"Houston, We Have a Problem"

By Katharine Mieszkowski

By Salon Staff
Published February 7, 2002 1:43AM (EST)

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I love Katharine Mieszkowski! Having grown up in the same God-forsaken suburb of Texas as I did -- the same one where Andrea Yates killed her whole family -- she is the only writer I've ever seen do just what I always wanted to do -- enumerate Houston's faults, hypocrisies, ugliness and blockheadedness, with great glee.

Houston deserves every single word of it.

-- Mark Pritchard

Katharine Mieszkowski's story about Houston was dead on in a way, but sort of missed the point. Lots of people do enjoy living here, even retiring here. Lots of Houstonians travel around the world; we've enjoyed other cities that have more charms; we know that few people come here for vacations. Houston is an unformed city, it's nebulous, and certainly ruthless. But life here can be pretty fun considering. Annoyances abound: traffic, gentrification, weather, politics. However, it still feels freer than any other place I've been, more wide open, more seat of the pants.

California has a gloss of libertinage, but all that settling on little strips of land in canyons and valleys has annealed Californians into living between rules and regulations and boundaries, and all that just seems so stifling to me. I like seeing the huge sky here. I like having the weather change in a flash. I like all the different people and cultures with hundreds of ways of cooking chicken. I like that nobody's so rich or esteemed here that they're beyond being taken down a peg. I like that ill-mannered and snotty people, no matter how much money they have, have a hard time making it socially in this town. I like that people in Houston enjoy art here for its own sake, and not as a way to launder their money or put on the gloss of aristocracy.

I even like that crime is bigger and more fabulous here, fabulous meaning making for a much better story. It reminds me of what Harry Lime says in "The Third Man," that Renaissance Italy was full of war and poisoning and tyranny and inquisitions, but they produced the most beautiful heritage of art in the world. Meanwhile, little Switzerland, ringed by mountains and ossified into a rigid republic managed to produce only a venal avaricious banking system and the cuckoo clock. I guess Houstonians break too many eggs sometimes for our big omelet, but honey, that omelet sure is tasty.

-- Scott Bodenheimer

As a Houstonian, I read Katharine Mieszkowski's story about Houston with great interest. She's right, unfortunately, about a lot of things about Houston -- the inferiority complex, the need for reform, the air quality, the lack of zoning. But there was something about her tone -- the sarcasm, the bitterness -- that made me really question Mieszkowski's motives. I'd have been far more interested in a balanced story or some real investigative reporting about how Houston's business climate creates havens for companies like Enron, but Mieszkowski didn't do either. In fact, it seems like she has a personal vendetta against Houston. And seeing how she grew up in Clear Lake -- and has written in other papers about disaffected Houstonians who have moved to the Bay Area and "found" themselves -- I'd say her reporting on Houston isn't that of a reporter looking to write a good story, I'd say she's looking to kick us when we're down.

The points that Mieszkowski makes in her story about Houston's "laissez-faire, pro-business" approach are true, but she fails to name any major American city that does it better. She refers to the fact that the city is selling naming rights to various buildings around the city, but she fails to mention that this is a trend (and I agree it's a negative one) around the entire country. Houston isn't the only city with a defunct or soon-to-be defunct business name prominently displayed on a sports arena.

She talks about how Houston's mayor hasn't railed against Enron and its business practices, and she suggests that he hasn't done so because his campaign received financial backing from the company. She's probably right, but, again, that isn't a Houston problem--it's a problem all over this country. And it's a bipartisan problem -- I find it interesting that Mieszkowski never mentions that Brown is a Democrat.

She mentions that in the '80s, 82 percent of the economic activity in Houston was energy related and now it's less than 50 percent -- that's a drop of over 32 percent, yet she casually blows it off as if the statistic is meaningless. Mieszkowski rails against Houston's low cost of living and the fact the taxes here are so low. She also adds that despite the recession that has befallen the country, despite Sept. 11, and despite both Enron collapsing and the blow that Compaq has dealt the city, Houston's economy is still much stronger than the country's at large. She acts as if these are trivial points.

Yet in Houston, as a single, 29-year-old writer making around $40,000 a year, I was able to purchase my own home (in the city, not the 'burbs) and get a quality higher education without owing thousands of dollars in student loans. I could not have done those things living in the Bay Area or the Pacific Northwest.

