Comment of the Day Runner-Up: Houston Can’t Keep Up

COMMENT OF THE DAY RUNNER-UP: HOUSTON CAN’T KEEP UP “Every relative or friend of mine who has visited from another city comments similarly on Houston: ‘It has a dirty, third world vibe.’ This was true for me when I first came here. Houston is ugly. It’s dirty, muddy, with broken pavement and cheap architecture and badly maintained infrastructure. Even its proponents talk about how ugly it is. It doesn’t look like most other American (or even Texan) cities. I go to Austin or Dallas and think ‘wow, everything’s so clean, so well-maintained.’ Houston is just badly maintained. This isn’t a value judgment — I think the lack of maintenance makes it kind of interesting.” [MW, commenting on Comment of the Day: Who’s Making Carrion of Houston?] Illustration: Lulu

56 Comment

  • You’re going to the wrong parts of town, Bubba, that only sound like Ship Channel are.

  • The Galleria Area has a cheap vibe? Rice University has a cheap vibe? Reliant Stadium has a cheap vibe? The MFAH has a cheap vibe? River Oaks??? has a cheap vibe? 50 Billion dollars worth of Class A Office Space Downtown has a cheap vibe? The Menil Collection has a cheap vibe? NASA has a cheap vibe? Bush Intercontinental has a cheap vibe? Memorial has a cheap vibe??? Seriously???

  • Unfortunately true, we live in an ugly town.

  • Sure wish more folks would buy this type of thing and quit moving here.

  • Sorry, but I’ve been to 3rd world countries with better infrastructure than Houston. I had to move. And I was born there, and lived in Montrose for 25 years. Loved it, but please, fix a street or sidewalk now and then.

  • Yeah, there are some gnarly looking areas -even what we consider the “nice” parts of town look downright derelict compared to a city such as Tokyo. Dat Infrastructure!

  • @commonsense
    3rd world countries wish they had the ship channel.

  • Where are all these cities with perfect sidewalks and no cracks or holes in the streets?

    It does look junky, though. Nobody’s fault but our own. Anytime someone gets an idea to clean things up or make it more orderly we hear all the usual comments about how it’s un-American, un-Houston, etc. And for some reason, we believe this.

  • What 3rd World City has a better infrastructure than Houston?? What 3rd World City is more modern than Houston????? Houston is always called The City of The Future etc, but to listen to people on here you’d think we lived in Lagos, Nigeria or Kolkota, India, seriously people get some prospective.

  • @benny and Frank, quick get out of this pit while you can. Please, every disgruntled, candy assed, naysayer needs to follow the lead of miss msry and run as quickly as possible, I’m sure Dallas will welcome you with open arms.

  • The roads are terrible but the sad fact is, Houston looks like most other American cities outside of their central districts. Every city/suburb is filled with the same generic stores, same Applebees, same drive-thru Starbucks, etc… Who cares if there’s a mountain/desert/ocean backdrop? The one thing Houston has(d) going for it was the lush greenery but we’ve apparently dried up so it’s going to get uglier around here…

  • I think the problem is not a lack of nice, “well-put-together” areas in Houston, but rather the long drives through urban detritus that confront out of town visitors on their approach to said areas. Visitors arriving at Bush can expect a scenic drive through 10 miles of blight on the North Freeway, and the less said about the roads leading into and out of Hobby the better. This, along with the lack of elevation, heavy traffic and lack of public transportation options, tends to negatively impact short-term visitors’ view of the urban landscape here. I think we could get people to appreciate the unique and interesting areas better if we could somehow solve the first-impression problem.

    That said, I think some of the complaints above about roads, public services, etc. are beyond whiny. It’s a ridiculously hot and humid city – potholes go with the territory (please spend some time in New Orleans – Houston looks like Switzerland by comparison). Also, sidewalks are generally the property owner’s responsibility, not the city’s. Houston is not for everyone to be sure, but these seem like fairly petty gripes.

