’t sprawl. It’s the reasons for the sprawl. In Houston, a city where civic boosters regularly tear their rotator cuffs slapping themselves on the back in congratulations for Our Rich Diversity and Amazing Quality of Life, sprawl is driven not by the search for new opportunities, but by the conviction that Our Rich Diversity and our Amazing Quality of Life are mutually incompatible.
Urbanism has always been distrusted in America. Thomas Jefferson declared cities “pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.” Frank Lloyd Wright once compared a set of city plans to looking at “a cross-section of a large, fibrous tumor.” A large part of this distrust is driven by the fear of what urbanism brings: Poor people. Immigrant people. People who aren’t like us. That’s what drives our sprawl—that distrust, that fear of The Other. Diversity is no problem, as one longtime Houstonian once said, until we have to live together.
A hundred-plus years ago, the first American suburbs were created to afford escape from the masses of Eastern and Southern European immigrants – “the mongrel classes,” as they were known – that filled eastern cities. Now the descendants of those Polish and Italian immigrants live in places like Kingwood and League City, where they watch Fox News and send fevered Tweets about Ebola-infested Mexican babies crowding our inner cities.
Thirty years ago, a law professor named Jonathan Simon wrote a prescient essay, “The Emergence of the Risk Society,” in which he argued that in the emerging American cities, all of the old divisions – race, culture, religious affiliation – would become irrelevant, leaving only one question: Can you get credit and insurance, or can’t you? Simon saw our cities bifurcating into “grey zones”—filled with the poor, the sick, the poorly educated, and others considered “bad risks”—and “safe zones” of gated communities with first-class amenities, populated by well-educated professionals, the kind of people who have no problem getting approved for a bank loan.
We are living in the city Simon envisioned. An acquaintance once told me that his upscale Sugar Land enclave was “more diverse” than my slightly gone-to-seed subdivision in Alief, “because you have just one kind of people, and we have true diversity.” What he meant was that in his neighborhood, some of the Anglos and Latinos and Asians and African Americans were MBAs, and some were physicians, and some were attorneys, while in my neighborhood everybody was just poor. Poor is its own race, its own religion, and those who aren’t Poor fear it, distrust it, want to be as far away from it as they can. That’s how you end up with concentric circles of toll roads, and suburbs that stretch halfway to Dallas.
Bartlett Giamatti, in his remarkable book Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games, argues that the city is “an act of will and imagination,” as people who are not family, not alike in any way, choose to live together in harmony and cooperation. I love Houston, this free-swinging, freewheeling, Sue Ellen Mischke of a town. I only wish that more of us understood that the real vibrancy, the real opportunity that our city presents isn’t found on the fringes, but in the thick of it, among people who aren’t all just like us. It’s hard work, building sprawl. It’s harder work staying put and building something good, right where you are.