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Thirteen things I'll miss about Houston

Although it is the duty of every good Austinite to despise our ungainly neighbor to the east, I have to admit it: I like Houston. Had I not been dragged there kicking and screaming I never would have known that there's anything to like. Houston's charms are so hidden that you pretty much have to be a long-time resident to find them, reversing the old saw about the nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there. I ended up living in the Houston area for ten years and have spent another ten traveling there once or twice a month on business. That arrangement has ended (see below) and I'm not sure when I'll be back. So at the risk of having my Keep Austin Weird sticker revoked, here are thirteen things I'll miss about Houston:

  1. Art. One of the few things for which Houston can credibly muster civic pride. I'm not that fond of the huge and impersonal MFAH even though it has some great shows. I have more affection for its insouciant neighbor the CAMH and its still rowdier rival across town, Diverse Works. For every cold minimalist installation of the kind that makes people hate contemporary art, they come up with something engaging like The Art Guys or Diverse Works' huge collage show (with its X-rated "Houston Prod" room showing what those skyscrapers are really all about). I also love the Menil Collection, a gorgeous setting for a broad but personal collection focusing on non-western art and the surrealists. And there's FotoFest, a biennial orgy of thousands upon thousands of photographs -- I think it's changed somewhat but I first knew it when it took over the entire convention center, a concentration of art which should have killed us on the spot.
  2. More art. The Orange Show. The Beer Can House. Pigdom. The Art Car Parade and Museum. Houston is a city of outsiders and they do art, too. You want to keep someplace weird? How about a house covered with a hard-drinking family's twenty-year collection of beer cans? That's weird.
  3. El Paraíso. This little-known restaurant hidden away in deepest Montrose has been serving the best plate of enchiladas verdes, with real Mexican cheese, for twenty years now. People swear by their bandera mexicana and entomatadas, too. I've even learned to like their heavy, browned homemade chips, but I know that's pushing things. They've tarted the place up with faux marble inside and pink paint outside but the food is still the same. El Paraíso, 2320 Crocker Street at Fairview (cattycorner from Ripcord, if that helps).
  4. Brazos Bookstore. The last good independent literary bookstore in Texas. Old-time Austinites wistfully remember Garner & Smith; well, Brazos is better, and what's more it's still alive and kicking. Brazos offers top-notch readings in an intimate space; a magazine selection broader than the mega-stores without having to wade through six hundred glamor titles to find the good stuff; a stunning specialty section for architecture and design; and long-time staff who know the books and the customers. Let's hope the confluence of River Oaks/West U money and Rice/UH Writing Program brains that has kept the place afloat continues to do so.
  5. Strip malls. Another irresistible Austin comparison: here we pride ourselves on being multicultural, which means that we globetrotting xenophiles enthusiastically support institutions like the Indian Classical Music Circle or the Carnaval Brasileiro. But Houston is multicultural and doesn't need a bunch of gringos to validate it. Nowhere is this more evident than in Houston's strip malls of mom & pop businesses representing every culture on the globe. The archetypes are perhaps the Little India of Hillcroft between 59 and Westpark and the miles of Vietnamese and Chinese shopping centers along Bellaire west of 59. But truth is, you can hardly find a stretch of low- to midscale retail outside the loop which doesn't have a Korean tattoo parlor next to a pupusería next to a Nigerian travel agent next to a sari shop next to a Thai drive-through next to a santería supplier.
  6. Istanbul Grill. The other place I end up eating on almost every Houston trip. It's Turkish food, not entirely unlike the cuisine of its Arab or (shh! don't tell anyone I said it!) Greek neighbors, but so juicy and flavorful, with some surprises on the menu besides my staple kofta kebab. Very reasonably priced for its toney location, too. Istanbul Grill, 5613 Morningside in Rice Village.
  7. Flea markets. Who doesn't like a flea market? But the great thing about Houston flea markets is their unpredictability. Austin flea markets at this point are predominantly a hispanic institution selling the same inexpensive clothes, CDs, tools and auto parts at every booth -- fun enough, but offering few surprises once you've been to a couple. But in Houston there's a wider variety of micro-businesses selling to a more specialized audience. Like the booth with used musical instruments piled to the warehouse ceiling, some so obscure that I wouldn't be surprised to find a contrabass sarrusophone or a rauschpfeife in there. Or the guy around the corner selling fine scientific glassware, one hopes to junior high school teachers and not to meth labs. Or the booth I saw once selling high-quality Texas driver's licenses while you wait, where the staff kept one hand under the counter at all times, presumably on the shotgun.
  8. No zoning. Okay, this one's crazy from a neighborhoods-are-king and Barton-Springs-eternal kind of guy. But isn't it refreshing that there's one big city in this country that will let you put a toxic waste dump next door to a day care center just because you feel like it?
  9. Restaurants. Did I mention food or restaurants anywhere in all of this? Yes? Well I can't say it often enough. Houston has more restaurants per capita than anywhere in the country. Put together impossible dinnertime gridlock (who can get home in time to cook?) and the diversity I keep harping on and you've got a recipe for some mighty fine eating.
  10. The Rice campus. There may be a prettier college campus in Texas, but I haven't seen it. It's all the more remarkable that they've kept it that way through a decade-long building spree.
  11. Grant's Palm Court Inn. My home away from home for all these years. Even in the bad times when all the other South Main motels had crack dealers and (ahem) professional ladies operating on the premises, the Grant Motor Inn managed to stay clean, safe, and affordable. Squint a bit and it takes you back to the day when the Astrodome was the seventh wonder of the world; if it were in Austin somebody would have put in a martini lounge by the pool and quintupled the prices. Palm Court Inn, 8200 South Main, 800-255-8904.
  12. KPFT and KTRU. I can't stand KPFT's insipid "Americana" music programming, and all too often its lefty conspiracy-theorist ranters give the progressive cause a bad name. But some of the political programming like Amy Goodman's Democracy Now is still worth listening to, and I love the unapologetic geekery of Technology Bytes. Besides, KPFT will always be dear to me because the bastards took it away and the listeners took it back. As for KTRU, F-word radio from Rice University, it is what student radio ought to be: completely random. Oh, and I love what Houstonians do with KTRU bumper stickers.
  13. The Mason Road Starbucks, Katy. There should be a big sign on westbound I-10: "Last mocha for 150 miles!" It's fueled me on many a late night trip back home to Austin. (Although I'm told there's also one at the Katy Mills Mall, a couple of miles further west.)

Why am I no longer traveling to Houston? Well, last Tuesday I turned in my ID and said my farewell to Rice, where I've worked for the past thirteen years, ten of them as a telecommuter. I'll be going back to school, specifically the master's program at UT's iSchool. I'm excited. More about that soon, probably in my other blog.

So as I walked out of Rice's sallyport in the filtered December afternoon sun (I don't recall whether Goodby Mr. Chips had a theme song, but if it did it should have been playing), one consolation occurred to me:

At least I don't have to put up with the %^#@*!!! Houston climate any more!

travel 2004.12.14 link