I'm not saying that Houston is without faults, big ones, and as a liberal (who voted for Nader), I've sometimes felt isolated in this big-business town. But I've lived in several states in this country and visited many more. My sister moved to the liberal bastion of Portland, Oregon last year, and though she loved it, Oregon has the highest unemployment rate in the country. She came back to Houston because we have these things here we call jobs. And San Francisco, home of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, a newspaper for which Ms. Mieszkowski currently writes, is a wonderful and beautiful progressive city. Yet it's also the homeless capital of the country. See Mieszkowski's own story about parking-lot living for more.

I spent quite a few years hating Houston when my family moved here in '86, but I've come to love this city and the opportunities it's given me. It's got problems, but so does the entire country -- there are pros and cons to every city in America. I don't believe Houston bears any more responsibility for the Enron mess than the rest of this country does. Houston's problems are merely a reflection of America's problems. If anyone needs to do some "navel gazing" about these issues, it's the entire country.

-- M. Yvonne Taylor

I live in Houston and agree with much of Katharine Mieszkowski's portrayal of the city. While Houston is the prototypical example of the unzoned city, I would argue that it is also simply the extreme example of the corporate capitalism that guides our entire country and for that matter the whole western world.

While I will admit that this is one of the strangest cities on earth, I think characterizing the city and the Enron debacle as the crazy shenanigans of backward cowboys loses sight of perhaps the most important lesson of what has recently come to light, that is the fact that much of our economy is a horse race. Uninformed betting based on the (manipulated) perception of profitability decides what goes up and what comes down.

To make it worse, none of them are really paying any taxes to boot. It might take an example as extreme as what goes on down in Houston to illustrate this, but it by no means does not extend to the entire U.S. stock market and economy. Maybe now we will have a real examination of the circumstances these crazy wildcatters took advantage of ... but I doubt it.

-- Caleb Groos

Katharine Mieszkowski is a fine writer. She seems to miss the point, however.

If she lives here in Houston, she should move away. If she lives somewhere else, she shouldn't come here. Either way, none of us here will ever care. Houston is a city that is very aware if its weaknesses yet still able to poke fun at itself. This is a pretty well advertised fact and anything but news.

Inferiority complex? Hmmm. Whose? She sure seems to be worked up over an opinion that won't change anything and no one cares about. You're screaming at dead air Kathy-Poo, give it up.

I moved to Houston from San Diego where I grew up, and now I would not live anywhere BUT here. I wouldn't trade Houston for Seattle (a.k.a. RiotLand or SuicideLand, take your pick) or anywhere else on the West Coast. So you see, President Bush 41 and I, at very least, are evidence that people do retire here.

It sounds to me like Ms.(Mizzzzzzzz, no doubt) Mieszkowski is part of the whopping seventeen percent of America that thinks our current President is doing a poor job of governing, which in turn makes her part of a very small group of people that still can't handle the results of the 2000 Presidential Election, an overheated, self-righteous Democrat that would like to impose her will and political correctness on the world. Sorry, Kathy, we're not buying.

We in Houston are passing around her articles, agreeing with most of what she says and smile knowingly to ourselves at the beauty of it all. No one here wants Houston to change and nobody's moving away. Unless it's her. And in that case, good riddance.

So what's her point?

-- Nick Houston

Your story, "Houston, We Have a Problem," reminds me of all those "Don't Mess With Texas" bumper stickers. I'd be more than happy never to "mess" with Texas again. I'm tired of bailing out the state and crooks like Enron every couple of years.

Wonder if Mexico would take it back?

-- George Leopold

The ironic thing about me writing this letter is that I hate Houston with a passion. I really can't stand the place. It's dirty, dangerous, and (for Texas) the people are rude. Katharine Mieszkowski's hatchet job, however, is beyond off the mark -- it's just plain incoherent.

Sure, she manages to land a few telling blows. Houston, is, after all, an oil town, and therefore polluted. One might suppose that there's always going to be some polluted oil town, as long as America's gas-guzzling ways continue, so we might as well take pot shots at the unlucky schmucks who provide the rest of us with our petroleum, no?

And, granted, most of Houston's cultural institutions are privately funded, so it shouldn't really matter that they're probably the finest in Texas and not too shabby compared with major cities in the rest of the nation. If it didn't come from the government, after all, then it can't be good!

It does, however, seem a bit ironic that criticism of Houston's corporate sponsorship should come from a magazine based in a city that renamed friggin' Candlestick Park at the behest of its corporate sugar-daddies. Not to mention Mieszkowski's jab at Compaq center, given that I drive by Compaq Center at San Jose every day on my way home from work.

