It’s been a while since I visited a completely new city—much less spent a week there—so I particularly enjoyed the chance to help my aunt, uncle and cousins move to Houston, Texas this past week. Due to the nature of this trip, I can’t pretend that I’m about to give a thorough or comprehensive portrayal of Houston. We spent the first half of the week in a La Quinta hotel with three cats, three kids (all under 4) and the goal of moving them and their parents into a new house by Thursday. It’s been a little haphazard and a lot of time spent at the hotel pool. Nonetheless, I was able to experience many aspects of the city and what follows are a handful of observations I’ve collected.
- Low density. Houston is definitely a sprawling metropolis where the city limits stretch for miles. Buildings are low and spread out. After a week in the city, I’m still unsure where the downtown is, or whether Houston even has a traditional downtown.
- No zoning codes. Houston is mostly flat, but after driving or walking several blocks you’ll suddenly come across a twelve-story office building. Noticing this, I mused that perhaps Houston didn’t have many zoning laws, to which my native Houston friend replied, “Actually we have zero.” It makes the place look a bit random but it also means many opportunities to try new types of development and build whatever is needed for a particular time and place.
- Car city. Houston has completely embraced the car culture, widening its highways to six lanes in some places and utilizing complex interchanges that at times confused me as a driver new to the city. Some neighborhood streets seem not to have adjusted to this car-centric attitude, but that just means that drivers come barreling down the narrower streets at alarming speeds. I am told the bus system in Houston is passable, but I certainly wouldn’t count on biking or walking anywhere—what with the heat and the domination of automobiles.
- Poor sidewalks. I have to criticize Houston for its subpar sidewalks. In some places they don’t exist and in most others they are in ill repair and lacking the necessary dip at the end of each block for wheelchairs and strollers. I spent a scary five minutes with my baby cousin in her stroller, waiting on a tiny triangle of concrete in the middle of a busy intersection for a light that refused to change. Cars whipped by at high speed until we finally decided to cross in another direction and figure out another way to get to the Target that was directly across the street from us. This city does not make it easy to travel on foot, much less with small children.
- Strip malls. I’ve never seen so many strip malls in my life. Even when my wonderful Houston friend took me to the thrift stores in a hipster-esque neighborhood—a place guaranteed to offer some local character—they were mostly built in strip malls. My urban development training makes me skeptical of strip malls due to their dulling, impersonal effect on a cityscape, and the way they remove businesses from the road/sidewalk. However, their prevalence in Houston must mean they’re working for people—either they’re cheap, efficient or simply the natural way that the city developed.
- Lots of trees. Flying in Sunday evening, I was taken by the vast forests arraying the city. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many trees in an urban area. On the ground, I could tell that they line the streets in an appealing manner, providing shade from the Texas heat and that they offer privacy within neighborhoods. Additionally, Houston is home to several charming parks, arboretums and areas of green space. The benefit of sprawl is that it allows for geography like this without being too abrupt.
- Spanish everywhere. Houston has entire avenues with nothing but Spanish signs outside of businesses. The museums in the centralized museum district provide both English and Spanish in all of their exhibits. I’ve also heard Spanish used as a first language between numerous service workers and patrons without prompting. For a Southern city that I admit to pre-judging as conservative and insular, it’s refreshing to witness a holistic embrace of a prominent immigrant community. As my Houston friend stated, residents know that immigrants make the city go round.
- A commitment to museums and other public amenities. Since I was traveling with children, I spent time at several child friendly places outside the house including the children’s museum and the zoo. Both were excellent, although pricy.
- Hot and humid. It’s the South of course.
If you know more about Houston, I’d love to hear it. I’ve been saying that I need to spend more time in the South, so this was a perfect chance to do that and see family at the same time. For my part, I was glad to take on an observational perspective with the knowledge that I’d be leaving soon, but for the right person—a fan of heat, cars, open space, small government—Houston might be the ideal home.