The news rippled out through Houston on March 7. After 12 years of covering "Houston’s Real Estate Landscape," as the tagline says, beloved local site Swamplot announced it would be ceasing publication with a goodbye post. Writing under the moniker “Don’t do this to me,” one of the farewell’s 227-and-counting commenters typed, “Omg stunned r.i.p. y’all.” Others wrote in to say the site was their first online stop each day, that their morning coffee wouldn’t be the same, that the old internet was dying. They made jokes—of course they did. “If only you had put in more ground-level retail :(,” one wrote.
A surprising number wrote in simply to say thank you, which site founder Larry Albert—an architect who teaches at Rice, among other things, and ran Swamplot under the pseudonym Gus Allen—appreciates. But he appreciates something else even more. “This was not just my baby,” he emphasizes when reached over the phone. “It meant a lot to a lot of different people. It was incredibly heartening not just to read a lot of comments from our great commenters on the site and on social media and via personal emails—it was great not just to hear those nice things about the site, but also heartening in the sense that they really got it. They understood what we were trying to do.”
When he tries to explain what exactly that was, pausing as he gets used to talking about Swamplot in the past tense, Albert uses the phrases “built environment” and “absurdity” repeatedly. “The whole point of Swamplot was to get people talking about the built environment, to consider that the stuff that surrounds them every day is important. How do you do that?”
Usually not, he insists, by talking to the people who made it. “In covering design, for example—it’s very hard to write about design. But when a designer comes and says, this building here will act like a giant fish, most journalists will write down, the architect says this building will be like a giant fish, and believe that is writing about design. From its start in 2007, Swamplot took great pride in ignoring the stated intentions of the propagators of everything and looking instead at the actual thing.” That gave the site a lot of credibility. And, Houston being Houston, those actual things the site covered were more often than not ridiculous, whether focusing on the "Tuscanization" trend or the bizarre proliferation of mattress stores.
“Our main editorial directive,” says Albert, “was to highlight the absurdities, and that’s what we did, or that’s what we tried to do. Houston is rich in absurdities, so it wasn’t always that difficult, but we often tried to frame things in ways that were very different.”
That included a succinct writing style—“short-form” was the order of the day—and caption-less, often reader-submitted photos in the form of liquor license requests and other clues as to what was on the way for Houston. The posts were as interesting for what they did say as what they didn’t; Albert and his editors knew that commenters would draw their own conclusions and fill in the gaps.
As for bylines, Albert says, they were largely beside the point. Over the years, he employed four editors, the last being Dan Singer, and a number of freelance writers, some of whom used bylines and some of whom didn’t. Albert maintains it didn’t matter much. At the outset he himself was anonymous, he says, due to his private life and professional obligations, and to set the site's tone. But in 2012, after a wild, and wildly complicated, litany of lawsuits involving the old Hans’ Bier Haus and the high-rise condo next door—which started with Swamplot’s coverage of a long-running dispute between the bar and the condo and ended with Albert himself and his wife suing and, a couple of years later, receiving an undisclosed settlement—he gave up on keeping his identity a secret.
Swamplot’s readers ran the gamut. They were real estate agents, professors, developers, designers, neighborhood activists, journalists, and “people who just lived near stuff,” says Albert. They populated the site’s famously robust comments section and formed its army of tipsters. They were the heart and soul of the site. “One would say there’s no freedom to develop, and somebody else would say this thing’s ugly, and somebody else would say my grandmother grew up there,” says Albert. “We took great joy in privileging none of those viewpoints over the other.”
Swamplot’s closure is a loss for the entire city, but it’s a special loss for the site’s community of readers and commenters, whose paths might not otherwise cross. Why end something he spent so many years building? Remaining circumspect about the profitability of the site, Albert says he’s simply ready to do something else. “Swamplot was a side project that kind of got out of hand,” he says. “There are many other things and projects that I look forward to.” His fondest hope is that others will pick up where he left off by starting their own efforts; if they do, he’s offering them his services—to sit down with them and share everything he’s learned since his own launch that long-ago day. As for the fate of Swamplot's 12 years of archives, and whether somebody might buy the thing and keep it going, there's currently no news.
We have to ask: What about an IRL meetup for the commenter community? Will it ever happen? “The whole joke is that we would meet at some mattress store,” laughs Albert. “And so I suppose now that Swamplot has halted publishing, it would be an opportune time to do that.”