‘The Galleria Is My Idea of Hell’ and Other Houston Stories

Since 2011, Houston Arts Alliance has been curating Writing & C/Siting Houston, a series of personal stories from local writers about their favorite Houston places: secret hike and bike trails along Buffalo Bayou, family-owned businesses in Midtown, Hindu temples in Sugar Land. Novelist and essayist Miah Mary Arnold and UH professor William Monroe will be the first in 2013 to contribute their stories to the series, giving a reading tomorrow night. Joining them will be essayist Phillip Lopate, who describes the city in “Houston Hide-and-Seek” as “a decentralized octopus gobbling up all the land around it.”


Lopate moved here to teach creative writing with Donald Barthelme at UH in the ’80s. Ambivalent, as any good essayist need be, the Brooklyn native was able to find a few bones to pick with Houston: “We are not lacking in millionaire-donated hospital pavilions and art museums,” he writes in a 1984 essay in Cite magazine, “but in those gestures that would help to bring the city itself together as a work of art. . . . The city itself as a built environment is rather inhospitable, impenetrable, and unfriendly to strangers, because there is so little public space to mediate between private homes and the impersonal corporate world.”

Tell us how you really feel, Phil:

One area I consistently try to avoid is the Galleria. As soon as I come within sight of its concrete panels, I feel a migraine approaching. Managing to combine the twin nightmares of claustrophobic congestion and anemic vacuity, the Galleria is my idea of hell. The whole Post Oak area around the Galleria is noteworthy for having the most concentration of buildings possible to assemble without achieving anything like urban texture. Architects are trained to build freestanding objects, but quite apart from whether the object is good or bad, if you keep placing one freestanding object next to another you get a proliferation of objects. What are needed now are not objects so much as places. Houston suffers from this malaise of placelessness, and nowhere more so than in the Galleria area.

Photo: Justin Cozart [license]

41 Comment

  • Well said, BUT bitching doesn’t help. How does one create public space people will want to visit in an area so packed with traffic that the exhaust can be tasted if you roll down the windows?

  • Not sure what his gripe about the Galleria Area is, it’s actually a quite good mix of office, retail, and residential in all economic scales. The parking is ample, albeit you need a black belt in the dark arts of holiday parking. My favorite part of the area by far is the absence of hipsters.

  • But Phil, Houston has a sense of place and a space that ties everything together….it is the individual car and the freeway system. That is our “park” and the only single element tying everything together. Who needs anymore public unified spaces than that? It fits our rugged individualism to a tee! :-) People drive from one end of a shopping center to the next to avoid having to experience oneness with nature.

  • It is ashame that Mr. Lopate can not seem to find any pleasures within Houston, or at least in the context of his brief excerpt. Rather than Mr. Lopate focusing on what he may find to be positives within his Houston, his excerpt focuses on the negatives, albeit the Galleria is a “defining, go-to place” in Houston. While I am not a fan of the Galleria, Katy, Antoine area or many other areas, I do not find any to be quite of despicable as Mr. Lopate finds the Galleria to be. I simply choose to avoid those areas, frequenting the areas that are to my liking and taste. Regardless of not caring for every corner of Houston, I am one of the most vocal proponents and advocates of this fine, quirky city. Go forth and realize the pleasures and beauty within Houston.

  • I think a good parallel to the Post-Oak Galleria area is Tyson’s Corner in D.C. (a.k.a. “NOVA”). There is a massive effort underway to make that place more palatable for the non-car traveler. One example is that they are extending the METRO line to the area.

  • My guess that in the year 2044 Phil Lopate will have to quote the same essay again. After all the lack of “urban places” is what characterizes and unifies the city of Houston. But hopefully my guess is wrong..

  • Good thing well spoken men with visions never convinced people to voluntarily limit their choices to no good end. Good luck on the placelessness induced migraines, Phil.

  • We have plenty of public land between the buildings; it’s just as decentralized as the rest of the city, though, so you have to look for it, or be lucky enough to notice.

    I rather like greater Houston’s add-it-as-you-need it layout. I mean, I definitely see the distinct advantages that other cities have in their planning, so I’m not knocking them, but I think Houston has advantages, too. I couldn’t ever put my finger on why until reading this article, but I like that Houston doesn’t seem like some piece of created artifice, regulated in such a way as to preserve it in a frame. A “mediation between private homes and the impersonal corporate world” feels like some sort of sop. Like, if the city looks like something I see on TV, then everything must be fine here. No place is perfect, and no one should be lulled into thinking it is.

    Some more beauty would be nice (I can remember when this town had alot more trees, for example), but our citizens are so disparate that I’m not even sure we can all agree on what ‘beauty’ is. We’re not homogenous, which gives us some great advantages, but it makes our public spaces kind of bland, even while the private ones are eye-popping.

