“Where are all the people?” I asked. It was a midweek workday in downtown Houston, and there was barely a soul on the streets. “They’re 20 feet below,” said my guide with a laugh.
“During the summer, it’s so damned hot that it’s dangerous to be outside. So, we live underground in 7 miles or so of 95 air-conditioned blocks connected by tunnels.”
I recalled reading Houston can hit blistering 100-degree temperatures with up to 99% humidity. Its underground world reminded me of a similar one used in Montreal’s winter months. I learned Houston’s was modeled after it.
From the top of the double-decker tour bus we passed blocks of commanding, almost futuristic-looking office towers that dwarfed the remaining older buildings in the modest downtown. The office towers were impressive, many with innovative sculptures out front.
Nevertheless, I was a bit underwhelmed, still trying to get a handle on this city. After all, Houston was the city of the future, generated by the energy industry, as well as the home of NASA. Truth be told, with its wide expanses of unremarkable landscape stretching out to seemingly endless bulldozed flatlands, it was hard to believe that Space City, H-Town, Bayou City was now the fourth largest city in the United States. We passed a few pocket parks, where the city fathers relocated historic homes in an attempt to add a little historical significance to the modern downtown.
A stop on McKee Street Bridge over Buffalo Bayou, a 52-mile slow-moving waterway, and the site of Houston’s founding in 1836, was a highpoint. Nestled on the edge of Sesquicentennial Park, the 10.4-acre park commemorates Houston’s 150th birthday, while also serving as a recreational destination for Houstonians.
Rising dramatically above Buffalo Bayou is the stunning “Seven Wonders,” a laser-cut stainless steel sculpture by Mel Chin. Consisting of seven dramatic 70-foot towers, each column illustrates 150 children’s drawings, etched in stainless steel plate. With “Heroic Themes” as a mandate, Houston children could participate if they were born in the year of the city’s 150th anniversary.
Buffalo Bayou waterway was the epicenter of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, one of the costliest tropical cyclones. The rainfall triggered catastrophic flooding in downtown Houston, inflicting $125 billion in damage. But the city quickly rebounded as “The Big Heart,” with its citizens remaining strong and helpful.
As the tour continued, an oak tree behind a gate caught my attention. The guide informed me it was the Old Hanging Oak, a 400-year-old tree, the oldest in Houston. The official word was it used to hang more than 11 criminals between 1836 and 1845. Unofficially, I learned it was the source of an untold number of lynchings, generally of African-Americans. It’s not unusual to bury unsavory parts of history.
There was barely a mention of the now-defunct Enron, whose branding was once proudly displayed throughout the city. The Old Hanging Oak made me think how much Houston had progressed, and I was interested in learning more about this city.
Houston is a regimented city with people driving to the Uptown District’s Galleria to dine and shop at its 339 stores, or to the 1,700-acre NASA’s Johnson Space Center to learn about human space exploration and scientific knowledge. I opted for the Museum District and its 19 museums galleries and cultural centers. An exhibition entitled, “Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art” was kicking off at the Museum of Fine Arts. I had recently streamed “At Eternity’s Gate,” a film bio of van Gogh’s life, directed by painter Julian Schnabel, and was keen to see the exhibition.
While chatting in line I noticed Houstonians tend to be easy going and extremely friendly. Some of the folks mentioned newbies to the city automatically gain 50 pounds. I could see why, for the city is a gastronomic heaven with a wide assortment of Mexican, Tex-Mex and Cajun restaurants, due to its proximity to the Louisiana Bayou. There’s a seemingly endless array of unique ethnic restaurants. Statistics show locals eat out more times a week than in any other American city.
Adding to this, Houston also takes the prize as the country’s most ethnically diverse city; fewer than half of its residents are of European descent, more than one-third are Hispanic, and about one-fourth are African-American.
New food encounters included Hass avocadoes stuffed with shrimp and Mexican Oaxaca cheese, then battered and deep fried, and Houston-style barbecue (yes, it’s different from other Texas regions), typically cooked over hickory wood (though post oak and pecan are often used) and marinated in a sweet, tomato-based sauce. The obsession with food is so great, that countless people said it was crawfish season. A revisit to a crawfish boil was definitely in order. Did I say it was easy to gain 50 pounds?
It’s interesting to note Texas has existed under six different flags: Spain, France, Mexico, Republic of Texas, Confederate States of America, and the United States (1846–1861; 1865–present). With so many different governments ruling them, I can see why it makes sense that there is a certain sense of personal freedom and mistrust of government. Texas’ physical boundaries have been the one constant in its history, with citizens generally considering themselves Texans first, U.S. citizens second. The Texas flag has the distinction of being the only state flag displayed at the same height of the U.S. flag.
Texans have even been known to pack a bag of Texas dirt so when out-of-state children are born, they will first walk on the state’s soil.
But why do Houstonians continue to live in this unique city and remain fiercely proud to be a Texan? I approached a number of friendly locals who happily responded to my question. I got everything from “We’re proud ‘cause everything is bigger and better in Texas,” to “Texans never forget, or let anyone else forget, that we were once a separate country.”
A young engineer replied, “Texas feels like a very unique place in the United States, and it has a very unique culture. It’s not quite part of the South, the Midwest or the Southwest. It has a different history, different food, a different ethnic background.”
In 1985, Texas launched the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign, discouraging littering on its roadways. Today, it has morphed into a slogan that is used to promote Texas pride.
For further information about Houston, visit visithoustontexas.com