My dad has what I used to consider a quaint habit. Anytime we were watching TV together at our home in Houston, and an actor like Brent Spiner or Dennis Quaid or Isaiah Washington came on screen, he would remind us, proudly, “He’s from Houston.” That fact did not necessarily change my opinion of their performances, nor did I fully understand its significance (did Dad know this actor personally?), but I think it struck a chord--a chord struck again as I watch my hometown struggle mightily with flooding.
I lived in Houston throughout my entire childhood--we only moved once in eighteen years, to the Meyerland subdivision, into a house where my parents still live, known for its thriving Jewish life and its proclivity for devastating floods. It amused me, when I travelled and after I left to live elsewhere, to see the way people would react to learning my hometown. “You don’t sound like you’re from Texas,” they’d say. “There are Jews in Texas?” they’d ask in astonishment at my youth group conventions, not knowing I had my Bar Mitzvah at one of the largest synagogues in the world. “Oh,” others would say, as if the fourth-largest city in the country had never entered their consciousness.
The floods, and the extraordinary and much appreciated attention my hometown is receiving now, remind me of how easily people seem to gloss over Houston other times. When someone recycles the phrase “Houston, we have a problem,” they don’t seem to realize that so many of the gifts borne by space flight came from Houstonians. When we fuel our cars or utilize energy, we forget that Houstonians found oil and made the city a world capital for oil and gas. When we learn a loved one or a dear friend received state-of-the-art life-saving care for cancer at M.D. Anderson or another hospital nearby, we forget that’s Houston’s, too. When we think of those who stood firm against the Confederacy in the South, we overlook Texas’s own governor, Sam Houston, who helped liberate the state from Mexico, and for whom my city is named. And when people think of cities that truly represent America in all its cultural, ethnic, and linguistic splendor, they’ll probably pick cities other than Houston--the most racially and ethnically diverse major metropolis in the United States, with trend-setting food and arts scenes that go along with that.
What we Houstonians lacked in aesthetic beauty, we made up for with ambition and intellectual capital. What we lacked in Texas stereotypes (boots, drawls), we made up for with hospitality. What we lacked in zoning law, we made up for (sort of) with extraordinary architecture, prompting Bob Hope to declare to TV host Phil Donahue, “The view from the Warwick (now Zaza) Hotel is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. It’s just like Paris.” What we lacked in walkability, we made up for with accessibility--more than half of all flight passengers come through Houston. And for all the harm segregation did to Houston in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Houston elected the first big city mayor who identifies as LGBT in 2010.
You may detect in my words a certain haughtiness or urban egotism. Maybe I’m still carrying around some emotional Houston baggage. I sat through an entire undergraduate urban studies lecture devoted to why Houston was among the worst a city could offer. Delivered by a Northeasterner, it utilized numerous pictures and data to show why a city without zoning should never exist, and certainly never copied. In the face of that, Houston keeps growing and prospering. It is in no way a perfect city, and I long for the days when it becomes easier to navigate and understand (high-rises and single-family homes don’t usually adjoin one another). But I daresay Houston has proven a lot of people wrong when it comes to its viability.
I think I see much of my own identity intertwined with Houston’s. My interests and pursuits are diverse and far-reaching--and I often bite off more than I can chew. I don’t wear boots, ride horses, or listen to much country music, but I like aspects of Texan and Southern culture related to receiving others with warmth and choosing to hold our tongue or use phrases like “bless his heart” in place of biting criticism. I relish both being part of large, diverse communities and standing apart. I want to see the world and I want to come home, both of which Houstonians do often.
As my parents and sister and extended family and friends deal with Harvey’s aftermath, I feel sadness for them, for the significant damage done to my childhood home, and for the limited ability I have to do anything to help them or their neighbors. I also know that the review of the floods may bring uncomfortable truths to bear--that the level of development in Houston may exacerbate the impact of heavy rain, that the public safety response needs improvement and Houston’s sprawl and car-dependence doesn’t help, for example. Just as people are burying loved ones, or fixing their homes, or admitting they need to rebuild them entirely, anger within, and perhaps aimed at, the city of Houston will burn.
I guess I find myself hoping that the world gives Houston a chance. I want Houstonians to rebuild the city, and I want the world to stick around for more of Houston’s story--that news agencies open permanent bureaus there, that observers take note of its resilience and its capacity for rebirth in the face of disaster (this isn’t the first time). I find myself praying that the literal Houston swamp does get drained for the good of its people, of my people. I find myself believing that in the face of extraordinary tragedy, extraordinary triumph awaits Houston. Just thinking about it makes me proud to say, I’m from Houston.