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Houston: A semisweet land of liberty

Cities | The U.S. economy is bogged down, but Houston is growing rapidly, looking past problems, and proclaiming, ‘You CAN make it here.’

HOUSTON—Joel Kotkin, America’s leading urbanologist, predicted last year that by 2023 Houston “will be widely acknowledged as America’s next great global city.” Kotkin noted that Houston, “the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse metro area … is home to the world’s largest medical center and has dethroned New York City as the nation’s leading exporter.”

Houston? In the movie A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More (with a sneer in his voice) asks a traitor who has sold out for a sinecure, “For Wales? Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?” East and West Coast academic and media leaders tend to think of Houston in that way: Next great global city? Dethroned New York City? Sure, the energy boom is sending dollars there, but … Houston

My wife and I decided to learn about Houston by moving there for a month. We rented an apartment one mile from downtown and walked the city’s streets, shopped in its supermarkets, and visited its museums. We especially talked with Houstonians and drove with them where they regularly drive. Many have built the kinds of lives they want: Some choose urban living and others want an adjacent lake or forest. Ancestry is less important than ambition, as residents remake themselves and lack of zoning means that whole blocks change quickly.

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We especially learned that Houston, which has added 400,000 residents since 2010 and now has a metropolitan area population of more than 6 million, is not one city but a group of welcoming, entrepreneurial neighborhoods: Many individuals and families have their own Houstons. Instead of presenting just the city we observed, I’d like you to meet seven Houston residents with faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but, secondarily, optimism about the spirit of Houston, a city where foundations are laid and dreams are made.

WHEN HOUSTON SYMPHONY first violinist Alexandra Wenig, 39, looks out from the stage of Jones Hall at its vibrant red velvet seats and golden teak walls, she sees bright, hot lights but also familiar, supportive faces in the first few rows of orchestra patrons. She went to graduate school at the University of Michigan, married a trumpet-playing husband who is now the symphony’s director of community partnerships (her professional name remained Alexandra Adkins), and nabbed a dream orchestra job—but it has left her unfulfilled.

Twelve years ago the Wenigs moved to Houston and found it “welcoming of people of different backgrounds. … There are not generations of old families. Everybody’s new.” The Wenigs at first lived in the Heights, a charming close-in neighborhood of small craftsman bungalows. After their sons were born, they moved to Kingwood, an affluent planned community north of the city, which advertises itself as within a “livable forest.” The trees are real, and the Wenig kids (3rd and 5th grades) ride their bicycles to school.

A bigger change began in her car one day when “the Holy Spirit swept me away.” She eventually became a part-time music director within her 800-person Lutheran-Missouri Synod church that is a three-minute drive away from their Kingwood home. At the symphony she began feeling like “a good foot soldier, doing other people’s creative ideas, [but] just draining away inside.” She struggled “with going to a job that was taking me away from my family at strange hours and wasn’t … feeding my creative spirit.”

Wenig thought about moving from a tenured position that others covet to a church calling. As she weighed the two career paths, she knew “100 other violinists” could do her symphony job, but she could “have a real impact” at her church, and “be spiritually nourished on a daily basis. I walk into [the church] building and I feel alive, with a strong sense of purpose. In the orchestra I show up and do what I’m told, but here I feel myself growing and changing, envisioning what would be done, how we can tell the gospel better.”

The pull of that calling became so intense that in January Wenig gave notice that she was leaving her symphony position to become Director of Music and the Arts at her church. Her last symphony performance is scheduled for May 25. The Holy Spirit seemed to be working on her, but so is the spirit of Houston, where many people do not fear the future or desperately hold onto what they have.  

JUAN CARLOS MARTINEZ grew up in Mexico, where his dad had an air conditioning business, and moved to the United States in 1995 to study electrical engineering at Rice University. Later he felt a ministerial call and went to Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, but returned to Houston and became a pastor at Christ the King, a largely non-Hispanic church located in Spring Branch East, a majority-Hispanic section of metropolitan Houston.

— Houston segments on our daily radio/podcast show, The World and Everything in It, are scheduled for Feb. 19, Feb. 26, and the weeks of March 3 and March 10. You can access it through a podcast app on your phone or tablet, or by listening to the clips posted below.

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