Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Houston's salad days

Give it up for our fair city.  It's been one long run of stories celebrating the finer attributes of H-town and writers everywhere start to go ga-ga over what the Bayou City brings to the table.  Yes, Space City is now awash in critical acclaim finally taking advantage of all of those drummed up nicknames and increasing its National profile.  It seems Houston is finally threatening, one assumes, to reach the mystical plateau of world-classiness to which it has long aspired.

Just today we see that one travel writer has declared Houston's superiority over those twig-chompers from Austin and only yesterday it was discovered that Houston has been declared the most walkable of ALL major cities in Texas.  Given that Houston is now blessed with an amusement park ride that has (maybe) ferried around 100 Million passengers, we're told that things are looking up. It's even possible that a fifth of those aren't the transient looking for an air conditioned place to grab a quick nap before being hustled out by Metro's high-tech SWAT team. Houston also now has (get ready) an alternative transportation system that's predicted to handle dozens of commuters although probably not on days when it rains, is too hot, too cold or windy, meaning that it will in reality be a transportation system available for a couple of days in March and possibly October.

These are wonderful things.  Things so great that it should have sardine-urbanist groups such as Houston Tomorrow dancing in what used to be car-infested streets, now reclaimed as pedestrian walkways.

Except, they're not.  Because none of these things really indicate any type of improvement to Houston's transportation grid that will be taken advantage of by an overwhelming majority of commuters.  The "most walkable major city in Texas?"  That's like getting a slightly larger participation medal than the kids who finished last in tee-ball and had to forfeit several games because they kept hitting themselves in the head with the bat.  "100 Million riders on MetroRail?"  OK, but considering most Houstonians either have to drive downtown, park and then ride the train for several miles, or take a bus in, be force-boarded onto the train because of asinine routing, then be moved down three stops to hop on another bus which will take you somewhere not even remotely close to where they're going, this is a hollow, forced number as well. And, let's be honest with each other here, is besting Austin really something which should generate a round of chest bumping?

Think about it.  Austin is still running on the vapours of the 70's and 80's, when Willie was King and South by SouthWest was something other than a bunch of journalists running to workshops between free concerts put on by street musicians all of whom are trying to prove a base level of cool.  UT-Austin is just this school you know?  Their athletics program has regressed under Dodds to a level of very profitable mediocrity.  The Texas Lege is currently there stinking up the place and their single biggest attraction (the capitol) is locked down tighter than a US Airport.  Austin's traffic is 21st century, but their infrastructure is mid 20th century. Returning to the youth sports analogy, their the kid that gets picked last because you're afraid they're going to spike themselves rounding first base.

That's not to say that Houston is a bad place. Clearly it's better than say....Detroit, or any city in California (financially speaking) but all of these "accolades" that Houston is receiving are really just flower dressing designed to give the self-conscious set something to feel good about themselves.  The reality is, most Houstonians (you and me) don't care two licks about winning ginned-up competitions designed to make us feel good about our collective selves.  These are for reporters with nothing better to do, and local public officials who need fodder for campaign fliers.  Instead of going to voters and saying that she passed a huge tax increase for some hazy, underdeveloped water scheme Annise Parker's campaign staff is now dancing in their cubicles because they can put this walkability survey front and center.  They're trinkets in a trinket city, where a majority of voters are low information and are fascinated by baubles in the same way the penguins at Moody Garden are fascinated by a light on the wall. 

What makes Houston great is not being the most walkable city in Texas, or being somehow cooler than Austin, or having a bike-share program that's used by tens of people on weekends as they head to a thread-bare farmers market where vegetable wholesalers unload the stuff they couldn't sell to HEB for twice the price.  What makes Houston great is that you can get on fairly well here for relatively cheap.  That you can have a job and a house with a yard and 2.35 kids and a dog and cat and a two-car garage in which to store your junk.  And you can do all of this for the same amount of money that would, in some other areas, get you an efficiency apartment with view of some back-alley and an electric cook-top that was aging in the 60's.  If Austin is a city of hipsters, then Houston is a city of business.  Most people would much rather live in the latter.

And that is why Houston is currently winning.

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