HIWI

At parties, we talk about Houston and our observations always match: it’s an easy place to live, we never expected to stay, two years and we’re outta here, nobody knows about what a great city it is, you’d never suspect just from a short visit etc. Everybody feels these things, especially the Convention and Visitors Bureau, who keep concocting ever more insipid city-marketing campaigns to combat them, never playing up the city’s real appeal: swamp culture capital of the USA.

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Bald Cypress-Water Tupelo Swamp

I’m not talking about Louisiana or Florida swamp culture, that romantic gumbo of egrets, alligators and ghost stories; I’m talking rusting barges in the ship channel and glass towers with three sub-basements full of sewage.

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Highway 59 during Tropical Storm Alison, 2001.

I’m talking about a landscape so devoid of charm that it’s best feature is the improvements people have made upon it. I’m talking about an insecure, greedy, trash culture that throws itself away every couple of decades. With the nearest scenic bit at least a couple hours drive, it behooves us here in Houston to make our own spectacles. It’s no accident that our greatest monuments are all either recycled junk like the Beer Can house and other sheet-metal sheds re-imagined as high architecture, or loony visions like the Astrodome or the Orange Show, made by people who should have known better, but had no generally recognized aesthetic to stop them.

 

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Astrodome, 1965

Now, I love old barns, mid-century diners and scrimshaw just as much as the next guy, but you can get those anywhere. The greatest thing about Houston is that there’s no precedent, no generally recognized idea of what it’s supposed to be. Sure, that makes it difficult to pitch the city in a 10-second sound bite, but that’s why I’m here.

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Tiger Jeep w/ optional flamethrower

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A giant Archimedes’ screw designed to pump rainwater out of Texas City, 1980

also by Bill Davenport

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4 responses to “HIWI”

  1. go listen to some screwtapes billy.

  2. Hi Bill,
    Hmmm, well, Houston was always a little “scabby”…a word I made up to describe a city with too many new (and ugly) buildings and not enough beautiful old rustic architecture. We’re hoping to relocate there though, and I was looking for something (silly me!) akin to the Sawdust Art Festival here in California. You know, something that runs almost year round, or if you are a resident, you can get a booth for a 10 week stint in summer. What was I thinking????? I only saw a couple of weekend festivals! Is that it besides museum shows? Surely not. I hope you have some good news for me!
    –Sheri

  3. This is about as interesting as Eleanor William’s “collecting” article, and you still have not answered Sheri.

  4. Bill,

    I’m commenting on something written a month ago, not that time having passed makes your observation any less trenchant. The core element in your observation, it seems to me, is the landscape of Houston. Call it Nature. Culture must be built on top of Nature, and Culture is shaped by the conditions prescribed by local conditions of Nature.

    Houston is a swamp. The idea of building anything relatively permanent on top of a swamp is, to say the least, problematic. It may be an unspoken rule among builders in Houston that tiltwall shopping centers and sheetrock clusterfuck apartment complexes are appropriate for a geology that proscribes durability and a deep sense of history. Get in and get out. Take the money and run. If that sounds like private contractors doing business with the Bush Administration, well, that’s part of the picture too.

    I left Houston after many, many years, and I am in a place that is so vastly different, with a deep sense of history and a natural world that has supported a deeper culture. That culture has its flaws and its problems, of course (it doesn’t have as much money as Houston), but it has allowed me to reconsider my past back there. The big thing for me here is the landscape. I am very attached to it in a way that is simply impossible in a swamp. I admire so many artists in Houston for building their lives on that squishy, stinky swamp. I don’t know whether that is brave, naive, stupid, or some mysterious combination of all three. In the end though, for me, it did not work. I had to leave.

    My best wishes to all.

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