  • I don’t blame people for circulating and re-circulating the same opinions; how often do we repeat something we’ve heard from someone else when we are in need of an opinion? ‘Didn’t so-and-so say the Woodlands and Katy were nice, but downtown was kind of ugly and you shouldn’t go there after dark? I mean, I certainly didn’t see anything along my drive through town on I-10 to recommend Houston.’
    And so on. Heck, those were my opinions before I moved here, and having lived in all the other big cities in Texas, now I can’t imagine anywhere else in Texas to be (1) working in my industry, (2) dwelling, or (3) living and raising a family. (Caveat: if (1) ever changes, I’m outta here!)

  • Houston is ugly, but I think putting in curbs/gutters would make a world of difference. Half-million dollar homes go up in Rice Military and the Heights, but these neighborhoods still have open ditches on the side of the road. Seems pretty ridiculous to me.

  • Throwing around the term “third world” is an obvious troll. That said our infrastructure, especially in the loop is bad and getting worse by the day. You can catch air on Memorial drive if you hit the wrong spots.

  • Got to concur with Jake – but we do seem to be catching up with NOLA in the bad road department. I wish the City could have kept that quarter of a cent tax cut that Bill White gave us every year to support his delusions of statewide office.

  • miss_msry, would you believe that they’re actually repairing the sidewalks all up and down Hazard, Woodhead etc. between West Alabama and Richmond.

  • There are many parts of Houston that are ugly-just no other word for it.
    1) Flat terrain only enhances the blight
    2) Roads are horrible because they are not properly maintained for this type of climate. I have never seen another major city with as many curbless/drainage ditch streets.
    3) Billboards and Sign Pollution everywhere.
    4) Freeways that aside from the West Loop/Galleria and The Energy Corridor
    are lined with blight along side the feeders.
    5)Constant overgrown weeds and brush on the approach to Downtown on I-45
    6)Every approach into Houston looks like hell.
    Unfortunately, our beautiful residential areas are hidden from the average joe.
    Of these six points, at least numbers 2, 3 and 5 could be addressed. But the people are nice, the economy is good and the City has a good vibe. The complaints are out of a frustration that things could be even better if we had leaders with some cojones and vision.

  • I drove through the outskirts of Naples, Italy a few years and was stunned at the amount of “blight”. There were little kids picking through garbage on the side of the road. You can find ugliness in almost any city. I avoid the ugly areas of Houston.

  • @Drew C., I’m glad I’m not the only one who think’s its ridiculous to pay more than a half million dollars for a home, but not be willing to pay $12/yr in taxes so the mosquito ditch in front is covered over like proper drainage.

  • What’s funny is that people who say Houston looks like a third-world city have probably never lived in one, or have only visited one once while on a cruise….. (and for the record, I was born in a third-world city and lived there. There is no major city in the U.S. that will ever come close).

  • @Jake – that’s exactly right. What makes Houston seem ugly at first glance are the views from the highway. Whenever someone tells me that they think Houston is ugly, I ask them “Did you ever get off the freeway?” and they say “No…”

    The major culprits, to me, are our feeder roads. There’s a reason people exclaim “Houston is nothing but ugly strip malls!” when strip malls are all they can see lining I-45 from Bush Airport all the way to Galveston.

    There’s a few good views, like 59 through Greenway Plaza or 610 passing by Uptown; since our natural topography can’t help us, what we need to do is line all our freeways with tall building or tall trees to give our visitors and a better, cleaner view.

  • NYC has garbage on the streets like medieval Europe and the rats running around to prove it. If only Houston could be more like that. . . .

    I like the new campaign for Houston that says “F%#! You, Houston’s Awesome.” You can find the shirts online.

  • I spent a couple of months in Sao Paulo Brazil and their roads/sidewalks are far better than Houston’s. Highly walkable sidewalks were ubiquitous. The roads were no worse then ours either.

  • I wouldn’t use the term “third world” because that’s a bit of an exaggeration. However I will say that I’ve been to most major American cities, and Houston is by far the worst when it comes to quality of streets, sidewalks, etc. It’s really embarrassing the lack of maintenance we have here. No one wants to pay the taxes necessary to upkeep it though.

