A few years ago, through no fault or even real planning on our part, my family and I moved to Houston. My husband had worked in the oil and gas industry for most of his career, so you might wonder how it had not happened sooner. But we had called Dallas home for seventeen years, were happy enough making the occasional trip south for business or pleasure, and the idea of moving had never occurred to us. Until it did.
In early 2013, as the economy shifted somewhat and my husband’s client list narrowed, we found ourselves faced with the choice between him traveling for work every week, leaving me a single mom Monday through Friday, or relocating the family to Houston and being together full time. It did not take us long to make the difficult, but clearly obvious, decision to move.
Having lived in another large city in this great state, just a few hours up the highway, you would think that the transition would have been an easy one for us. Is not the one city very much like the other? Couldn’t we simply find a replacement for everything we had in Dallas — house, neighborhood, school, church, community, favorite restaurant, etc. — and voila` we would be instantly settled in our new home? This was not exactly the case, as we soon discovered.
Houston is like no other city I have ever visited. Only an hour from the Gulf Coast, there is a definite hint of the sea in the air, carrying with it all the amenities of a seaside vibe. Contrastingly, however, it is also the home of a thriving business market, teeming with banking, industry, oil and gas, and space-age technology. Adding yet another layer to this onion we call Houston is the vibrant arts, music and food scene, driven in no small part by this unique combination of factors that continue to draw people from around the country and the world in no small numbers.
So if you, like us, have found yourself sojourning in the Bayou City, either by force, by choice, or by accident of economy, here is our guide to Houston that might help you make the transition with a little more ease.
A Sojourner’s Guide to Houston
First of all, let your eyes adjust. Someone accustomed to rows and rows of perfectly planned landscaping and city-wide beautification mandates may at first, see a jungle. But look beyond and below the overgrowth and you will see there is a showcase of natural beauty here. Ima Hogg knew this well when she built her home and gardens near Bayou Bend and started what became known as the River Oaks neighborhood. One glimpse of this place and you will wonder why they didn’t put it in the brochure.
Once you get used to the look of the city, embrace it, taste it, experience it. Houston is a user-friendly place, so go out and use it. The Museum of Fine Arts, The Menil Collection, and the Jung Center are unique and thought-provoking. The Wortham, Jones Hall, Alley Theatre and the Hobby Center are calendars you will want to check often. The Art Car Parade and The Orange Show are two examples of things you’ve never seen before. The Space Center, Downtown, and top-notch universities. These things are not just reserved for a certain elite class of citizen. They are for all of us — they are for you.
Take a creative writing class at the Glasscock School of Continuing Education at Rice University, or stroll through the University of Houston Downtown’s campus. Spend a Saturday evening sitting on the lawn at Discovery Green listening to a local group of pan-flute players or shopping at the downtown flea market. Catch a baseball game, then stop in at a blues concert on the way to your car. Wake up in a high-rise and have your feet in the ocean by brunch. Choose from world famous eateries like The Grove, Ox Heart, and Underbelly or local favorites such as Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, The Breakfast Klub, or Ruggles and you will never have to eat in the same great restaurant twice. What makes it even better is that you can ride your bike to all of them.
These are all privileges granted to the Houstonian. You would be wise to check the forecast, though, before making plans of any kind. It rains here. It rains a lot. Prepare for it. Buy weather gear. Keep it in your car.
You also need to know that neighborhoods here have names. This will become a very important piece of information when trying to get around town. You must know your Woodland Heights from your Historic Heights, and understand that when someone says Greater Heights they could be talking about Shady Acres or even Timbergrove. Know your Midtown from your Neartown and your Montrose from your Upper Kirby. Braeswood and Bellaire are not the same things, and West Houston could refer to anything west of Tanglewood. Also, you can’t just say Memorial. You have to say “out in” first, as in “We live out in Memorial.”
There is Houston inside the loop, and there is Houston outside the loop. Few people know both. You probably should pick one and stick with it. The city inside contains a world’s worth of experiences, but the suburbs are beautiful. Katy, The Woodlands, Sugar Land, Pearland, Spring, Kingwood. If you want a large house and don’t mind a commute, you have thousands to choose from.
Speaking of choices, the cultural diversity here is celebrated and unrivaled. Houston is the number one city for diversity in the entire nation, due to many contributing factors. A very large part of it can be attributed to the mostly “open arms” policies toward immigration over the city’s history. Earning the nickname “The Big Heart” following Hurricane Katrina, Houston received thousands of displaced and homeless Southerners, many from Louisiana, who fled the storm’s devastating effects along the Gulf Coast. We may also see another large population boost as Syrian refugees are resettled in the U.S. over the next several years. In spite of nationwide controversy on this subject, the attitude of the typical Houstonian is, “Bring it on!”