Granted, overdependence on oil caused Houston grief in the '80s, but I would have thought that the subsequent move away from that reliance would have earned Houston applause, rather than a "not far enough or fast enough" scoff. After all, it's not like other metro areas haven't suffered from overdependence on an industry that went largely bust in recent history (wink wink, nudge nudge).

What I have the most trouble understanding, however, is exactly how Houston is in any way responsible for Enron. Did anyone expect Houston to regulate this company? Do we expect Santa Clara to audit Yahoo!, or keep tabs on the financing practices of Intel? Exactly what role is Houston supposed to play in preventing massive fraud by a national (or is it multinational?) company? Some fault may here lie with Texas, and the majority certainly lies with the federal government, but I don't see how Houston could have been expected to prevent Enron's particular brand of financial meltdown.

I like Salon, and I'm perfectly happy to see Houston lambasted, but in the future, please try to do so for good reason.

-- Kelly Joyner

I just want to remind Salon readers that not everyone in Houston voted for George Bush, is a cowboy, listens to country music or has a super-inflated regard for Ken Lay. Katharine Mieszkowski's article makes it sound as though everyone who lives here can be easily reduced to lockstep republicans with depleted self-esteems. This is just not so.

-- Angel McCormack

It is abundantly evident that Katharine Mieszkowski is appalled that Houston refuses to accept the role of victim in the Enron affair. She comes across very much like the Grinch, shocked and bewildered that the Houston's down in Houstonville aren't crying and sobbing and feeling sorry for themselves now that Enron-Claus has been shown to be a fraud. Instead, they're picking themselves up, singing a silly song, and getting back to work!

It came without hearings! It came without new legislation! It came without trial lawyers, Jesse Jackson, or litigation!

How can this be??

Will Mieszkowski's heart be moved by this show of resilience and gumption? Or will she continue in her annoyance that people so unregulated and capitalistic can be so happy?

-- Jim Rankin

Your article on under-governed Houston didn't scare me. I have spent most of my life in and around over-governed Washington, D.C. Houston's woes sounded more familiar to me than most people in the capital would care to admit, and if Houston has anything to learn from us, the article did not identify what that would be.

-- David Edmondson

Your February 1 article came very close to explaining why Houston is such a horrendous place to live (although some places are worse: Portland, Oregon was so foul during the dot-com era that the movie "Starship Troopers" made me homesick for Houston, and you have to be incredibly irrationally attracted to neo-Nazis and giant bugs to be homesick for Houston), but it barely glanced on one major reason for the current conditions: Dallas. Being the banking center for the state, Dallas is responsible for much of the overdevelopment throughout the state (if you look for money for a strip mall, you'll ultimately have to deal with a Dallas bank branch to arrange the loan), as well as most of the get-rich-quick mentality. Yes, you go to Houston to get rich quick, but preferably if you have connections from your college days at Southern Methodist University that will help expedite the money grab. "Built to flip" companies aren't unique to dot-coms: Dallas residents knew all too well about quick pump-and-dump schemes before they had a name, because most of us lost what were promised as good jobs that way.

Even so, Houston at least seems to be taking responsibility for its messes from time to time. When Houston crashes, it builds up on its own. When Houston crashes, though, Dallas goes down with it, and Dallasites are famous for wanting an end to regulation when things are good but demanding government handouts when things are bad. And I'd like to point out that George W. and Dick Cheney both called Dallas home, which means that the city is full of no-browed frat rats who tell everyone within screaming distance "Well, I don't have to pay that traffic ticket; now that my close personal friend George W. is in office..." See? Houston is a better place to live already.

-- Paul T. Riddell

That article was not worthy of its prominent place on the site. I'm sure y'all can do better than that screed. I was disappointed as soon as I read the gratuitously snide line, "people come to make money, and then they go someplace else. Nobody retires in Houston."

Give us all a break. There's this nice feller George and his lovely wife Barbara who saw fit to retire here after decades of public service. They chose Houston.

I've lived all over the world and have found Houston the most friendly and free place. Thanks to Houston's maligned "wildcatting" ways, the smaller guys actually have a chance to get ahead. Go look up the small business formation statistics in any other zoning strangled city and compare them to Houston. Compare the income to affordable housing. Ask the NAACP which city they named as their pick for the best place for African-American folks to live in. In the fun of mocking the city that tries too hard, all of that is missed.

Your writer is just sucking up to y'all, trying not to look provincial. It's easy to point the finger and make fun of cheesy, gutsy Houston. Go right ahead.