  • Is it already sweeps month at Swamplot?
    Or is it the cities version of running the dozens?
    “your city is soooo fat”

  • Houston is ugly, but there are hidden benefits to this ugliness. I was in the NE this summer going from DC up the Eastern seaboard visiting friends and family. Feeder roads do not work out east because freeways are frequently dug out of the hilly terrain and there isn’t any flat land along side the freeways to build. The result is that a lot of the freeways are just lined with trees. While this is attractive, it also gets boring after a while. There isn’t much difference between the trees in DC, Philly or Boston. Houston’s endless feeder road developments make driving around town much more interesting. You can observe the various layers of strip mall sediment that lines the highways: from fresh new bundle of Academy Sports, HEB and Toys R US to middle of the road tired Kohls anchored strip with Cici’s pizza to the ramshackle strips with the accident and injury clinic Pho noodle #3 and tax/bankruptcy/notario and divorce “law” firm. There are ooohs and aahhhs at sites like Luz de Estrella on 59, Gallery Furniture on I-45 and an ad hoc gallery of steel sculptures on 288 south. And in between all of that, miles and miles of car dealerships. Never a dull moment on Houston’s highways.

  • As noted in earlier post, Houston is the ugly brother or sister who has a great personality.

    We’re still ugly.

  • I am a 78 yr. old native Houstonian and am embarrassed at the ugliness of the city! Downtown has some great architecture, but anyone driving to it from Bush or Galveston has to ride through endless miles of gawdy, trashy strip malls. I agree with some writers who point out attractive areas but some areas like Telephone Rd., east of Hwy 59 looked bad in the 40’s and 50’s and look worse now. Don’t know what can be done. Thank god they quit putting up those signs that read: “Keep Houston Beautiful”! You have to BE beautiful to Keep it that way. I drive around with a friend all over the city in his NEW car and its bumpy and rough as hell. Wish we would get a Mayor whose MAIN objective would be to fix Streets and Curbs and Sidewalks.

  • Some people are really showing off their provincialism and need to explore this country. For a city that has been racking up accolades and economic might over the past several decades we certainly don’t treat our city like it.

  • I presently live in a third-world city, but YOU — a western tourist transiting from the airport to one of the beachside resorts — might not know it to look at it. This was by design. The roads and sidewalks are all new, very wide, uncongested, smooth as can be (and laid down on top of limestone, not clay soil). Many tens of thousands of families were displaced to build these big new roads. Corruption is a problem, so what often would happen is that a poorer family elsewhere in the city would be displaced, their house taken, and then offered for sale at a below-market price to a somewhat wealthier person that had been displaced; the LEGAL INFRASTRUCTURE is inadequate for there to be any semblance of social justice. Without a requisite for social justice, its amazing how nice the streets can be. (And they did it to attract tourists. Doesn’t that just make you feel wonderful about tourism and tourists?)

    Sidewalks here are the responsibility of the property owner, however the property owner is allowed to set up outdoor restaurants and cafes on them (meaning that they get littered with soup bones and all manner of refuse, then rats, later at night) or use them as parking lots for their businesses. Sidewalks are, therefore, generally impassable and fairly disgusting. But nobody walks anyway, and very few people ride transit, so its no big loss. (At an income averaging $150/mo. per worker, almost everybody can afford to drive around mopeds and scooters. The only pedestrians you see are occasional western backpackers, too timid to get around on two wheels, too cheap for a taxi.)

    Although the population density is several times that of most of urban Houston, there are only four intra-city bus routes, which mostly just exist to serve people coming from or going to the big inter-city bus station. At a glance, it seems that the buses here are much emptier than those in Houston. A rider will typically resolve the last-mile problem by calling a friend or hailing a motorbike taxi; as previously mentioned, they cannot be bothered to walk.

    So those are the streets, sidewalks, and transit options in my third-world city. I think that most people who talk about Houston’s infrastructure are referring to pavement because that is what they see and understand on a daily basis.

    But we don’t tend to think about electricity because it is 99.999% reliable. Where I am, a wayward truck driver crashed into a single transmission tower not too long ago and caused a day-long blackout for 40 million people. There was zero redundancy. Outages are common, and at about one per week, they go on for hours and hours.

    Potable tap water, likewise, is something westerners take for granted. Houston’s water is good enough to bottle and sell. Seriously, Ozarka has a bottling plant drawing from the City of Houston. Nestle has one in Deer Park, too. You can’t drink third-world-city water. Although presumably treated to a standard (not codified by law, subject to corruption even if it were), the water lines cannot be trusted. You must drink bottled water. It’s not a choice.

