HOUSTON WITHOUT SNEERS
DESPITE THE CLUTTERED FREEWAYS AND WILTING HEAT, AMERICA'S FOURTH LARGEST CITY
IS A NO. 1 TOWN
By Alan Solomon Sunday, April 15, 2001
Houston may be the most disparaged of America's large cities. Detroit, an urban
tragedy, gets better press. Even Texans dis it.
"I like it better than Dallas," said a female Texan who works a few desks away
from mine. "But I wouldn't go there on vacation."
The woman is from Lubbock.
"Lubbock?" said Barbara Mendel of the Houston tourism office, who should be used
to this but isn't. "Come on . . . "
And Dallas people, who think their cows don't stink, sneer at the very word.
Here's the first thing most people don't realize: In the U.S., only New York,
Los Angeles and Chicago have more people than Houston's 1,953,631--which is
interesting statistically but meaningless touristically.
Most who visit the city, probably on business, are introduced to it on the two
freeways that creep downtown from George Bush (the Elder) Intercontinental
Airport -- It's an ugly introduction, a congested jumble of charmless malls and
pawn shops and car dealers and billboards and, yes, nudie bars and just
Truth is, Houston--more than a lot of cities--takes a little knowing, and,
having lived and worked there.
I know it a little. Even with sweat dripping down my arms, I like it a lot.
Everything that's great about great cities exists in Houston, if you look for
it. There's quality theater, first-rate restaurants in a mosaic of persuasions,
and major league baseball. There are museums, including an art museum with three
O'Keeffes and a roomful of Remingtons. There is shopping. There is history, and
there is greenery, and there is a theme park with roller coasters, and there is
a zoo and, if you hop into the car and drive beyond the sprawl, there's Texas.
A walking town? No. There's a port, but it's not for cruise ships and it's not
scenic; the closest thing to an in-town waterway is an unnavigable ditch called
Buffalo Bayou. There is no surviving grand 1920s movie palace. Its imperfect air
was an issue in the last presidential campaign. Its nearly abandoned Astrodome
introduced plastic grass, that blasphemic abomination, to baseball . . .
I know. I know all that. Houston is not Boston or New York or San Francisco,
certainly not Chicago -- but then, they aren't Houston.
So get ready for a whole mess of terrific things that make Houston and vicinity
worth a visit:
One of the few Houston experiences that actually encourages walking. Eight
museums and galleries right there (Fine Arts, Contemporary Arts, Natural
Sciences, Children's, Holocaust, Health and Medical Science, Jung Educational
Center, Rice University Art Gallery) plus the Houston Zoo (with an especially
fine primate collection) are clustered close enough to enjoy with one park of
Plus immense Hermann Park, for maybe some music (it's home of the free Miller
Outdoor Theater, with plays and concerts almost year-round) or a round of golf.
And a statue of Sam Houston pointing toward San Jacinto.
The entire district, which includes Mecom Fountain and a knockout live-oak-lined
stretch of Main Street, is as close to Paris as Houston gets. Which isn't that
close, but you get the idea.
The cheap line is to say that not long ago, dining out in Houston meant Tex-Mex,
barbecue and cafeterias -- but that would be a lie; in truth, there were always
steak houses, oysters, a French place or two, attempts at Italian, pretty good
Gulf seafood, crawfish in season and lots of Cantonese.
What's changed is they're doing all of the above better -- plus new immigrants
from Asia and the Americas have brought authentic new flavors with them, and
creative chefs are combining classic cuisines with local flavors. A new
generation of Houstonians, unafraid of the unfamiliar, are biting. This has
become a great restaurant town. (See end of article.)
More good news: Cafeterias may be going up in steam, but you still won't find
better Tex-Mex or barbecue anywhere.
Enron Field and downtown
The Astros abandoned the Astrodome for their new ballpark last season, and this
one's a retractable-roofed beauty. It has added momentum to the revival of a
downtown business district that five years ago was on life-support. From the
former Rice-Rittenhouse Hotel (where JFK spent his last night before Dallas) to
Enron a few blocks away, restaurants and upscale clubs have blossomed, and more
are on the way. The Rice, vacant for years, is now condos. New hotels are under
construction. Townhouse developments are going up.
It's about time.
(The Dome, by the way, still stands, dwarfed by a mammoth football stadium under
construction in the parking lot for the expansion Houston Texans in 2002. It's
standing, near Houston's Six Flags theme park, because the city is eyeing the
2012 Olympics and needs venues--the Summer Games--which sounds absurd, given the
weather. But maybe not. Reminded tourism's Mendel: "Atlanta did it.")