    The city (including its many suburbs) wears its elbow pads on the outside of its jacket, showing off the tatters. It keeps the valuables on the inside, in hidden pockets. That won’t change for a long, long time.

  • This city is vast, beyond imagination, yet the focus is always “inside the loop”.

    The author and 90% of posters on this board are guilty of this small world view of Houston.

  • When I think of the great cities in this country–New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, etc–one thing most of them have in common is some kind of geographic feature–a harbor, most often–that is unique to their specific area that forms a kind of center around which a city can grow, an axis that can focus development. Austin has the Colorado River, San Antonio has the Alamo…but what does Houston have? A coast that is hardly anything like Los Angeles’, for example; it’s little more than a swamp. I don’t know if this little theory of mine would hold up under further scrutiny, but the fact is that Houston is never going to be like any of those other cities. We’re a flat, largely featureless prairie with muddy rivers that are prone to flooding, and a climate that not even we Houstonians like very much. So it makes sense, to me at least, that we would develop in such a haphazard, careless way, spreading in all directions with no particular focus and little political will to rein it all in. I hope our downtown finally becomes what it could be, but it will probably always be easier to just keep building outward.

  • Oh Anse,

    Comparing Houston to New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago will get you frustrated.

    Houston is an infant compared to those in your list of envy.

    We’ve built out just about as far as we can, and from all the million dollar tear downs the focus is back where is should be.

    This board is Debby Downer central lately.

  • You can call me envious, Craig, but I’m more envious of humidity-free days and four real seasons than I am of how these cities look. I’m not a hater. Houston is what it is. Sometimes I even like the way we snub our noses at our bratty capitol city. But it doesn’t mean we can’t be better than we are, in our own unique, Houston-centric way. We don’t have to live and die by the automobile. Taking queues from other cities is not going to jeopardize our own identity, and besides that, we’ll always be a flat, muddy, swamp beneath the concrete and steel.

  • I see Houston in a good light where the city developed organically (or on as need basis) driven by people with cojones who are willing to put their money where their mouth is, and not the self proclaimed armchair city developers or architectural experts who always whine how things “could be, should be… but with someone else’s money”.

  • I have lived all over the world and everywhere I’ve been–without exception, the people I meet have expressed a desire to come to the U.S., and even more specifically to Texas. They have heard of Houston and appreciate its vitality. I can’t understand why the readers of this site continually bash my great city. I suspect if these same commenters lived in Paris or Rome or New York City, they would find just as much to complain about in those places. After a recent move to the Galleria area following years in the ‘burbs, I say look a little closer at the place you condemn and ask yourself what is lacking in your own life that compels you to dislike such a wonderful and vibrant city?

  • The way some folks go on and on about “their money”, you’d think they’d finally pack it in and head for the more enlightened atmosphere of, say, suburban Topeka. But until that happens, I have to wonder if I can complain about *my* money being spent to make your commute faster, when I made the rational decision to live within five miles of my job? But I guess these grievances go both ways, don’t they?

  • Anse, TXDOT is helping my commute and gets it’s funding from gasoline taxes, registrations fees, and a number of other transportation related taxes… so it’s still not YOUR money being spent since you obviously take an bamboo bicycle to work.

  • come on guys, houston is great…as long as you’re not poor. then you’re just screwed, but that’s about the same anywhere really.

  • My little pickup doesn’t run on natural gas or electricity, but I will gladly walk to my destination when the weather is nice, thank you very much.

    It should be noted that centralized planning is perfectly okay in Houston as long as it’s Perry Homes or whatever doing the planning. I just like to have some say in how my old neighborhood steps forward into the future, which I think is not a particularly radical idea. Any suburbanite in a deed-restricted community should be able to relate to that. And yes, I am a homeowner, a member of the landed gentry, a taxpayer and all that…

  • Houston didn’t develop organically. The original street grid was planned, the Heights was planned, Montrose and River Oaks and the Villages and Cinco Ranch, etc., all planned. At least 90% of the people who wax poetic about Houston’s “vibrancy” and “free spirit” probably live in a place that was very carefully planned. Our freeway system was the result of planning, and our organic twisty-turny roads were straightened out. Everything within 5 miles of Rice University was aggressively planned, and people love it. Property values in Houston are high in places that were planned, low in places that weren’t, which tells you what the market wants: Planning.

  • Anse, you’ve got some real dislike for Houston and I’m sorry you can’t find what you like here. Houston doesn’t have 1 defining feature, and I’m glad for that. We have many defining features, if that doesn’t give the town an identity, good. It allows many people to see the same city in as many different ways as there are people who live here.
    We have a medical center that is recognized the world over. We have more acreage devoted to park land than any other city in America. We have world class art installations. We have quiet corners and ample opportunity for a fast paced lifestyle.
    You look at our weather as a negative, a lack of 4 distinctive and real seasons. I look at it as an opportunity to play golf any day of the year, and never having to shovel snow, or need to worry about road salt rotting my car, or at what point in the season I should put on snow tires. At most I have to toss an old bed-sheet over my citrus tree 3 days out of the year.

