"Houston is a cruel, crazy town on a filthy river in east Texas with no zoning laws and a culture of sex, money and violence. It's a shabby, sprawling metropolis ruled by brazen women, crooked cops and super-rich pansexual cowboys who live by the code of the west—which can mean just about anything you need it to mean, in a pinch."''
This quote from a 2004 article by the late Hunter S. Thompson, sprawled across a huge sign at the Final Four Fan Fest last weekend, caused a mixture of glee and consternation among folks on Facebook, who either loved it or failed to understand the gonzo journalist's brand of dark humor. "It's funny how half of the people are like 'fuck yeah Houston baby!' And take it as a compliment and the others are 'man fuck that dude he don't know my city at all,'" opined one social media commenter. Of course, for Thompson, this was the highest of praise.
More important, it underscores a shift in the way Houstonians view our city. We have written on numerous occasions about the city's awkward attempts at branding itself and protecting our image. It has rarely gone well. From the Golden Buckle of the Southwest to The City With No Limits, it has been a struggle to convince outsiders that Thompson's quote, in a much more literal sense than he intended, wasn't how we should be defined.
More than a decade ago, a small ad agency came up with a bizarre and fascinating way to explain Houston through a campaign called "Houston: It's Worth It." The basic premise being that, despite the humidity, flooding, roaches and general lack of beauty, Houston is a damn fine place to call home. Naturally, it didn't gain traction within official channels because no one in the convention industry thought oil tycoons and high-society types would get the joke.
The underground swell of support, however, was undeniable because it tapped into a feeling many natives had been trying to relate to friends and relatives who thought us crazy for staying here. For as long as we can remember, we apologized for being Houstonians and tried to explain why we would choose to live in this godforsaken "Hellhole," as the front-page bold type of the New York Post once described us. When we first heard about this new way of seeing our city and ourselves, it resonated. We still said we were sorry, but now it emerged as sarcastic invective rather than a demurring apology.
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Here we are in 2016 having completed our second Final Four in the past five years and on the cusp of hosting yet another Super Bowl, with Thompson's quote, dripping with "it's worth it" irony, plastered on a sign two stories high inside a festival where people from all over the country would gather. Instead of some syrupy affirmation or lame slogan, we hoisted up a declaration: This is a damn cool place and you are lucky to be hanging with us.
It would appear the seeds of that first self-deprecating marketing campaign have finally germinated and, if Houston's boom in both population and popularity is any indication, it's working. We have managed to change not just our city, but the attitudes we harbor toward it. We don't need to explain ourselves to anyone or offer atonement for any of our sins. We are the birthplace of space travel and the artificial heart. We dug a ditch that became the biggest port in America, for Christ's sake.
There are many in positions of power who, despite the dramatic changes all around us, would prefer we try to be clever, focus on the institutions that have sustained us for decades like energy and NASA, and continue to let people know that while we aren't perfect, gosh darn it, we are trying. That isn't a message worthy of Houston (and damn sure not Texas). But that quote from Hunter S. Thompson very well might be.
Thompson's humor is probably too subtle for some, but the idea that how he described us could "mean just about anything you need it to mean, in a pinch" characterizes Houston about as accurately as any human ever has. We can be anything we want, so why not finally try being ourselves?