THE SHOPPING CENTER – Starbuck’s, Chevron, Barnes & Noble, Walgreens, the big yellow price tag of Best Buy. This group of stores, eateries and gas stations could be in any American city. Indeed, it looks just like any city, but this happens to be Houston, which raises a question: Has Houston become just another American town? Have we morphed into a Denver or Detroit? To put it another way, have we lost our unique Texanness?
Some people living here, particularly new arrivals, might well wonder whether Houston ever had a Texas flavor. Yes, we did. Early settlers along the banks of Buffalo Bayou described our town as muddy when it rained and dusty when it didn’t, dirty, dangerous, full of saloons and brothels and gun fights. In 1845, Houston was compared to a “pig sty.” Just your typical Texas town. As late as Reconstruction, Houston women refused to walk under an American flag strung up by Yankee troops for a Fourth of July celebration. In the 1940s, Houston Post columnist Hubert Mewhinney referred to Houston as a “whiskey and trombone town,” which was pretty accurate.
By 1900, the city’s population was 44,633. Through much of the 20th century, Houston’s population doubled every 20 years and tripled every 30. Most Houstonians were from somewhere else. In that regard, not much has changed, but the huge influx from elsewhere has certainly changed Houston. The migration here from other places, both north and south, not to mention from across the seas, means that a lot of today’s citizens (and non-citizens) have no knowledge or even curiosity about, for example, why we have a street named “Congress,” why there is a high school called “Lamar” or what’s a “Juneteenth.” Why are our downtown streets so wide? (Hint to the last one: To let ox carts turn around.)
Although the Battle of San Jacinto was fought on our doorstep, April 21 is no longer celebrated as it used to be with parades and band concerts and fireworks.
Today, in one of those ironies of history, more Houstonians turn out to celebrate Cinco de Mayo than San Jacinto Day. Who won the war? Many among us would be hard pressed to say what happened on April 21, 1836, and why anyone should care. It’s the same for March 2. (Hint: That day is the anniversary of the signing of a Declaration of Independence of a large Southwestern republic that begins with the letter “T.”)
Fortunately, there are still some signs of life for our heritage. The biggest social event of the year remains the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, and you can’t attend a rodeo at Reliant Stadium or kick cow chips in the arena’s hay without realizing you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Note that even the day at the rodeo set aside for Latino music and culture is not called Hispanic Day or Mexican-American Day as it would in other places. No, it’s called Tejano Day. Nowhere but Texas. Not everyone feels the same way about the show and its sideshows. I once met a new arrival who dismissed the trail rides as “high camp.” However, I noticed that later she got a divorce and didn’t move back to New York City.
Another positive sign is our new NFL team. It could have been called anything, even a meaningless name like “Titans.” But the owners did right by naming the franchise the “Houston Texans.” There is no question as to the team’s home. By the same token, can you imagine a pro team calling itself the “Chicago Illinoisans” or the “Green Bay Wisconsinites?” Houston school children are taught Texas history, and daily recite our state pledge. You know it, don’t you, Pilgrim?
We see the Lone Star Flag everywhere around town, although the story that we are the only state that can fly its flag on an equal level with the U.S. flag is a total myth. Anybody can do it, even Wisconsinites. The Wall Street Journal has noted that the best way to sell anything in the Lone Star State, including in Houston, is to appeal to Texas pride, be the products pickup trucks (“Texas tough”) or beverages (“Lone Star – the national beer of Texas”). Notice how often around town you see the state flag or map on a sign or in an ad. Even the Astros’ wear a Texas map on their sleeves. Those are clear signs that Houston is not Detroit. The telephone business pages have seven pages of companies named “Texas” whatever, so advertisers must figure that’s a good way to interest customers.
Another example of our difference is found in our elevators. Trapped in that small space for a minute or two, we tend to nod to total strangers. “Hi.” “Sure is hot.” “Yep. How about them Astros?” Try starting up a conversation with a complete stranger in most other cities, and your target will hit the red emergency button and get off at the next floor.
There is no doubt that Houston is being assimilated into the nation with fewer distinctions, such as gunfights, and more and more we are becoming just another big American city. Still, while “Houston” may be the given name, “Texas” remains the family name. And that’s straight from us here at – what else? – H Texas. H