Space Center Houston
The first word spoken from the moon was "Houston." Houstonians like to tell you
that. Lots of Space Center Houston, at NASA's Johnson Space Center, is
interactive doohickeys for kids, but what's special: Mission Control, the one in
"The Right Stuff" and "Apollo 13," is here, you can see it, and it looks just
the way it's supposed to look. They also take you to the new Mission Control,
operational since 1996--and on my visit we watched personnel monitoring a
mission by the space shuttle Discovery. "A lot of times they have the payload
doors open and there's a camera there," said a young guide named Kendra. "And
you can see the Earth."
If space travel has lost its sense of wonder for you, this--and a
tingle-generating introductory film--will revive it. Big time.
It's only about an hour's drive, depending on traffic, from the center of
Houston to Galveston's Gulf beaches and Victorian remnants. The much-ballyhooed
downtown revitalization remains a work in progress, but its restaurants and
shops (and whatever's playing at the Grand 1894 Opera House) make an overnight
stay worth considering.
As for the miles-long beaches: The sand is the color of light brown sugar, the
water is warm, the access is easy, the style untrendy and the mood whatever you
bring to it.
Not long ago, Kemah and Seabrook, on opposite sides of the Seabrook Boat
Channel, were places to pick up cheap shrimp, oysters and snapper right off the
boats, plus a couple of pretty fair places to eat.
Seabrook hasn't changed all that much, except that it's been overwhelmed by
Kemah, which has been boardwalked (complete with carousel, ferris wheel and
carney games) and given over to corporate restaurants (Joe's Crab Shack,
Landry's Seafood House, etc.). Curmudgeons may curse the change, but it's a hit.
Down Texas Highway 146 on Dickinson Bayou (look for the parked shrimpers),
Hillman's Seafood Market is a cozy throwback, even if the adjacent restaurant is
gone. "Hurricane Alicia got us," said Mary Stapp, with her sisters a
third-generation owner of the place.
But check out the glistening piles of shrimp, buy some gumbo to take home, say
hi to Mary and mingle with the fishermen. It's close to what it used to be.
San Jacinto Battleground and Battleship Texas
The battleground is just a flat piece of land, but it was here in 1836 that Gen.
Sidney Sherman suggested the Texan army "remember the Alamo." They did: This
battle was over in 18 minutes. Santa Anna lost 630 men, Sam Houston lost nine,
and Texas became Texas.
On the spot, atop a small museum, is a 570-foot obelisk topped by a lone star.
"We're 15 feet higher than the Washington Monument," said a ticket lady. "It was
an accident on purpose, but we done it anyway." The battleship, anchored nearby,
saw action at Normandy on D-Day.
If you go, consider taking yourself on an . . .
`Urban Cowboy' tour
Yeah, this is a stretch, but that movie, at the time (1980), was so Houston, and
there are remnants. Mainly, we're talking refineries and other petrochemical
installations off Texas Highway 225 in Pasadena and Deer Park. Don't yawn: It's
something to see. "It's really beautiful at night, when it's all lit up," said a
security guard after gently suggesting I stop taking pictures of the
The movie centered around once-nearby Gilley's--"World's Largest Honkytonk"--but
the joint burned down in 1989; happily, the sign survived and was planted
outside a Pasadena restaurant called the Cowboy Ranch. Mickey Gilley was there
in December 1997 when the lights went back on. Jerry Mathers was there later.
On Gilley's original Spencer Highway site: a "24-hour Fitness" outlet and a
George Ranch Historical Park
Cowboy country, the rural kind, kicks in west of the Brazos River, maybe 30
minutes out of town, and that's where you'll find this working cattle ranch
owned by descendants of Albert Payton George.
The full story dates back to the 1830s, and some of the buildings almost that
far. "It's a much bigger story than `Giant' ever thought of being," said cowboy
Jim Hodges. You'll be treated to some of that, plus cowboys doing what cowboys
do--all traditional cowboying"--and you'll get a sense of ranch life before
helicopters and feedlots took away much of the romance.
It is a tight little bar on what's left of Old Market Square downtown, housed in
a crumbling brick building dating to 1860 that's standing on faith. Candles
build wax towers tall as termite mounds, the beer is cold, and its great jukebox
mixes equal doses of Piaf and Patsy Cline. It may be the best room ...
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