- Eric Webb American-Statesman Staff
Like the rest of us in the parts of Texas that aren’t underwater right now, I’ve watched the devastation Hurricane Harvey unleashed on our state’s coastal areas with a heavy heart. I’m not a native Texan, but I’ve lived in the state for more than 20 years. Both of my daughters were born here, and gradually, over the past decade, my entire family has migrated to the Lone Star State. I love my adopted home fiercely. My heart aches seeing Texas’ quirky seaside communities suffering so profoundly. And Houston. Seeing Houston submerged kills me.
Austin is my beloved home, but I always tell friends from around the country that Houston is the other place in Texas where I’d love to live.
I grew up in the Midwest, a small-town girl with big city dreams, and Houston is a massive cosmopolitan city. I love the world-class museums, the fancy restaurants and the leaping fountain that shoots over the Metrorail downtown. But mostly, I love its diversity.
Houston is the most ethnically diverse city in America, a title it took from New York City in 2010.
Beyoncé, the city’s most famous musical export, is the queen of Houston, and the city holds the regional throne for Dirty South hip-hop. Houston’s signature sound reflects the tricked-out, candy-colored rides that parade through the streets each year, slow, low and banging. The (Underground) King of Houston is Bun B. He’s revered in the city as an elder statesman, and, in recent years, he was tapped by Rice University to teach a class on hip-hop and religion.
Houston is home to the second largest Hispanic population in the country. A full 41 percent of people living in Harris County are Hispanic. One of the city’s underdog heroes is self-described tamale kingpin Chingo Bling, a rapper-turned-comedian with an incisive take on immigration issues.
Houston feels like a gateway to the rest of the world and that’s because it literally is. From the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, it’s a short hop to Mexico and Central America and there’s steady traffic in and out of South America daily. The Port of Houston is one of the country’s biggest shipping channels.
The city’s population also connects us to the rest of the world. As the Houston Chronicle explored with a beautiful, in-depth reporting project in 2015, 1 in 4 residents of Harris County, over a million people, are foreign-born. They come from all over: South and Central America, Europe, all corners of Africa and Asia. According to the Times of India, more than 150,000 Houstonians hail from my father’s homeland, making the city home to one of the largest East Indian communities in the country.
Houston’s diversity and internationalism is reflected in my favorite H-Town bands. The Suffers, fronted by vocal powerhouse Kam Franklin, blend reggae, Mexican influences and hints of bayou Cajun sounds into a mix they call Gulf Coast soul. Khruangbin mixes surf pop and psychedelic sounds with Thai funk of the 1960s.
Vocalist Asli Omar, who’s half-Somali, fronts the Tontons, a dreamy indie rock band that includes a Vietnamese bassist and a pair of Latino brothers on guitar and drums. The bandmates have been friends since high school. Omar once told me the fact that they all come from hard working and proud immigrant homes is a bond they share.
A first-generation American who came of age in wholesome, white-bread, small-town America, I always longed to live in a city defined by a rich tapestry of ethnic communities. Growing up in a mixed-race family, I was raised with the naive belief that love trumps all, that our common humanity will always be greater than our differences. Having married into an African-American family, I cling to that idea more than ever these days.
After Harvey pummeled Houston, the nation’s eyes were opened to the city’s beautiful diversity. Images of Houstonians, black, white, Hispanic and Asian, standing together and risking everything to help their neighbors uplifted us all.
I realized, in Houston I see my American dream. The recovery is going to be a long, hard haul, but as soon as the city is ready for visitors, my husband and I, along with our Afro-Anglo-Indo-American children, will be among the first to come.
Houston, I love you. And I owe you an apology.
I claim on my professional bio that I’m a native Austinite. It’s not a lie. I was born at St. David’s in Austin, and I got back here as soon as I could. But, you raised me. I shouldn’t act like you’re not my gal or that I’m too cool to dance with she who brung me.
While it’s fun to claim this once-laid-back Bohemian home to hippies and rednecks as my birthplace, an increasingly rare bona fide for the city’s residents these days, Houston formed me. And right now I wish I could wrap my small arms around your sprawling breadth.
As I grew older, I wanted to disavow you, Houston. I looked back on your sprawl, concrete cowboys and conspicuous consumption and smirked. But, now, I see you with clearer eyes and a more full heart, one that breaks when I see what you and your people are enduring.
