City of Angels

We talked last week with Los Angeles urban expert

Joel Kotkin

, author of a study for the Greater Houston Partnership on how to keep Houston growing. Kotkin told the GHP (Houston’s version of the chamber of commerce) they should not follow other cities who have tried to attract “the elite” – brainy young professionals – and instead focus on vocational education.

That message got somehow twisted into “Houston, you’re doing great,” but spinning has always been a local specialty.

(The initial Houston Chronicle story we referenced in the Hair Balls item, by the way, was followed June 12 by a column from the Chron’s Lisa Falkenberg which somehow portrayed the GHP as a fierce warrior on curbing air pollution: “Kotkin's argument seems regressive, or digressive, from the progress members of the Partnership have made in recent years to balance business concerns with concern about quality-of-life issues such as air quality, congestion and green space. This past [legislative] session, the Partnership helped the mayor lobby for a bill to improve Houston's air. It failed because of politics, not because of complacency.”)

Kotkin was trying to head out the door for an appointment, but he talked about Houston and other things:

Houston Press: What, we’re not hip?

JK: I’ve always said if you need a campaign to prove you’re hip and cool, you’re not. Personally I think Houston’s very cool. I don’t think that’s what’s going to drive people to Houston, but what I think is cool about Houston is what happens in the grassroots: The neighborhoods, the Harwin corridor, Montrose, all the little nooks and crannies of Houston are quite interesting. And I’m sure there’s many things I don’t know, even though I’ve been there lots of times.

I sort of make fun of the hip and cool thing, like you know Cleveland has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and they can’t get artists to go there. They have to do the awards in New York.

I’m sort of an old-fashioned social democrat in my politics – I say let’s deal with the basic stuff that actually matters to people, like parks for families or good schools or good jobs. I make a big deal in the report about the vocational educational system because we did interviews with employers and what they would say to us is “We don’t have problems getting well-educated people to come to Houston, [but] we can’t find blue-collar workers who can pass a drug test.” Or “We can’t find a machinist.” Sometimes it’s the more basic stuff that employers have problems with.

So I think Houston’s doing not that badly on attracting the well-educated. It gets better as you get into [people aged in their] 30s and 20s.

So is Houston hip and cool? I think it’s very interesting, I think it’s understudied, I think it’s underappreciated nationally and underappreciated by a lot of people who should know better, the people who live there…

Will there be a music scene to come out of Houston? You know, its conceivable. I’m not a great expert on that. But does Houston have a lot of amenities? You know, I went out with [friends] to a sushi bar on Westheimer. It was 8:30 at night, it was winter and I swear I thought I was on the West Side of Manhattan.

HP: Whaaat?

JK: There must be a yuppie influx going on on the west side of Houston that’s pretty interesting that I didn’t see five years ago, ten years ago. The way cities evolve is that cities become economic magnets and over time they begin to attract things they would not have otherwise, like money for the arts, or good restaurants, or a bar scene, and those are products of the economics. First your city gets some money, then people come and decide they want to stay there, and then they start caring about things like whether they’re going to get more parks.

HP: What about the pictures you used in your report? (Instead of endless, featureless suburbs, the report features Houston Proud shots of downtown Metro stations and standard chamber-of-commerce type shots.)

JK: I had no part – I actually told them. I would have not picked those pictures.

HP: Why?

JK: I would’ve picked some of them, but I would’ve shot the Chinese malls on Bellaire, I would’ve shot the Harwin corridor, I would’ve done more in Houston Heights, I would’ve done more neighborhoods, even the shopping district in The Woodlands. Because when I think of Houston I think of those images. Those other images [in the report], it’s kind of more – it’s beautiful, but they’re kind of commonplace that you would find in any city’s report. Every city has a few big buildings with a park near it. But my taste are not the tastes of everybody.

HP: There’s no -- you don’t show streets of suburban sprawl and strip malls.

JK: No, but I don’t know of any group or city that would pay for that kind of picture.

HP: But that’s a little closer to reality.

JK: It is, but you know, that’s a part of the reality everywhere. Even in New York City if you get outside Manhattan…

HP What do you think was the biggest criticism you had for Houston? It seems like you had a lot of “You’re not doing bad, keep doing what you’re doing,” which is what anyone wants to hear. What do you think was some criticism about Houston and things the people around it are not doing well?

JK: Houston, like every big city, and the country in general, has a huge class problem evolving. In other words, that we have an increasingly sophisticated technological society which is also exporting a lot of the blue-collar jobs and even some of the mid-level white-collar jobs, and so there are a lot of people who are going to have trouble reaching the middle-class American Dream. Now, that dream is closer in Houston because of the [housing] costs than it is in a lot of cities, and that’s a good thing.

Now, I think Houston – and I’ve said this repeatedly in the meetings with the GHP, and I think they get it – that this issue of addressing the ability of this next generation, with a lot of them being immigrants of course, to have upward mobility is the biggest challenge.

And we said that, we said it distinctly; if people don’t want to hear it, they don’t want to hear it. What we said was Houston had an interesting model for how you deal with these issues…In a place like Boston or San Francisco, the model is ethnic cleansing. You just drive the middle-class, working families out of town. You price them out and they’re gone. Takes care of that problem…

HP: Most cities are surrounded by discrete and independent suburbs, while Houston just grows and grows and annexes. Is that a factor of any kind?

JK: Yes, I think it’s a big factor. And it’s one of the reasons of hope for Houston because Houston – many of the older, industrial cities now are crammed into such small spaces that in most cases they’re just kind of destitute. You take Hartford [Connecticut] for instance – who the hell’s going to live in Hartford, where if you go 10 minutes out of town you’re living in a lovely Connecticut village? Then in the cities that are really attractive like Boston and San Francisco, they’re just gentrified, neighborhood after neighborhood with no place for the middle- and working-class families to go, they’re just pushed out. Houston has room for a lot of evolution to take place….