  • My only issue with the Galleria area ( say from Post Oak out to Fondren) is the lack of trees and other greenery and the abundance of concrete in areas that are not along Buffalo Bayou, i.e. Memorial Villages. In the summer it all seems just so incredibly uncomfortable.
    Commonsense says that he likes that parts of the city were developed by “people with cojones who…put their money where their mouth is” I agree that many of our best architecture/landmarks came out of that era, but most of those people are now in Glenwood cemetery, and I do not see a younger generation here with the same type of energy to mold our city to what their imagination and bank accounts willed. Those guys had a pride of place that I do not think many of our now out of state developers today have. Even those whose principals live here ( I’m talking about you, Ainbinder) spend more time with financial spreadsheets than aesthetics and vision.

  • Toasty, at no point did I say I dislike Houston. I’m here, aren’t I? Houston made it possible for me to buy a home, while I could only dream of that before I moved here ten years ago. But why are folks like me always criticized for having opinions? We all have opinions, don’t we? Why are mine more worthy of scorn than others? I see no virtue in loving a place with blind abandon while dismissing any new idea that comes along as somehow un-Houston-like. That’s a rather backward attitude for a town that’s long rewarded innovation.

  • Anse, why be a hater? I love Houston!

  • I’m not going to lose any sleep over the fact someone doesn’t see the same beauty in Houston that I do.

    I counter the standard knock on Houston by Mr. Lopate and his ilk with the following quote from the perhaps the greatest travel article ever written about out great city:

    “It’s true: The greater metropolitan area is truly a geography of nowhere, a crazy quilt of strip malls and strip clubs and gas pumps and houses. But the sneaky thing about Houston is that the city’s heart isn’t to be found in one place; it’s in a thousand small places and subtle pleasures. Trouble is, most outsiders don’t have the time to assemble the scattered pieces. Only with time does mishmash become mosaic.”

    Full story here: http://travel.nytimes.com/2004/12/12/travel/12houston.html?pagewanted=print&position=

  • I like the Galleria.

  • I think some of the commenters are missing a major point here — Lopate’s quoted remarks came about the Houston of almost 30 friggin’ years ago.
    He’s a prophet in some ways (I think the Galleria has only gotten worse!). But consider that there’s now Discovery Green, and an increasingly dynamic Midtown/Historic District, as well as bike/hike paths and so on. Downtown continues to improve from the dead zone it had become three decades ago.
    Yes, there are plenty of serious problems now and ahead. But please put his critique in perspective with when it was penned…

  • @anse, perhaps I misunderstand your points of dislike for what Houston has as dislike of the entire city. it’s a fair point that someone can like certain things and not others, and on the whole like it more than not.
    However, in every response I’ve seen here, you haven’t offered anything to provide that you think Houston has a single redeeming quality. My opinion of you is based on what you’ve written here. And playing the victim won’t change that opinion.
    Yes, there are things about Houston that should change, and can change, and will change, but the weather will not change, the city will not miraculously gain a geographical feature to give it identity (if the bayous aren’t enough of a geographical feature), the overall geography isn’t going to change at all, it’s flat, muggy, and full of mosquitoes, and until cars are impractical, the age when our city grew up will tend to favor cars as the major transport.
    These things cannot change. These are the things you seem to be complaining about the most. Of course, I’m going to dismiss them offhand, just as you dismissed my rebuttal offhand because I only mention redeeming qualities and no bad things.
    Things we can change, ride more bikes, walk more, show, don’t complain, that these things are important for the future of our city. Change will happen, not likely in our lifetimes though, unless it’s forced, but who wants to live somewhere where they are forced?
    You want to know what I don’t like about this city? It’s all the nimbys who feel that just because they own land near mine that they have some magical say over what I do with my property, be it a simple renovation, total house replacement or opening a business. But that’s a problem all cities have, isn’t it?

  • I bet thirty years ago they didn’t have those space age silver halos over all the intersections. Boom, beautified. In all seriousness, the Waterwall wasn’t built until around that time (wikipedia says built in ’83, opened in ’85) too, giving the area a beautiful, if man-made space that’s reflective, industrial, inspiring, modern, and a lively place for kids and adults to gather.

  • My first thought was, “who the hell is Phillip Lopate?” My second thought was, “Who the hell cares?” Hot, humid, flat, unplanned Houston has done far more for me than an “essayist” of whom I’ve never heard.

    I love my hometown. I loved it when my family moved here in 1977. I’d never seen buildings so tall and many, being from North Carolina. I loved it in the 80s, even when 700 souls were murdered yearly, and the bottom dropped out of our economy. I missed it in the 90s, when I went elsewhere to make a living, but I loved her anew when I moved back in time to watch the late 90s renaissance. And I love her today, in spite of so many trying to rein her in with central planning and other constraints. May they never succeed.