On the downside of things, Houston is really a very dirty city. In the absence of large- scale zoning hindrances, the economy has been free to grow and develop into a healthy environment for entrepreneurship and the arts. But the lack of laws requiring adult businesses such as bars and sex shops to be kept in specified districts, and deficient regulations mandating a standard of cleanliness, have all contributed to a general unsightliness around the city, as well as a fair amount of trash. Additionally, this Big Heart has a very large homeless population. While that number seems to be dropping, according to a recent report, there are still upwards of 5,000 people sleeping either in shelters or on the streets of Houston on any given night, and that carries problems for a city from both a management and a sanitation perspective.
Do not let any of this persuade you into making a hasty judgment call, however. The streets may be bad, there’s a bar two doors down, and that guy on the corner this morning slept under the overpass last night. But this is a really great neighborhood. Trust me! Don’t say gentrification like it’s a bad thing. This is merely another way that Houston embraces diversity. Besides, you are going to love your neighbors. From a young couple of rising junior law partners to the retired zookeeper and all the myriad walk of life in between. It is a long-shot that any other family on your street will look just like yours, and you will see there is a real beauty in that. And even though that restaurant around the corner is really a bar that also serves food, it is okay to take your kids in there. Really. Everyone does.
There are also some very big churches here. Very. Big. If you are looking for this type of community, you will find it here, find it quickly, and be embraced. This is not just true for Christians, although Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church probably come to mind. But this is also true for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and almost every other religion I can think of. The Houston faith community is large. You will be able to find your people.
The school systems here can seem a little overwhelming, though. The application process for elementary begins long before kindergarten, and it involves wait lists and testing, and this is all just for public school. Private schools are even more competitive. With School Choice, magnet programs, specialized education and dual language campuses, the process can be lengthy and tedious. Remember to take a breath, do your research, get plenty of advice and start early. Then get ready to do it all again next year.
It is also important to remember that people here are serious about their sports teams. Houston has a long and venerable professional sports tradition, which includes two NBA championships, a National League Baseball pennant, and the historic Houston Oilers franchise. The only logos being boasted on bumper stickers around here are local teams. Unless it says Texans, Astros, Dynamo or Rockets, I would highly recommend a nice clean bumper instead. Go ahead and cheer for the Cowboys if you must, just don’t be surprised if someone tomatoes your car in the parking lot. And it would be your own fault if it happened.
While we are on the subject of cars — you have to pay to park everywhere here. And you still have to walk really far to wherever it is that you are going. And much of the time it is raining. Always bring cash or a card and above mentioned rain gear. The good news is that you probably won’t be too worried about ruining your shoes. Another great thing about Houston is that you don’t have to dress up for anything. When they say “casual” here, they mean it. Remember that whole seaside vibe I was talking about earlier? While it may bring the rain, it also brings casual Friday on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday too.
Oh, and here’s a tip: Do not say anything bad about Whataburger in a mixed crowd of people. It will be seen as a slight against every Houstonian who ever lived and will not go well for you. Whataburger is the only chain restaurant people here actually admit to eating in, and they are all strangely reverent anytime the name is mentioned. Go ahead and try a potato taquito early some Sunday morning. I dare you. You might just have a spiritual experience yourself.
And you have to go to the rodeo. Visitors come from all over the world to see the famous cowboys, to experience the stock show animals close up, to ride the Ferris Wheel, and to eat our fabulous Texas Barbecue. Boots and hats are not required, although they are highly encouraged, and you might just get to pet a giant fluffy rabbit!
One last thing. The mosquito population here is no joke. Don’t be surprised when the biggest one of the bunch looks you square in the eye and, with all the attitude of a gangster, says “I’ve been here for sixteen generations. You just showed up on the scene, Newbie.” Don’t panic when this happens. Simply dial up your local exterminator and spray the heck out of them. This action must be repeated every thirty days, all year round, rain or shine. You will never defeat them, but you can keep them at bay. Good luck, soldier.
Some two million people call Houston home, either temporarily or permanently, and over six million live in the greater metro area. If you, like me, happen to find yourself a fellow sojourner in this great city, you should consider yourself lucky. Sam Houston fought for your right as an American to do so, and he was a big deal. Just look it up. And don’t be too hasty in making your mind up about the place. Keep mining Houston and you will find gold. Who knows, you just might end up choosing to stay. You may become a Houstonian too, someday, even if by accident.