    How about sanitary sewers and wastewater treatment facilities? THERE AREN’T ANY. Every single individual house is on septic. There are two chambers for sludge to settle. After about ten years of use, a responsible homeowner should get a pumper truck to remove the sludge. The law doesn’t require it, and even if it did…bribery would happen. When you don’t remove the sludge then raw sewage begins to overflow the septic tank into the storm sewer.

    And how about those storm sewers? Well…they smell like raw sewage because that’s what is inside them and they flow directly to the nearest river or beach (provided that they aren’t flooded out onto the streets by a big storm).


    So you want to complain about an open storm sewer (without YOUR OWN SHIT in it)? And you think that your twenty-lane freeway that gets you to and from work is ugly (and that passers-through will be visually offended because we’re unwilling to fall all over ourselves for them)?

    Oh, BOO-FUCKING-HOO! These are first-world problems.

  • Houston looks like exactly what it is – a town that has been through boom and bust cycles.

    The tide goes in and the tide goes out…what it leaves behind isn’t always great to look at, but the nice parts more or less make up for it.

    I can’t help but wonder what the prospect of rising interest rates portends for Houston’s next 30 years or so.

  • Anyone who says Houston has a dirty 3rd world vibe should go visit Manila, or any other third world metropolis to see how wrong they are.
    When they return they will think Houston streets are clean enough to eat off of.

  • The Niche, color me confused by the oft-used phrase “first-world problems” — or the increasingly-less-germane “white people’s problems.”
    I never know if it’s meant to suggest that we look to third-world problems for solutions to first-world problems. That doesn’t seem very apt somehow.
    Or that first-worlders show purely symbolic solidarity with an oblivious third world by ceasing to notice or solve first-world problems altogether, and morphing into Eloi.
    Or if the person using the phrase is proposing a neo-colonial program, in which first-worlders drop the political correctness and dive into solving third-world problems, on behalf of third-worlders. While I would probably be alone here in not rejecting that out of hand, as a numbers game it doesn’t seem very promising.

  • While I hardly think we are at 3rd world levels – I whole heartedly agree that much of Houston is ugly. Take a drive up Shepherd from Allen Parkway to 43rd Street in Garden Oaks. If you find any of that stretch attractive, you must have drank it pretty. It is very difficult to explain to visitors that most of that stretch is bordered by some fairly expensive neighborhoods – but you would never know it by the miles upon miles of used car lots and bumpy road…

  • @Niche: I think we are all ready to stipulate that Houston is far superior to Lagos, Nigeria or whatever stink hole you have managed to find your way to. What those of us still living in Houston are concerned about is building a city that has staying power and that can capture the momentum behind the energy industry and convert it into a redeveloped city that can stand toe to toe with any other city in the US on every measure of quality of life, and not just low barriers to real estate development. Just because there is poop in the open sewers in a third world city doesn’t mean that Houstonians should be happy with open drainage ditches in their neighborhood.

  • @TheNiche – Bravo, sir! Thank you for shutting up the whiners.

    @luciaphile – google “First World Problems” and the first entry that comes up is an explanation of the meme and what it means.

  • This comment was my favorite from the previous COTD about carrion. I don’t think MW was expressing that Houston looks just like 3rd world cities, but it does have the unplanned, unregulated construction feel to it that I’ve seen a lot of in Latin America. And it’s a look that those of us living here just get used to and accept.
    Earlier this summer I had a friend fly in from Singapore. She had never previously been to Houston. We drove over to Cedar Creek Ice House on West 20th street. We parked across the street and had to walk over. The look on her face seeing the lack of sidewalks, broken glass, rutted pavement, utility wires, and old light industrial abutting “nice residential” areas was something you had to see. Let’s just say it certainly challenged her perceptions of Houston being some modern metropolis. Probably the first time I was able to see what Houston’s ugliness looks like through a visitor’s eyes. It ain’t pretty.

  • Sadz, I like the bridge over the bayou next to Nundini’s… there is a nice view from the top and you can see the bayou’s path (even if it is just concrete ditch). I do agree that Shepard is a swath of blight through a bunch of really nice areas.