    There are so many who wish to tame my hometown, to make her act civilized like New York, Boston and San Francisco. But, I noticed they never move to the cities of their envy, because like me, Houston has been very good to them, as well.

  • Amen, toasty. The nimby’s I know can all go suck a lemon.

    Not a very erudite comment, I know.

    Hopefully, that quality will upset a few folks who bemoan the elegance our fair city supposedly doesn’t offer.

  • Why are Houstonians, (and Texans for that matter) so insecure and hyper-sensitive that they routinely freak out and lash out at anyone who dares offer criticism or propose a different way of doing anything in this town/state? Damn, what a bunch of whiners. Grow up.

  • I work in the Galleria; it’s the asshole of Houston despite having excellent amenities and density, because getting to any of it is time consuming and irritating because of the traffic and gridlock. Someone mentioned Tyson’s Corner (where I used to work!) – the areas are quite similar. It’s no surprise that the Galleria is where i also see the most aggressive driving in the city.

    The idea that Houston is unplanned compared to other cities is just silly; it’s just planned differently, and in some ways kind of badly.

    Whether one likes the outward spread and automotive focus is beside the point – it is *not* going to last. It’s massively inefficient and growing ever more expensive. At some point there isn’t enough time to drive to far-flung places on congested roads, the cost of using massive amounts of land to store unused cars for most of the day (and the impact on things like drainage) becomes too much, and it just stops working. Fuel costs will go up, the impact of greenhouse gases will be felt, the power grid won’t be able to keep up, etc.

    It’s human nature to assume that things don’t change, but guess what – they do, and there are consequences. Houston’s spread worked for quite some time. Houston is a vital place people want to live in now; but even so in a lot of industries (like IT) it’s still hard to get people to come here, and shows no signs of getting easier. Fortunes can change; Houston has grown because of its success, but to think that’ll just keep happening without addressing some of these issues is just silly, and history has lots of examples of what happens to cities, societies, and cultures that pretend their moment in time is permanent and they’ll never have to change.

    Tyson’s Corner is a great example of a place that was incredibly successful (becoming Washington’s second downtown) and then began to choke on its own success; what’s underway there now is really interesting, and has the potential to make it a great part of the DC area again. As someone who used to spend his days there it’s been fascinating to watch and I wish them luck.

    Time will tell if Houstonians have the imagination and wisdom to think about what the future can be like, instead of pretending that something that worked for a while will work forever.

  • I read regular articles in an Australian economic blog touting how cleverly Houston has grown. Here in AU land use restrictions and gov’t requirements for density have resulted in land values that are pricing a generation out of home ownership. Sydney is now the 3rd most expensive housing market in the world by some measures. NZ is in the same boat.

    In our area you can pay several million for a rear lot with an easement for a narrow driveway and an awkward multi level home with small rooms. Despite a giant country with lots of empty land.

    Houston’s sprawl ain’t all bad. Loved my old neighborhood. Can’t wait to move back. Kind of like my rescue dog…she’s a mess and a bit untidy and doesn’t always do what I want but I still love her.

  • Houston has come a long way since 1984. I was a kid here in the 80s and I remember it as a time when everybody’s dad was either laid off or about to get laid off. Downtown was bad and getting worse, people were fleeing to the burbs, and “Midtown” was just the 4th Ward.
    Fast forward to today, and I like where we’re going. I don’t always like each step along the way (especially our emphasis on demolition over renovation), but I’m pretty sure Houston today is way better than it was in 1984. Though I admit I do avoid the Galleria like the plague.

  • How can you “dislike” Houston? Houston is HUGE and VERY VERY different wherever you might be. You can buy a giant house in the burbs for next to nothing. Or you can live a very walkable fun urban lifestyle if you’re willing to give up the giant house.
    Houston has concrete jungles, but it also has parks, water, city life, ‘burb life, whatever you might want.
    I’ll admit when I first came to Houston I thought it sucked. But that’s due to where I was living and what I was doing. Now that I’ve moved to a “better” (in terms of what I’m looking for) location, I love the place and have made it home.
    Houston is like a huge buffet with lots on the menu. If you don’t like the crab cakes, try the veal.

  • I have to ask, because I’ve read it here dozens of times: do you really believe that Houston’s growth and prosperity are due to its being inhabited by a unique race of people, a bunch of mavericks who resist planning and don’t like to be told what to do?
    Contra Anse, it is precisely a natural feature, several of them, hundreds of square miles in extent, that made this city.
    Enough with the fairy story of Houston’s exceptionalism.

  • Cheap land and a big, highly profitable industry that can’t be easily relocated and enjoys massive government protection. It’s not hard to figure out.