Besides the amazing times with friends and families, my greatest memories from living in Houston come from sports. And the context of sports is now the best way for me to publicly appreciate and celebrate you.
Consider the diversity of the city’s three most beloved professional athletes, and you have Houston in a microcosm. There’s former Houston Astro Nolan Ryan, a country-strong hoss from Alvin who threw heat and had the swagger of John Wayne. There’s Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, a Muslim immigrant with a fierce heart and gentle smile who made his adopted hometown his own, while carrying the Rockets on his back and the entire city to its only professional sports title. And, of course, the Tyler Rose, Earl Campbell, a quiet warrior who turned grown men into ragdolls and each time he entered the end zone, often with a ragged jersey dangling from his shoulder pads, acted like he’d been there before. None of them were born in Houston, but they all came to help define it.
The titles and near-misses those men delivered displayed what was great about you, Houston: the ease with which people of all ages and races can come together to celebrate, and the resiliency of community in bouncing back, all done with humor, heart and a humility belied by a cocky underdog mentality. I’ll never forget taking to the streets of Richmond Avenue as a teenager when the Rockets reached the mountaintop in 1994, and I’ll always remember cramming into the aisles for a seat as the defeated but undeterred Houston Oilers returned to the Astrodome in the middle of a January night in 1980, as the late great cowboy sage Bum Phillips consoled and rallied the city with his wisdom and wit.
In the intervening years between that heartache and joy, I experienced a unique metropolitan area that stretched from a towering concrete center to the Gulf Coast and Piney Woods. Sure, there were probably too many fur coats, and a few too many closed minds, but Houston was still a place for everyone and all tastes, and I got to see much of the best of her, traveling with my former politician father from union halls to African-American churches, from wrestling matches at the Houston Coliseum to ballet at the Wortham Center. I got to eat fried squirrel hunted by my grandfather and dine at Tony’s on the most special of occasions. I could listen to ZZ Top, Robert Earl Keen or the Geto Boys and feel equally at home. You had it all, Houston.
What I disliked about you as an adolescent and 20-something looking in his rearview mirror eventually turned out to not be about you at all, Houston. It was about me. And, fortunately, I grew up. Not only do I look back with more fondness now, I visit you anew each time, admiring your multiculturalism, your world-class dining and arts scene, your pockets of weirdness, and even appreciating the kind of big-city stereotypes I once mocked. There are some odd birds in Houston, but they’re our odd birds.
It turns out, I spent too many years thinking I was too cool for Houston. But, it was probably too cool for me. Fortunately, it never really cared about being cool. And it was big enough to forgive me.
Watching from my new hometown of 30 years here in Austin, my heart is breaking for what you’re going through. As a native who grew up on the west side of town during the 1960s and ’70s, I have pre-Beltway, pre-Beyoncé memories of you that no cooler-than-thou Austinite can ever compete with. We six kids lived on a street pegged with large families, and every afternoon found us playing outside, even in heavy rain and lightning. In fact, all the better if a foot of rain pooled near the Brandas’ house; we chugged our little Schwinn Stingrays around without a care for time or hygiene. We also had our own private snapping turtle catch-and-release program, capturing them for a play date at home before releasing them into the ponds in nearby Sandalwood. My dad, now 92, used to take us for hikes along Buffalo Bayou, and from those early experiences all of us learned that any snake we encountered was “more scared of you than you are of him.”
A dinner splurge was a trek to Pancho’s, where my brothers and sisters and I raised the miniature flag as we competed for the title of most items eaten. AstroWorld was a major treat, but baseball games at the ’Dome were cheap and easy. Free concerts at Miller Outdoor Theater were on the regular schedule, and, as I grew older, track meets across the Houston area and against teams from all along the coast filled my days. We loved going to the Houston Zoo, especially since one of my brothers once fell into the long pond at its entrance, and, as a Girl Scout Brownie, I attended activities at the natural history museum, often falling asleep in the planetarium to the sonorous tone of the narrator. My grandparents lived in a tiny house near Rice University, and it was a regular spot for sleepovers, Easter egg hunts and brunch with my great-uncles before Rice football games. It’s also where I stayed when Hurricane Alicia knocked out power at my parents’ home in 1983.
