Charlotte Burns: Texas trip, part one: Houston

I had visions of rolling ranches, big blue skies and the occasional oil drill. These notions are swiftly punctured upon arrival to Houston. It's a grey city and an endless urban sprawl. As we drive out of the airport, the dark clouds overhead promise thunder and rain while, on the ground, our first impression is formed by the oppressive freeways that squat over the landscape.

A room with a (grim) view

Our hotel is on the freeway and I abandon all intentions to swim each morning when I realize that the pool is in the carpark, with surround sound provided by the six lanes of traffic 15ft away. The view from the room is of a grimly industrial set of pylons across the street that will act as a landmark for the rest of our time in Houston (“Oh! We’re home!”)

The size of the state impresses itself in unusual ways. Texan cars are seemingly designed for tall Texans, which means that I, a feeble 5”1’, can't properly see over the steering wheel, no matter how high I raise the seat.

So far, so uninspiring. But, it quickly becomes clear that, while Houston isn't a pretty city, it is impressive.

It is a young city full of wealth: oil money, of course, but there is also a very large medical community and a sizeable amount of engineers (Nasa is nearby). The local paper, the Houston Chronicle, reflects the interests of these communities: the front page critique “overconfident” doctors, discusses gridlock on the US59 freeway and is concerned about the potential rise in the price of oil because of the Syrian crisis. A photo obtained from Nasa, which shows the world as a collage of pictures taken by people in 40 different nations, graces the back pages.

The politics are much more liberal than you might think. Everyone is proud to tell us about their lesbian Mayor, and there are copies of the Gay and Lesbian Yellow Pages in restaurant porches. Several pages of the paper are dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, including a full reprint of Martin Luther King’s momentous speech and a frank discussion about racism in America.

People in Houston have the confidence that wealth brings, and a can-do attitude (everyone we speak to seems to be building, planning and expanding). This is part of the fabric of the place: a rich history of philanthropy has resulted in some outstanding cultural pockets—a highlight is the Rothko Chapel, which is wonderful and oddly moving. But, more on the culture in our November issue—we’re here on a fact-finding mission for a special report on Texas that The Art Newspaper will produce that month.

While Houston confounds most of my naive expectations, one, thankfully, holds true. I am now the proud owner of genuine Texan cowboy boots.

Next stop, Marfa.

Published Wed, 28 Aug 2013 01:04:00 GMT

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