  • Understanding Houston

    Something happened to Houston on the way to the twenty-first century.
    The first couple of decades I was in Houston, I pretty much ignored the city as city. It was a place to be, a town with little obvious sense of itself and no conscious vision of its place in history. A bayou town given to typical Texas boosterism, that now-vanished Houston was forever being one-upped by Dallas, which not only had more bank deposits but its own very successful opera company as well.
    Now though, I find, the longer I am here, the harder it is to write about anything other than Houston. Every morning I get up and go out and the city takes me by the lapels and shakes me and says, look at this, and this, and this, isn’t it extraordinary, have you ever seen anything like it? And I look and often I agree, it is extraordinary, and I’ve never seen anythign quite like it.
    Houston is not, to be sure, for everyone. The great cities never are. The message, fortunately, is now out, and pretty clear. You don’t come here unless you are 1) bright, 2) creative, 3) a risk-taker, and 4) a workaholic. This city functions on a pure goal-standard. The catch is it’s your goal, anything you choose. Set a modest goal and the chances are excellent you can attain it here. The ridiculous thing about Houston is that you can also set an outrageous goal, and the chances are excellent you can attain it here.
    I laugh at Houston a lot. It is a city of constant surprises. Maybe that’s the real secret of Houston – the people who stay are the ones who know how to laugh. I also, as you will see, take Houston very seriously. Like some huge American version of a complex Tibetan mandala, the city often functions as a centering device – a source of consolation and, possibly, a degree of enlightenment as well.
    Sometimes I wonder if we don’t all get together while we’re asleep and have a big discussion about what kind of city we’re going to “do” next. How else is one to explain the way Houston changes literally from day to day? The city is chameleon. It’s not just the lack of zoning. It’s as if the very air we breathe contains – in addition to the occasional pollutant – about 50 percent unpredictability.
    Now here we are hurtling toward the Big Turning Point of the year 2000 and I don’t know a city in the world as fecund, as mesmerizing, as nurturing, as exciting as Houston. The city of alchemy: a good-sized chunk of the world’s wealth pours in here and we, somehow, transform that wealth into a late twentieth century version of Shangri-La. Energy city? Sure, and it’s not just the oil. The energy is almost tangible; you sense it when you step off a plane.
    The world does this occasionally – creates a place where we can do new things, and it’s always up to the bright, creative risk-takers to make it happen. Others need not apply.
    Kuala Lampur. Kyoto. Persepolis. Kashmir. Borobudur. Cairo. Venice. Florence. Places that, because of what was done there, now belong to the world. They all share certain qualities: beauty, coherence, a feeling of profound tolerance, an almost arrogant sense of self-confidence. Like these places, Houston is a massive and daring act of imagination. This is no city for weak hearts and timid spirits.
    It’s happened twice in a big, consistent way before in this country, first in New York near the end of the last century, and then in Los Angeles in the early part of this century.
    If you want to understand Houston, you’ve got to understand that we are here, next in line. The Greeks, with irony, called it hubris, pride, this drive to storm the gates of heaven. They knew it was dangerous. They also knew that when it starts happening, there is no stopping it, until the gods so will.
    Of course some afternoons around 5:30 on the freeways it seems the gods have so willed. And no doubt there are more than a few ulcers riding around in limos as a result of whatever economic difficulties, whether it’s falling oil prices, or unfilled office space, that the city happens to be passing through at the moment. Add to those recurring headaches the larger, more troublesome difficulties endemic to American capitalism (10 percent of the people living at the poverty level) and you have enough material to keep a platoon of economic and urban analysts employed for the foreseeable future. Houston’s problems, which it to some degree shares with the country and the world, are not the point here. The point is that the city has developed a momentum which is now carrying it – problems and all – toward a creative high ground that few cities have occupied.
    Look at the downtown skyline of an afternoon against a Gulf blue sky filled with a thousand impossibly friendly and fluffy white ships scudding past the last word from the 20th century on highrise beauty. Sharing that view with me, you’d have a hard time convincing me that the Golden Age of Houston has not begun. I know, I know. Such a thing here on the coastal plain of Texas? It’s contrary to all reason and expectation. The city as we have it certainly doesn’t fit Texas, nor for that matter many of the American, stereotypes. What need have cowboys of an ocean anyhow, much less the largest international port in North America? But the paradox of Houston is in the best tradition of historical surprises. In a world still cowering before the antique fears of Chaos and Old Night, Houston has embarked on a bold adventure which puts it in a very select group of cities, and eras.
    Upstart? Superficial? Chaotic? Provincial? Immature? Nonsense. I’ve lost patience with those people who come here and go away yelping about how we’re not another New York or London or Paris. Of course we’re not. The world loves to repeat itself, but never in such a literal manner.
    Houston is what it will be. And it is not some urbanologist-architect-critic’s private little vision of the Ideal City.