  • I live off N. Shepherd and it is hideous, but I think that restaurants and bars will be replacing those car lots over the next ten years if the economy holds. It’s already happening: Feast and the Down House owners are teaming up to open a Thai place called Hunky Dory between 18th and 19th. I saw another large car lot has closed nearby and is for sale. There is too much money in that area for it to be Houston’s Hooptie Bazaar.

  • Luciaphile – “First world problems,” and “white people’s problems” are a way to make us feel guilty for trying to improve our homes and cities.
    But as I see it, the world would be a better place if we all concentrated on improving the little piece around us. From cleaning up the sidewalks in front of your own house, to cleaning up sidewalks on your block, to doing it through your whole street. If we all did it, Houston wouldn’t be as ugly.

  • Maybe this is an example of a First World problem?
    Now, what precisely those concerned are supposed to do with the information, that they are dealing with a First World problem, I do not know.
    Stand down? Eat a cheezburger?
    ZAW, I’m thinking you may be right!
    Perhaps “First World Problems” needs an image update, to be rebranded as “First World Opportunities.”
    Go forth, little meme.
    So that, lest we get in the habit of looking away from First World problems, we don’t find they’ve been replaced with ….

  • I always thought poorly maintained infrastructure and industrial blight were hallmarks of the _second_ world.

    @luciaphile – First world problems is mostly code for “Whoa slow down there! You’ve solved so many problems that you’re starting to make us look bad.”

  • Mr. Lomax is correct. It wasn’t that long ago that Washington Avenue was the Miracle Mile (if the car made it a mile, it was a miracle).

  • @ Luciaphile & Old School: I wanted to stay strictly on-point regarding the perspective of tourists with regard to Houston’s supposed third-world infrastructure in my last comment, and that was in order to utterly demolish this ignorant cliche. I’ve seen this same sentiment expressed too many times, flippantly, and then taken seriously (for instance, made into a ‘comment of the day’).

    Your replies do not seem to be germane to the original post, so I’m not going to address them.

    @ ShadyHeightster: If you’ve ever been to Singapore, being there would explain a lot to you about the attitudes of Singaporeans. I’ve had the benefit of seeing them in their native habitat as well as within the chaos that I inhabit; I can imagine the reaction to Houston, and it amuses me to no end just to think about it. But that’s okay. I don’t care what a Singaporean thinks of Houston.

    FWIW, the first time that I drove my mother down 19th Street through there, she really liked it. (This is a perspective that I do care about for Houston’s sake.) It looked like a small east Texas town to her, familiar territory, and she described it as “quaint”. To take anecdotes a bit further, I’d argue based on net domestic and net international migration data for various cities that Houston has a strong comparative advantage in luring Americans to live there, and that it seems to be capitalizing on that strength very effectively. It doesn’t mean that nicer more luxuriant infrastructure wouldn’t broaden the appeal of the place or that it shouldn’t be considered — however IMHO the contrast in reactions and the data does seem to put things in perspective a bit more and lessen the appeal of hyperbolistic rhetoric.

  • Houston is as pretty or ugly as people make it where they live. The roads in houston are so extensive that maintaining them enough to keep up with the terrible shifting soil issues is a losing battle. The sidewalks are subject to the destruction from our beutiful oaks. The open ditches are necessary evils and in some ways better than underground drainage (in that it slows water movement). The ugly strip malls are the result of past booms that economically benefited the growth of the city (and watch as they clean up with the current boom).

  • Houston is beautiful and getting even better. However, the bitter, jealous trolls that plague blogs like this seem to be getting uglier and more desperate to spread their messages of hate, which is obviously based in both ignorance and insecurity.

    A troll’s opinion of what constitute ‘beauty’ is not worthy of consideration.

  • Singapore lovers … try eating off the pavement in Little India, try dodging 2-legged entertainment in Geylang at night.

    I’ll take real private capital deployed in Houston over sanctioned pre-programmed Chimes/Sentosa-pap any day.

    Mind you, I do miss using my cell phone in the subway, we can barely do that in the open air here in some areas.

  • Wow, defensive much? Look, I love Houston, but it amazes me just how bad our streets are. And if it was the humidity then South Florida would look a lot worse. And I’m from the northeast and have lived places where the road experience temperature shifts of nearly 100 degrees over the courss of a year; potholes and frost heaves are epidemic… But they get fixed. And the sidewalks that loom like someone bombed them or just vanish mid block?

