Are Houston and San Francisco Competing Against Each Other?

Is Houston the nation's next emerging super city?
Is Houston the nation's next emerging super city?

Recently, Joel Kotkin, an urban studies professor at Chapman University in California, stirred up some controversy by contending that either San Francisco or Houston would be in the running to push out New York as America's pre-eminent city within a few years. Professor Kotkin went so far as to opine that Houston has an edge over San Francisco in this battle for future city dominance.

Predictably, people from San Francisco were furious at the suggestion that Houston might in some way be equal to the City by the Bay, much less superior. Online comments at SfGate likened Houston to a dog's butt, the inside of a dog's mouth (showing a curious fascination with dog anatomy), and essentially slagged our fair city as being Hell on Earth. In fact, one comment actually said that Hell was better. Sigh.

Kotkin's theory rests on a few key advantages he sees Houston possessing, and they're not particularly surprising. Houston has a lively economy, an enormous energy industry, and a relatively inexpensive cost of living for its residents. It also has a huge pool of engineers because of the petrochemical industry that's so entrenched in the area.

San Francisco gets points for having a large concentration of technology companies, but loses some of its edge because it is an expensive city to live in, according to Kotkin.

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One thing strikes me about these types of comparisons. It's really difficult to directly compare cities as different as Houston, San Francisco and New York. All three are magnificent in their own way, but it has really just been recently that Houston has begun to get the credit it deserves as a world-class city, whereas San Francisco and especially New York have long taken their status as top American cities for granted. The fact that people are beginning to add Houston to that list seems to threaten some people, which I find sad.

Kotkin claims that Houston is not a particularly pretty city, and the weather can be harsh. I disagree with his first point, and agree with the second -- "beauty" is a subjective call; humidity and heat are less so.

Houston is thriving on many fronts, with the nation's fastest-growing population, while San Francisco's has stayed pretty much the same, partially due to prohibitively high real estate prices.

And Houston has many factors that do seem to indicate that it is poised to rapidly become one of the country's most important cities over the next few decades.

First, there's the local economy, which is barreling along quite nicely. Houston is leading the nation in job creation and energy sector jobs, and it's also second to New York City in the number of Fortune 500 companies. Houston has an enormous amount of international trade, which further boosts our economy, and has a lower unemployment rate than the rest of the U.S. Add those things to the fact that the cost of living in H-Town is relatively low, and it's easy to see why so many people decide to settle here despite that famous heat and humidity.  

San Francisco is another contender.
San Francisco is another contender.

Houston has the Medical Center, which is the world's largest concentration of health-care organizations, and more green space and parks than any other cities besides Dallas and San Diego. The idea that Houston is merely some sterile concrete jungle is ridiculous.

Culturally, Houston is the most ethnically and racially diverse city in the country, recently having surpassed New York City. And that mix of cultures has made Houston an incredibly interesting place to live. We have one of the best food scenes in America, great museums and art galleries and unique features like The Orange Show Memorial, and a huge theater, performance and street art scene. When I describe Houston to people who've never been here or who have driven through the city but never really explored it, they are usually shocked to hear that H-Town isn't just some bland city full of unsophisticated stereotypes of urban cowboys or uneducated rednecks.

It always made me sad when I traveled around the rest of the United States to realize that a LOT of people living elsewhere formed their opinions about Houston from old episodes of Dallas or from unkind preconceptions about Texas in general.

And that's what's interesting about this recent trend of Houston getting compared favorably against other important American cities. Direct comparisons are kind of ridiculous. Houston, New York City and San Francisco are so unlike each other that people might as well compare cars, oranges and baseballs to each other. But what's interesting about these comparisons is that they're happening at all and that they seem to be happening more and more frequently. Houston is no longer being viewed as a place defined only by stereotypes about cowboys and oilmen, but is instead being seen as a trend-setting city that offers opportunities that other world-class cities do not.

I admit that I feel a twinge of hometown pride when I hear someone say that Houston is a better place for most people to live than New York or San Francisco, but that is born out of years of our being an underdog city, criticized for our excesses and failures instead of getting attention for the many things Houston gets right. But I also realize that those other cities are amazing places, too. Which is "best" is not the point to me; that all depends on who you ask and what their lifestyle demands, but what is refreshing and new is that these comparisons are happening at all, because just a few years ago it would have been unthinkable to hear Houston compared favorably with a town like San Francisco. That conversation would never have happened.

Most longtime Houstonians know that this city is pretty special. It's cool that the rest of the country and world is starting to recognize that and give credit where it is due.

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