    People get the kind of city they want, and deserve. You wind up living in a given city because you are drawn by the personality of that city. A certain group of Americans was strongly attracted to Paris in the 1920s, because of what Paris was. A different group of Americans at the same time was attracted to Berlin, because Berlin was something else. Those are the spectacular examples. A similar, lower-key attraction applies to smaller, more modest cities and their smaller populations. You don’t, for example, move to Portland if you want to be surrounded by artistic, scientific, or commercial genius. You move to Portland, well, for whatever reason it is that people move to Portland.
    We, here, are in the process of making the kind of city we deserve, and want. And it’s a knock-out. If you begin studying cities of the past, looking for parallels, there’s one that jumps out at you. Houston is what you get if you do Florence 500 years later. Same energy. Same “chaos.” Same creativity.
    Of course it doesn’t look like Florence. If you’re in need of exact duplications of what has come before, visit Williamsburg. Or DisneyWorld. The antiseptic past that so many people revere has powerful charms. What is forgotten is that what you see in Florence today is creativity preserved. What you see in Houston is creativity in process. Houston is the real thing. It is not neat, it is not tidy. It is the miracle of the lotus: from the mud through murky water a stalk rises which, upon reaching air, gives the world a flower without equal.
    Birth is messy. And painful. No one seems to know quite why, but it is. Of course, the mere existence of a painful mess does not necessarily imply birth. It may imply only the existence of a painful mess. I look at Houston and I see painful mess, but I also see the miracle of birth: a young, out-rageously luxurient tropical tree bearing extraordinary fruit on the third coast of America.
    Beware the sterile mind that fears the creative process. It’s always the same and, to the unperceptive outsider, it always looks chaotic. Henry Ford’s first workshop. Rembrandt’s studio. Eisenstein’s movie sets. What kind of a housekeeper do you think Beethoven was? You only get the Florence we think of as “Florence” or the Venice we think of as “Venice” when you’ve had several centuries to clean up after the big creative explosion.
    At the height of its Renaissance glory, Florence stank, and it was always flooding. Moreover, Florence was a “one-industry” town. The industry? Wool. These crazy people in Central Italy didn’t know that it was absurd to try to turn a little Italian river town that was constantly being flooded into one of the world’s great cities by importing, processing, and selling one product. Since they were unaware that this was impossible, they did it. So uppity did this little town become that they even founded their own republic.
    The Florentines were furthermore alchemists. They turned vision into work, work into wealth, and – the hardest of all – wealth into beauty. The Strozzi family, for example, spent twenty years acquiring parcels of land before beginning construction of one of the marvels of Florentine architecture, the Strozzi Palace. If that sounds familiar it’s because the Menil family is doing precisely the same thing right now in the Montrose. Having assembled the land, the Menil Foundation has now constructed a museum to house the Menil Collection. The unique circumstances and means and people necessary for such private visions made real do not come together very often.
    Not only did Florence smell bad, it was at that time a half-built, unfinished mess. The great cathedral, the Duomo, had been started in 1296. The design included a dome of such a great span (149 feet) that no one had been able to figure out how to build it. After 130 years, the structure was finished, except for a gaping hole where the dome was to be. In the 1420s the city held a competition to find a solution. A young architect by the name of Filippo Brunelleschi, breathing the brute optimism that must have permeated that unpleasant Florentine air, tackled the problem, and won the contest. In 1436 Florence celebrated the completion of its domed cathedral.
    It’s hard to say who scoffed more, the bankers or the structural engineers, in the 1950s when Roy Hofheinz went public with his dream of a domed stadium. Yet there the Astrodome stands today, a translucent jewel which none of the countless subsequent imitations has quite matched.
    Why Houston? Why, for that matter, Florence? There in the Piazza stands Michelangelo’s David. Why there? I don’t know, but it probably is the same reason why the city produced a Brunelleschi who could figure out how to build a dome there such as the world had never seen.
    The collection of monumental architecture that Houston has put up in the last 20 years doesn’t just happen. Not on such a scale of exquisitely reasoned quality. It takes a special time, a special place, and unusual people. What Houston is doing costs a great deal of money and the burden of proof is on the naysayer to convince me that the business people who are building these Houston monuments are not in the grip of the same creative forces that earlier, and on a much smaller scale, gave us Florence.
    And maybe we’re through. Maybe the architecture is all. Maybe Galveston, whose lovely collection of 19th century architecture was frozen in time following the 1900 storm, is an omen. Perhaps Houston is to be a huge frozen-in-time museum of late 20th century architecture.
    Maybe, but I don’t think so. To understand why not, we have next to explode the biggest Houston myth, the one our critics, both foreign and home-grown, are fondest of, namely, the myth that this is a city without a past.
    The truth is, again, simple. There will, I believe, be more than architecture here, because this city, whether we are conscious of it or not, is in the grip of and controlled by a past that is richer, more powerful, and more intensely accessible than that of most any city in the world. The past always shapes us, and incredible Houston is a direct product of an incredible history.

