Heritage, Volume 04, Number 02, Fall 1986

The growth and dynamism, both a
blessing and a burden, described in the
1950s and 1960s hardly prepared even
hardened Houston-watchers for the prosperity
of the 1970s and early 1980s when,
for example, the square footage of office
space increased several fold, two thousand
people a week were moving to the
region, and urban sprawl engulfed Sugarland,
Katy, and Spring. Houston is now
the fourth largest city in the nation, with
restaurants, book stores, high culture accoutrements,
human diversity, and traffic
one associates with world-class cities.
A perceptive observer of contemporary
Houston, Ada Louise Huxtable, architectural
critic for the New York Times, stated
that Houston "has supplanted Los Angeles
in current intellectual mythology as
the city of the future. . . . Houston is the
place that scholars flock to for the purpose
of seeing what modem civilization
has wrought. Correctly perceived and
publicized as freeway city, mobile city,
space city, strip city, and speculator city, it
is being dissected by architects and urban
historians as a case study in new forms
and functions. It even requires a new
definition of urbanity. Houston is the city
of the second half of the twentieth centjry."
Huxtable understands that Houston
does not have a long past as a significant
urban area, it was a town until the
twentieth century, and it has no outstanding
geographical and few historical
features to add diversity and scenery. "All
of those values that accrue throughout
centuries of civilization; identity, intimacy,
scale, complexity, style, are simply
created out of whole cloth, or prairie,
with unabashed commercial eclecticism."
But "What Houston possesses to an exceptional
degree," Huxtable concluded,
"is an extraordinary, unlimited vitality.
One wished that it had a larger conceptual
reach, that social and cultural and
human patterns were as well understood
as dollar dynamism. But this kind of vitality
is the distinguishing mark of a great
city in any age. And Houston today is the
American present and future. It is an exciting
and disturbing place." Yes, Houston
is an exciting place. As Welsh traveler Jan
Morris wrote in Texas Monthly in 1981,
"what was just a blob on the map a couple

of decades ago becomes more than just a
city, an idea, a vision, the Future Here
44

and Now!" And she added, "Who in a
jaded world, sapped by nostalgia, disheartened
by experience, can be left unexcited
by a city that looks so confidently
and ruthlessly ahead?"
All of a sudden, after a tinge of economic
recession in the 1980s, Houston
does seem to be looking at itself more
critically, demanding more of itself than
free reign to developers. Phrases like
"planning," "quality of life" and "amenities
of urban existence" are being spoken
and acted upon. The city is infinitely
more cosmopolitan, more urban in spirit,
than a generation ago. While Houston
might have been a "whiskey and trombone"
town before 1960 it certainly is not
now. Public sculpture and skyscrapers
grace the landscape, and a proliferation of
sidewalk cafes, outdoor festivals, zesty
ethnic enclaves like the various Chinatowns
that are emerging, and the Fiesta
grocery stores with their exotic bazaar flavor
are transforming Houston from an
overgrown town into a real city. Houston
is clearly a city being born, a future-tense
city. With the prospects for beautifying
the bayou that flows through the heart of
downtown, with efforts afoot to create
more human-scaled places amidst the tall
buildings, like the Transco fountain, with
ribbons of street life developing along
Montrose Boulevard and in the Village,
Houston promises to become a more humane,
a more urbane, a more livable Bagdad
on the Bayou. But however it
evolves, it will, no doubt, continue to
puzzle, anger, amaze, outrage, and enchant
its visitors.

John B. Boles is the Managing Editor
of the Journal of Southern History.

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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 04, Number 02, Fall 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45442/. Accessed April 24, 2014.