I moved away for college, returning briefly for work in the mid-1980s but leaving for Austin and graduate school soon thereafter. My grandparents and their generation passed, and eventually my parents and all of my siblings moved away. A link was re-established when my daughter attended Rice, but that too has ended. Houston, I know I’m looking at you with rose-colored glasses. Also stored in my memories are heavy traffic, sweltering summers, huge wealth disparities and spikes in crime.
And the flooding, always the flooding. It was a fact of life then, and it’s become a hell today. The only consolation is seeing your many wonderful residents coming together to save lives, property and hope. I pray for no further loss of life, and from my home in Austin to you, you’ll always be in my heart.
Buzz buzz around my ear and a black flash before my eyes. I yelp, and my San-Francisco-born-and-raised 5-year-old smacks down a mosquito right before my eyes. I yell, “YES!!! You are my BOY!! You’ve got the mosquito hunting genes in you!” The pride I felt in that moment was something I believe only a fellow Texan — pardon, Houstonian — can understand.
A native myself, I checked out of the Lone Star State post-college. I made my way up the East Coast via Washington, D.C., and NYC, and then eventually moved out west to San Francisco for the last 15 years. Houston, I have loved you true since “Luv Ya Blue,” and even still I can’t shake you. I don’t miss the mosquitoes, but there are some things that even the Golden State just can’t replace.
Houston, you have the heart of a champion. You didn’t have to be a Rockets fan in the ’90s to know what it meant to be a resident of Clutch City. But Mad Max, Mario Elie, Sam Cassell, Hakeem the Dream, Clyde the Glide and the lot of the Rockets were able to personify it in a way no other team had been able to do before them. When that last buzzer went off in ’94 and we were the world champions, we danced in the dark atop Suburbans on Kirby, high-fiving and hugging strangers. My cheeks and legs were sore the next day from smiling and dancing so much.
What that team did then is what the city of Houston is doing now. There is no buzzer to beat. There is no ticker tape parade. There is no ring to kiss. This time, there is a city to save. The people of Clutch City are pulling together their efforts for the biggest win of their combined lives — to save their beloved H-Town from their greatest opponent yet, Harvey.
Houston, a city full of the best damned food you’ve ever had. New York’s Little Italy has nothing on Nino’s. Ragin’ Cajun? Nothing can come close to touching that gem. Don’t even get me started on the Mexican food. Whether it’s the authentic Irma’s or Ninfa’s Tex-Mex, there is no match for our tamales, fajitas or margaritas. A city with a baseball team that could, we hope (even as a resident San Francisco Giants fan!), go all the way this year. A city that made it possible for a white, middle-class girl like me to have friends of all races and economic backgrounds growing up. A city with world-class education in places like Rice University, University of Houston, University of Texas MD Anderson and Baylor College of Medicine. A town where people from all over the world come to get treated and hopefully cured of cancer and other life-threatening diseases. A city with shopping so good you’d better bring another suitcase to take home with you. A city so flat you could skateboard from one end of the city to the other, though it may take you days to transverse the area only slightly larger than the entire state of New Jersey. The entire state of New Jersey is SMALLER than Houston. A city that celebrates art in the form of cars in a parade. A city that send rockets off into space is also home to longhorns, armadillos and quail. A city that championed Earl Campbell, Nolan Ryan, Mike Scott and Jose Cruuuuuuuuuz on the field also gave us both Bush presidents, Patrick Swayze, Walter Cronkite and Beyoncé. A city that throws the best darned rodeo you’ve ever seen. Go for the Midway and follow up the rides with some wicked spicy chili and fried Oreos, and head on in to see Garth Brooks. It’s the only thing you’ll want to do for 19 straight days. A town that loves a big music event also thrives on small local scenes — the Continental always supports its hometown musicians. A cultural mecca with the Menil Collection and the MFA, not to mention the Houston Ballet. A town where everyone knows what “there was SLIME in the ice machine!” and “Mattress Mack really will save you MONEY!” mean. A city that puts on mink coats when it dips below 70 and can spend days in a row at the old WaterWorld in 100-degree heat. A place where boyfriends take their girlfriends to kiss them under the Transco fountain. A city where Skintastic may be as good a perfume as any if it keeps the bugs off your date. A place where Tejano music plays loud and proud and where the Geto Boys were born. Houston is where I was born.