    Something keeps drawing me back to the San Jacinto Battleground, always in the afternoon. Is it perhaps because the solution to the mystery of Houston is here?
    What an unlikely spot for one of the world’s decisive battles. Tending toward marsh, the country here is laced with inlets and bayous and streams too small for naming. The vegetation is coastal scrub dotted with stands of live oak. You can tell which of the trees are old, native growth and which have been planted. The old trees are stunted and lean tiredly away from the prevailing Gulf winds.
    Here Sam Houston camped, knowing that Santa Anna was just a few miles away toward Galveston. The Mexican general was trying to catch the rebel Texas government – he had almost gotten them at Harrisburg, and just missed them at Morgan’s Point on the bay. After capturing the elected officials, Santa Anna planned to mop up the troublesome little Texas army.
    For two weeks, Houston had been leading the Republic’s troop of some 700 tired and poorly equipped men across 200 miles of southeast Texas. These were not ordinary people, and at least some of them must have known they were doing something quite extraordinary. One of Houston’s officers, Capt. John M. Allen, was a soldier of fortune and man of learning; he had been at Byron’s side when the poet died in Greece in 1823. Houston himself had two books with him during the campaign. Gulliver’s Travels, and Caesar’s Gallic Wars. In his head, he had Homer. When, as a boy, Sam went to live with the Cherokees, he took – and memorized large sections of – Pope’s translation of The Iliad.
    The weather that spring of 1836 was awful. Incessant rains had turned the few primitive roads into quagmires, and it had been an unusually cold April. With a strong norther blowing, the temperature on the morning of the 21st was in the low forties.
    Sam Houston, general of the army of the Republic of Texas, slept late and – Robert Penn Warren says – when he woke up the first thing he saw was an eagle circling overhead. There had been two other eagle-omens in his life, the first when, leaving Tennessee with a broken heart following his failed marriage, he crossed the Cumberland, and then again when he had crossed the Red River to enter Texas.
    The Texians had wanted to fight many times, but Houston kept his own counsel. Was it his Indian smarts? He lived with the Cherokees twice, as a boy in Eastern Tennessee for two years and then he spent three years with them in Oklahoma after the failure of his marriage. What did he learn from them? Patience, surely. How amazing that he could wait so long to engage his enemy. Cunning? Perhaps. On April 20 the Texians camped due west of the Mexicans. When Houston finally gave the order to attack late on the afternoon of the 21st, the Mexicans had the sun directly in their eyes.
    The Texas army, for all its makeshift quality, had a band. As they attacked, a fife and drum played an English lovesong, “Will You Come to the Bower?”
    You dream. You plan and prepare. You wait, looking for the right time and place. And then you risk everything. When you win, you get all the marbles. The specific nature of what you win depends on what you have put at risk, and what your dream was. Sam won a large piece of North America, plus a new nation, and – though he didn’t know it at the time – a startling new city that lately has finally been showing some signs of at last being worthy to bear his name.
    There is a grove of trees where the Mexican camp was, with stone markers showing the location of Santa Anna’s tent, the Mexican breastworks, the Mexican cannon. In the field toward the monument is another marker: “Houston wounded here and horse killed under him in battle.”
    This is where the battle happened, not in the more easily accessible Texian camp, which is on the bank of Buffalo Bayou. Where the Texians waited it’s hard to imagine the scene – the bayou is now a ship channel, the land has been graded, a levee has been built. But at the site of the Mexican camp, along toward the middle of the afternoon when the cicadas start to sing and the wind picks up a bit through the old oak trees, it’s easy to imagine that army of Texians bursting out of the low scrub and surprising their enemy. The Mexicans got off only three shots from their cannon. Santa Anna himself was apparently dallying with his mistress. Within minutes, the battle turned into a rout that lasted until evening as the Texians pursued and slaughtered the defeated Mexican army.
    Revenge – for the Alamo, and Goliad? No doubt that was in the Texians’ minds. And the Mexicans paid a dear price – more than 600 dead and 700 taken prisoner while only eight Texians were killed. But Houston again confounded his compatriots: he refused to execute Santa Anna. So, to dreaming, planning, and patience must be added mercy. Though, in this case, Houston’s mercy was no doubt strongly affected by political considerations. Santa Anna was a valuable hostage for the new and highly vulnerable infant nation to hold.
    The inscription on the base of the monument that was erected a hundred years later reads: “Measured by its results, the Battle of San Jacinto was one of the decisive battles of the world. The freedom of Texas from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the Mexican War, resulting in the acquisition by the United States of the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Almost one-third of the present area of the American nation, nearly a million square miles, changed sovereignty.”
    If you want to understand the city, Houston, you have to understand the man, Houston. In an age when this country produced more than its share of larger-than-life figures, Sam was a giant. His presence still surrounds – and, I have come to believe, defines the city: San Jacinto; the Sam Houston Museum in Huntsville and his nearby grave; Cedar Point, south of Baytown where he had a house on Galveston Bay; the Sam Houston Library in Liberty. Then there is the little museum on Interstate 10 in Wallisville – they have a letter from Houston on display. Go there sometime and look at his signature. You can’t miss it. It’s large and florid. Look again, and you see that the way he signed his first name is ambiguous. You can read it either as “Sam Houston,” or as “I am Houston.”
    In this age of media mediocrity, where leaders often have no more substance than the glowing electrons on a hundred million television screens, America lives on a mediocre level, and we forget that greatness is possible, and when it comes, is transcendent. With Sam Houston, we are in the presence of greatness.
    Having as a young man already been a congressman and governor of Tennessee, he came here and created a country, with a million square miles – almost half a continent really. And then he worked to merge that country with the United States. After serving as president of the Republic of Texas, he was then elected U.S. senator for the new state. In the 1850s there was talk of his running for president, but his staunchly anti-slavery stance deprived him of a southern base of support. Coming home in 1860, he was elected governor. When intolerance reigned and Texas seceded, he resigned the governorship in disgust rather than rule with and over small-minded men.
    A city without a past? What nonsense. The key to Hosuton, its very soul, is its history. Houston is a city overwhelmed by its past. Few cities have had such a powerful imprint placed on them from the beginning. Think about it: Rome didn’t. The Romans had to invent myths (Romulus and Remus) about their beginnings. As did the Athenians.
    But not us. We know how this place started. We know when and where it started, and we know who started it. Officially Houston was founded on August 30, 1836, by the Allen brothers where Buffalo and White Oak Bayous join, but Houston’s real birth date is April 21, 1836, and the place of birth is San Jacinto. Go to the top of the Transco Tower and look east. You will see another tower on the horizon, a slim 570-foot shaft of Texas limestone, reminding you where this town came from. Sure, we can pretend it’s not there, that battlefield and that monument, and we can even forget what memories and whose spirit we invoke every time we write or say the name of the city. Our forgetfulness doesn’t change the fact that Houston, like all cities, is a prisoner of its past. This unlikely place, this flat near-swamp by the tropical sea, is not its own master. The ghosts of heroes walk this city, and for their sake, I am impatient with those whose mypoic vision tries to deny the once and future glory of Houston.
    We’ve got his city, if not finished, at least pretty well underway. The only question remaining now is: what do we do with it?

