Last week PolicyMic, a website dedicated to the millennial generation, posted a list entitled "15 Cities for Creative 20-Somethings That Aren't New York or Los Angeles." The list includes some obvious choices, Ashville, NC, Portland, OR, and Nashville, TN, among others. A glaring omission from the list is our very own H-Town. That is not to say that Texas is completely left off; our "weird" neighbor made the cut at No. 4.
According to author Elyssa Goldberg, Austin is a good place for creatives because it's affordable and easy to live in, which makes me wonder if Goldberg wrote this list ten years ago as Austin's real estate market just reportedly hit an all-time high.
But before I get all hot and bothered over how Austin made this list and Houston did not, I think it's worth exploring why that may be. Branding.
Let me jump back a bit first. I moved to Houston almost seven years ago now leaving what many would call the capitol of artsy-fartsy and cool: Williamsburg, Brooklyn (For the record, it's not). When my now husband was offered the move through his company, our friends thought we were insane. "Houston?" they said. "No, you mean Austin." Nope. Houston.
What tended to follow were jokes about all of the things we would have "a problem" with - horse manure being a big one.
In their defense, they knew nothing about the city; neither did, I for that matter. Our first trip down, we walked 19th Street and aimlessly searched for Montrose, which we thought was called Neartown because that's what Wikipedia says. By and large we were happily surprised: no cows, no hay piles. I am not lying when I say that as New Yorkers we expected to find little but farmland with a few DQs scattered through.
As I got to know the city more, I was further surprised and shared this news back east. Houston is a really cool, artsy town! And not only is Houston filled with art and culture, but people are skilled at their crafts and much of the community supports its artists. "Much" of the community.
Despite being the fourth (going on third) largest city in the entire country, Houston's art community feels very small town. As I have had the privilege to be a part of and write about the arts here, I have found a support and acceptance among different disciplines, as well as within specific fields. Personally, I have had much more success as an artist here than I ever did in New York. There are a million Abby Koenigs in New York, in Houston there are only a few. I have screamed Houston's artistic merits from the rooftops, but the thing is, people aren't listening. The national press specifically doesn't seem to want to hear about Houston for some reason. And therein lies the real problem Houston has. This story continues on the next page.
Now back to this list. To be sure, this list is a personal opinion. It is not based in statistical facts or socioeconomic data; at least there is no mention of this. The cities listed are those that are well known to be havens of creativity, inexpensive to live in, having spawned hipster bands, famous art-centric events, foodie culture and/or city-wide support for the arts. With the exception of Miami, which is very expensive to live in, none of the cities are that surprising.
Given these unspoken check points, why not Houston? Houston is still relatively cheap to live (Austin's median home cost is $239,000, while Houston's is currently $195,000), we may be lacking in the hipster band category, but we've got a few names on the national circuit and our hip hop kills. Food culture? Hello, the New York Times can't stop writing about our chefs, and our mayor has put the city's money where its arts' mouth is with various city initiatives including the "Houston Is Inspired" campaign. So, what the F? Why don't young creatives follow Houston's yellow brick road? And, furthermore, what can we do about it?
From an insiders perspective it feels like we are doing a lot to attract young artists, but perhaps from an outsiders perspective we are not.
"Houston is a fantastic city for an artist who is a self starter," says Jenni Rebecca Stephenson, executive director of Fresh Arts. "But if you are not interested in forging those roads yourself, it's difficult."
Stephenson's organization is dedicated to educating artists to help themselves in terms of legalities, marketing and fundraising. Additionally, Fresh Arts sponsors various exhibitions, runs a gallery and puts together one of the city's biggest craft/art sale, WHAM. But even with the support that Fresh Arts does, Stephenson says there needs to be more.
"Houston has to get serious if we want to foster the more emerging artists," she says. "Some of the larger institutions need to change their focus by paying individual artists more, being more mindful of bringing emerging artists up the ranks. Giving them more opportunities."
While there are some opportunities from the larger organizations in town to support fledgling and mid-level arts organizations, Stephenson wonders where they go after they get out of these programs? What opportunities are there after you hit a certain threshold?
The answer seems to be that you leave Houston.
Or maybe you don't. Emily Hynds is the co-creative director of BooTown. BooTown is one of those arts organizations you read about in cities that you deem to be cooler than your own. They run the increasingly popular Grown-Up Storytime. Additionally, BooTown hosts a series of Benshi shows, where they re-cut popular movies and dub them over live, as well as creating puppet shows such as their upcoming Platahontas. Hynds is a born and raised Texan; she got her degree in theater from the University of Houston. But unlike many of her 20-something artist friends, when it came time to go be creative, Hynds thought that Houston was the best place to do that.
"Once BooTown got going," says Hynds, "it became clear that we couldn't do what we were doing in a city like New York or LA and I have never been happier that I stayed here." Hynds echoed my sentiments that Houston is a big, little city or a little big city, perhaps. "There is such a good, home grown and down to earth theater community here," she continues, "and if you can come to terms with the fact that you won't get 'discovered,' there is some really good art to be made and the opportunity to make it yourself."
But are people getting discovered in Portland, OR or Austin, TX? Sure. And maybe that's why Houston can't seem to find its way into the cool kids' club? We have Beyonce, they have The Decemberists. Some may argue that this alone should make Houston a bigger draw, but then, Beyonce up and moved to New York and The Decemberists still eat regularly at Voodoo Doughnuts.
Hynds' love of Houston may have to do with her familiarity with they type of city it is and how it supports the type of work she wants to do, but is Houston doing a good job of getting its awesomeness out there? The city's massive advertising campaign "Houston Is..." features Houston artists from classical music to theater to puppetry to fine arts to graffiti. It's a gorgeous campaign with some of the city's finest, but, and forgive me if I'm wrong, none of these artists are in their 20s. This makes me wonder: Is Houston even looking to attract young creative types?
There are various other logistical factors that make a city more welcoming to a younger cohort that Houston doesn't have, and the PolicyMic list touches on many of them. Several of the cities mentioned are/were in recent economic downturns. While it may be odd to think that cities with high unemployment rates would be a draw, these tend to be destinations that younger people can build communities out of; rent is cheap, empty spaces are plentiful. So maybe Houston's positive economy is a drawback to young artists. I know, it sounds counterintuitive.
And then of course there is transportation. "Public transportation is a real issue here," says Stephenson.
A city that has the infrastructure to get artists from point A to B cheaply and effectively is certainly a plus. Not everyone can afford a car.
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But at the end of the day, Hynds thinks that maybe the reason Houston isn't attracting creative types is because of the fact that its money is dripping in oil.
"I think Houston has a bad rep for being an oil and gas town," Hynds says, "but big industries like that and the medical and shipping industries are part of what makes Houston a metropolis that has tons of jobs to offer."
Bad rep yes, but overcoming that is an issue of branding, which I think is at the heart of it all. For a city whose best known attribute is "having a problem," if we who live here and love it so much want it to flourish artistically on a national scale, maybe that's the problem that needs fixing. That being said, I see Houston blowing up artistically in five to ten years, but then that will cause a whole new set of problems.
Abby Koenig's new play "Spaghetti Code" opens July 12 at PJ's Bar.