Houston is hope. Houston is America. Houston is all of us.
I believe in the city now as I believed in the Rockets in 1994. It will win this battle and rebuild, and it will be better for it. The community has shown a strength and love for each other that can only grow. Now it’s up to the rest of us around the world to give them the materials to rebuild. You can’t play a game without a ball.
Though born in Texas, I grew up in the Midwest. The summer after my first year of college, I lived and served with the Mission Centers of Houston just north of downtown. That summer, I fell in love with Texas and began to really feel what it meant to call it my native state. Some of my favorite memories include going to an enormous farmers market one Saturday morning: hearing more languages than I could name, tasting tamarind (fresh from the pod) for the first time and buying a paper sack full of fragrant peaches. I found the city of Houston to be bright, brilliant, bewildering. It was and remains home to some of the dearest people in my life. God bless and keep it during this dark hour.
My mom, JoAnn Tulloch, passed away in April, but if she was here, she would tell you stories of roller-skating with her friends in downtown Houston on a warm summer night, going to the double feature at the Metropolitan Theatre, having a milkshake at the local five-and-dime and anxiously awaiting the extravagant Christmas display in the downtown Foley’s shop window.
Austin is where I live, but Houston is where my heart will forever be. The compassion and helping spirit of the city only grew with its size. I remember Houston setting records every Labor Day for contributions to the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. You couldn’t walk through a neighborhood and not come across a backyard fundraiser for the cause. The way the town rallied around the Rockets in the mid-1990s after winning and gathered to support the Oilers in the Astrodome after losing are memories I cherish. We supported each other after Tropical Storm Allison and welcomed evacuees from Katrina, thousands of whom stayed and made Houston their new home. The city will rebound after this with time and patience. The stories of citizen helping citizen over these past several days makes me even more proud to say Houston is my hometown. #HoustonStrong
My family has known you since you were a child. My mother was born there in 1908 and told me stories of the 1929 flood that covered the whole downtown. You were my hometown, too. I was born there during World War II and grew up in a Queen Anne house in Montrose. You were a Houston of cottonwood trees and azaleas, where Leopold Stokowski conducted the Houston Symphony Orchestra and the first astronauts rode in a parade down Main Street. You were also a city of segregation, poverty and polio. I saw you when you were an adolescent, sprawling everywhere, proud that that you had no zoning. But as a mature city, you have embraced diversity, built a sense of civic pride and continued to tackle your problems, from traffic to funding good schools. So, Houston, even though there will always be construction on the Gulf Freeway, you are a strong problem-solver and will move beyond this tragedy. The rest of Texas loves you, and we stand ready to help.
I grew up in Austin, but all my relatives lived in Houston, mostly in and around Meyerland (off Beechnut, Academy and Stella Link). I loved them and loved visiting Houston because they were there. I remember roller-skating around the neighborhood, going to the zoo and playing outside with my cousins. Even though Houston is enormous, it has the heart of a small town. Clearly the best of that has been evident in the resilience of the people affected by the storm and the heroic response by neighbors helping neighbors — demonstrating that “that’s just what good people do.”
Houston is my hometown. I proudly tell anyone who’ll listen of my love for the Bayou City. Yes, I know … I know … it’s a massive sprawling metropolis with crime and traffic and all the things that make big cities less than attractive. But it’s also a beautiful city with arts, culture, music and personality. I carry the memories of the Galleria and Transco Tower and the Wortham Center and Montrose and Westheimer. I remember the fun of Houston like the Astrodome and AstroWorld and Gulfgate Cinema, Southern Imports and the Alabama Theatre. For as massive as Houston is, strangely, it also seems like such a small town with shared memories for everyone who grew up there and lived there and loved there. We all remember our local personalities like Marvin Zindler, Dave Ward, Ed Brandon, Mattress Mack and “Captain” Harold Gunn. Houstonians can sing jingles for local business (like Thunderbolt Transmissions), and we all know where to go in Houston for fun … and we all know where not to go. The skyline of downtown Houston is the skyline of my past, the dearest memories of my childhood. Seeing the photos of the devastation breaks my heart, but I also know Houston will be back bigger and better than ever. I am HOUSTON PROUD and always will be. It will take more than a hurricane to topple that giant, big-hearted, beautiful city. God bless Houston!