    I live in the inner city in Houston, and I live in a forest. The trees are green year-round. It is not a perfect forest. There are, as in any forest, sinkholes here and there, places where things decay, where life, trying to renew itself, has to go through the ugly, painful processes of death and regeneration. But mostly it is a good forest. It is laced with curving, soaring strips of concrete. Some call the freeways scars. I don’t. This forest is very forgiving, and very patient, very nurturing.
    I simultaneously live in another forest. This one is new, and still being formed, still incomplete. It is a forest of visionary buildings. When I want to go somewhere, I get in a car, and the car takes me up and out of the green forest on to rising and falling views of human-made beauty – graceful, elegant, gleaming, curving, faceted visions of affirmation and hope. One of the truths of Houston is the profoundly supportive and encouraging daily visual effect of those towers rising out of the green forest.
    For a long time Americans could dream anywhere. But, after an assassination in Dallas, a disastrous and tragic war in Vietnam, and a disgraced president, we seem to have forgotten or lost our ability to dream. Houston has not forgotten: the city of hope confounding the cynic, the city of affirmation confounding the pessimist, the city of dreams.
    You want the moon? We gave you the moon. You want Mars? Coming up. And: Is it any accident that the first national women’s meeting since Seneca Falls in 1848 was held in Houston? A day came in 1972 when the great-niece of Susan B. Anthony stood on the steps of the Convention Center and reminded us of her ancestor’s most visionary and courageous words: “Failure is impossible.”
    You want more? Where, you say, is the Houston Dante, where the Houston Michelangelo? And I say, where indeed? Outlanders would do well to recall our Indian patience and our Indian cunning. A process was stared here on April 21, 1836, and we’re not quite done with it yet.
    I think about the children of Houston, and I wonder what it must be like to grow up amidst such a visionary spectacle. There are already signs that the golden age will extend to the other arts – in painting, the Houston School is now part of the national art consciousness; and the number of Houston writers with a national audience continues to increase.
    Houston has no proper reason to be here or to be what it is – other than 150 years of people dreaming ridiculous, outrageous, chaotic dreams, and then overcoming the obstacles and making those dreams real. Old Sam is one powerful role-model, let me tell you. John F. Kennedy knew as much, and his description of Sam’s life in Profiles in Courage serves as the final summary of Sam’s city: Houston the city, like Houston the man, is a baffling, fertile concoction of “indomitable individualism, sometimes spectacular, sometimes crude, sometimes mysterious, but always courageous.”

    Douglas Milburn, reprinted 1986

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