We'll laugh with you, and might even have a chuckle or two when you bitch about zoning variances and inspectors and why your nephew in the Bay Area can't afford his own house on a paltry 100k a year income.

-- Christopher Keeble

I should have listened to my instincts and skipped the article all together when I saw the "cover art" -- a picture of men in business suits and cowboy gear, riding horses and shooting guns into the air -- a portrayal so laughably absurd and so stereotypical as to be patently offensive. Unfortunately, morbid curiosity moved me to read Katharine Mieszkowski's article, "Houston, We Have a Problem," in its entirety.

The factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations in Ms. Mieszkowski's article are, quite simply, breathtaking in their scope. As a native Houstonian who has lived here for thirty-three years, I was so troubled by Ms. Mieszkowski's hatchet-job that my gut reaction was to prepare a detailed, point-by-point response.

Then, upon reflection, I realized that would be a complete waste of time. If Salon cared about factual accuracy, or even the appearance of a balanced, fair, and well-researched piece, it would not have printed the article. Indeed, the article is an example of Salon at its worst: agenda-oriented, biased reporting packaged as real journalism.

Still, I can't resist a couple of points. First, given the (dubious) theme of the article, one wonders: would zoning and higher local taxes have prevented the Enron bankruptcy? If Houston were a "destination" city -- where people came to "retire" or "visit" -- would those thousands of Enron employees still have a job? Doubtful, to put it kindly.

Second, statements like "Enron's demise is stirring debate....[b]ut not here in Houston," are so ridiculous that it's hard to even articulate a response. It's as if Ms. Mieszkowski has had her fingers stuck in her ears for the last three months (or maybe she's been off "visiting" a "destination" town, like Seattle). The truth is that people in this town talk of little else. Even in a city this large, almost everyone knows someone who has been affected by this enormous business disaster. No one knows the true impact of this crisis better than those of us who live here, and who see it happening to our friends and neighbors.

Third, in all the years I've lived and worked here, I've yet to meet any of these famous "wildcatters" or "criminals" who allegedly are so drawn to our "laissez-faire" town. Perhaps all the wildcatters just run with a different crowd than me. Maybe they're in a strip club in a strip mall, hanging out with a bunch of horse-riding, gun-blasting executives.

There's so much more to say, but to spend any more time on refutations would be to dignify this tripe, which I will not do. (Plus, I'm out of time to write because my horse needs a waterin' and I've got guns to clean 'fore night falls.)

One final question, Salon: what's next? A cutting-edge article blaming KMart's bankruptcy on the devil-may-care culture of its hometown?

Give me a break.

-- Alison Creed

So Houston is the city that "tries too hard." Obviously Katharine Mieszkowski, one of Houston's native daughters, didn't absorb that ethic when she lived there. Mieszkowski takes the slacker's way out, with a one-sided profile that demonstrates neither creativity nor probing. Of course, nothing Mieszkowski says about Houston is untrue -- and anyone who's lived there could write a hatchet job in his or her sleep.

It is easy to malign Houston -- the sweltering heat, the traffic snarls, the endless progression of ozone alert days in the summer. What a shame that Mieszkowski followed the mainstream and missed the opportunity to present Salon readers with something truly novel--a balanced profile of a quirky, self-effacing city that many people actually enjoy living in, despite the sprawl and the wildcatting ways.

Just one example of missed opportunities: Mieszkowski dismisses Houston's rich cultural arts organizations with the weak "All of [them], it should be noted, are funded almost entirely by private sources." So what? Public or private, when you're sitting in the plush red velvet chairs of Jones Hall or peering down from the cheap seats in the Wortham Center (homes of the Houston Symphony and Houston Grand Opera, respectively), it just doesn't matter. It certainly didn't matter in 1996 when the Alley Theatre won the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater.

The article begins atop a downtown Houston skyscraper, and Mieszkowski stays on that level for the rest of article. Had Mieszkowski bothered to descend to street level in her analysis, she would have found a much more complex and interesting picture, filled with funky art cars, the Orange Show, the Beer Can House, restaurants of every conceivable ethnicity (hey, there's a reason we're the fattest city!), the joy of living next to a new-age bookstore with a kitschy jewelry shop down the street, and the pleasant incongruity of visiting the Houston Zoo, for free, on Christmas Day, in 70 degree weather.

Houston's pride is "enough to make you want to skip town?" Ba-bye. And don't come back now, ya hear?

-- MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Salon Staff

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