Three Things That Must Change If Houston Is Ever to Be Considered a Great City

I love Houston, I really really do. And I've spent considerable time boosting the positive things about our nation's fourth-largest city, as well as defending it against the unfounded criticisms that a considerable number of people happily hurl at it. But there are some legitimate problems with Houston, and they're serious ones. Some would say that they are among a few real issues that keep Houston from becoming one of the United States's truly great cities, and for people who love this place, these really aren't problems that can be ignored forever. Let's look at a few of them.

3. We Need a Better Public Transit System.

It's almost blasphemous to suggest that many residents of Houston might choose to get around town without driving a car if that were possible, and it is to an extent — if a person doesn't mind the huge pain in the ass that's involved in getting from one place to another with our current transit system. The greater Houston area covers more than 600 square miles, yet commuters are stuck either driving anywhere they want to go, or taking a bus or a street-level train system that still doesn't really connect much of anything years after its unveiling. A proposal to build a high-speed train connecting Houston to Dallas wants to dump travelers out near Northwest Mall instead of downtown. That's the kind of typical Houston plan for moving people around that residents get stuck with.

And I'm no transit expert — I realize that these things are incredibly complex. But seriously? A person should be able to get around more easily in a great city, or even entertain the bizarre notion of not needing to own a car, without that meaning "You'll never get to go anywhere" or "Enjoy spending half your day on a bus." Houston residents deserve better than the transit system we have now.

Generic town homes being built in Houston's historic Freedmen's Town neighborhood.EXPAND
Generic town homes being built in Houston's historic Freedmen's Town neighborhood.
Photo by Patrick Feller

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2. We Need More Responsible Development.

Living in Houston made me learn to distrust and dislike a lot of developers. Seeing entire older neighborhoods completely change in character as nearly identical McMansions and "luxury" town homes started sprouting up like weeds left a lingering bad taste in my mouth. Houston, as most of us know, is the largest American city that lacks zoning, and it's famously friendly with developers eager to raze older businesses and homes to make way for something new. The mere suggestion that perhaps we should have more regulations controlling development in this city is enough to make some people scream bloody murder about "no one having a right to tell them what to do with their land." 

The more I see, the more I think that yes, Houston will always be a city eager to reinvent itself from time to time; that's part of its character, and a good part. But that doesn't mean that certain older neighborhoods shouldn't be protected and preserved, it doesn't mean that landmark businesses of certain kinds should constantly be under threat of demolition, and it doesn't mean that gross developers with dollar signs in their eyes should have quite the free rein they do.

Now that we're bouncing back from another catastrophic flood, one has to wonder if the enormous building boom of the previous decade made the effects of the deluge worse? An awful lot of concrete got poured, and it covered a lot of previously uncovered ground.

These are complex issues that are connected, and Houston needs to do better.

1. We Must Have a HERO Ordinance.

Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance, or "HERO," would've "prohibited discrimination in city employment and services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment, and housing based on an individual's sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy." The fact that it got shot down by Houston voters last year sickens me and many others who realize that fear and discrimination are not what our city is about.

The fact that a few creeps stirred up irrational fears that HERO would allow predatory men to stalk women and girls in restrooms, and influenced enough Houstonians to vote against an anti-discrimination ordinance, is shameful. Houston is now tarred by the fact that not only don't we have the type of anti-discrimination ordinance that is common around this country, but our citizenry actively voted one down. Well done, dipshits.

Those individuals who don't care how that makes us look — the folks who are so content in their bigotry and fear that they resist positive societal change, and don't care what others think — probably should. Because while the bogeyman of dress-wearing sex offenders stalking little girls isn't real, the potential negative consequences of Houston's voting against an anti-discrimination ordinance are. More and more businesses are passing on setting up shop in cities that allow discrimination, and even rock stars like Bruce Springsteen have cancelled concerts in those places. In short, while not allowing discrimination based on bigotry or fear is the moral choice for a city like Houston, allowing discrimination is bad for its image, and bad for business.

The vote against HERO makes it hard for me to tell others how great Houston is, because no amount of bragging about the city's diversity or openness to people of all backgrounds really sounds convincing when you have to add, "Oh yeah, we voted against an anti-discrimination ordinance because stupid people were worried that protections for transgendered folks would allow sex offenders access to women and girls."

So if there's any one true obstacle to Houston achieving "great city" status, it's that. The other issues are problems, but they're problems we can eventually fix. None of it will matter, though, unless we make sure that Houston protects the rights of all of its citizens and don't allow fear or hatred to shape our city's future.


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