    I think it comes down to public space just not being valued. I have never seen the volume of trash being dropped on the street or thrown from cars that I see in Houston.

    Houston is great. But it is not perfect and this is one area where we pretty much suck.

  • I was the original poster, and have a couple of thoughts:

    1. I like Houston. Do I like it as much as the hilltowns of Tuscany, or Paris on a spring day, or the beaches of Hawaii? Well, maybe not. But I go to vacation in those places, whereas I live here, and it works for me

    2. Houston is pretty ugly. No way around it. The rich parts are nice. I sometimes drive through River Oaks and wish I were that rich–then I might have good curb and gutter in front of my house.

    3. But this part of Texas can be very pretty, seen from the right angle. The sunsets are stunning. And the live oaks just amazing. And the sound of cicadas is like listening to the ocean.

    3. Judging from the above comments, Houstonians seem too insecure about their city. I’m reading a lot of denial. Most American cities are generally better put together, better maintained than ours. But let’s get over the fact that it’s not Tuscany. Just admit it and move on to making it more Houston.

    4. Houston’s infrastructure is improving. I see it every day, and that’s a good thing. We’re investing in parks and walkability and better roads and freeways (actual trees on esplanades and freeway interchanges!)

    5. Houston may be booming, but like anywhere, we have things to fix.

  • How does a critic of Houston define blight ? – any given structure or sign you personally don’t want to look at ? Some of those structures are homes and businesses of the less fortunate. If all those businesses and homes lining the freeways were not there, they would be somewhere – perhaps further expanding the radius of the metro area that some would decry as urban/suburban sprawl. Tourists are not stupid – they realize that suburbs are everywhere outside the loop. Quite frankly, Houston suburbs are beautiful.

  • I have literally put foot to pavement in most neighborhoods and streets west of 45 and there are some nice areas of Houston and some really poor areas. But overall our city is just not walkable at all which makes it very ugly. It’s sad when you walk to one of the local restaurants in the heights and you have to dodge cars on a small street because there are no sidewalks. It would go a long way if our city would spend some of the money it is now collecting with higher property values and add sidewalks and purchase empty lots in some neighborhoods to create small parks. Let’s face it, it is difficult to be outdoors in our city unless you go to Memorial Park or Allen Parkway.

  • Houston suburbs are beautiful?

    You want beautiful burbs, you need to head to the older parts of the country, where there’s some balance between suburban development and the original towns, which leads to suburbs where you can easily and safely walk and bike all over the place. I was back in my hometown last month for the first time in years, and what struck me was that the classic developer-created suburb where I grew up, as well as other parts of the town, is somewhere I could see living – it’s beautiful, it’s not monotonous, and you’re not hostage to your car. Whereas whenever I am in the burbs here I feel really sorry for the kids growing up in them – they’re incredibly bland, and you’re pretty much penned in by large roads.

  • Houstonians, take a hint already. If the roads are bumpy, the road is telling you to slow down. Deal with it.

  • I’m a native Houstonian and I’ve lived in Atlanta for the past 10 years but spend a total of about 3-4 months in Houston each year. I have the unique perspective of seeing Houston through the eyes of a native resident and those of a tourist.

    NO ONE LOVES HOUSTON MORE THAN I DO, but every time I return to the city my head starts to hurt when I see all the clutter. It literally takes my eyes a couple of days to re-adjust. I can see why those who live here could become apathetic to the “view” and why visitors can be critical.

    My view is simple – Houston makes absolutely no attempt to hide it’s ugliness. In many ways it’s less pretentious and the lack of zoning gives it this “what you see is what you get” vibe.

    Trust me, Atlanta has just as many ugly parts as Houston but it’s often hidden behind trees or ZONED out of sight. You will rarely see Atlanta’s UGLINESS unless you go looking for it on purpose. Houston is the exact opposite: Although it has lots of beautiful areas, you’ll rarely ever see the BEAUTY unless you go looking for it.

    Houston’s ugly problem can easily be fixed with a collective resolve to do it! REPAIR the roads, DEMOLISH derelict/abandoned structures, and PLANT lots of trees EVERYWHERE (esp. along the feeder roads and bayous)! Houston, problem solved!!!