City Portrait: Houston, Texas
Through busts or booms, Houston has always looked forward. And today, from food to fine art, the biggest city in Texas is humming
In the spring of 1987, my editors at U.S. News & World Report sent me to Houston to get the reaction of that city’s elite to a recent front-page piece in the Wall Street Journal. The city was still reeling from the oil bust, and the paper painted a grim picture—there was mention of a suicide, I think, as well as a description of a downtown so empty tumbleweeds might any minute be blowing through it.
I’d barely landed when my good friends George and Nancy Peterkin whisked me off to the Contemporary Arts Museum’s annual fund-raising gala. On the plane, I’d studied up by reading a pile of clips from the Houston Chronicle, one of which talked about the effect of the bust on the city’s arts community: “It was the year the city bit the tarmac economically, but…there is no sign that anyone has turned in his track shoes.” The CAMH’s Balinese Ball was definitely a case in point.
There were Balinese dancers, models painted gold, and more orchids than I’d ever seen in my life. The invitation had said something like “sarong optional,” and a great many of the well-toned women of Houston did, in fact, opt—combining artfully arranged bits of brightly colored silk with boatloads of diamonds. One woman whose brand-new ten-carat ring was for “ten years of marriage, honey,” said she’d been so upset by the WSJ article—which she’d read a couple of days earlier on an Aspen ski lift—that she’d skied right off the mountain and flown directly home. It was the tumbleweed thing that had gotten her—lest anyone think the city was actually empty, she was duty bound to come back and add herself to the number of good citizens who were ready to stick around and fight in the face of adversity and, more important, bad press.
I had known my own story would write itself, and I’d also known I would find a populace raring to get back on its feet. Barely two years after my visit, a snarky piece about how the Houstonians had already managed to mythologize the bust, which they “served up larger than life,” appeared in the New York Times. “The latest lore shapes up like this: The bust was a trial for Texans, who showed they could take it when it could have killed folks from a lesser state, and they came out of the experience better and stronger than ever.”