“Houston, we have a problem” must be the most overused cliché (is that redundant?) since “I’m the candidate of change” and “At the end of the day.” But, Houston, we do have a problem, and it’s a rather strange one. Which polls, studies and reports are we to believe? We are receiving mixed messages about how good or bad we are. I know the compliments are accurate statements based on scientific research. The put-downs are from researchers who couldn’t get grants from the Houston Endowment.
These studies, polls, etc. are from out-of-town experts, and reflect what others think about us, screwed up though their opinions may be. As Robert Burns wrote:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!
Burns either had a speech defect or the Scot was hitting the Johnnie Walker Red, but how do others — or ithers — see us? In many different lights.
According to one study, of the 50 fastest growing metropolitan areas, Houston ranked 49th in its ability to attract college-educated 25-to-34-year-olds. Research for this project was conducted by CEOs for Cities, a group I have never heard of, but is described as a “Chicago-based nonprofit organization.” So is Sears. The study also found Houston is not among the top 20 cities young college graduates consider when choosing a home. According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2005, only 25 percent of Harris County residents between ages 25 and 44 have at least a bachelor’s degree. Compare that with 52 percent for Fulton County (Atlanta) and 45 percent for Travis County (Austin).
On the other hand, the U.S. Census Bureau says Houston added 250,000 jobs in the last four years, placing it behind only New York City and Dallas. This just in: Houston-area employers added 86,900 jobs between February 2007 and February 2008, up 3.9 percent. The national average is 0.7 percent. This puts us in first place among U.S. metropolitan areas. It could be these jobs are being filled by non-college grads, which would include most Rockets and Texans (but the pay is terrific).
Speaking of sports, we tend to attract many pro athletes who retain homes here for the off-season or no season, even after being traded to other cities or retiring. Rusty Staub, Jim Kelly, Phil Garner and others played here, left, and returned. They like Houston. (A quick aside: Hakeem Olajuwon, upon retirement, invested in the Houston real estate market. His explanation why he stayed here to do business with out-of-towners: “I have the home court advantage.”) On the other-other hand, we can’t keep our home-grown jocks home. Last year, 47 of Texas’ 100 top-ranked graduating high school football players went out of state. Former University of Houston head football coach Bill Yeoman once observed he could always field a winning team if only he could hold onto the local talent.
Men’s Fitness magazine keeps declaring Houston as America’s fattest city. Oh, come on. No one can possibly rate a city for fatness anymore than we could be rated on humor, sarcasm or thought-given-to-voting. This just in: Houston has been named America’s smartest city. Disprove THAT, Men’s Fitness. So what are we to think? As Benjamin Disraeli once observed, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
To be truthful, if not boastful, when it comes to eating, we have a lot of choices. In the greater Houston area including The Woodlands, Sugar Land and Pasadena, we have 10,000 eateries. This is counting fast-foods, drive-thrus, etc. Plus, we have local gas station/convenience stores selling two-week-old hotdogs. We are not fat. We’re well fed.
We have a reputation for dirty air. But a study funded by the Greater Houston Partnership and Gas Mask Consortium finds our air is relatively clean compared to, say, Beijing. The Sierra Club, however, says we have bad air pollution. What a bunch of tree-hugging fruit flies.
It has been observed that an intellectual Texan is someone who can hear the “William Tell Overture” and not immediately think of the Lone Ranger. But Houston is one of only four U.S. cities with full-time professional performing arts companies — opera, ballet, theater and symphony orchestra.
Yet another study in a new book, “The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life” by college professor Richard Florida, argues American cities will grow, prosper, invigorate and succeed only if they keep attracting creative people. This category includes anyone who thinks for a living: doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and computer programmers along with writers, painters, musicians and other “artistically creative people.” The creative class now makes up 30 percent of the workforce, double what it was just 20 years ago.
Professor Florida’s “creative-capital theory” reinforces what many other studies have found: Creative people do not just follow the money. They also choose their new homes for tolerant environments and diverse population. He says a quick way to spot such a city is by its number of gays and bohemians. The most creative city in America is San Francisco, then Austin. Houston ranks seventh, ahead of Washington and New York City.
Slogans and Titles
We cannot stand on our laurels. The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau launched a “My Houston” campaign in other cities to tell our story. The convention bureau has spent $75 million in the last 30 years to promote the city, and has trotted out all sorts of slogans. During the oil bust of the 1980s, we were “Houston Proud.” When the economy began to recover, billboards proclaimed “Houston’s Hot.” Another city slogan, “Space City: A Space of Infinite Possibilities,” never quite caught on. We all — OK, some of us — remember, “Expect the Unexpected.” After a City Hall scandal, some wags preferred, “Suspect the Unindicted.” Incidentally, our very first slogan, about a century ago, was, “Where 17 Railroads Meet the Sea.” That sounds like the makings of one gigantic splash. The only label that has stuck is the unofficial “Bayou City,” which could describe any town from Bay
City to Pensacola.
The nicest title we received was conferred by the Dallas Morning News in 2005: “Texan of the Year,” for Houston taking in, unforeseen and unplanned, 250,000 evacuees from New Orleans. There must be something about us to like; 100,000 of the Katrinians are still here.
One project we might call a self-survey on Houston by Houstonians was set up by two ad agents, Randy Twaddle and David Thompson, who came up with, “Houston. It’s Worth It.” The originators set up a Web site, www.houstonitsworthit.com, and have received thousands of suggestions. They range from positive, “Houston has so much to offer: diversity, culture, shopping and nice people … plus, you never have to buy a winter coat;” to humorous, “Houston is like mold. It grows on you.”
We have a problem?
So it appears that if Houston does have a problem, it is that so many people want to become Houstonians — ithers see us as neighbors.