I think [Houston] is a very exciting place to be right now. I do think there are these fundamental issues, I think education number one, parks number two, that are two big future issues. And that’s what we said in the report; you know, I guess some people don’t know how to read. You know there’s nothing you can do about that. If people want to not see what you write, than there’s nothing I can do about that.

HP: You’re like a coach – “I can’t play the game for you.”

JK: That’s exactly right. No matter how much you say it. But I think there’s an element of Houston, when you’re talking about the hip and cool stuff, there’s an element of Houston that can’t take yes for an answer.

HP: How so?

JK: I just think there are people in Houston who just can’t see how anyone can say something nice about Houston. [They say] “Why would you want to be here, why would you live here?” And what’s funny is –

HP: Well, you know why that is – it’s because it’s just not a tourist city.

JK: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right, it’s not a tourist town. You know, it’s a place where people live and make a living. And it works, not perfectly, but pretty well. But it’s not a tourist town

HP: Which goes to self-image, you know, “Why doesn’t anyone want to come visit here?’

JK: Let me put it this way – would you rather be Houston or New Orleans? Everyone wanted to visit New Orleans, that’s a tourist town. Or even San Francisco, which has become such a weird place over the years.. as my friend says, it’s a cross between Carmel and Calcutta.

HP: And expensive.

JK: Unbelievably expensive. The highest concentration of inherited wealth in America of any major city…. So my sense is that there is a really a – [Houston] is a city where its intelligentsia in particular has a hard time with it. It reminds me a lot of LA when I first moved here 30 years ago, people didn’t think of LA as a culturally interesting place. It didn’t have good restaurants, it wasn’t hip. Over the last 30 years that has changed, and I think Houston in the next 20-30 years, it will come to realize it is really an emerging great city. It’s just going to take a while for anyone to recognize it.

HP: What was your single best place you went to here?

JK: In terms of….

HP: I don’t want to say “hipness” again, but in terms of someplace that was uniquely –

JK: I have a good friend, [architect] Tim Cisneros who lives in Houston Heights and I really liked his neighborhood. One thing I try to do, I don’t try to say “I like something, therefore it has to be good.” I was brought up in New York, I live in LA, I live in a 1930s ranch house in what is by LA standards an old neighborhood. That’s what I like. So if I was to live in Houston I would probably want to live in Houston Heights or Rice Village, although that might have too many academics for my taste….

HP: Have you ever been here in August?

JK: Yes.

HP: And you survived.

JK: Yes. My wife says I’m not quite human. I go to North Dakota in January and it doesn’t bother me. Part of it is living in LA, I go “It’s an experience.” But then I don’t have to live in it all the time. Look, weather and topography are not Houston’s strong points, and that’s why it’s not a tourist city. But I like it. I think it’s a very underappreciated, understudied city. It was very hard to get a lot of good historical information on Houston.

HP: There is no history, there’s just what’s happening now.

JK: What’s funny is there’s not a lot of good stuff on what’s happening now. I haven’t seen a lot of articles about something interesting going on in Houston. Yet it’s a city going through a huge boom and has obviously a lot of big issues, but I think it’s a very interesting city…[Houston receives disdain from] both the Eastern Establishment and the local elites.

HP: Disdain of the local elites of whom?

JK: Of Houston itself. You know, “If we can only be Boston by the Bayou.” It’s not gonna happen.

You are what you are, you build yourself on your own DNA. You know, to go send a study mission to Portland to look for models for Houston is an absurdity. It’s a complete absurdity.

HP: And yet it’s done.

JK: And yet it’s done, and people genuflect before it. Houston is what it is; LA is what it is. And you figure out how to make the best of what you are….You have to look at what your core issues are, whether it’s open space or education, and I think particularly education at the sort of vocational school, community college, social uplift part of the educational [system], that’s where I think there’s really a problem.

And let’s face it, there’s a lot of people in Houston who want to tell you about the art museum and the theater and I think that’s fine, that’s great. But that’s not the most critical issue facing Houston.

HP: Did you get much into the environment, pollution? It didn’t seem so.

JK: I didn’t go into great detail on that. I mentioned parks a lot. Because [pollution] is a whole `nother issue. Remember, I only had X amount of time and X amount of money and I was asked to essentially study economics and urban evolution. I’ve written a lot about the environment [elsewhere], but that’s not what I was doing here. I’ll be speaking a lot more about it next week [in Houston]…..I was not commissioned to work on that issue.

HP: The people you were working for, in terms of “economic engines,” they aren’t going to worry that “Gee, Pasadena puts a lot of gunk in the air.”

JK: I think they probably do. I will say that I did not find the people that I was working with to be unaware – and certainly, Bill White – to be unaware that pollution is a major issue….I’ve been saying privately to the fellows in Houston, at the Partnership, that you’ve got to get much more behind renewables, you’ve got to become an energy-conservation – a place that thinks about energy and does cutting-edge research on energy, not just, you know, oil and gas. But that’s long-term stuff.

HP: And did they listen to that?

JK: I think some of them are aware. My sense of it, and I’m not a great expert – but I do a lot of work in energy, also – is that there are elements of the energy industry that understand that and there are elements of the energy industry that don’t. Some companies, like BP and Shell, are at least involved in alternative energies; there are others that are far less so. One of the things I would certainly say to the energy-cluster people, the energy corridor, is that they’ve got to diversify more because other parts of the country [are].

-- Richard Connelly

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